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 medieval plague took place before the development of modern medicine. 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 which sweeld until they would burst. Most people did 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. The first known outbreak was reported during th early 1330s. Trade in the 14th century was expanding between China and Europe, in part because of the Crusades. Chinese goods were brough west on the famed Silk Road.

Arrival in Europe

The plague first reached Europe in 1347 when ships infested by rats docked on Sicily and rapidly spread throughout Italy. It was Italy in the 14th century that was the center of the European economy. 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.


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 loting 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 duing the crusades of the 11th-13th centuries. If not God, many must hve 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.


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Created: August 1, 2003
Last updated: 5:26 AM 7/24/2018