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Black Death

This article concerns the epidemic of the mid-14th century. For detailed information on the most commonly accepted cause of the epidemic, see bubonic plague.

The Black Death (also bubonic plague, and more recently The Black Plague) was a devastating epidemic in Europe in the mid-14th century (1347-1350), and is estimated to have killed about a third of Europe's population. Historical records attribute Black Death to an outbreak of bubonic plague, an epidemic of the bacterium Yersinia pestis spread by fleas with the help of animals like the black rat (Rattus rattus). However, today's experts debate both the microbiological culprit and mode of transmission.



It is not entirely clear where the major epidemic of the 14th century started, perhaps somewhere around the northern parts of India, but the more popular theory places the first cases in the steppes of central Asia, from where it was carried west by Mongol armies.

In this scenario, the Mongols exported the plague to Europe by the way of Crimea, where the Genoese had established themselves in the colony of Kaffa (Feodosiya). Mongols laid a siege on the city and catapulted corpses infected with the plague into the city. The refugees from Kaffa then took the plague along to Messina, Genoa, and Venice around the turn of 1347/1348. Some ships didn't have anyone alive when they reached their port. From Italy the disease spread northwest across Europe, hitting France, Spain, and Great Britain by June 1348, then turned and spread east through Germany and Scandinavia from 1348 to 1350, and finally to north-western Russia in 1351. Some parts of Europe were largely spared by the plague, including the Kingdom of Poland and parts of Belgium and the Netherlands.

What is clear, however, is that there were several preexisting conditions that contributed to the severity of the Black Death. A so-called "Little Ice Age" had begun at the end of the thirteenth century. The disastrous weather reached a peak in the first half of the fourteenth century with devastating results. In the years 1315-1322 a catastrophic famine struck all of Northern Europe. Food shortages and skyrocketting prices were a fact of life for as much as a century before the plague. Wheat, oat, hay and livestock were all in short supply and their scarcity resulted in hunger and malnutrition. The consequence was a mounting vulnerability to disease due to weakened immunity. The economy entered a vicious cycle in which hunger and small scale disease reduced the productivity of laborers, and so the grain output suffered, causing the grain prices to increase. The famine was self-perpetuating. Places like Flanders and Burgundy were devastated by the famine as much as the Black Death was to devastate all of Europe.

A typhoid epidemic was to be a predictor of the coming disaster. Many thousands died in populated urban centers, most significantly Ypres. In 1318 a pestilence of unknown origin, sometimes identified as anthrax, hit the animals of Europe. The disease targeted sheep and cattle, further reducing the food supply and income of the peasantry and putting another strain on the economy. The increasingly international nature of the European economies meant that the depression was felt across Europe. The failure of the wool exports of England due to pestilence led to the destruction of the Flemish weaving industry. Unemployment bred crime and poverty.

There was no effective response to these crises by the governments of Europe. Most monarchs instituted measures that prohibited exports of foodstuffs, condemned black market speculators, set price controls on grain, and outlawed large scale fishing. At best, they proved mostly unenforceable, and at worse they contributed to a continent-wide downward spiral. The hardest hit lands, like England, were unable to buy grain abroad, from France because of the prohibition, and from most of the rest of the grain producers because of crop failures. Any grain that could be shipped was eventually taken by pirates or looters to be sold on the black market. Meanwhile, many of the largest countries, most notably England and Scotland, had been at war, using up much of their treasury and exacerbating inflation. On the eve, in 1337, of the first wave of the Black Death, England and France went to war in what would become known as the Hundred Years' War. This, another of the crises of the fourteenth century would deplete the treasuries, manpower, and infrastructure of both kingdoms throughout and beyond the worst of the plague. Malnutrition, poverty, disease and hunger, coupled with war, growing inflation and other economic concerns made Europe in the mid-fourteenth century ripe for the single greatest human tragedy mankind would ever know.


Inspired by Black Death, Danse Macabre is an allegory on the universality of death and a common painting motive in the late-medieval
Inspired by Black Death, Danse Macabre is an allegory on the universality of death and a common painting motive in the late-medieval


Information about the death toll varies widely from source to source, but it is estimated that about a third of the population of Europe died from the outbreak in the mid-1300s. Approximately 25 million deaths occurred in Europe alone, with many others occurring in Africa and Asia. Some villages were deserted, the few survivors fleeing and spreading the disease farther.

The Black Death hit the culture of towns and cities disproportionately hard; rural areas, for example Eastern Poland and Lithuania, were so isolated that the plague made little progress.

Economic decline

Economic historians like Fernand Braudel have concluded that Black Death began during a recession in the European economy that had been under way since the beginning of the century, and only served to worsen it. The great population loss brought economic changes based on increased social mobility, as depopulation further eroded the peasants' already-weakened obligations to remain on their traditional holdings. In Western Europe, the sudden scarcity of cheap labor provided an incentive for innovation that broke the stagnation of the Dark Ages and, some argue, caused the Renaissance. In Eastern Europe, by contrast, renewed stringency of laws tied the remaining peasant population more tightly to the land than before.

As with other natural and man-made social disasters, renewed religious fervor and fanaticism bloomed in the wake of Black Death. In many parts of Europe, rumors circulated that the plague was caused by the deliberate poisoning of wells by Jews. Fierce pogroms frequently resulted in the death or banishment of most of the Jews in a town or city. However in some cases the Black Death led to cynicism of religious officials who could not keep their frequent promises of curing plague victims and banishing the disease.This increased doubting of the clergy culminated in either support for different religious groups such as the flagellants which grew tremendously during the opening years of the Black Death (angering church and political officials greatly) or to an increase in interest for more scientific alternatives to problems facing European society and an increase of secular politicians.

