Black Death

views updated May 23 2018


In any textbook on infectious diseases the chapter on plague will describe three pandemics of bubonic plague.

The Three Pandemics

The first pandemic–the plague of Justinian–originated in Egypt, erupted in Constantinople in 541 c.e., spread to Ireland by 544, but did not touch England until 120 years later. The second pandemic originated in India, China, or the steppes of Russia. It touched the shores of Western Europe (Messina) in the autumn of 1347, then spread across the continent, striking places as remote as Greenland. The disease recurred periodically through the eighteenth century and possibly into the nineteenth century. Despite claims in some textbooks, the plague of Marseilles in 1720–1721 was not this pandemic's European finale. In 1743 an estimated 48,000 people perished from the plague in Messina, and in 1770–1771, over 100,000 people died in Moscow. The third pandemic began in the mid-nineteenth century, spread slowly through the Chinese province of Yunnan, and did not reach Hong Kong until 1894. From there, steamship commerce aided its transmission across much of the world. However, except for India and a few other subtropical regions, its spread was confined largely to the docks of Sydney, Lisbon, Hamburg, Glasgow, and San Francisco. Instead of millions of deaths as Europeans feared, the death counts in temperate zones rarely surpassed 100.

Were the Three Plagues the Same?

The reason for claiming an identity among these three waves of epidemic rests on the supposedly unmistakable signs of bubonic plague. For the first wave of plague no quantitative records such as burials or last wills and testaments survive, and few narrative sources describe even the signs or symptoms. Paul the Deacon's Historia Langobardorum, written around 790 and describing plague in rural northern Italy in the 560s, is the most explicit. It points to "swellings of the glands … in the manner of a nut or a date" in the groin "and in other rather delicate places followed by an unbearable fever." The Emperor Justinian was afflicted with a boil in the groin and survived. Abbess Aethelthryth in 680 was less lucky; she died from a large boil under her jaw–a strange site for modern plague.

Differences between Medieval and Modern Plague

Few other examples of individual cases of plague can be gleaned from these sources, but the epidemiological clues point to a disease that was not characteristic of the plague whose agent (Yersinia pestis) was discovered in 1894.

The "first pandemic" spread rapidly and caused high mortality, especially among those, such as monks and nuns, who lived under the same roof, suggesting a highly contagious person-to-person airborne disease. In 664 the plague took only 91 days to travel 385 kilometers (239 miles) as the crow flies from Dover to Lastingham, England. By contrast, as the microbiologist Robert Koch commented in 1900, modern bubonic plague is a rat disease in which humans occasionally participate. Because the rat does not travel far, the bubonic plague of the twentieth century moved overland at a rate of about 12 to 15 kilometers (7 to 9 miles) a year. Thus, modern plague, even with the advantage of railways and automobiles, would need 25 years to cover the distance traveled in 3 months by the early medieval plague. Further, no literary or archaeological evidence shows the existence of rats in Anglo-Saxon England and no source mentions any signs or symptoms of this plague in England or Ireland. Despite this lack of evidence, some historians remain convinced that this disease was the bubonic plague discovered at the end of the nineteenth century.

The narrative sources for the "second pandemic" set off by the Black Death of 1347–1352 explode in number and variety. In addition to hundreds of chronicles from abbeys, city-states, and principalities across Europe, the plague tract, written for the most part by university-trained doctors, became one of the earliest forms of "popular literature" by the early fifteenth century. Further, the survival of thousands of last wills and testaments, necrologies, burial records, manorial rolls, and lists of ecclesiastical vacancies allows quantitative analyses of this plague, including its cycles of mortality, its seasonality, and the characteristics of its victims: age, sex, occupation, class, and locality. In addition to these rich sources, citywide burials and "Bills of Mortality" spread from Tuscany to north of the Alps in the late fifteenth century and as early as the 1420s (in Florence) began to indicate causes of death. Yet despite this wealth of information, no evidence links these late medireview and early modern European plagues to any disease carried by rodents and from which rodents were the first to die.

