The Black Death Plague in Europe

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The Black Death Plague in Europe

Up from the murky depths of the Middle Ages crept a devastatingly horrific and terrifying disease. Responsible for the deaths of millions, this disease, or plague was known as the “Black Death”. Although there is no certainty as to the location where the plague originated from, it is known that it’s deadly bacteria came from the foul belly of a single flea. When the Black Death began to take hold, unimaginable fear, panic and chaos swept through the hearts of Europe’s people; the rich and the poor alike. The structures, passed on for generations, which were responsible for upholding society, commenced to collapse unstoppably. All the while, the Christian church, alike, struggled hard to survive through the disaster. Never before had the world seen such a pillaging, unstoppable force, that would ravage all that was accomplished for years to come.

The Black Death, as it was labeled, is believed to have first appeared around the region known as the Black Sea. This catastrophe began in the early part of 1347. Blamed for it’s start were many of the existing races at the time. The Italian traders were extensively bombarded with accusations of deliberately causing and spreading the plague. Evidently, because of this, natives attacked an Italian trading post, hoping to put an end to the deaths, or possibly to solely punish those who they believed were the source of the Black Death. While signing the post, the natives became infected uncontrollably, thus they came up with the idea to catapult infected bodies over the wall of the trading post, subsequently infecting the Italians as well. What the natives did not realize was that the Italians would board ships and sail East to Italy, spreading the disease even faster. In October of that year, the plague commenced sweeping through the island of Sicily. Knowing the approximate whereabouts of where the plague started leads one to the question as to how it started.

Deep within the stomach of that wretched flea, brewed a bacteria which would lead to the deaths of millions throughout the known world. The bubonic plague, another name given to the disease, spread much like a wildfire by means of fleas infected with the plague, which they received from feeding on the blood of a host. These minuscule fleas were carried by rats that inhabited the hulls of ships. Humans acquired Black Death when the fleas, searching for a new host, leaped onto their skin, and injected the bacteria into their blood. It is quite astonishing how such a feeble creature could cause so much havoc.

Inevitable is it that such a horrendous cataclysm, such as the Black Death would initiate fear and panic amongst the people who may be the next victims. During the epidemic’s dark reign, at least one in four people fell in hecatomb to it. There was absolutely nothing that could be done to stop it, as the people had no clue as to how it was being spread. Not even the church could run from the disease’s wrath. Chaplains paid clerics large sums of money to serve them. A massive labor shortage came about due to the vast amount of deaths. In fact, so many died, that not all of them could possibly be buried; massive pits were dug to dispose of the bodies. So fast did the epidemic spread, that people even dropped dead in the streets and the fields. After the long years, during which it took for the Black Death to dissipate, a body count of over two million was reached! No matter where one ran, or who one was, it was inevitable that the unforgiving plague would find you.

Many ideas as to what was causing the plague arose. The putrefaction of the air was blamed, but soon dismissed after using aromatic herbs resulted in failure. Some blamed the arrival of a great comet, others were convinced the waters were poisoned. Not only were natural causes criticized, Jews in Germany, who were thought to have been poisoning the water, were bricked inside houses, and left to starve to death. The Spanish blamed Arabs and the French blamed the English. Probably the most believed cause of the Black Death, was a term known as “Dies Irae”, which is translated into “God’s wrath”. A vast amount of people sincerely felt that God was punishing them for their wrong doings. While there were a great deal of explanations concocted, no reasonable explanation was to be found.

It was astounding to see what behavioral alterations the disease had caused. Dismay and silence fell over towns and villages. Some no longer went outdoors, while others fled. Disparity drove communities to the brink of insanity and madness. Groups, known as “flagellants”, did public penance to appease the wrath of God (Dies Irae). These clans, tore open their own backs with leather whips, attempting to imitate the pain and suffering of Jesus Christ. The opposite was done by other people. They began to live wildly, drinking in taverns, and wearing exaggerated fashions. The popular clothing sported slashed sleeves and large hoods, which resembled devils. Poor people even took over the houses of rich families who had died. If the plague had such an impact on individuals, what would it have done to societies as a whole?

Everywhere the plague had struck, structures of society collapsed. Economically and psychologically speaking, the result of the Black Death was almost as devastating as the plague itself. Laws were simply ignored as there was no one left to enforce them. Many of the peasants sought after better terms and higher pay. They also ran away to find other, better estates or to take up a trade in the city. If a serf succeeded in staying at large for over a year, he received his freedom. Prices of agriculture plummeted, weakening the power of the nobles who owned the land. In 1381, there was a peasant’s revolt due to low wages and a wanted end to serfdom. In response, laws were passed fixing the wages at pre-plague levels. Though there were laws in effect, after the plague died out, wages doubled because of the lack of labour. The end of the Black Death, meant an end to the Middle Ages. The customs of the old days, were slowly being pushed away. Lords began renting their farms and selling away their feudal rights. The Black Death was a stimulus towards the greater mobility of labour and towards the disintegration of the manorial system. The epidemic was a catalytic element of the first-order, profoundly modifying the economic and social forces on which it operated.

During the period in which the plague took hold, the church struggled to keep the faith in it’s people strong. The disease shattered the faith people had placed in their church. Even some priests left their posts in search of wealthier parishes. Some believed that God was punishing them for their sins (Dies Irae). Others believed that the end of the earth was upon them. Despite all of this, the church remained to be one of the most powerful, and influential forces in the fourteenth century. When the church itself began teaching that the Black Death was the wrath of God, believers stopped swearing, gambling, and manufacturers turned dice into rosary beads as well. Pictures were painted of fearful skeletons dragging humans away. Within the church, there was a strong change in authority. On occasion Priests showed cowardice, trying to save their own lives rather than instilling faith in their people. They became very powerless and the church offered them no comfort. Some priests ran in fear, others in search of gain. The massive clergy the church once possessed, was reduced dramatically to half. By the end of the dreadful Black Death, the church lost much honor, respect and unquestioned authority. Not even the church itself was able to hide from the relentless power of the great plague.

It would take humanity years to rebuild their tattered, torn, and dismembered world that they spent so much effort and time assembling. The toll the Black Death took on life was astronomical compared to any preceding plagues. Of course, in recent times, one would be well prepared for such an assault, but it is quite a shame that back in the fourteenth century there were no preventative measures that could be taken. Perhaps the plague was God’s wrath, or possibly just a natural occurrence; there is no way to be sure. If it was Dies Irae which left the world in remnants, one should urge himself to live a more Christian life so that he may not have to face the wrath of God once again. Still the fact remains that the Black Death was alone responsible for the deaths of over two million, smashed the integrate traditions and way of life of the people, and diminished the mighty Christian church, and it’s faithful followers so much so that it would leave an impact for centuries to come.


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Sabbagh, Antoine. Europe in the Middle Ages. New Jersey: Silver Burdett Press, 1988.

Williams, Jay. Life in the Middle Ages. New York: Random House, 1966.

Ziegler, Philip. The Black Death. London: Clear Type Press, 1969.

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