There’s nothing like cheering up your day with a little light reading on the bubonic plague – the scourge that swept through Eurasia, the Middle East and Europe and eliminated up to 1/3 of the population as it went. Although precise death counts will never be possible due to inflated numbers due to panic, 1/3 of Europe’s population in the 14th century would equal approximately 20 million people. To those living through the horror, it truly must have seemed like the end of the world.
Already battered by the economic devastation wrought by the Little Ice Age which led to famines over much of Europe, the onset of the plague devastated an already weak economy both in social terms and in economic resources, the workforce and social order.
The Bubonic plague came to Europe on the flea infested rats on boats that landed in the harbor of Messina. The plague came in two forms simultaneously – one was a blood infection that manifested in the infamous buboes as well as massive internal bleeding which was spread by human contact, the other was airborne and manifested as a respiratory infection. It moved devastatingly fast, causing death anywhere from a few hours to a few days after initial infection, with many cases reported of people falling asleep healthy and never waking up. The plague was not a one-hit-wonder. It came and went repeatedly in spurts between 1347 and 1369, wiping out entire villages throughout the European countryside and wreaking havoc on the densely populated city areas, resulting in the deaths of between 50-70% of some urban areas.
Virtually all reports of the plague, however, share disturbing similarities. People were dying faster than the dead could be disposed of properly. Mass graves were dug. Unburied bodies were often left for days at a time as the living struggled to cope with the load, with more dead being constantly added. Burials were often hasty, and graves were shallow and unprotected only to be dug up by dogs or other animals, further distressing those left behind. In many convents, monasteries, prisons and other closed communities, a single living person was left among the dead, waiting for the plague to come for them as well. In at least one instance, the single remaining live inhabitant left a record of the plague until he, too, was claimed by the plague himself, only to have his memoirs completed in another hand by someone else arriving at the scene. By the end of the 14th century, the population of Europe as a whole was halved.
Outbreaks of the plague also caused religious anxiety as priests were dying off just like common people. With too many dead or dying and not enough priests to administer last rights or preside over a burial, laypeople were allowed to administer last rights to their friends, neighbors and family members when a priest could not attend. This also included women being able to hear last confessions if no man was present by edict of the pope.
One of the lingering horrors after the pestilence had passed was the effect that it took on society overall. Scapegoats were not unheard of – the most common targets being either Jews (most likely targeted for financial reasons as much as the blame for the plague) or witchcraft. Contrary to common perception, the medieval mind did not focus too much attention on witches, but that began to change at the end of the 14th century, continuing on into the 15th.
The Bubonic plague is a disturbing and fascinating subject that is far from concise, and I’ll have to revisit it again in the future. It is simply one of several crises that arose in the 14th century, and there is much more to dive into at some future point.
Further reading about the plague outbreaks and its connection to the 20th century can be found here
“The Disastrous 14th Century” University of Wisconsin
“Notes on Fourteenth-Century History” Public.WSU.edu