The epidemiological evidence raises further suspicions. First, like the early medieval plague, the second pandemic was a fast mover, spreading in a day as far as modern plague travels in a year. Doctors and chroniclers marveled at the Black Death's lightning-fast transmission and contagion–a word frequently used by doctors and chroniclers, who claimed that the plague spread by breath, touch, and even sight. For later strikes they distinguished plague from other diseases by this epidemiological feature as much as by the bubo. To reconcile the differences between the late medieval and modern plagues, historians and scientists say that the Black Death's speed and contagion relied on its pneumonic form and claim that as with modern plague, once it became airborne, it became "highly contagious" and free from rodents.

However, these claims are mistaken, as Wu Tien Teh discovered with the Manchurian plagues of 1911 and 1922. First, this disease was primarily an infliction of a rodent, tarabagan, whose pelt became a highly-prized commodity in the early twentieth century. Secondly, even in tightly packed train cars Wu observed that the infected rarely passed the disease to fellow passengers. As a consequence the worst-known epidemic of pneumonic plague, that of Manchuria in 1911, infected and killed less than 0.3 percent of the population exposed to the disease as opposed to fatality rates that were as high as 40 percent from the Black Death.

Thirdly, the seasonality of the late medieval plagues does not resemble that of modern plague. Modern plague can be sustained only within a narrow temperature band (50 to 78°F) accompanied by high levels of relative humidity because of its dependence on fleas as its vector. By contrast, bouts of late medieval plague could occur at almost any time of year, including January, in places as inhospitable to modern plague as Norway. Further, in the warmer Mediterranean areas the Black Death and its recurrent strikes peaked consistently at the warmest and driest times of the year (June and July), the least likely time for modern plague to peak in light of the rat flea's fertility cycle in those areas.

Fourthly, modern plague has never attained the mortalities seen with major instances of the Black Death or even with those of many of its minor assaults. In the summer months of 1348 Florence may have lost as much as three-quarters of its population. From manorial records, villages in Cambridgeshire and around St.-Flour (Auvergne) lost 76 percent of their populations, and according to chroniclers, places such as Trapani on the western coast of Sicily were totally abandoned. Further, although later strikes of plague in the seventeenth century were not as widespread as the first wave of the Black Death, they could be equally devastating, as they were for Genoa and Naples in 1656–1657, when two-thirds of those populations were destroyed. By contrast, modern plague has never approximated such levels of human carnage–not even in India, where over 95 percent of the modern plague's casualties have occurred. The highest mortality for any city in any plague year was in Bombay City in 1903, when less than 3 percent of its population perished from plague.

Fifthly, the cycles and trends of the second and third pandemics have been entirely different. Because humans have no natural immunity to Yersiniapestis and cannot acquire immunity, plague cases and mortality in India increased for a decade or more and then jumped randomly from year to year before declining in the 1920s as a result of rats (not humans) acquiring immunity to the pathogen. Similar patterns occurred in Brazil, Thailand, Vietnam, and other subtropical regions later in the century, even after the introduction of DDT, antibiotics, and modern sanitary measures.

Moreover, the age structure of the victims of modern plague did not change over the twentieth century. As with the first strike on virgin-soil populations, those in the prime of life, between ages 20 and 40, are the plague's principal victims. By contrast, the Black Death over its first 100 years shows a remarkable adaptation between its pathogen and human hosts. By the fourth strike in the 1380s the disease was claiming as little as one-twentieth the toll taken in 1348, and as chroniclers across Europe describe and the rare burial records in Siena confirm, it had become largely a childhood disease.

