Black Death

Medieval painting from 1353 showing the citizens of Tournai (today in Belgium) burying victims of the Black Death
Medieval painting from 1353 showing the citizens of Tournai (today in Belgium) burying victims of the Black Death

Historical Context

The Black Death was the single worst pandemic in the history of the world. Peaking between 1347 and 1351 in Europe, estimates of the death toll vary widely, but is generally believed to have killed between 50 to 125 million people. The Black Death was essentially the spread of the disease known as plague (which is sometimes used to refer to the pandemic itself), caused by the Yersinia pestitis bacterium which was carried by the fleas on black rats.

The infection is believed to have originated in China or Inner Asia. Carried along the Silk Road trading route, it destroyed the army of the Mongol ruler Jani Beg, who was besieging the Genoese town of Kaffa in the Crimea. Attempting to weaken the defenders, he flung infected corpses at the Genoese inside the city. Infected sailors went back to their hometown in Genoa, Italy, thus beginning the European outbreak.

The bubonic plague (a distinct form of plague) would cause large swollen spots under the armpits and on the legs, neck and groin; this was followed by vomiting of blood and acute fever. Bubonic plague had a fatality rate of around 80%.

The Black Death had a vast effect on European society. Jewish people were persecuted relentlessly by many during the outbreak, as rumors spread that Jews had deliberately poisoned wells combined with a deep reservoir of medieval antisemitism. On February 14, 1349, several hundred Jews were burned to death in the city of Strasbourg.

Since around half of Europe's population was wiped out in an exceptionally short period of time, labor suddenly became extremely scarce, and wages for peasants much higher. Tensions around this would be one of the causes of the Peasants' Revolt in England in 1381.

Recurrences of the plague happened throughout the centuries. Europe's population did not recover to pre-Black Death levels for 200 years; some places that were extremely hard hit, like Florence, took until the 19th century to recover.

Painting Info

Artist: Pierart dou Tielt
Location painted: Europe and Asia

Source: Ancient History Encyclopedia

Related Events

  • 1345-03-20 Saturn, Jupiter and Mars-conjunction: thought "cause of plague epidemic"
  • 1348-05-08 Ship from Bordeaux carrying the plague, lands in Melcombe Regis (now Weymouth), Dorset. The beginning of the Terrible Pestilence (Black Death) in England.
  • 1348-07-06 Papal bull of Pope Clement VI issued during the Black Death stating Jews not to blame and urging their protection
  • 1348-11-01 The Black Death reaches London on or about this date
  • 1349-02-02 By this date at least 200 people a day were being buried in London as a result of the Black Death
  • 1349-02-14 900 Jews are burned alive in Strasbourg and similar number banned from the city after being blamed for the spread of the Black Death
  • 1349-03-21 Between 100 and 3,000 Jews are killed in Black Death riots in Erfurt, Germany
  • 1349-03-22 Townspeople of Fulda, Germany massacre Jews, blaming them for the Black Death
  • 1349-08-24 6,000 Jews, blamed for the Plague, are killed in Mainz
  • 1349-12-05 500 Jews of Nuremberg massacred during Black Death riots
  • 1377-07-27 First example of quarantine in Rugusa (now Dubroknik); city council passes law saying newcomers from plague areas must isolation for 30 days (later 40 days, quaranta in Italian)

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