The Idiots Guide to Everything: The Black Death

Posted on September 3, 2013


History is full of particularly crappy things. One of the most crappy of all these was the ominously named Black Death, which ravaged the planet between 1338 and, well, the next 300 years or so. It led to the death of around 40-50% of Europe’s population, although in some countries this figure was as high as 75%. At the time nothing was known about its causes, and even today there are people who question the official explanation. Either way, there aren’t many more terrifying things in our history, so let’s have a nice long look at it, yeah?

It is thought to have originated in central Asia and China in the late 1330s, ironically (it’s definitely not ironic) in the central Asian state of Kyrgyzstan which recently saw another death from the plague. It then travelled along the major Silk Road trade path. It’s spread was helped immensely by marauding Mongol armies as well. By 1346, it had reached European seaports. Crimea was the first part of Europe where it was introduced, as those naughty Mongols would catapult infected corpses over city walls, where the plague would run rampant.

There are other historical factors that made this sort of thing more likely however. Malnutrition was incredibly prevalent at the time, following a number of bad harvests and extreme winters. Families were as large as they had ever been, and a high population led to major food shortages, which in turn led to practically non existent immune systems. When the plague arrived, it didn’t take long to ravage entire villages.

The living conditions practically encouraged it as well. Sanitation was a thing of the future, and healthy, hygiene and medicine were nowhere to be found. When the plague came, people locked doors in the hope it would protect them. They carried flowers everywhere. The skies filled with ashes as houses full of dead people were burnt to the ground. Nothing worked of course, and it’s impossible to imagine the fear at the time. No one had any idea what was going on, and the only plausible explanation was that god was miffed, and this was his punishment.

And when the plague hit you, by gum did it leave its mark. It didn’t work by the hour either. It would begin with a painful swelling of the lymph nodes, usually around the armpits or groin. They would initially be red, but would quickly turn black (hence the name given to the epidemic). Fevers would reach unbearable levels, people would become delirious and blood would be vomited. In no longer than a week of contracting it, you’d be a dead human. It didn’t hang around to give you a chance.

So how did this vicious disease exist in the first place? Surprisingly it isn’t the work of an angry mythical deity, but the work of the bacterium known as Yersinia Pestis. The bacteria would infect fleas and obstruct their guts. This blockage led to increasingly aggressive feeding by the fleas, and rats would bear the brunt of their starvation. Two types of rodent were then required for the disease to flourish. The first was immune and acted as a host. The second would have no resistence, dying and allowing the fleas to move onto other hosts. As explained already, the sanitation conditions (or lack there of) at the time were like some sort of heavenly playground for rats.

Believe it or not, and maybe this is my inner awful human shining through, but the sheer destruction left behind by the Black Death did see an upturn in fortunes for those that managed to survive. Poor people suffered the most, and the significant drop in population led to a higher value placed on labour. This in turn led to the Peasants Revolt of 1381. Farming changed completely, and the power and influence of the church diminished for a while. You could say that without the Black Death, European economies wouldn’t have blossomed for a long long time.

This is probably the only bright spot (spot, get it?) to be taken however. Immediately afterwards Jews, Roma, foreigners and beggars were targeted, as people looked for groups of people to blame. It’s always the same ones who seem to have fingers pointed at them too. Anyone with a skin disease, even Acne, was exterminated. Fear of reprisals took over lives. Reprisals came as well, and the plague would haunt Europe in different forms until the 17th century.

So next time you’ve got a hangover headache, don’t complain too much.