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The Black Plague

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The Black Plague
Plaguevictim
General Information
Episode
Location
  • Europe
Date
  • Spring 1558
Participants
  • Millions of people
Description
  • A dreadful epidemic that wiped out millions of people


History Edit

The Black Death was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 75 to 200 million people and peaking in Europe in the years 1346–53. The Black Death is thought to have originated in the arid plains of central Asia, where it then traveled along the Silk Road, reaching the Crimea by 1343. From there, it was most likely carried by Oriental rat fleas living on the black rats that were regular passengers on merchant ships. Spreading throughout the Mediterranean and Europe, the Black Death is estimated to have killed 30–60% of Europe's total population. All in all, the plague reduced the world population from an estimated 450 million down to 350–375 million in the 14th century.

The aftermath of the plague created a series of religious, social, and economic upheavals, which had profound effects on the course of European history. It took 150 years for Europe's population to recover. The plague recurred occasionally in Europe until the 19th century.

Origins Edit

The plague disease, caused by Yersinia pestis, is commonly present in populations of fleas carried by ground rodents, including marmots, in various areas including Central Asia, Kurdistan, Western Asia, Northern India and Uganda. The disease may have travelled along the Silk Road with Mongol armies and traders or it could have come via ship. By the end of 1346, reports of plague had reached the seaports of Europe: "India was depopulated, Tartary, Mesopotamia, Syria, Armenia were covered with dead bodies".

Plague was reportedly first introduced to Europe at the trading city of Caffa in the Crimea in 1347. After a protracted siege, during which the Mongol army under Jani Beg was suffering from the disease, the army catapulted the infected corpses over the city walls to infect the inhabitants. The Genoese traders fled, taking the plague by ship into Sicily and the south of Europe, whence it spread north. Whether or not this hypothesis is accurate, it is clear that several existing conditions such as war, famine, and weather contributed to the severity of the Black Death.

Outbreak in Europe Edit

There appear to have been several introductions into Europe. The plague reached Sicily in October 1347, carried by twelve Genoese galleys, and rapidly spread all over the island. Galleys from Caffa reached Genoa and Venice in January 1348, but it was the outbreak in Pisa a few weeks later that was the entry point to northern Italy. Towards the end of January, one of the galleys expelled from Italy arrived in Marseille.

From Italy, the disease spread northwest across Europe, striking France, Spain, Portugal and England by June 1348, then turned and spread east through Germany and Scandinavia from 1348–50. It was introduced in Norway in 1349 when a ship landed at Askøy, then spread to modern Bergen and Iceland. Finally it spread to northwestern Russia in 1351. The plague spared some parts of Europe, including the Kingdom of Poland, the majority of the Basque Country and isolated parts of Belgium and the Netherlands.

Symptoms Edit

Contemporary accounts of the plague are often varied or imprecise. The most commonly noted symptom was the appearance of buboes in the groin, the neck and armpits, which oozed pus and bled when opened. The only medical detail that is questionable is the infallibility of approaching death, as if the bubo discharges, recovery is possible.

This was followed by acute fever and vomiting of blood. Most victims died two to seven days after initial infection. David Herlihy identifies another potential sign of the plague: freckle-like spots and rashes which could be caused by flea-bites.

Some accounts, like that of Louis Heyligen, a musician in Avignon who died of the plague in 1348, noted a distinct form of the disease which infected the lungs and led to respiratory problems and which is identified with pneumatic plague. It is said that the plague takes three forms. In the first people suffer an infection of the lungs, which leads to breathing difficulties. Whoever has this corruption or contamination to any extent cannot escape but will die within two days. Another form...in which boils erupt under the armpits,...a third form in which people of both sexes are attacked in the groin.

Death Toll Edit

There are no exact figures for the death toll; the rate varied widely by locality. It killed some 75 to 200 million people in Eurasia. According to medieval historian Philip Daileader in 2007:

The most widely accepted estimate for the Middle East, including Iraq, Iran and Syria, during this time, is for a death rate of about a third. The Black Death killed about 40% of Egypt's population. Half of Paris's population of 100,000 people died. In Italy, Florence's population was reduced from 110–120 thousand inhabitants in 1338 down to 50 thousand in 1351. At least 60% of Hamburg's and Bremen's population perished, and a similar percentage of Londoners may have died from the disease as well. Before 1350, there were about 170,000 settlements in Germany, and this was reduced by nearly 40,000 by 1450. In 1348, the plague spread so rapidly that before any physicians or government authorities had time to reflect upon its origins, about a third of the European population had already perished. In crowded cities, it was not uncommon for as much as 50% of the population to die. The disease bypassed some areas, and the most isolated areas were less vulnerable to contagion. Monks and priests were especially hard hit since they cared for the Black Death's victim.

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