The Black Death

Measured by the horrors endured and the colossal drain upon the life of Europe, which was deprived of not less that twenty-five per cent of its population. The Black Death, a deadly form of plague which made its appearance in 1347, is among the greatest disasters in world history.

Like most other epidemics of a similar character, the Back Death had its origin in the East, where it had raged several years before it finally reached Europe towards the end of 1347.

The toll of life taken by the great pestilence before its devastating influence was felt in Europe, may be summarised in the words of Hecker, who says, “Cairo lost daily, when the plague was raging with its greatest violence, from 10,000 to 15,000, being as many as, in modern times, great plagues have carried off during their whole course. In China, more than 13,000,000 are said to have died; and this is in correspondence with the certainly exaggerated accounts from the rest of Asia. India was depopulated. Tartary, Mesopotamia, Syria and Armenia were covered with dead bodies; the Kurds fled in vain to the mountains. In Caramania and Cæsarea, none were left alive. On the roads, in the camps, in the caravansaries, unburied bodies only were to be seen. In Aleppo 500 died daily; 22,000 people, and most of the animals were carried off in Gaza within six weeks. Cyprus lost almost all its inhabitants, and ships without crews were often seen in the Mediterranean, as afterwards in the North Sea, driving about and spreading the plague wherever they went on shore. It was reported to Pope Clement, at Avignon, that throughout the East, probably with the exception of China, 23,840,000 people had fallen victims to the plague.

Various conjectures have been made regarding the causes of the tremendous spread of the pestilence, but the consensus of opinion favours the belief that it was communicated from one country to another by means of trading vessels sailing from the East to European ports, and also by merchants following overland routes to the West.

The symptoms of the disease were not universal, although in the countries of Europe they were almost identical. In the East the earliest indication of affection was bleeding at the nose, but in Europe the disease was generally shown to be by the appearance of swelling and carbuncles under the arms and also in the groins, which later spread to other parts of the body. There followed distressing inflammation of the throat and lungs, intense pain in the chest, and frequent vomiting accompanied by the spitting of blood. The sufferer would emit odour from the body and the breath’ would be likewise affected with a pestilential’ smell.

The most virulent form of the disease, however, Was that in which there was an absence of swellings, and almost all who were attacked in this way were dead within a few days. Contemporary writers agree that many recovered from disease where swellings and carbuncles were present, but that those whose symptoms included the spitting Of blood were almost without exception doomed to death. Although not every one who displayed all the symptoms succumbed to the disease, yet, on the other hand, in many cases a single symptom was alone sufficient to bring death.

The disease affected those who contracted it in different ways; some would be overcome by stupor and relapse into a deep sleep, from which generally there was no awakening, while others would be unable to obtain sleep or rest of any kind. The tongue and the back of the throat became black, as if suffused with blood, and the victims would be consumed with a burning thirst which no liquid could assuage, and relief from suffering and anguish came only with death. No medicine had power to cure or even check the dreaded disease.

After devastating the countries along the trading routes, the pestilence was in 1347 carried, probably by merchant vessels, from the Crimea to Constantinople, whence, according to the emperor-author John Cantacuzene, “it traversed almost the entire sea-coasts and was carried over the world, for it invaded not only Pontus, Thrace, and Macedonia, but Greece, Italy, Egypt, Libya, Judea, Syria and almost the entire universe.

It was at the beginning of 1343 that the great pestilence descended upon Italy. Almost simultaneously Genoa and Venice felt the full force of the disease, which followed immediately upon the arrival of ships voyaging from the East.
De Mussi records that the sailors were already in the throes of the disease when they arrived in port, and that contact with one man was sufficient to spread it among many and that even the carrying of a corpse to the grave proved fatal to the bearers.

