The Effects of the Black Plague on European History

The Black Plague had a great effect on European history, changing it in many ways. The plague killed entire generations and families; people were thrown into desperation. When the black death struck a region in Europe, despair and destruction followed. People lost faith in God and in themselves. The plague led to the desolation of cities and famine, and ultimately to socio-economic unbalance. Disproportionate amounts of the population died in very short periods of time, leaving widows and orphans to wonder the streets. Knowing that nothing could prevent it or cure it brought greater misery to the people. Centuries later it was discovered that only a rare genetically transmitted mutant gene saved a few. The Black Plague spread continuously in waves throughout Europe from the mid 1300s to the 1700s, at times reaching Asia.

The Black Plague first originated in China, around 1333 A.D. It was then spread throughout Asia by journeymen and and sailors travelling the trade routes, making its way to Turkey, from where it spread to Europe. The Italian island of Sicily was the first European region to be affected, as merchant ships used the port to get provisions. The plague is caused by the bacillus bacteria, which was discovered by Alexandre Yersin in 1954. The bacillus lived in fleas, which lived on black rats. Rats travelled on merchant ships going from Turkey to the rest of Europe, and spread the disease without being perceived. Europeans were especially vulnerable to epidemics because of previous famines that had hit the region, leaving the population’s immunities very low. Once the rats reached populated communities, the fleas, made hungry by the bacteria, would bite people and other domestic animals. They started by  biting the groin, being the lowest part of the body where blood concentrates in large amounts. The bacillus would then spread through the person’s bloodstream, infecting them.

Three types of plague hit Europe: bubonic, septicemic and pneumonic. The bubonic plague was the first to develop, going directly into the bloodstream, causing black blisters around the groin and armpits. The septicemic plague was also transmitted directly from the bite of the flea, and spread through the wound. The bacteria then spread throughout the body, causing vomiting of blood, fever and dizziness. The pneumonic plague came later, as it needed the bubonic and septicemic plagues to develop. After a person was infected, it spread to their lungs, and their breath would be infected with bacillus; this breath then became an airborne disease, infecting anyone who breathed it. Almost no one survived this infection, and centuries later, it was discovered why only a few lucky ones did. There was a mutant gene that started developing to fight bacillus after the first plague; it was then passed on genetically, but only those with the gene from both parents were completely immune to the plague. Those with one gene would most likely be infected, but survived the otherwise deadly disease.

The plague also brought destruction to Europe. It was not just the death of so many people, but the socio-economic problems that skyrocketed as a cause of the plagues. Businesses ceased to work, with workers and owners either dead, fleeing or locked up in their homes. Farmers forsook their plantations for the same reasons, and many of them were not allowed, or not willing, to go into the cities to sell their produce. This brought scarcity of food, and the prices of the few goods allowed into the cities were extremely high. Few could afford them. Workers also demanded higher wages, especially nurses who cared for the ill. They made demands that many families could not afford, and many people died alone in their beds. People fled the cities, believing they could escape the plague. Many fled to other cities and towns, and some, unaware they were infected, carried the disease to towns that had been, until then, free of it. Others fled to sea and attempted to live on boats and ships off shore, but many lived with infected people, and became infected themselves. Those who were not around the bacteria soon ran out of provisions, starving or being forced to go ashore to buy more food, contracting the deadly disease on land.

Some cities and towns were hit harder than others, and some were miraculously not touched at all. Entire towns were quarantined, no one being allowed in, out or even through. The death toll of the plagues between 1345 and 1350 A.D. brought the most devastation; it is said that Florence lost about half its population during this time, as well as Westminster. Dublin lost around 14,000 people between August and December 1348. Some cities lost enormous proportions of their population, like Vienna, where it is said 500 died in one day in 1349, while Barcelona lost around sixty percent of its population between May 1348 and April 1349.

