Bubonic plague is still around today, but kills in small numbers. Why did it kill so many in 1348? The discovery of 25 medieval skeletons in London provides new answers.
Coming out of the East, the Black Death reached the shores of Italy in the spring of 1348 unleashing a rampage of death across Europe unprecedented in recorded history. By the time the epidemic played itself out three years later, anywhere between 25% and 50% of Europe’s population had fallen victim to the pestilence.
The plague presented itself in three interrelated forms. The bubonic variant (the most common) derives its name from the swellings or buboes that appeared on a victim’s neck, armpits or groin. These tumors could range in size from that of an egg to that of an apple. Although some survived the painful ordeal, the manifestation of these lesions usually signaled the victim had a life expectancy of up to a week. Infected fleas that attached themselves to rats and then to humans spread this bubonic type of the plague. A second variation – pneumonic plague – attacked the respiratory system and was spread by merely breathing the exhaled air of a victim. It was much more virulent than its bubonic cousin – life expectancy was measured in one or two days. Finally, the septicemic version of the disease attacked the blood system.
The Plague’s Progress
Having no defense and no understanding of the cause of the pestilence, the men, women and children caught in its onslaught were bewildered, panicked, and finally devastated.
The Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio lived through the plague as it ravaged the city of Florence in 1348. The experience inspired him to write The Decameron, a story of seven men and three women who escape the disease by fleeing to a villa outside the city. In his introduction to the fictional portion of his book, Boccaccio gives a graphic description of the effects of the epidemic on his city.
The symptoms were not the same as in the East, where a gush of blood from the nose was the plain sign of inevitable death; but it began both in men and women with certain swellings in the groin or under the armpit. They grew to the size of a small apple or an egg, more or less, and were vulgarly called tumors. In a short space of time these tumors spread from the two parts named all over the body. Soon after this the symptoms changed and black or purple spots appeared on the arms or thighs or any other part of the body, sometimes a few large ones, sometimes many little ones. These spots were a certain sign of death, just as the original tumor had been and still remained.
No doctor’s advice, no medicine could overcome or alleviate this disease, An enormous number of ignorant men and women set up as doctors in addition to those who were trained. Either the disease was such that no treatment was possible or the doctors were so ignorant that they did not know what caused it, and consequently could not administer the proper remedy. In any case very few recovered; most people died within about three days of the appearance of the tumors described above, most of them without any fever or other symptoms.
The violence of this disease was such that the sick communicated it to the healthy who came near them, just as a fire catches anything dry or oily near it. And it even went further. To speak to or go near the sick brought infection and a common death to the living; and moreover, to touch the clothes or anything else the sick had touched or worn gave the disease to the person touching.
Inspired by the Black Death, The Dance of Death or Danse Macabre, an allegory on the universality of death, is a common painting motif in the late medieval period.
Such fear and fanciful notions took possession of the living that almost all of them adopted the same cruel policy, which was entirely to avoid the sick and everything belonging to them. By so doing, each one thought he would secure his own safety.
Some thought that moderate living and the avoidance of all superfluity would preserve them from the epidemic. They formed small communities, living entirely separate from everybody else. They shut themselves up in houses where there were no sick, eating the finest food and drinking the best wine very temperately, avoiding all excess, allowing no news or discussion of death and sickness, and passing the time in music and suchlike pleasures.
Others thought just the opposite. They thought the sure cure for the plague was to drink and be merry, to go about singing and amusing themselves, satisfying every appetite they could, laughing and jesting at what happened. They put their words into practice, spent day and night going from tavern to tavern, drinking immoderately, or went into other people’s houses, doing only those things which pleased them. This they could easily do because everyone felt doomed and had abandoned his property, so that most houses became common property and any stranger who went in made use of them as if he had owned them. And with all this bestial behavior, they avoided the sick as much as possible.
In this suffering and misery of the city, the authority of human and divine laws almost disappeared, for, like other men, the ministers and the executors of the laws were all dead or sick or shut up with their families, so that no duties were carried out. Every man was therefore able to do as he pleased.
Animated Map: Spread of the Black Death in Europe (1346–53)
Many others adopted a course of life midway between the two just described. They did not restrict their victuals so much as the former, nor allow themselves to be drunken and dissolute like the latter, but satisfied their appetites moderately. They did not shut themselves up, but went about, carrying flowers or scented herbs or perfumes in their hands, in the belief that it was an excellent thing to comfort the brain with such odors; for the whole air was infected with the smell of dead bodies, of sick persons and medicines.
