Another name for the Bubonic plague that swept through Europe a while back. While many, many people died from it, it caused the people that survived to create a much better society.

It's been theorized that the eradication of cats during the Inquisition caused uncontrolled spread of rats carrying infected insects. In other words, when they started burning witches, they doomed themselves.

The Black Plague originated in China in the 1330's and moved West with the Mongol invaders and traders. It first hit Europe in 1346 in a Crimean port by the name of Caffa. The plague soon struck the people in the surrounding areas -- Tartars -- and killed tens of thousands. The Muslim Tartars blamed the nearby Christian Geonese and laid seige to the city, hurling plague-infected corpses over the city walls. Some Geonese managed to escape the seige and flee to Italy, carrying the plague with them.

From Italy, the plague quickly spread to France, England, Germany, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, and Poland. It even reached Greenland. During this first and most serious bout, the plague is estimated to have killed one-third to one-half of Europe's population.

The plague reached England at Michaelmas in 1348. The custom at the time was to ring the church bells at funerals, and it is reported that in the city of Bath, it was decreed that no bells could be rung, for the endless ringing frightened a great many of the residents. Outbreaks continued in England sporadically until the Great Fire of London, which is speculated to have killed off many rats and their fleas.

The plague is spread by two means: contact with infected bodily fluids, and by the Oriental Rat Flea, Xenopsylla cheopsis. The bacteria that causes the plague is aptly named Yersinia pestis. A flea ingests the bacteria from a rat, and the bacteria multiplies in the flea's intestinal tract. Soon, the flea's stomach is blocked, and since it cannot not fill its stomach (satisfy its hunger, the flea will bite its host repeatedly. Blood from the host enters the digestion tract, becomes infected with bacteria, and because the stomach is blocked, the blood returns to the host through the flea's vomit. Since the Rat Flea prefers rats as hosts, there is no real danger to humans until large numbers of rats begin to die, and the fleas move on to their secondary host: humans.

There are three types of plague: bubonic, septicemic, and pneumonic. In bubonic plague, the most common form in the Middle Ages, the mortality rate was 30-75%. Symptoms took from 1 to 7 days to appear. Initial symptoms include headache, nausea, vomiting, aching joints, and fever. The bubonic plague's signature was the enlarged lymph node, or bubo. The lymph node would swell, and become black and hardened. Lancing the bubo sometimes helped to cure the patient.

Septicemic plague is the form that gives this plague its most common name: The Black Plague. It is the rarest form of the disease. The mortality rate was very near 100%. Symptoms include high fever, and a discoloration of the skin: wherever the patient's skin received pressure, it turned black or purple. Patients usually died with a day of contracting the septicemic plague.

The pneumonic plague was the most communicable form. This form infected the patient's lungs. Mortality rate was 90-95%. The patients coughed up spetum tinted with blood. As the disease progressed, the spetum became bright red. Symptoms took 1 to 7 days to appear after initial infection.

Repurcussion was very, very rare, as most who contracted the plague died from it.

Medieval treatments for the plague were not too effective. Bleeding was popular, but this only served to further spread the plague. Other remedies included an infusion of sulfur and burning incense and aromatic oils. Today, treatments are much more effective. The patient is given a strong dose of antibiotics, including streptomycin. The modern-day mortality rates, when treatment is given, are as follows: bubonic, minimal; septicemic, 100%; pnemonic, 5-10%. However, in 1997 researchers discovered a strain of the plague that is immune to most antibiotics used to treat it.

In the Middle Ages, some people believed that the disease was transmitted through the air, so they took to carrying cloths infused with aromatic oils such as rosemary, camphor, and laurel to cover their faces when they went out. One particular drawing from the Middle Ages shows a contraption meant to keep physicians from contracting the disease: it is a mask shaped like a bird's head, with a long, hollow beak fitting over the mouth; the beak is to be filled with aromatic herbs. Other people tried to scare away the plague with sound, by ringing bells or blasting cannons. Talismans and spells were also quite popular. Milan and Venice both took measures to quarantine the ill, and their efforts paid off.

Today, there are still sporadic outbreaks of plague. There was a major outbreak in San Francisco from 1900-1909. In 1996, five people in the Southwest region of the United States died of plague, and periodic outbreaks are not uncommon in the Indian Penninsula and in Africa. Prevention measures include improving sanitary conditions, killing rats and burning their corpses, and using insecticide to kill fleas. In 1999, researchers announced that they were ready to test a vaccine against the plague.

Just in case you ever ask yourself, "Do I have the plague?", I am offering a self-assessment test to help you determine whether you do.