He mentions many specific cases of the fatal consequences of contact with clothing or other belongings of those who had died from the disease. In one instance four soldiers stationed in the vicinity of Genoa returned to their quarters with a prized woollen blanket they had obtained from a house at a small costal town, which had been denuded its entire population.
On retiring the next night they covered themselves with the blanket, and in the morning they were all found to bc dead.
Other cities and villages Were similarly affected, the beautiful city of Florence. It was in the spring of 1348 that Florence fell prey to the disease, and so devastating was its effect that for some time it was generally referred to in Europe as the ‘Pestilence of Florence’.

Giovanni Boccaccio, author of the Decameron, has left us a graphic account of the ravages of the plague in the city of his birth. “Such was thc deadly character of the pestilential matter, that it passed the infection not only from man to man, but what is more wonderful, and has been often proved, anything belonging to those sick with the disease, if touched by any Other creature, would certainly affect and even kill it in a short Space of time. One instance of this I took special interest note of, namely, the rags of a poor man just dead having been thrown into the street, two hogs came by at the time and began to root amongst them, shaking them in their jaws. In less than an hour they fell down, and died on the spot. Strange were the devices resorted to by the survivors to secure their safety. Divers as were the means, there was one feature common to all, selfish and uncharitable as it was — the avoidance of the sick, and of everything that had been near them; men thought only of themselves.

Soon there remained no room for burials in consecrated ground and the corpses were piled in heaps in big trenches dug specially for their reception; and when there was no more room, the trenches were covered over with earth and fresh ones were prepared. In less than six months it is estimated that the city’s population was depleted by no fewer than 100,000.
Although its mortality was greater than that of any other city of Italy, Florence was only one of many that felt the full effects of the ravaging disease, which raged throughout the entire extent of the peninsula, leaving exempt a city here and there, among which Milan was fortunate to be numbered.

The scourge was carried from Genoa to Venice, from Pisa to Padua, and the same story of appalling loss of life was recorded in every case. Whole families were stricken, and in most instances survived. The Pisans died at the rate of hundreds every week, and barely a third of the inhabitants of Padua survived.

In most of the cities it was observed that the pestilence lasted for about five months, and in the majority of them the mortality was equally high. In Venice the deaths estimated at nearly 100,000, and many of the smaller
cities calculated their dead at from 30,000 to 40,000.

From Italy the plague was carried into France, where it raged shortly after its appearance in Genoa. It first attacked Marseilles, whence it was thought to have been introduced by the sailors of a small fleet of merchant vessels. Avignon some twenty-five miles to the north-west, was soon over whelmed by the contagion, and thence it made a rapid advance in a northern direction throughout the country.

Death took its toll with the same avidity and disregard of class as it had done in Italy, and the cities were left with but a skeleton of their normal populations. Thc deaths in Marseilles averaged nearly 20,000 a month while the pestilence lasted, and it was no infrequent experience for ships to be seen at the mercy of the sea from having no living soul left on board to navigate them.

Even greater was the mortality in Avignon and the neighbourhood, where the deaths are stated by a contemporary
chronicler to have exceeded 150,000. In a letter to friends he wrote: “More than half the people are already dead. Within the walls Of the city there are now more than 7,000 houses shut up; in these no one is living, and all who inhabited them are departed; the suburbs hardly contain any people at all.

The whole Of Provence was soon stricken with the disease, and by the beginning of May it has passed westward to Toulouse. Sweeping northwards it reached Lyons, and by the end of the summer it had covered almost the entire extent of the country.

In Paris It made its appearance towards the middle of the year, and altogether some 50,000 persons are stated to have succumbed, although this estimate is a conservative one compared With that of other chroniclers, one of whom places the total as high as 80,000.

As in other places, it respected neither rich nor poor, and royalty paid the penalty as those of humbler station, two of the victims it claimed being Joan of Burgundy, the consort of Philip of Valois, and Joan of Navarre, daughter of Louis X.
In some parts of France the contagion did not reach its greatest intensity until well into 1349, in which year it raged fiercely in Amiens. So violently was the epidemic in this comparatively small town, that the cemeteries were soon unable to receive further corpses, and the king had to be petitioned for permission to set aside fresh land as a burial ground.

