The Black Plague Essay, Research Paper
In a time when social health was poor, doctors were scarce and ineffective, the largest, most deadly disease outbreak in the history of the world took its toll on mankind. It is estimated that fifty million people lost their lives to the Bubonic Plague that ravaged through Europe for five years. The streets of middle age villages were littered with corpses that no one would touch for fear of contracting the disease. The primitive medical practices of the time weren’t much help either. It seemed that there was no hope of escaping death from the Black Plague.
Consequently, this time between 1347 and 1351 could be considered the darkest period of the middle ages. Throughout these five years, an invisible killer swept through Europe like wild fire, killing everyone in its path. In the first year alone, one quarter of Europe’s population was obliterated. A baker living in this time wrote about the effects of the Plague: “…one in ten of either sex was left alive. As there were no graveyards, fields were set aside for the burial of the dead.” ( Day 25 ). No one knew what was causing the Plague; people could only speculate. Most accepted the plague as punishment from God; however, many other theories abounded. Some people believed that the sea was infected with the disease by the stars. It was then released as a vapor that fell as rain. In Switzerland, the Jews were accused of poisoning the water supply. The true cause was later discovered to be fleas that carried the disease and transferred it to other mammals. The fleas, most likely, came on rat infested trade ships out of Asia. The ships landed in Sicily and the disease quickly spread through Europe. In 1351, the Black Plague finally ended, but the after effects could be felt in Europe for many years.
After being infected with the Plague, a person’s symptoms were obvious and quick to set in. The first symptoms included shivering and a high fever. Then the victim would begin to cough and vomit up blood. People often became delirious. Painful swellings called buboes appeared, mostly in the groin and arm pits. Because the cause of the disease had not been found, people who showed symptoms were avoided at all costs. One chronicler wrote, “Corpses were abandoned in empty houses. No one would bury them for fear of the disease, and no one would go near those who were ill.”(Howarth 47). The luckier carriers of the Plague died within 24 hours, but some lived with the excruciating symptoms for three or more days. After death, black sores appeared on the body, that’s how the Plague got its name.
People who were infected with the Plague did not have much of a chance with the doctors of the time. Many medical practices of the middle ages could be considered cruel at best. There were many theories about what was helpful to a patient. One surgeon wrote, “To close the edges of a wound, you must make ants bite onto them, and then cut off their heads.” (Howarth 24). Bloodletting and leeches were also popular treatments. Only the richest people could afford true doctors. Most other people relied on the apothecary, who was like a medicine man. The apothecaries mainly used herbs in their treatments; however, stranger things were also used. Dung beetles, bat drippings, and powdered worms were some of the more popular ones. Most medical treatments of the middle ages did more harm than good.
On average, two million people die in the United States every year. In 1347, one quarter of Europe’s population fell victim to the Black Plague. Seventy-five million more would die in the four years that followed. This is by far the largest single disease outbreak in the history of the world. Chances of these statistics being repeated are slim. We have advanced science and medicine working for us. Also, middle age society didn’t have the knowledge of viruses and other disease causing organisms that we have today. Even with all these advances, what will doctors of the future think of us? Will they see AIDS the way we look at the Bubonic Plague, or will they find humor in our medical techniques? Will they be appalled at the thought of cutting someone open in order to cure them? Our medicine may seem just as primitive to them as the medieval doctors seem to us. Yet medical advances are being made every day, and we will probably never have another outbreak that claims as many lives as the Black Plague.