1. Do I have a fever? Yes or No
2. Do I have a horrible, hacking cough? Do I feel like I have needles in my chest? Am I coughing up blood? Yes or No
3. Do I have swollen lymph nodes on my neck, under my armpits, or near my crotch? Are they swollen to the size of a walnut or larger, turning black, becoming hot to the touch, or turning hard? Yes or No
4. Am I delirious? (This is hard to self-diagnose; it's better to phone a friend and ask them.) Yes or No
5. Am I confused? Example: If you've been thinking, "Dan Quayle might not be such a bad president," you are confused and might have the plague. Yes or No
6. Do I have an enlarged liver and/or spleen? (Again, this is tough to self-diagnose. Performing exploratory surgery on yourself is not recommended.) Yes or No
7. Am I vomiting up a viscuous black bile streaked with blood? (This is okay to self-diagnose.) Yes or No
8. Am I crawling with fleas? Although this does not necessarily mean that you have the plague, if the fleas are accompanied by symptoms of the plague, you might be a little more worried. Yes or No
9. Am I surrounded by dead rats? Yes or No
10. Am I in the Middle Ages?

If you exhibit more than a few of these symptoms, it's probably a good idea to call your doctor and quarantine yourself until you find out what's wrong. This has been a public health service provided by SueZVudu!
It has been theorized by William H. McNeill in Plagues and Peoples that the silk road, the overland route from The East, that brought the Black Death to Europe.

He speculates that it was Venice, the hinge of Europe, (and the title of one of his books), that radiated this disease throughout the western world.

In this, he illuminates the role transportation always has, and more importantly, still plays today in the spread of disease. Jets can bring ebola fever, or some other highly contagious disease to North America in a matter of scant hours.

Rather than religion, or ignorance that brings us disease, it is technology and intelligence.

The vodka brand Black Death originated in Iceland in 1906. Its original icelandic name was "Svarta Daudi". Probably the main reason for Black Death's success is its unconventional packaging. The bottles feature a skull wearing a stovepipe (remember Slash?).

The Black Death vodka has won 27 medals from the International Wine and Spirit association since 1990.

There is also Black Death Tequila Silver, Tequila Gold, Gin, Schnapps and cigarettes.

If you want to see what the bottles and cigarette packs look like, you could rent Waterworld, and keep an eye on the Smokers.

The Black Death is the modern European name for the most severe single epidemic in history. This epidemic of plague lasted from the mid-1340s in central Asia and finally burned out in 1351 in Sweden and Russia.

The plague bacillus, yersinia pestis, is endemic in central Asia and north India, but it has occassionally spread far beyond those boundaries. The reasons for the vast spread of the Black Death are a matter of debate, but it is known that the Caucasus region and the Middle East were hard hit by the plague in 1345 and/or 1346. The plague entered Europe through Mediterannean ports, most notably Genoa, in the fall of 1347.

We now know that fleas and rats served to spread the virus in many areas, although many people undoubtedly caught the disease directly from other humans. It swept through Europe over the next 3 years, killing perhaps 30-40% of the people of Europe. Cities and monasteries often had higher mortality rates and some villages and monasteries were wiped out by the disease in a matter of weeks or months.

The Black Death caused a major revolution in European economics and culture. The massive depopulation led to a rapid rise in wages that shook the foundations of the economic order. Periodic outbreaks of plague continued for the next 350 years, and many people faced with imminent death and the apparent end of the world rejected the existing social and religious order. There is a notable liberalization of social and sexual mores after the Black Death, and European society developed a fascination with death that it never entirely lost. Although there were many signs of coming change in the early 14th century, many have argued that the Black Death was the decisive element in the collapse of the social order of the High Middle Ages.

A note: there is no basis to the "Inquisition caused the plague" story outlined above by Saige. The Roman Inquisition of the Middle Ages was explicitly ordered not to prosecute witches in 1258. The witch hunts are a product of the enlightened Renaissance and not the Middle Ages--the Malleus Maleficarum or "Hammer of Witches," was written in 1484 and the witch-hunting craze only began after the publication and dissemination of that book. There was no mass persecution of witches in the 1340s and so it is impossible that witch-burning could have resulted in the Black Death.

A Genoese trading post in the Crimea, Caffa -- now Feodosiya, Ukraine -- has the distinction of being one of the best-known sites of biological warfare. While besieging Caffa, an army of Turkic tribesmen known as the Kipchak catapulted corpses infected by the Black Death into the town.

There have been several pandemics of the disease called "the plague" (commonly identified, since the late 19th century, with bubonic plague, a disease caused by the agent Yersinia pestis) in history.

The first pandemic, the Justinian plague, began in 541 and devastated the Byzantine empire (and, presumably, much of Europe). It persisted until the 8th century, then died out.

