The Bubonic Plague

A look at the bubonic plague, its causes and its history as it spread throughout England.

It is the year of Our Lord 1346, and trade is abundant in the wealthy ports of Europe. Merchant ships sail between Italy and the Orient on a regular basis, exchanging goods and glory, prosperity and ... plague? What foul disease could disturb the general peace of the known world?

Originating in the Orient, a plague swept westward and, by the spring of 1348, was rampant in the once-thriving Italian port of Sicily. As the plague, quickly becoming known as the Black Death, spread, people began to become afraid. The stories of travelers had been circulating that disaster had struck the Orient a decade earlier. But Europe, detached from the situation, had simply ignored the possibility of its spread. While no one had been able to say why the plague began in the Orient, stories of its spread westward and its dastardly death toll had began to alarm people.

Medieval medicine was a mixture of superstition and religion; because of this, the idea that the Black Death was caused by atmospheric corruption over the Orient kept Europeans calm. Later, excused as punishment on heathens and sinners, the Black Death would be scoffed by Europe as a whole. At the outbreak, many ignored its spread in Europe. However, the plague continued to spread rapidly, and people began to doubt their theories when it descended indiscriminately on heathen and Christian, sinner and saint, alike.

As people began to realize that the Black Death, also becoming known as the Black Plague, could be contracted through contact with those already infected, cities, and even entire counties, began mass ostracisms and exiles. Infected individuals were forced to remain locked inside their homes, not even daring to show their faces outside their doors, for fear of exile. Humanitarians in communities, appalled at such treatment of the

ill, left food and supplies on doorsteps, but even they dared not venture any further than that, for fear of being infected. The rest of the community often either ignored the infected, or treated them cruelly.

Although the Black Death claimed large numbers of people, roughly one quarter of Europe's population, it was not the first time such a plague had struck Europe. During the seventh century, an identical plague had spread through Europe, killing tens of thousands of people. However, the Medieval people remained, for the most part, wretchedly unaware of any previous epidemic, and continued to question why they had been struck such a grievous blow.

Medieval Europeans were mystified at the cause of the plague, and, frightened, they turned to drastic measures, as described by Albert Camus when he wrote:

"There was always something missing in their lives. Hostile to the past, impatient of the present and cheated of the future, they were much like those whom men's justice, or hatred, forced to live behind prison bars.

"The plague had swallowed up everything, and everyone. No longer were there individual destinies, only a collective destiny, made of the plague and the emotions it caused in all. Strongest of these emotions was the sense of exile and deprivation, with all the crosscurrents of revolt and fear, set up by these."

Europe's population, having grown steadily since AD 1000, plummeted into despair over a matter of weeks, and did not regain its vitality until almost 1500. With the drop in population, labor became scarce and expensive, and the fuedal ties that had bound the Medieval Era in the Dark Ages began to fray.

The plague had faded, on the continent, by 1350, yet still no one could say what had caused the dreadful disaster. Spurred on by fear that the plague might return to claim what it had left of the population, Europe began to immediately explore science and the world around them, leading into the Renaissance.

England, as an island, lagged behind the continent in everything, and the Black Death was no exception. When plague broke out in Italy in the early months of 1346, England remained unaware that it even existed in Europe. By the spring of 1348, however, England became aware of the ever-growing threat. Still, the English people remained calm, reasoning that it could not reach them in their island nation. By the fall of 1348, however, the Black Death had proven that it could reach anywhere. Beginning along the Dorset coast and in the ports of Bristol and Southampton, the Black Death spread like wildfire through England, and was more devastating to the island nation than to anywhere else in Europe. From the coast, it spread rapidly inward, reaching London.

London was the largest city in England, and the dirtiest, and the plague lasted within that city alone from late fall of 1348 until early summer of 1349. About thirty thousand of London's seventy thousand inhabitants suffered and died from plague.

Flagellants, zealots who believed that only the beating out of sins would cleanse away the plague, had reached London from the continent by the time the plague was waning in the city, roughly the summer of 1349. However, while they had little enough success on the mainland, they had almost no success in England, for the plague lingered over the island, exacting a heavy toll of death on a population barely able to withstand it.

The plague spread from London and the port cities along the English Channel across all of southeastern England, then inward, taking more lives as it went. It hung over the city of Lincoln for a year. The Black Death replaced King Edward III as ruler of England, taking more lives there than any war in the history of the world. Towns and counties of around three thousand people were suddenly no more than mere hovels of around two hundred.

As plague stole northward through England, the Scots attempted to return the defeat England had dealt them. However, as they invaded, they too were struck by the plague, and were dealt an even heavier defeat as plague joined forces momentarily with England. The infected Scots returned to Scotland in misery, taking the Black Death with them. There, the epidemic killed thousands of Scots, a more devastating loss to the small country than it had been to England.

By the end of 1350, the plague had settled down in England for a long wait. Every mouth spoke of loss; families were torn apart, and towns shattered, and yet the plague still lingered, claiming more lives with each passing day.

