* chronology of medieval boys' clothing -- the plague Black Death

The Medieval Plage/Black Death (1347-51)

Figure 1.--The Rensaissance artists of the 14th century did not address the Black Death. We are not entirely sure why. But plague events followed thst were depicted, commonly showing an appeal to religion and not science. None of these subsquent epidemnics had the same virulence and extent as the 14th century plague. This painting by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo depicts St. Thecla Liberating the City of Este from the Plague. The plsgue struck in 1630. Tiepolo painted the image in 1759.

The medieval plague, commonly referred to as the Black Death, was the most cathestrophic epidemic in recorded history. The plague is believed to have been brought west from China. Europeans had no resistance to it in much the same way that smallpox brought by Europeans was to desimate Native Americans in the 16th and 17th centuries. The plague ravaged Europe from 1347-51. There were also serious subsequent outbreaks as well. The plague often killed whole families, in part because family members could not bring themselve to abandon each other. Villages were devistated. An estimated 1,000 villages were completely destroyed. Historians estimate that about one-third of the European population died in the plague. The plague, however, had a profound impact on Europe beyond the incalcuable human pain and suffering of those affected. As strange as it may sound, the plague set in motion cultural and economic trends that played a major role in shaping modern Europe.


The culprit id now kniwn to be a bacterium (Yersinia pestis) transmitted by blood sucking fleas which were carried by rats.


The medieval plague took place before the development of modern medicine, for that matter science itself. Most historians believe that the Black Death that aflicted medival Europe was primarily the bubonic plague. There was also apparently pneumonic plague. The salient symptoms associated with the bubonic plague are elevated fever, aching limbs, and vomiting blood. The most identifiable characteristic of the plague were swollen lymph nodes, most norably in arm pits and groins, which swelled with pus and blood until they would burst. Most people died soon after.


The term "Black Death" presumably comes from the terrifying reputation of the disease. The fact that the swollen glands became black was another factor.


The origins of the plague is not known with any percession. Many scholars believe that the bubonic plague began in northwestern China, while others cite southwestern China. We see more references to the steppes of Central Asia. Where ever it originated, it is clkear that traveled over trade routes, carried by rats and transmitted through fleas. The first known outbreaks were reported in Chuna (1330s).


We in the West primarily thaink of plague as desvestaing Europe. In fact China was also devestated. China is believes to have had a population of more than 120 million (1200). This sounds like a small number today, but in medueval terms it was a huge number. An imperail census reported the population had declined to monly only 65 million (1393). There is no precise accounting for the huge decline of population. Some suggest that that famine and upheaval in the transition from Yuan (Mongol) to Ming rule was a major factor. The Great Yuan State was a successor state to the Gengis Khan's Mongol Empire after its division among Genbgiss' descebdents. The Yuan dynasty was a established by Kublai Khan, leader of the Mongol Borjigin clan (1271). We do know that in 1331 an outbreak erupted in the Yuan Empire and may have hastened the end of Mongol rule over China. The Plague began in China by killing ver 90 percent of the Hebei Province's population with deaths totaling over 5 million people. It is very likely that Plague was the major killer in the huge decline in the Chinese populkation. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, the course of the pandemic is not as well documented in China and other Asian countries as it would be in Europe. Wevare not surr why that was. There is a long history of Chinese scolarship. And China at the time was richer and more advamced technologically than Europe. The Plague appeared in records from across Asia--mostly China (1330s and 40s). As in Europe, the disease spread terror and destruction wherever it arose. The Chinese like the Europeans had no idea what caused the disease. .

Trade Routes

Trade in the 14th century was expanding between China and Europe, in part because of the Crusades and the Mongol Conquests. . Chnese goods were brough west on the famed Silk Road. The Mongils made it possibles for traders to move more safely. Over the Silk Road. The western terminus of the Silk Road for the West was Kaffa, on the Black Sea. This wasa port controlled by Itlalian merchants, but controlled by a the Golden Horde--a Mongol state that gradually became a Turkicized khanate which became Iclamicized. Khan Jani Beg (1342–57) offended by the Italian Christians played arole of untroducing the Palgiue to KJaffa and then dricing the Italians out. Boat liads of the Italian merchants brought the plague with them from Kaffa to Sicily (1347).

Arrival in Europe

The plague first reached Europe in 1347 when ships infested by rats docked on Sicily and rapidly spread up the Italian Peninsula. Italy athe time was the engine of the European economy (14th century). Goods from the East arrived in Italian ports for tranportion overland northward and the products of northern Europe were transported to Italin ports for shipment east. This made Italian port cities rich. Italy as a result was the center of European commerce and business as well as the religious center of the Catholic Church. It is one of the reasons that the Renaissance developed in Italy during the 14th century. Not only the wealth created by commerce, but the cross-fertilization of cultures, resulted in the Renaissance. The movement of trade and people also created the conditions for the spread of communcable disease.


Sanitary conditions in medieval Europe were amombidble. Few cities had aqueducts brining in freshwater. Nor were there sewers to take out refuse and sewage. People simply through trash and sewage out their doors and windows. Rats florished in this environment. Rats carried the disease and every where in Europe that people lived, there were rats, especially in population centers. The disease was transferred to humans by the fleases which aflicted both the rats and people.

Spread in Europee

The plague first struck Europe in the port cities and then spread to the inland cities tht were centers of commerce. Finally it spread out from the cities to villages and rural areas. It struck the cities first because they were the centers of commerce and becaus of the terrible sanitary conditions. Then gradually the disease spread to rural areas. The rate with which the diseae spread was staggering.


The plague often killed whole families, in part because family members could not bring themselve to abandon each other. Villages were devistated. An estimated 1,000 villages were completely destroyed. Historians estimate that about one-third of the European population by 1350 died in the plague.


The imact of the plague on Europe is difficult to fully comprehend. The immediate impact was the huge number of people who died. The deaths created a gigantic labor shortage. This helped to end the Feudal System. Ther was such a need for labor in the desimated cities that peasants could run away from the estates and create a much better life for themselves. The labor shortage often helped the peasants win better terms and a larger share of the harvest from their feudal masters. Those ho escaped the plague oftn found themselves better off than before the iseae hit Euoope. Homes and proprty were inherited by the survivors. Others acquired possesion by looting the property of the victims. It was at this time that pawn shops sprung up throughout urope. The overall impact, strange as it may seem, was to increase the standar of living of those who survived. Art was affected and macabre scenes are depicted or included in art--at the time sill largely religious. A hard to assess impat is how the plague affected religion. Surely people's faith in religion and the Church must have been affected by the ravages of the plague Many must have begun to doubt, a sharp divergence from the undoubting faith shown during the crusades of the 11th-13th centuries. If not God, many must have begun to doubt Mother Church. It probably is no accident that the secular and humanistic world view represented by the Renaissance began increasing in the 14th century after the plague.

Health Measures

Bacteria was beyond the scope of medieval undestanding whivh had bit yer created science. Loval authorities did, however, . institute health measures. Venice created mandated isolation periods which they called quaranta giorni -- the origin of our midern term 'quarantine'. Venice imposed the 40 days of isolation on arriving ships. As a result, mandatory medical inspections. Hospitals were a miliray institutio in Rome, but civilian hispitals appeared in Byzantium. The Caliohate expanded the idea, at first based on Christian medicants. The Crudades and Hospitlers helped expand the idea. Bur the Bkack Death resulted in Western Europeans building hospitals in numbers.


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Created: August 1, 2003
Last updated: 6:12 PM 11/8/2020