The second pandemic, now known as the Black Death, began in Central Asia in the early 1340s, and reached Sicily in 1347. It continued to wreak havoc in Europe for centuries, only disappearing in the early 18th century.

The third pandemic likewise began in Central Asia, in the 1890s, and reached Hong Kong in 1894, where the Swiss microbiologist Alexandre Yersin isolated the agent of disease, a Gram-negative coccobacillus of the family Enterobacteriaceae now known as Yersinia pestis. The third pandemic is still active today, with periodic outbreaks in many locations around the world.

Of the three pandemics, the second was clearly the most disastrous. The first outbreak in Europe, from 1347 to 1351, killed approximately one third of Europe's population.

The term "Black Death", incidentally, was not used at the time of the second pandemic - it is a later phrase, a mistranslation of the Latin term atra mors (literally "black death", but correctly translated: "terrible death"). The mistranslation was probably made by a Danish or Swedish writer in the 1700s. The people suffering the effects of the second pandemic never used the term "Black Death" - rather, they called it merely "the mortality" (Latin: mortalitatis).

A useful page reference:

An addendum: All of the above is a somewhat simplistic introductory text, which assumes that the identification made by Yersin and by the Plague Commission in India, identifying modern bubonic plague (the disease unquestionably responible for the third pandemic) with the Black Death (and, by extension, with the Justinian plague), is correct.

Needless to say, this is the subject of intense academic discussion - with historians, microbiologists, and medical doctors sometimes wildly at odds. Alternative hypotheses presented to explain the Black Death are that it might have been some other disease - smallpox, anthrax or typhus have been mentioned, none of them with much convincing evidence to back them up.

Recently, the researchers Susan Scott and Christopher Duncan (in the book The Biology of Plagues) have promoted an unidentified viral cause of the earlier pandemics of "plague", some sort of haemorrhagic virus (like, but not identical to, Ebola). They base this supposition on epidemiological/statistical analysis of verified outbreak patterns, which seem to suggest a much longer incubation period than is the norm for bubonic plague. Their book has generated even more heated debate, and continues to do so.

In sum, there are a lot of factual problems with the identification of the Black Death with bubonic plague - none of which are likely to be definitely resolved in the immediate future.

Disclaimer: I do not in any way think that the black plague, death by horrible diseases, or the millions of fatalities caused by plague are in any way funny. This is simply a small bit of irony I found amusing.

One of my co-workers mentioned to a group of us that the black plague is now mostly curable by an antibiotic (as you can confirm in the above writeup by SueZVudu). Because most forms can be cured so easily, the mortality rate of said disease is not at all what it once was. But the stigma still remains attached to the name; say it to yourself a couple of times. Black plague. Black plague. Yes, it evokes a shiver, a feeling of horror, even though it basically describes a disease that isn't likely to kill you with proper treatment. I think that if I were to contract a treatable form of this disease, I would have quite a bit of fun using its name to mess with people's minds.

Boss: Where were you at work today?
Ivy: Sorry, I had the bubonic plague.

Sleazy Guy: So when can we have another date?
Ivy: Afraid that's impossible, I have the black death.

Mom: Why don't you visit your poor mother?
Ivy: Can't. Plague, you know.

You get the picture.

I wrote a paper on the Black Death, a subject that I find perhaps a little too interesting to not be labelled morbid. It's pretty long, but I have been assured that it's worth it. It's also extensively researched. I will put my bibliography here too.

Here are the 12 parts, labelled so that if you are looking for something specific-- for instance, effects of the Black Death on a certain area-- then it will be easy to find.

The Black Death Part 1: An Introduction

The Black Death Part 2: A Little Background

The Black Death Part 3: A Description of the Disease

The Black Death Part 4: The Path of the Disease

The Black Death Part 5: Italy

The Black Death Part 6: France and the British Isles

The Black Death Part 7: The Rest of Europe

The Black Death Part 8: The Contemporary Response to the Plague

The Black Death Part 9: Medicine in the 14th Century

The Black Death Part 10: Religion

The Black Death Part 11: The Aftermath

The Black Death Part 12: The Conclusion

Bibliography of Works Cited and Consulted

Barber, Richard. The Penguin Guide to Medieval Europe. Great Britain: Penguin Books, 1987.

Bishop, Morris. The Middle Ages. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1968.

"Black Death." Dictionary of the Middle Ages: Volume II. 1983 ed.

Boissonnade, P. The History of Civilization: Life and Work In Medieval Europe. New York: Dorset Press, 1987.

The Cambridge Illustrated History of the Middle Ages: Volume II. Ed. by Robert Fossier. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986. Pages 52-56.