Others again held a still more cruel opinion, which they thought would keep them safe. They said that the only medicine against the plague-stricken was to go right away from them. Men and women, convinced of this and caring about nothing but themselves, abandoned their own city, their own houses, their dwellings, their relatives, their property, and went abroad or at least to the country round Florence, as if God’s wrath in punishing men’s wickedness with this plague would not follow them but strike only those who remained within the walls of the city, or as if they thought nobody in the city would remain alive and that its last hour had come.
Citizens of Tournai bury plague victims. These are fortunate to have coffins. Most victims were interred in mass graves. Credit: Wellington Castle Historical Society
“Brother abandoned brother”
One citizen avoided another, hardly any neighbor troubled about others, relatives never or hardly ever visited each other. Moreover, such terror was struck into the hearts of men and women by this calamity, that brother abandoned brother, and the uncle his nephew, and the sister her brother, and very often the wife her husband. What is even worse and nearly incredible is that fathers and mothers refused to see and tend their children, as if they had not been theirs.
Thus, a multitude of sick men and women were left without any care, except from the charity of friends (but these were few), or the greed, of servants, though not many of these could be had even for high wages, Moreover, most of them were coarse-minded men and women, who did little more than bring the sick what they asked for or watch over them when they were dying. And very often these servants lost their lives and their earnings. Since the sick were thus abandoned by neighbors, relatives and friends, while servants were scarce, a habit sprang up which had never been heard of before.
Beautiful and noble women, when they fell sick, did not scruple to take a young or old man-servant, whoever he might be, and with no sort of shame, expose every part of their bodies to these men as if they had been women, for they were compelled by the necessity of their sickness to do so. This, perhaps, was a cause of looser morals in those women who survived.
The plight of the lower and most of the middle classes was even more pitiful to behold. Most of them remained in their houses, either through poverty or in hopes of safety, and fell sick by thousands. Since they received no care and attention, almost all of them died. Many ended their lives in the streets both at night and during the day; and many others who died in their houses were only known to be dead because the neighbors smelled their decaying bodies.
Dead bodies filled every corner. Most of them were treated in the same manner by the survivors, who were more concerned to get rid of their rotting bodies than moved by charity towards the dead. With the aid of porters, if they could get them, they carried the bodies out of the houses and laid them at the door; where every morning quantities of the dead might be seen. They then were laid on biers or, as these were often lacking, on tables.
Such was the multitude of corpses brought to the churches every day and almost every hour that there was not enough consecrated ground to give them burial, especially since they wanted to bury each person in the family grave, according to the old custom. Although the cemeteries were full they were forced to dig huge trenches, where they buried the bodies by hundreds. Here they stowed them away like bales in the hold of a ship and covered them with a little earth, until the whole trench was full.
First broadcast by England’s Channel 4 on Sun 6 Apr 2014 and repeated on America’s American Heroes Channel in February 2015, this short documentary on the Black Death is presented here in its entirety.
References, Sources & Bibliography:
Boccaccio, Giovanni, The Decameron vol. I (translated by Richard Aldington illustrated by Jean de Bosschere) (1930);
Gottfried, Robert, The Black Death (1983);
Francis Aidan Gasquet, The Black Death of 1348 and 1349, 2nd ed. (London, England: George Bell and Sons, 1908);
“The Great Plague”. Stephen Porter (2009). Amberley Publishing. p.25. ISBN 1-84868-087-2;
Kohn, George C. (2008). Encyclopedia of plague and pestilence: from ancient times to the present. Infobase Publishing. p. 31. ISBN 0-8160-6935-2;
Geoffrey Parker (2001). “Europe in crisis, 1598–1648”. Wiley-Blackwell. p.7. ISBN 0-631-22028-3;
Bos KI, Schuenemann VJ, Golding GB, Burbano HA, Waglechner N, Coombes BK, McPhee JB, DeWitte SN, Meyer M, Schmedes S, Wood J, Earn DJ, Herring DA, Bauer P, Poinar HN, Krause J (12 October 2011). “A draft genome of Yersinia pestis from victims of the Black Death”. Nature 478 (7370): 506–10;
Emile Littré (1841) “Opuscule relatif à la peste de 1348, composé par un contemporain” (Work concerning the plague of 1348, composed by a contemporary), Bibliothèque de l’école des chartes, 2 (2) : 201-243; see especially page 228.
“Plague – Madagascar”. World Health Organisation. 21 November 2014. Retrieved 26 November 2014;
Haensch S, Bianucci R, Signoli M, Rajerison M, Schultz M, Kacki S, Vermunt M, Weston DA, Hurst D, Achtman M, Carniel E, Bramanti B (2010). Besansky, Nora J, ed. “Distinct Clones of Yersinia pestis Caused the Black Death”. PLoS Pathogens 6 (10): e1001134.doi:10.1371/journal.ppat.1001134. PMC 2951374.PMID 20949072