Europe and The Black Death: An Introduction (1347-51)

In 1347, a merchant ship landed on the shores of Italy, harbouring a plague that would wipe out twenty-five to fifty percent of Europe’s population over the next three years.  Historians later referred to these plagues as the Black Death, the most devastating natural disaster in European history.

What was the Black Death? How did it spread so far and so quickly?  How did people react to the destruction it wrought? We will address these questions in the broadest sense, focusing on the European context.  We will address the plagues’ impact on different parts of the world, its short and long-term impact and other aspects in other blogs.  For now, let’s explore what happened in Europe. 

What was The Black Death? How did people get infected?Norman Davies aptly described the Black Death as a “devastating brew of three related diseases – bubonic plague, septicaemic plague, and pneumonic plague. (Davies, 409)  The most common, the bubonic plague – Yersinia pestis – often resided in rats.  Humans became infected when fleas bit rats then bit humans.  Symptoms included bleeding under the skin, swelling of the lymph nodes, delirium and fever. The hardest hit were children, the sickly, and the elderly. Still, the plagues did not discriminate, readily killing off kings, queens, the aristocracy – everyone. 

Origins. How did it Spread? Historians estimate the pandemic originated in Central Asia in the 1330s, first infecting the Mongols who controlled many trades and travel routes.  Rats accompanied the Mongols, and merchant travellers along land and water routes in the early 1300s spreading the disease to faraway places.  By 1347 it reached Constantinople.  Egypt became infected a year later.   That same year it reached Europe when a Genoese merchant brought it from Caffer to Sicily. It spread into southern France and Spain, Germany, France and the Low countries and England by 1348.   Eastern Europe and Russia succumbed by 1351.

The Black Death hit South Europe much harder than North Europe.  Southern trading centers in Italy and Spain, with their numerous seaports, suffered tremendous losses.  Rats readily travelled on ships and with food imports such as grains.      Scandinavian counties, by some accounts, lost a relatively low 20 percent of their population.   Urban centers, with dense populations and poor sanitation, attracted rats and encouraged infection. Stacked bodies lined the streets of Florence.  Venice lost 600 a day to the plagues.  Mass graves – plague piles – littered cities and towns.  

All in all, the Black Death devastated Europe.  Historians estimate that between 1347-1351, the plague claimed 25 to 50% of Europe’s Population- 14 to 38  of 75 million people. (Spielvogel, 308)

Contemporary Explanations and Reactions.  Only some six hundred years later did we understand how the Black Death infected people. So, how did contemporaries perceive the devastation? Many saw the Black Death as an expression of God’s wrath – a punishment.  Some people responded with pious acts, offering more sermons and bolstering daily prayer routines. Some extremists performed public penances like self-flagellation, whipping themselves bloody as they walked city and town streets.  

Scientists offered explanations. Some contemporaries believed the plagues to be subterranean gases released into the atmosphere by earthquakes and volcanoes.  Others looked to astrology for answers. The University of Paris pointed to a conjunction of planets – Saturn, Mars, and Jupiter, on March 20, 1345 – as the instigator.

Like other crises, pandemics provide fodder for scapegoating and conspiracy theories.  Target varied, but it tended to be those in the minority or deemed an “Other.” Lepers were blamed and abused, along with beggars and gypsies.  Jews became the most frequent target.  Somehow, a story circulated that Jews instigated the Black Death by poisoning wells.  Nonsensical, of course, especially considering that the Black Death killed Jews as readily as anyone else.  Regardless, Jew suffered torture, execution, and exile.  “By 1351, Thomas Cahill writes, “more than two hundred Jewish towns and urban neighbourhoods across Europe had been obliterated. (Cahill, 23)

Conclusion. The short and long-term impact of the Black Death is difficult to determine. The bubonic and pneumonic plague continued to afflict Europeans well into the eighteenth century, but its devastation hit the high mark in the fourteenth century. A high death rate led to labour shortages, giving workers more leverage to demand higher wages and better conditions from landowners.  Landowners resisted and pushed back, resulting in widespread revolts.

Some historians see the Black Death as causing the dissolution of the feudal system in Europe.  Other historians argue that the pandemic accelerated an already declining Medieval institution.  Religiosity, by some accounts, rose even as the institution of the Church began to wane.

Whatever conclusions historians draw, they agree that the Black Death is Europe’s most devastating natural disaster. 

Selected Bibliography

Cahill, Thomas.  Heretics and Heroes. New York: Anchor Books, 2014.

Davies, Norman. Europe: A History.  London: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Martin, Sean. A Short History of Disease. Olague, Poxes, and Civilization. 

Mee Jr. Charles L.  The Black Death.  New Word City, Inc. 2012.

Snowden. Frank S.  Epidemic and Society From the Black Death to the Present.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019. 

Spielvogel, Jackson J.  Western Civilization. Volume B: 1300-1815.  Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2012. 

Zophy, Joseph W. A Short History of the Renaissance and Reformation Europe. New Jersey: Prentice Hall Inc., 2003.