"Dance of Death." Britannica Online. February 8, 2001. Encyclopedia Britannica. February 18, 2001.

Eamon, William. "Plagues, Healers, and Patients in Early Modern Europe." Renaissance Quarterly Summer 1999: 474-486.

Gottfried, Robert S. The Black Death. New York: The Free Press, 1983.

Manchester, William. A World Lit Only By Fire. Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1992.

"Plague." Oxford English Dictionary: Volume XI. 1989 ed.

"Plague and Economics." The Economist. December 31, 1999: 23-25.

Saul, Nigel. "Britain 1400." History Today July 2000: 38-43.

Tuchman, Barbara W. A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978.

Wark, Lori Anne. The Black Death. 1998. .

Willis, Connie. Doomsday Book. New York: Bantam Books, 1992.

Ziegler, Philip. The Black Death. London: The Folio Society, 1997.

In 1347, the first epidemic of the second plague pandemic struck Europe, marking the beginning of what we know as the Black Death, a complicated disease that wreaked havoc in Asia, Europe, and parts of Africa.

When the plague struck, medieval medical science, which was soon to undergo major upheaval, was structured around the three-tiered social and economic class system of the period. This system separated citizens into the nobility and church officials, the bourgeoisie or “middle class” merchants and workers, and the working peasantry. Doctors were most often trained and organized by the church or governing body, and, as such, took a rather mystical, and often inaccurate, approach to all disease – including plague. Considering this state of medicine, it is unsurprising that the peoples of Europe and Asia did not cooperate to organize a concerted anti-plague campaign.

Many barriers between peoples existed at the time, not the least of which was the manner in which doctors and surgeons were separated from their colleagues by their governments, with little or no international contact. Such lack of communication between members of the medical profession caused any useful knowledge about the plague to remain localized, reducing the opportunity for the dissemination of skills and techniques for quarantine, sanitation, and other areas important to halting the spread of disease.

In addition to the lack of professional interaction, different countries were separated not only by language barriers, but by major differences in religion which led to diffuse attitudes about dealing with the Black Death. While Christian governments encouraged flight as a method of – often unsuccessfully – avoiding the plague, their Muslim counterparts took the view that the disease was the will of God, and to flee would be useless. This, and other examples of religious differences, not to mention barriers in language, highlight the lack of tolerance during the period, which would naturally make international cooperation difficult.

Finally, during the 14th century, technology had not yet progressed to its modern level of ever-exponentially-increasing speed, making communication and work between countries in different parts of the world not just culturally and scientifically, but physically difficult. When it takes a ship weeks to travel from Spain to Turkey, it is impractical to suggest cooperation between these countries, or ones more separated, especially when a bout of pneumonic plague can spread and kill 30% of the population in a manner of months! Overall, there are a number of reasons that the governments of the 14th century were unable to mount a cooperative medical campaign against the Black Death, which, taken together, emphasize those aspects and facets of medieval culture which most encouraged the rampant spread of such disease.

Despite the lack of successful counter-disease measures, different regions of the world did indeed suffer different magnitudes of losses during the plague. A good example of this phenomenon is the broad range of death rates strictly within the British Isles. While some areas of the countryside suffered losses of a “mere” 30-35%, other regions were hit by 50+% death rates.

These comparisons can be made on a grander scale as well. Comparing situations throughout the Muslim world and Christendom, it becomes apparent that in fact, the Islamic peoples of the 14th century were hit just as hard by the Black Death. For example, many cities in the Mediterranean basin suffered particularly badly from the disease, probably as a result of heavy shipping traffic in these regions. While the Muslim world was hit first, as the plague spread from its roots in central and eastern Asia, the infected rats and fleas were soon exposed to the Southern European citizenry. The Muslim town of Antioch, for example, suffered mortality perhaps in excess of 50%, but as the plague reached the Christian towns of Florence and Sienna, these death rates were matched and exceeded. Throughout Christian Europe, perhaps the worst situations were in parts of Britain and Scandinavia, especially the colder regions in which deadly pneumonic plague spread easily. However, all told, a good 40-50% of the Muslim peoples in the world died by 1350, suggesting an equally terrible situation.

Indeed, cultural differences such as those between the peoples of Europe and Asia had little impact on the effects of plague. The second pandemic, and all its epidemics lasting until the end of the 14th century, hit most of Eurasia equally hard, due to a combination of environmental conditions that allowed the plague bacillus to propagate. Overall, the Muslim world fared no better than the Christians in the Black Death and the ensuing epidemics, and the devastating impact was seen throughout the world.

Black" death` (?).

A pestilence which ravaged Europe and Asia in the fourteenth century.


© Webster 1913.

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