Between the years of 1340 and 1350, a silent and invisible demon hovered over Europe. The shadow, called the Black Death, decreased Europe's population by 1/3 in just ten years. Although there are many theories about where the plague actually began, one theory is that it started in the Gobi Desert in the late 1320s. Another theory is that it started in China in the 1830s, claiming nearly 90% of the population there before spreading all over Europe. One can trace ancient trade routes after that point because the plague spread along those routes and left a trail of death and destruction behind. In 1345, the Volga River area was infected, followed by the Caucasus and Crimeo areas in 1346. By the time it reached Constantinople in 1347, the plague had already killed 25 million people. By the spring of 1348, a thousand people a day were dying in Alexandria. Also around that year, the daily death toll in Cairo was around seven thousand. 1348 is said to be the very worst year of the plague.
The disease spread indiscriminantly, not only killing the poverty stricken, but also to nobility. Some of the signs of infection were high fevers, aching limbs, and the violent vomiting of blood. Lymph nodes swelled, protruded and then turned black, thus the common name for the plague: The Black Death. Approximately three to four days after contracting the disease, The lymph nodes would burst, and death would soon follow. Although the plague was highly contagious, this did not seem to be the main issue that caused fear among the people. The were afraid of the plague because of its tendancy to cause severe pain, and the fact that the plague contorted the bodies of the inflicted so badly that they became grotesque.
Social and economic structures all over Europe were irretrievably changed during the plague. As people became more afraid of trading and traveling along trade routes for their goods, they turned to local venders for services. The prices of local goods, in turn, shot up. Workers began dying, so the job market grew rapidly larger, thus causing everyone, including lords, to offer higher wages and better living standards to the people that stayed on to work with them. Ironically, the standard of living did become better as a result of the plague. Some terrible aspects of the plague concerned families and friends. As the plague spread, families began to abandon their loved ones in fear of catching the disease. Proper burial rites were completely ignored, and sometimes bodies were merely left inside houses instead of buried or burned. People tried to flee the plague, which of course did nothing but spread the infection. Some people became more religious and prayed, while others lost their faiths because they still got sick even after praying. A complete upheaval of society resulted, leaving nothing of the former typical European society behind.
There were also many theories during the time of the plague concerning why the plague was occuring. James of Agramont wrote to the people in 1348 that they should refer to Deuteronomy 24 in the Bible. He argued that God promised a plague to all who did not obey his commandments. Agramont also argued that plague was used throughout the Bible as the punishment for the sin of pride. Konrad von Megenburg claimed that the plague was caused by the sinfulness of society. He said that the wickedness of humanity, and social fragmentation were caused by sin, and the penalty was plague. Another theory was that the plague was the first of the apothetical four horsemen from the Bible (Pestilence, War, Famine, and Death). Some people that believed this also believed that the Book of Revelation was coming true because of prideful women and fradulent Jews. This can be seen in our religion section. Of course, there is a scientific cause to the plague, we know today. The plague was actually caused by bacillus Yersina pestis, an organism that thrives in the stomach of the common flea. Sometimes, for unknown reasons, the bacalli can multiply to the point that the flea begins to regurgitate into whatever host it is feeding upon at the time. Fleas typically feed upon things such as rats, dogs, cats, and humans. When the fleas reach the point of regurgitation, the infection begins, which leads to an epidemic. There are several types of plague, some of which are more serious than others. You can read more about these types in the medical section.
Most people today understand neither the seriousness of the plague nor the terror of those who witnessed it. Two ways for us to better understand the time of the plague is through the study of art and the accounts of people that lived the actual ordeal. Please continue your journey through our site and explore the many aspects surrounding the plague and the people who had to live that horrifying experience. Also, when you are done exploring our site, please visit our LINKS page to see where we got a lot of our information!