Misleading Similarities

Why have historians and scientists been so certain that the two pandemics were the same? They point to Boccaccio and occasionally to a handful of chroniclers, insisting that their descriptions of swellings point to the unmistakable signs of Yersinia pestis. But first, as health workers in Asia are taught in the early twenty-first century, swellings in the lymph nodes are not unique to plague, hence cultures of the infected regions must be taken. Second, Boccaccio as well as other chroniclers and physicians, from Michele da Piazza in Messina (1347) to doctors of the plague of London (1665), went beyond the bubo to describe various sizes and colors of pustules, rashes, and carbuncles that covered the victims' bodies. Some, such as Geoffrey le Baker in England and Giovanni Morelli in Florence, pointed to these as the more deadly signs, far worse than buboes as large as hens' eggs in the lymph nodes. Moreover, buboes of the late medieval plagues were not confined to the lymph nodes but are described on shins, arms, the face, and under the breasts. By contrast, from over 3,000 clinical reports of plague from hospitals around Bombay City in 1896–1897, only 5 percent of the victims who developed the plague boils had more than one, and in not a single case did those or smaller spots spread over the victims' bodies. Moreover, with modern bubonic plague, from 60 to 75 percent of the plague boils form in the groin because fleas generally bite on or below the shins. However, not a single medieval source points to the groin as the buboes' principal site. Instead, from miracle cures found in saints' lives and doctors' reports, the late medieval boils' usual location was the neck, behind the ears, or on the throat.

Results of the Black Death

Historians have seen the Black Death as responsible for the insurrections of the late fourteenth century, the end of serfdom and feudalism, the rise of vernacular languages, the Reformation, and even modernity at large. Whether the plague can explain such broad and often time-lagged changes is open to debate. Often the immediate and longer-term consequences of the Black Death differed or were the opposite of one another, and its effects varied. For instance, immediately after the Black Death places such as Florence vigorously recouped many of their losses through quick rises in fertility and by drawing migrants from the hinterlands. Curiously this demographic pattern changed in the fifteenth century. Fertility fell perhaps because the disease, although now less lethal, killed greater proportions of those who could replenish population numbers–the young–and cities in northern and central Italy attracted fewer migrants from the countryside. In part this decline stemmed from improved conditions created for peasants by the population losses and the resultant rising demand for agricultural labor.

However, the economic and social consequences of the Black Death and depopulation were not the same across Europe, as worsening conditions for rural labor in Eastern Europe attest. Neither were the Black Death and its successive strikes as "universal" as contemporaries claimed. Plague may not have touched places such as Douai in Flanders until 1400, and population losses in Hainault, Holland, northern Germany, parts of Poland, and Finland were notably lower than they were in many other cities and regions across Europe. Historians have yet to analyze these diverging demographic histories forged by the late medieval plagues or analyze the effects they may have had on economic development and social transitions in the early modern period.

The psychological and cultural consequences of the plague were not uniform over time. In 1348 the clergy, merchants, and physicians evoked God's wrath, looked to the stars, and imagined bizarre happenings in distant lands to explain the Black Death. Except for frenzied acts of expiation–flagellant movements and the burning of Jews–Europeans saw no efficacy in human intervention and looked on doctors' cures as only quickening the pace of death.

However, as early as the second strike of plague in the 1360s, the explanations and immediate reactions to the plague's mass mortalities took an aboutface. Instead of referring to floods of frogs, worms that killed by their stench, and black snows that melted mountains, chroniclers and doctors explained the outbreak of new plagues by turning to the human sphere: wars, poverty, and overcrowding. Physicians recommended remedies and procedures they believed had cured them and their patients, and armed with the repeated experiences of plague, they claimed to have surpassed the ancients in the art of healing. No doubt, such success had less to do with their medicine than with their immune systems. Change from utter despondency over the first plague to a new culture of hope and hubris by the end of the fourteenth century rested on the particular character of the Black Death and its recurring bouts–the swiftness with which late medieval Europeans and the new bacillus (whatever it might have been) adapted to each other.

See also: AIDS; Epidemics; Historical Demography; World Population Growth.


Benedict, Carol. 1996. Bubonic Plague in Nineteenth Century China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Biraben, Jean-Noël. 1975–1976. Les Hommes et la Peste en France et dans les Pays Européens et Méditerranéens, 2 vols. Paris: Mouton.

Blockmans, W. P. 1980. "The Social and Economic Effects of Plague in the Low Countries 1349–1500." Revue Belge de Philologie et d'Histoire 58: 833–863.

Burnet, Sir Marfarlane. 1962. Natural History of Infectious Disease, 3rd edition. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press.

Carmichael, Ann G. 1986. Plague and the Poor in Renaissance Florence. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press.