As the mainland continent of Europe entered the Renaissance, determined to put the plague behind them and take advantage of life, the plague still had its foot firmly planted on England. It was not for another four years, in 1354, that England finally banished the Black Death, ridding Europe of fear, for a time. However, in a nation of far fewer people than any other European country, England suffered horribly in the plague, and did not enter the Renaissance until the sixteenth century (1500s), already far behind their rivals, Spain and Italy. England had not seen the end of plague, either, for it bided its time in the London streets until the great fire of 1663, when plague again rose in England.

Since the fourteenth century, much has been discovered about the sweeping illness that ended the Dark Ages in Europe. While the disease, known in modern science as the Bubonic Plague, has been narrowed to one carrier, the black rat, the cure for it is still somewhat a mystery. Bubonic plague is treatable, with antibiotics and various other treatments, but only if treated very quickly after infection.

The carrier of Bubonic Plague, the black rat, was a common pest on Medieval merchant vessels. The disease can be transmitted either by direct contact with the rats themselves, or by the bite of the fleas which feed on them.

The first symptoms of illness in humans appears without warning in about a week. Within a few, short hours, the body temperature rises to 104 degrees Fahrenheit and the victim begins to vomit, have muscular pains and mental disorganization, then delirium.

The disease gains its name from the lymph nodes, called buboes, which become filled with puss after infection. Through the lymphatic system, the disease spreads its way through the body, attacking the vital organs and causing nasty, purple spots to appear on the skin.

Another form of Bubonic plague is known as Pneumonic plague. Pneumonic plague is acquired by inhaling infected water vapors from the lungs of someone whose plague infection has spread to the respiratory tract. Pneumonic plague is the most contagious form, and the most lethal, bringing death in less than three days.

Bubonic plague has, with the knowledge gained by modern medicine, become both treatable and preventable. However, to the Medieval people, the cause and cure were both mysteries, and they could do nothing but wait for the plague to run its course.

The Bubonic plague was a turning point in the history of the world. The outbreak of it shocked the world out of the religious dogma that prevailed in the Medieval period, and forced warring factions to put aside differences for the common good. The epidemic made people open up and show greater interest in the world and its mysteries. The search for a cure to the Bubonic plague caused mankind to ponder the other mysteries of the world, and opened up the natural human curiosity that had stagnated for centuries. People began to show interest in how the world worked. Science and medicine began experimenting with diseases in hopes of finding cures, inventors and inventions thrived, improving the way mankind lived, and explorers set out to find faster, more efficient trade routes and increased wealth. Sea-faring flourished, and nations began developing

strong senses of national unity and pride.

The Bubonic plague was a natural disaster unparalleled in history. Springing from unsanitary conditions and rat-infested ships and streets, it spread rapidly throughout the world, killing millions. The rise of the plague ended nationalistic self-centeredness; the end of the plague opened the world to exploration and development. What would have happened if the plague had never struck? What would have been the result had it been ignored for another decade?

If the Bubonic plague had never risen up out of the rat-swarmed gutters of the Oriental streets, it is very likely that life would not have changed at all. Had the plague never claimed more than the lives of a few criminals and vagrants, the world as we know it might not exist. Instead, the world might still reside in the dark lull of everyday cruelty and mindless warfare. If the plague had remained a shadowed street disease, Europe might never even have heard of it. America would not exist, mainly because no one would have cared about finding better trade routes. Medicine would still be based on superstition and leechings, and diseases would remain incurable.

And what if the plague had been ignored for another decade, even as it spread? If the plague's spread had been ignored for another decade, the death toll would certainly read higher, perhaps too high for cessation.

In a world having a population not even a full quarter of today's world population, the scoffing of a plague as destructive as the Bubonic plague for even one more decade might possibly have wiped out the entire human race. With the rapidity of its spread and the suddenness of death it brought, it could easily have stretched its reach across the globe and destroyed everyone on earth. Because it had no cure at the time, and because no one knew how to prevent it, the possibility of its spread even as far as the Americas is highly likely. As trade in the Near East and Africa increased due to the Crusades, plague would have spread with it. Another decade of ignorance could have meant incorrectible disaster.

The measures used to prevent the spread of the Black Plague, isolation and exile, were very harsh, but perhaps also very necessary. Had people chosen not to acknowledge the plague as a threat, it would certainly have proved more threatening to life on earth than it ended up being.

In short, no matter what argument one has that the plague was unimportant or that the methods used to prevent it were extremely cruel, the fact remains that the Bubonic plague is perhaps the most important disaster ever recorded in history. With it, mankind suffered terribly; but, without it, mankind might have suffered more in the end.

As Sir Thomas More once stated: "It is not the means by which the end is achieved, it is the justice of what is achieved in the end."

Sir Thomas More's statement on the eve of his death, though over two centuries later, applies just as firmly to the Bubonic plague. The means used to achieve freedom from the plague were harsh, sometimes even cruel, and certainly steeped in superstition, but one cannot help but feel that some measure of justice and good came out of those actions. Humanity has suffered from the beginning of time, but only one epidemic has brought such world-wide suffering that it changed the face of history. The Bubonic plague was the turning point of history, a disaster no one could comprehend or explain, and a horror that has not yet been forgotten in the collective past of humanity. It can be said that the Black Death did not kill just hundreds of thousands of people, it killed an entire way of life.

© High Speed Ventures 2011