Life during the plague was an extremely difficult time for Europeans. Quarantine was one of the first measures taken by governments as a way to control the plague; any house reported to be infected was shut up for forty days, with watchmen outside guarding the entrance. The first reported quarantine for the black plague was in the city of Ragusa, Italy in 1377, although it began as only thirty days of isolation. It was later implemented in Marseilles in 1383 where it lasted forty days. When houses were put under quarantine in London, they were marked with a foot-long red cross in the middle of the door. The words ‘Lord Have Mercy Upon Us’ were clearly printed over the cross, as to be seen by everyone. The plague allowed no privacy, and respect for both the dead and the living was lost. Funerals were conducted at first, but when the dead became too many to bury, bodies were piled up in ditches and covered up with earth. Professionals, who had once worked their crafts, were forced to do communal jobs like watching quarantined houses, taking bodies from houses or picking up bodies off the streets. Food became too expensive for most people to afford, and many had to live on bread and water. Corpses would sometimes lie on the street, rotting until carnivorous animals came to chew off them,or they were picked up by the buriers and carried off to the ditches.

Reports of people who were dying and taken from their homes to be buried while they were still alive were common, as it saved the buriers having to go back hours later to pick up the body. Many of the ill were robbed and raped by the watchmen and the buriers, as many of these corpse-bearers were prisoners made to work for the city due to lack of volunteers. Suicides became common, people preferring it to death by the plague, some waiting to take their own lives after confirming they were infected. Ships were found off shore with the entire crew dead. Once respectable doctors were jailed, accused of killing patients or of prescribing the wrong medicine; but doctors had no cure. ‘Quack’ doctors were selling potions and concoctions, made to ‘prevent’ and ‘cure’ the plague. These rarely worked and robbed innocent people of the scarce money they had left.

People in these medieval times often searched for different reasons for the plague. They were not aware at first that the rats were carrying the fleas which were causing the deadly disease. Many believed it was God’s wrath on the sinful, and they were all being punished for living in sin. Many believed it to be the end of the world. They searched for omens such as locusts, and astronomy and astrology became an important part of society in trying to figure out the reasons for the plague, and how to survive it. Another explanation was ‘effluvia’: they believed that the rotting bodies lying on the streets, in their homes, on ships, and the poorly buried bodies in the ditches carried poisonous particles which infected the air. People were frantic and desperate for the plague to end, searching aimlessly for an escape. Even King Charles II of London abandoned his city in June 1665, staying away for an entire year. When he returned in February of 1666, people’s moralities were shattered, and many had given up hope in God, in their communities, their families, and themselves. Towns were sometimes abandoned, and some lost their entire population. Rescuers refused to go into quarantined towns and houses, sometimes abandoning corpses to rot for days, and even months. Trade stopped, ships docked outside major cities like London, in the hope to save some lives and prevent the further spreading of the plague. Famine, disease and crime usually followed the plague, as the citizens who had survived had no means of defence, were demoralised, and had small chances of survival.

The Black Plague made and changed European history; it made its people stronger, and more aware of concepts like hygiene and security, among other things. Life equalled despair for most both during and after the plague, and it arrived as suddenly as it stopped. It changed the people forever: future generations in Europe were made or destroyed by the Black Death.


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Defoe, Daniel. Journal of the Plague Year. London: Penguin, 1722.
Huppert, George. After the Black Death: A Social History of Early Modern Europe. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1986.
Jordan, Chris and Wood, Tim. The Black Death. London: Edward Arnold, 1982.
Loftus, Melissa and others. The Black Death. 1347-1350. (Date retrieved: 15/08/05)
Nohl, Johannes. The Black Death: A Chronicle of the Plague: Complied from Contemporary Sources. London: Allen & Unwin, 1961.
O’Brien, Steven. Riddles of the Dead. National Geographic Society, video.
State University of New York at Binghamton. The Black Death: The Impact of the 14th Century Plague. 1977. Conference.
“The Black Death: Plague and Economics”. The Economist. (December 1999): p 33.


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