See also Danse macabre, Decameron

Social Change

The Black Death greatly helped accelerate social and economic change during the 14th and 15th centuries. First, the church's power was weakened and, in some cases, roles it played were replaced by secular ones. It also led to peasant rebellion in many parts of Europe, such as France (the Jacquerie rebellion), Italy (the Ciompi rebellion, which swept the city of Florence), and in England (the English Peasant Revolt led by Wat Tyler and an unemployed priest called John Ball). On top of all this the great population reduction due to the plague brought cheaper land prices, more food for the average peasant, and a relatively large increase in per capita income among the peasantry. In many cases the upper class attempted to stop these changes by instituting laws which barred the peasantry from certain actions or material goods. A good example of this is the sumptuary laws which were passed throughout Europe which regulated what people (particularly of the peasant class) could wear.

Alchemy also was affected by the plague and considered a norm for most scientists and doctors prior and during the black death. However after the plague had taken its toll, alchemy slowly began to die out as the citizenry began to realize that in most cases it didn't affect the pestilence at all and some of the potions and "cures" used by many doctors throughout Christendom and the Islamic world in fact only helped to hasten their demise.

Some historians also credit the Black Death for helping or opening the way for the Renaissance and the Reformation but this is for the most part simply a matter of speculation as all three were fairly spread apart by time.

Alternative explanations

Recent scientific and historical investigations have led researchers to doubt the long-held belief that Black Death was an epidemic of bubonic plague.

Scott and Duncan, 2001

In 2001, epidemiologists Susan Scott and Christopher Duncan from Liverpool University proposed the theory that the Black Death might have been caused by an Ebola-like virus, not a bacterium. Their rationale was that this plague spread much faster and the incubation period was much longer than other plagues confirmed to be caused by Yersinia pestis. A longer period of incubation will allow carriers of the infection to travel farther and infect more people than a shorter one. When the primary vector is humans, as opposed to birds, this is of great importance. Studies of English church-records indicate an unusually long incubation period in excess of 30 days which could account for the rapid spread, topping at 5 km/day. The plague also appeared in areas of Europe where rats were uncommon like Iceland. Epidemiological studies suggest the disease was transferred between humans (which happens rarely with Yersinia pestis), and some genes that determine immunity to Ebola-like viruses are much more widespread in Europe than in other parts of the world.

Cantor, 2001

In a similar vein, historian Norman F. Cantor, in his 2001 book In the Wake of the Plague, suggests the Black Death might have been a combination of pandemics including a form of anthrax, a cattle murrain. He cites many forms of evidence including: reported disease symptoms not in keeping with the known effects of either bubonic or pneumonic plague, the discovery of anthrax spores in a plague pit in Scotland, and the fact that meat from infected cattle was known to have been sold in many rural English areas prior to the onset of the plague.


Counter-arguments have been drawn in defence of the bubonic plague theory.

  • The uncharacteristically rapid spread of the plague could be due to low levels of immunity in that period's European population. Historical examples of pandemics of other diseases in populations without previous exposure, such as smallpox and tuberculosis amongst American Indians, show that the low levels of inherited adaptation to the disease cause the first epidemic to spread faster and to be far more virulent than later epidemics among the descendants of survivors.
  • The plague returned again and again and was regarded as the same disease through succeeding centuries into modern times when the Yersinia bacterium was identified.
  • Tooth pulp tissue from a 14th century plague cemetery in Montpellier tested positive for Y. pestis DNA. However, such a finding has never confirmed in any other cemetery. In September 2003, a team of researchers from Oxford University tested 121 teeth from 66 skeletons found in 14th century mass graves. The remains showed no genetic trace of Yersinia pestis, and the researchers suspect that the Montpellier study was flawed.


  • It has been alleged (since 1961) that the Black Death inspired one of the most enduring nursery rhymes in the English language, Ring around a rosie, a pocket full of posies, / Ashes, ashes, we all fall down. However, this explanation is a literary interpretation [1] without historical supporting evidence.
  • The plague repeatedly returned to haunt Europe and the Mediterranean throughout the 14th to 17th centuries, and finally disappeared suddenly after the Great Plague of London in 1665. One possible explanation for the disappearance of plague from Europe may be that the black rat (Rattus rattus) infection reservoir and its disease vector was subsequently displaced and succeeded by the bigger Norwegian or brown rat (Rattus norvegicus), which is not so prone to transmit the germ-bearing fleas to humans in large rat die-offs (see Appleby and Slack references below). The Great Fire of London in 1666 contributed to the ascendance of brown rats in England.

External links and references

  • Overview of the Black Death with eyewitness accounts
  • The History Guide "Satan Triumphant: The Black Death"
  • BBC news story on controversy over Black Death origins
  • Mark Derr, "New Theories Link black Death to Ebola-Like Virus", The New York Times, Science Section, October 2, 2001.
  • Examination of "Ring around the Rosy"'s relationship to the plague
  • Paul Slack “The Disappearance of the Plague: An Alternative View” Economic History Review 34, 3. 1981 469-476
  • Andrew B. Appleby “The Disappearance of the Plague: A Continuing Puzzle” Economic History Review 33, 2, 1980 161-173

Last updated: 02-08-2005 11:07:14
Last updated: 02-11-2005 17:47:38