Catanach, I. J. 1988. "Plague and the Tensions of Empire: India 1896–1918." In Imperial Medicine and Indigenous Societies, ed. David Arnold. Manchester, Eng.: Manchester University Press.

Cipolla, Carlo. 1979. I Pidocchi e il Granduca: Crisi Economica e Problemi Sanitari nella Firenze del '600. Bologna: Il Mulino.

Cohn, Samuel K. 1992. The Cult of Remembrance and the Black Death: Six Renaissance Cities in Central Italy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press; revised edition: 1997.

——. 1999. Creating the Florentine State: Peasants and Rebellion, 1348–1434. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press.

——. 2002. The Black Death Transformed: Disease and Culture in Early Renaissance Europe. London: Arnold and Oxford University Press.

Cole, Stewart T., and Carmen Buchrieser. 2001. "Baterial Genomics: A Plague o' Both Your Hosts." Nature 413: 467–470.

Cook, Gordon, ed. 1996. Manson's Tropical Diseases, 20th edition. London: W.B. Saunders.

Dubois, Henri. 1988. "La Dépression: XVIe et XVe Siècles." In Histoire de la Population Française, Vol. I, ed. Jacques Dupâquier. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Hatcher, John. 1977. Plague, Population and the English Economy 1348–1530. London: Macmillan.

Maddicott, J. R. 1997. "Plague in Seventh-Century England." Past and Present 156: 7–54.

Pollitzer, Robert. 1954. Plague. Geneva: World Health Organization.

Twigg, Graham. 1984. The Black Death: A Biological Reappraisal. New York: Schocken Books.

White, Norman F. 1918. "Twenty Years of Plague in India with Special Reference to the Outbreak of 1917–18." Indian Journal of Medical Research VI: 190–236.

Samuel Cohn, Jr.

Black Death

views updated Jun 27 2018

Black Death

The Black Death pandemic of 1349 is considered to be one of the major events in world history, and it is still the subject of medical, historical, and sociological analysis. The evidence of the plague is found in the broad swath it cut across North Africa, Asia, and Europe, its terrifying symptoms, and its impact on society.

History of the Disease

Ancient history includes vivid descriptions of epidemics that seized their victims suddenly and produced an agonizing death. One such episode occurred in Athens, Greece, in 430 B.C.E., and another occurred in Egypt, Persia, and Rome a century later. Some historians believe these lethal outbreaks were caused by the same disease responsible for the Black Deaththe bubonic plague. Other historians, though, note some differences between the symptoms observed in the ancient episodes and those reported during the fourteenth century.

The growth of international trade and military invasions later provided the opportunity for diseases to spread rapidly from one population to another. Smallpox and measles came first, both causing high mortality within populations that had not previously been exposed. Bubonic plague arrived in force in the sixth century C.E., raging throughout most of Arabia, North Africa, Asia, and Europe. The death toll from what became known as "Justinian's Plague" was even greater than that of the previous epidemics. The powerful and still expanding Byzantine empire, centered in Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey), was so devastated that its political and military power sharply declined.

The plague did not entirely disappear but entered a long phase of withdrawal with occasional local outbreaks, especially in central Asia. When it did return it was with a furious rush that created widespread panic in populations already beset with both natural and human-made disasters. The fourteenth century suffered an entire catalog of catastrophes, including earthquakes, fires, floods, freezing weather, nauseating mists, and crop failuresall of which did not even seem to slow down the incessant warfare and banditry. Social order was weakened under the stress, and a hungry and exhausted population became more vulnerable to influenza and other opportunistic diseases.

It was within this already precarious situation that the plague once again crossed into Europe. There had been rumors about a deadly new epidemic sweeping through the Middle East, probably starting in 1338. The plague had taken hold among the Tartars of Asia Minor. Somebody had to be blamedin this case, the Christian minority. (Later, as the plague devastated Europe, Jews were not only blamed but burned alive.) The Tartars chased Genoese merchants to their fortified town (now Feodosiya, Ukraine, then Kaffa) on the Crimean coast. The besieging army soon was ravaged by the plague and decided to leave. As a parting shot, the Tartars used catapults to hurl plague-infected corpses over the city walls. Some residents died almost immediately; the others dashed for their galleys (a type of oar-propelled ship) and fled, taking the disease with them. Sicily and then the rest of Italy were the earliest European victims of the plague. It would spread through almost all of Europe, wiping out entire villages and decimating towns and cities.

