Black Death Essay, Research Paper
subject = History
title = The Tragedy of the Black Death
yourself alone on a street corner, coughing up bloody mucous each time you
exhale. You are gasping for a full breath of air, but realizing that is not
possible, you give up your fight to stay alive. You’re thinking, why is this
happening to me? That is how the victims of the Black Death felt. The Black
Death had many different effects on the people of the Middle Ages. To understand
the severity of this tragic epidemic you must realize a few things about the
plague. You should know what the Black Death is, the cause of the plague,
the symptoms, the different effects it had on the people, and the preventions
and cures for the plague.
The Black Death, also known as the Black Plague
or the Bubonic Plague, which struck in 1349, and again in 1361-62, ravaged
all of Europe to the extent of bringing gruesome death to many people of the
Middle Ages. The Black Death struck in 1349, and again in 1361-62, but was
restricted just to Europe (Rowse 29). It was a combination of bubonic, septicaemic,
and pneumonic plague strains (Gottfried xiii) that started in the east and
worked its way west, but never left its native home. One of the things that
made the plague one of the worst was that there were outbreaks almost every
ten years (Rowse 29), but still restricted to Europe. It is thought that one
third to one half could have possibly died by the plague (Strayer and Munro
462), with some towns of a death rate of up to 30 or 40 percent (Strayer and
Munro 462). Very few who were infected with the plague actually survived more
than one month after receiving the disease (Strayer and Munro 462). The Black
Death was an incredible event that effecte
d everyone on either a physical
or emotional level, or both. The Black Death was more terrible, and killed
more people than any war in history (Strayer and Munro 462). The plague was
so horrible and terrifying that people said it made all other disasters in
the Middle Ages seems mild when comparing it to the Black Death (Gies 191).
have been many disputes over what caused the Black Death, but only one is supported
with the most evidence. It is thought that on October of 1347, a Genoese fleet
made its way into a harbor in northeast Sicily with a crew that had “sickness
clinging to their very bones” (Gottfried xiii). The sickness this crew had
was not brought by men, but the rats and fleas aboard the ship. The harbor
tried to control the sickness by attempting to quarantine the fleet, but it
was too late (Gottfried xiii). Within six months of the docking of that very
fleet, half of the region had either fled the country, or died. That fleet,
along with many other fleets along the Mediterranean Sea brought the greatest
natural disaster to the world (Gottfried xiii).
The infested rat, called
the black ship rat, was carried in the baggage of merchants on board the ships
traveling all over the Mediterranean (Norwich 30). They didn’t know it, but
it was the people that actually spread the disease across the land. The plague
spread in a great arc across Europe, starting in the east in the Mediterranean
Sea, and ending up in northwest Germany (Strayer and Munro 462). It is incredible
that the plague hit Europe several times, but still no one understood neither
the causes nor the treatments of the epidemic (Strayer and Munro 462).
was another cause that some people strongly believed brought the disease into
their world. Doctors at the University of Paris claimed that on March 20,
1345, at one o’clock in the afternoon, a conjunction of three higher planets
Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars caused a corruption of the surrounding air, which
made the air become poisonous or toxic (Gottfried 110). This is a highly unlikely
theory unless you are coming from a basis of Astrology. Another explanation
of the plague that scientists gave was environmental factors. These scientists
thought that there were many earthquakes that caused toxic fumes to come from
the center of the earth (Gottfried 110), which, again, brought contaminated
air for the people. Certain historians have wondered if the plague could
have been caused by overpopulation of the continent, but they are not completely
convinced (Hoyt and Chodorow 632). Some people, possibly out of desperation,
turned their violence on the Jews and blamed them for the cause of the plague
rayer and Munro 463). Whatever the cause was, you could tell from looking
in a persons eyes that, ” above every person hung the terror of the Black Death”
(Strayer and Munro 476).
Although the Black Death was one of the largest
epidemics ever recorded, it did not have many visible symptoms. The actual
symptoms varied in different parts of the continent. The most ordinary symptoms
were black tumors or boils on your neck, and the coughing up of blood (Zenger).
One thing about coughing up blood that made the plague even worse, was that
when you coughed up blood, everyone in the room was susceptible to the disease
(Zenger). This is because when the person coughed up the blood, the bacteria
went airborne and infected the person of the closest proximity (Zenger). This
allowed the plague to spread more quickly and easily.
The Black Death had
more than just physical effects, but more extensive effects over the course
of 25 years. Such as physical effects, social and religious effects, economic
effects, agricultural and commercial effects, effects on architecture, and
effects on the future.
