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How the Black Death (plague) ravaged Europe

Black plague
Written by duyisegun

By Unoke Solomon

The Black Death, also known as The Black Plague or the Bubonic plage was one of the greatest tragedies that ever befall mankind. Its devastation was so high that it wiped out a quater of europe in an little as two years, between 1348 and 1350.

The Black Plague will later strike again periodically well into the 18th century. The Italian poet Giovanni Boccaccio wrote, “at the beginning of the malady, certain swellings, either on the groin or under the armpits, grew to the size of apples and some were as big as eggs, some bigger , some smaller”

Blood and puss seeped out of these boils and swellings, symptoms like fever, aches, vomiting , diarrhea, pains and eventually death, were the common daily occurrences due to the plague.

The black plague: Photo by Obi Onyeador on Unsplash
What is the Black Plague?

The Black Plague was a bacteria called Yesina Pestis, a French biologist Alexandre Yersin discovered this germ at the end of the 19th century.

The bacteria which causes the plague is a Bacilus, bacillus can travel from person to person through the air, also through bites from fleas and rats. However the rat is the chief carrier of this bacteria, while some rats have developed an immunity to it, others still get sick from the disease but the passing of this deadly disease from rats to man happens at the hands of the fleas.

When a flea bites a rats which is infected with Bacillus, the disease prevented the fleas from swallowing the blood of the rats they sucked and when these fleas landed on humans to bite them, they could vomit the blood sucked from the rats upon humans. Since both rats and fleas were a common and present pest during this period, the spread of the black death only gained more weight.

The devastation caused by the Black Death.

The plague arrived in Europe in October 1347, when 12 ships from the Black Sea docked at the Sicilian port of Messina. It was a horrifying sight for the people at the docks, several sailors aboard the ships were already dead and those who were alive were covered in black boils that oozed puss and blood.

By the time the Sicilian authority will other the forceful removal of the ships from the docks, it was already too late. The plague will then go ahead to kill over 20million europeans within the next five years.

However Europe wasn’t the only continent that felt the hit, China, Syria, Egypt, India, Persia, and even Tunis all felt the wave of the Black Death. Everywhere it touched, the Black Plague killed about a quarter of the population.

What Factors Facilitated The Rapid Spread Of The Black Death?

1. The Black Death was a very active contagion: The Bubonic plague was so contagious that if you had it and sneezed on your daughter, then you have just killed your daughter.

Carmelite friar Jean de Venette in his 14th century French chronicle wrote, “The plague hit hard and fast. People lay ill little more than two or three days and died suddenly….He who was well one day was dead the next and being carried to his grave”.

The Florentine author Boccaccio recounts how each citizens basically dug a trench for a grave pit to bury several hundreds of bodies they arrive at in one location, the bodies were piled up upon themselves like goods for shipping.

2. Trade: During the middle ages, extensive trade routes between the east and western Europe had been made possible through shipping routes. Italian cities such as Venice and Genoa had shipping ports in the eastern Mediterranean and the Black sea. Trades brought in by these ships made these cities some of the wealthiest cities of this time and also some of the most populated cities, which were later suffer devastation from the plague.

Rats and fleas were common passengers on the ships and boats in those days which made it quite easy for sailors to be infected by the disease.

One infected sailor could easily be the death of the entire ship, and when these ships made it to the shores of a new country or city, they brought death with them.

3. Religion and Superstition: When the plague broke out in most of Europe and Asia, the cause of it and its mode of spreading was a mystery to the people, religious clerics made pronouncements and caused quite a stir across the cities.

A  14th century English cleric, William Langland, wrote in his poem, “Piers Plowman”,  “God is deaf nowadays and will not hear us. And for our guilt he grinds good men to dust”. The normal values and way of life of people were thrown completely out of spectrum, there were eruptions of violence. Jews in Germany were massacred and many thousands were burnt indiscriminately across the cities.

These acts of violence only increased contact between people who were sick and healthy people which helped to further spread the plague.

4. Wrong treatment methods: Blood letting and boil lancing were some of the popular methods doctors at the time used to treat the plague, these methods only increased the efficiency of the plague by increasing the spread of the pathogen through contact. 

There was a superstitious believe that burning of aromatic herbs and bathing in rosewater or vinegar would wash away diseases, but these only increase contact with already infected material like the infected bathing water that pass the pathogen to a healthy host.

How Did The Black Death End?

The black plague never actually ended, it made several devastating comebacks several years later.

However it was controlled by the officials of Ragusa when they invented the idea of quarantine. The sailors were initially held on their ships for 30 days (a trentino), a period that was later increased to 40 days, known as a quarantine.

The plague still exists today with 2000 to 3000 cases recorded yearly. The plague can be easily treated with a simple antibiotic and its impact has been greatly reduced due to the cleaner environments and policies put in place.

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