CHAPTER 4 – AN ACIENT PLAGUE, THE BLACK DEATH
-Three great bubonic plague pandemics have occurred during the last 2,000 years.
They resulted in social and economic upheavals that are unmatched by those caused by
any armed conflict or any other infectious disease.
1.The first bubonic plague pandemic
542 to 543; in Constantinople, the capital of the Roman Empire
Contributed to Justinian’s failure to restore imperial unity.
Also called the Justinian Plague.
2.The second bubonic plague pandemic
1346 – 1352
By the time it dissipated in 1352, the population of Europe and the Middle East had
reduced from 100 million to 80 million people.
This plague was known as the Black Death, the Great Dying, or the Great Pestilence.
It put an end to the rise in human population that had begun in 5000 B.C.
Some believed that this catastrophic crash in population to be Malthus’s prophecy
come true, but others, such as historian David Herlihy believed that it allowed
Europeans to restructure their society along very different paths.
Many people believed that the cause of the plague was due to air.
-Today, we know that the source of the second pandemic was microbes left over
from the first pandemic.
-The microbes had moved eastward and remained endemic for seven centuries in
voles, marmots, and the highly susceptible black rate (Rattus rattus) of the arid
plateau of central Asia (Turkestan today).
•They moved westward along the caravan routes between Asia and the
Mediterranean known collectively as the Silk Road; plague travelled from
central Asia, around the Caspian Seas, to the Crimea.
•The rats boarded ships and moved from port to port and country to country,
spreading plague to the human populations living in filthy, rat-infested cities.
•The story of the Pied Piper who came to get rid of the rats.
The Black Death
-Most associated with Florence, one of the great cities of Europe at the time.
-It felt the full impact of the epidemic.
-Sometimes called the Plague of Florence.
-Symptoms as witnessed by Giovanni Boccaccio:
•Blood from the nose.
•The emergence of apple/egg-shaped tumors in the groin or armpit that grew
larger. It would then spread.
•Black spots begin to appear on arms and thighs, first few and large, and then
minute and numerous.
•Almost all within 3 days of the spread of the black spots, came death.
-The contagious nature of plague led to the belief that the only way security
could be achieved was total isolation of the sick.
•The enemy was the sick.
•The knowledge of the microbes of the past was unknown.
oThis led to the institution of crude and generally ineffectual public
In 1374, the Venetian Republic required that all ships, their crew,
passengers, and cargo had to remain on board for 40 days while tied up
at the dock; this gave rise to the term “quarantine”.
-This attempt didn’t work because the infected rats left the
ships by using the docking lines.
Cordon sanitaires restricted the movement of people and may have
reduced the spread of plague, but often times the infected individuals
were shut up in their homes with the uninfected members of the family
and the flea-infested rats, leading to higher mortality.
oMore effective measures included the burning of clothing and
bedding and the burying of the dead in shallow unmarked graves sprinkled
-The Black Death led to societal and religious changes:
oFeudal structures began to break down.
oThe labouring class became more mobile.
oMerchants and craftsmen became more powerful.
oGuild Structures were strengthened.
•Decline in papal authority.
•People lost faith in a Christian church that was powerless to stem
the tide of death.
-It was the most dramatic outbreak of bubonic plague ever visited upon
-It did not disappear altogether
•Between 1347 and 1722, plague epidemics occurred in Europe at
infrequent intervals, without the introduction of caravans from Asia.
•In England, the epidemics occurred at 2- to 5-year intervals between 1361
•Half of the population in Milan died in 1630.
•60% of the population of Genoa died in 1656 to 1657.
•30% of the population of Marseilles died in 1720.
•In the Great Plague of 1665, at least 70,000 Londoners died, out of a
population of 450,000.
3.The third bubonic plague pandemic
It began in the 1860s in the war-torn Yunnan region of China.
Troop movements from the war in that area allowed it to spread to the southern coast
Plague-infected rodents, now assisted by modern steamships and railways, quickly
spread the disease to the rest of the world.
In the three pandemics, it is estimated that rat-borne bubonic plague killed more than 200
A Look Back
-At the beginning of the 12th century, the European population grew quickly after achieving
relatively stable numbers during the Dark Ages.
One of the reasons for the unchanging numbers of people was poor harvests and famine,
but with the introduction of new crops, windmills, waterwheels, horse collars, and the
mould board plow, agricultural production increased.
-Money began to be used in trade instead of barter.
-This is interested people and brought prosperity which resulted in the growth of new
towns and populations.
Famines occurred every few years in the 13th century as a result of agriculture not being
able to keep up with the rising population.
-This resulted in poverty and misery, especially in crowded and filthy cities.
-As the human population soared, so did the rat population.
They lived with humans and travelled with them.
Humans provided food and shelter for these rodents.
-Highly susceptible to plague,
-Became infected, and with a dying-off of rodents, humans became victims.
-By 1348, the plague had already reached central Europe, including France, Germany,
Switzerland, and Austria, and even got as far as Great Britain.
-The short-term effects of plague were shock and fear.
Panic and fright broke the continuity of the existing economic structure and disrupted the
routines of work and service.
People were terrified, and they deserted the cities and towns.
Communities were thrown into chaos.
-The Black Death had its positive aspects:
It contributed to technological advances through the invention of labour-saving devices.
There was a re-evaluation of Galenic medicine.
It led to more diversified economy with a redistribution of wealth.
-Deaths from plague radically reduced the average life expectancy from 35 or 40 years of age
-The contagious nature of plague led to the belief that security could be found only by total
isolation of the sick.