For two generations after the plague, there was almost
no increase in the population of Europe (Strayer and Munro 462), while the
rest of the world increased in population. After the plague had passed, Europe
seemed to suffer from a case of collective shell-shock (Strayer and Munro 463),
this made it look like all of Europe was hit by a deadly stun gun, but the
stun never wore off. What scared the people, was that the Black Death killed
more people than a hostile army and gave its victims no chance to fight back
(Strayer and Munro 462).
The Black Death had many different social and religious
effects on the common people of Europe. Some people dreaded the time when
the plague would come, and some people just sat back, ate, drank, and were
merry just as though they had never heard of the plague (Strayer and Munro
463). Although all the people suffered, the peasants suffered the most. This
is because they lived in such unsanitary conditions and had the least care.
In many places whole villages of peasants were wiped out completely (Hartman
235), and in less than one month.
The Black Death, along with seven other
plagues and diseases of the Middle Ages, was considered contagious (Durant
1002). Because they were contagious, a victim of any plague or disease was
forbidden to enter a city unless under separation (Durant 1002). Many people
actually thought that the Black Death was a punishment to society because they
were wicked (Hoyt and Chodorow 596), and because they did not repent for their
sins. Although the people withstood many effects, the social consequences
were surely less striking (Rowse 29). For not only were the people struck
in many ways, but they were also astounded, terrified, and bewildered of this
secretive beast lurking in every place they go (Gottfried xiii). Some people
think that the plague contributed to the moral disintegration of European
society (Strayer and Munro 462).
Many people sat around and faced the fact
that they would eventually be taken in by the plague, and some tried to do
something about it, religiously. Many people, religious or not, tried to take
refuge in Godly practices. Some tried easing their conscience through “exaggerated
penances” (Strayer and Munro 463), or others doubled their devotions and encouraged
revivals (Strayer and Munro). Varied people “filled their hearts with unbearable
anguish about the Sorrows of Mary and the sufferings of Christ,” yet these
same people filled with anguish flocked to executions and tore each other apart
in their frequent civil wars (Strayer and Munro 463). Almost all people thought
they would live through the plague if they gave into the surge of religious
Since people were dying left and right, it should be expected that
there would be a decrease in available labor. So now there are half as many
peasants to do the work, and the same amount of fields. This amounted to too
much work to do, and little peasants to do the work (Hartman 235). This would
obviously not work out. Everything was being ruined, overrun, or neglected
because of this sudden, but expected shortage of workers (Hartman 235). The
peasants saw this happening and they knew they could receive something good
out of this. The laborers also saw that they were on demand, and so they demanded
higher wages (Hartman 235). Now that wages rose, prices rose along with it
(Hoyt and Chodorow 635). The mortality rate of the region not only produced
a labor shortage, but a sudden increase in the income per capita (Hoyt and
Chodorow 635). When the plague had ended, half of the workers on the estates
of the nobles in England disappeared (Hartman 235).
You could see that the
Black Death shook the entire agricultural and commercial structure of the west
(Gies 226). The decrease of construction in the 14th century could be seen
along with the cathedrals started in the 12th and 13th centuries and never
finished because of the plague (Durant 894).
The effects on the future were
not as bad as the effects the 14th century people experienced. The European
population steadily declined after 1350 for the next century (Gottfried xiii).
It is said that “chronic depopulation characterized the 14th and 15th centuries”
(Gottfried xiii). In 1351, it was calculated that the total number of dead
in Europe was approximately 23, 840,000 people (Gottfried xiii). That is a
great decrease considering that there were an estimated 75,000,000 people living
in Europe before the Black Death struck (Gottfried xiii).
There were almost
no known preventions or cures for the Black Death except a few ideas that don’t
always help or don’t help at all. Some doctors instructed the sick to stay
by fires and to drink as much as possible (Zenger). One thing that kept the
disease from spreading more rapidly was keeping anyone infected with a disease
out of the cities (Durant 1002). After the plague had become extremely serious,
the town’s people exterminated the old black ship rat that carried the disease
(Rowse 29). This was there last attempt at getting their old lives back, but
it was too late for that.
Aren’t you glad we are living in the 20th century,
and not the 14th century!? The Black Death certainly had one of the greatest
effects on the world in all areas, and was also one of the greatest changes
for the people of the Middle Ages. If we want change in our lives, does it
always have to be the bad things that bring us back into reality? I should
hope not. It seems that bad or depressing situations give us a grasp on what
is really important in our daily lives, and that is what we all need.
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