Scarcely a country in Europe escaped the disease, all suffering from its ravages in greater or less degree. From the Mediterranean islands of Corsica, Sardinia and Sicily, to which the contagion came in the closing days of 1347, it had passed westward into Spain, attacking on its Way the Balearic Islands, where upwards of 25,000 people are said to have perished.
Its first onslaught was felt at Almeria, a seaport of Granada, on the southern coast, whence it quickly spread to Valencia, denuding that city of its people, at one time to the number of more than 250 daily. The insanitary conditions prevailing in the more populous cities of Spain provided a fruitful field for the pestilence, and the loss of life in most often was enormous.
Spain, in fact, was one of the worst sufferers, for the disease remained with that country far longer than with most others, and even as late as the spring of 1350 it had not finally thrown off the dread scourge. In that it deprived Castile or its king, Alfonso Xll, who fell a victim while engaged in besieging Gibraltar, and many of his army also suffered the fate of their royal leader.

To Austria and Hungary the pestilence was carried from the northern cities of Italy, the towns on the east coast of the Adriatic having in the meantime also fallen prey to its violent march of destruction. From Northern Italy, too, it shaped a north-western course and brought deveastation to Switerland, which almost coincidentally was swept on the west by a wave advancing from France.

In its swoop upon Austria, the contagion appears to have signalled out Vienna for special violence, and the deaths there are estimated to have risen to as many as 900 in a day. The total mortality in this city is fixed by one authority at 100,000, and frequently as many as 6000 bodies are reported to have been interred in a single trench.

Prussia was invaded towards the end of 1349, and here the disease prevailed until late in the following year, one of the greatest sufferers being Bremen, of whose inhabitants scarcely a third survived. The Low Countries and Scandinavia were made to thc devestating power of the dread scourge, which entered Holland towards the close of 1349. The disease passed into and Sweden even earlier, having been carried first to Norway, according to a contemporary writer, by a boat sailing from London to Bergen, where it was cast upon the shore, the whole of the crew having died on the voyage.

News of the great pestilence on the Continent had reached England early in 1348, but there had been no sign of its spreading to the country during the first half of the year. It was fervently hoped that its westward course would be arrested before it crossed the English Channel, although grave fears were entertained that this would not be the case. Nor were these fears groundless, for in August the plague made its appearance in Melcombe Regis, now part of Weymouth, the germs having been carried to the port probably by a ship from Normandy, whose crew were affected by the disease.

Had more attention been given—in those days to sanitation and hygiene, it is possible that the epidemic might have been confined to the locality in which it first appeared even if medical treatment had been more freely resorted to, the course of the disease might have been stayed. As soon as its presence in Melcombe Regis was reported, the Bishop of Bath and Wells urged the people to proceed to church every Friday and pray to God for deliverance from the scourge which had come upon them from the East; he instructed them also to give alms and to fast, in order to avert God’s anger. But the plague did not abate, and from Melcombe Regis it spread through Dorset and then invaded Devon and Somerset. Its passage from town to town and village to village was rapid, and few who contracted the disease lived more than three or four days, many, in fact, dying on the day they were first afflicted. The victims were numbered by the thousand, and as many as fifty or sixty bodies were interred together in common graves.

County after County was stricken With the foul contagion, and each paid heavy toll of its inhabitants. A contemporay historian writing of the effects of the pestilence in Bristol says:

In 1348 the plague raged to such a degree that the living were scarce able to bury the dead. The Gloucestershire men would not suffer the Bristol men to have access to them. At last it reached Gloucester, Oxford and London; scarce the tenth person was left alive, male or female.”

In England, as in other countries, the disease attacked without distinction members Of all classes and creeds, and the clergy were among the greatest sufferers, so much so, in fact, that often there was none available to perform the last rites for the dead. In onc Cistercian abbey twenty monks and three lay-brothers succumbed, leaving only the abbot and two monks remaining; and this experience was typical of many other monasteries.

From the west country the plague spread rapidly in the direction of London, almost al the towns and villages in its path being involved. Some suffered greater mortality than others, but the havoc wrought in all of them was appalling. In numerous villages almost the entire population was carried off, while there were few towns in which the majority of the inhabitants survived. Burial grounds everywhere proved to be inadequate, and fresh ground had to be consecrated for the reception of the dead.

So few were the remaining inhabitants in most of the stricken towns and villages that the supplies of provisions were greatly in excess of the requirements, and could be obtained at phenomenally small cost. According to one account, horses that in normal times could not be bought for less than forty shillings were offered for sale at less than a sixth of that rice, and good cows could be obtained for as little as two shillings. In a little more than a month from its appearance in England, the great plague had descended upon London. The capital city suffered terribly from the scourge, which raged most violently during the months of February and March, Parliament, which was due to meet in January, was prorogued by the special edict of Edward III because as he declared “The plague of deadly pestilence had suddenly broken out in the said place a the neighbourhood, and daily increased in severity, so that grave fears were entertained for the safety of those coming there at the time.”

London in the fourteenth century was a city honeycombed with narrow thoroughfares closely lined with low overhanging houses, and lacking a proper system of sanitation; it was a ready prey to attack by such a pestilence as the Black Death. Unlike a city of today, it had a large residential population of whose size no reliable records exist, but of whose density there can be little question. And of the total number, at least half, according to a writer of the period, were dead within the passing of a few weeks. Hecker places the total mortality of London at 100,000, but several of his estimates have been shown to be under rather than over-stated, and it inconceivable that he may well have erred on the side of conservatism in the figures relating to London.

From all the counties around London came the same frightful story of suffering. The towns and villages of Bedshire, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire were ravaged by the disease, as also were those in the counties to the east and south of the capital. On account of the inability to obtain adequate labour, agriculture and many other industries came almost to a standstill, and testimony of this is supplied by an old document which refers to a cloth mill at Storington, in Bedfordshire, which had to be closed down, the reason given “it stands empty through the mortality of the being that plague, and there is no one who wishes to use it or rent it for the same reason.

The county of Kent suffered in no less degree than other parts of the country. Records testify to its great loss of life, and to the fact that there was no available labour for the conveyance of corpses to the grave, the kith and kin of those to whom death came having to carry out the duties of burial themselves, a rite that lacked all ceremony, and consisted only in depositing the bodies in a common pit.

The midlands and the northern districts of England were no less immune than the south and west, and Wales, too, was made to realise the fatal consequences of the scourge, which also crossed the intervening sea and invaded Ireland. Records of its ravages in Wales and Ireland are scanty, but it is known that Dublin and Drogheda suffered great loss of life, the former’s mortality being estimated at no fewer than 14,000.

In Wales the pestilence raged most fiercely in Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire, but hardly any part of the country remained unscathed by its life-destroying onslaught.

The disease may possibly have overlooked Scotland had it not, been for the ignorance of the people of that period regarding the danger of contact with those who were affected. Hearing of the ravages of the pestilence in England, which they regarded as a judgment at the hand of God, the Scots assembled an invading army in the forest of Selkirk, preparatory to an attack upon their inveterate enemy. But soon they were compelled to fight an unexpected foe in the Black Death, for contact brought the relentless disease upon them, and in a short space of time no fewer than 5000 of the soldiers were dead of the pestilence.

The Black Death levied an overwhelming tax on the people of England and Wales, No reliable records exist of the total population of the two countries previous to the coming of the noxious plague, but it has been estimated at rather less than 5,000,000, and of these no fewer than 2,500,000 are said to have perished from the disease.

Although the Black Death was a disaster which brought untold misery to the world, yet for those who survived it can be said to have had its compensating benefits. It marked the close of the medieval period, and the advent of the modern age, an age of new hopes and new aspirations, and, for the suppressed classes, it brought a great gift of which they had scarcely dared to think – emancipation, due to the great demand for healthy workers. The world, in fact, once more began to live, and joy returned to it.