It is estimated that a third of the European population perished during the Black Death. The death toll may have been as high or even higher in Asia and North Africa, though less information is available about these regions. The world was quickly divided between the dead and their frequently exhausted and destitute mourners.

The Disease and How It Spread

As for the disease itself the bacterial agent is Yersinia pestis. It is considered to have permanent reservoirs in central Asia, Siberia, the Yunan region of China, and areas of Iran, Libya, the Arabian Peninsula, and East Africa. Yersinia pestis infects rodents, producing blood poisoning. Fleas that feed on the dying rodents carry the highly toxic bacteria to the next victimperhaps a human. Among the first symptoms in humans were swollen and painful lymph glands of the armpit, neck, and groin. These swellings were known as buboes, from the Greek word for "groin." Buboes became dreaded as signals of impending death. Occasionally these hard knobs would spontaneously burst, pus would drain away and the victim might then recover if not totally exhausted or attacked by other infections. More often, however, the buboes were soon accompanied by high fever and agony. Sometimes the victim died within just a few hours; others became disoriented and either comatose or wildly delirious. Another symptom perhaps even more certain than the buboeswas the appearance of postules, or dark points on various parts of the body. These splotches were most often called lenticulae, from the Italian word for "freckles."

Medical historians believe that the plague can spread in several ways but that it was the pneumonic or respiratory form that accounted for most of the deaths, being easily spread through coughing and sneezing. An interesting alternative was suggested in 1984 by the zoologist Graham Twigg, who had studied rat populations in more recent outbreaks of the plague in Asia. He doubts that the bubonic plague could have spread so rapidly in the fourteenth-century population; instead he nominates anthrax as the killer. Anthrax can be borne on the wind; it is known as a threat to sheep, goats, cattle, and pigs. Both plague and anthrax, then, are primarily found in animal populations, with humans becoming "accidental" victims under certain conditions. Whatever its specific cause or causes, the Black Death killed until it ran out of large numbers of vulnerable people. There have been subsequent plague epidemics, some also with high death tolls, and public health authorities continue to monitor possible new occurrences.

Impact on Society

Historians often divide European history into periods before and after the plague. There are several persuasive reasons for doing so. First, the population declined sharplyand then rebounded. Both the loss and the replenishment of the population had significant effects on all aspects of society, from agriculture to family structure to military adventuring.

Second, influential writers, such as the English clergyman Thomas Malthus (17661834), would propose that overpopulation produces its own remedy through epidemic, famine, and other means. Some areas of Europe might have been considered ripe for mass death because agricultural production had not kept up with population growth. The overpopulation theory has been criticized as inadequate to explain the catastrophic effects of the Black Death. Nevertheless, concerns about overpopulation in more recent times were foreshadowed by analyses of the plague years.

Third, feudalismthe political and social structure then prevalent in Europemay have been the underlying cause of the mass mortality. A few people had everything; most people had very little. Those born into the lower classes had little opportunity for advancement. This situation perpetuated a large underclass of mostly illiterate people with limited skills, thereby also limiting technological and cultural progress. Furthermore, the feudal system was showing signs of collapsing from within in the years preceding the Black Death. In his 1995 book The Black Death and the Transformation of the West, David Herlihy explained:

The basic unit of production was the small peasant farm, worked with an essentially stagnant technique. The only growth the system allowed was . . . the multiplication of farm units . . . subject to the law of diminishing returns. As cultivation extended onto poorer soils, so the returns to the average family farm necessarily diminished. . . . As peasant income diminished, they paid lower and lower rents. . . . The lords took to robbery and pillage . . . and also hired themselves out as mercenaries . . . and pressured their overlords, notably the king, to wage wars against their neighbors. (Herlihy 1995, p. 36)

The almost continuous wars of the Middle Ages were attempts by hard-pressed nobles to snatch wealth from each other as well as grab whatever the peasants had left. The decline and crisis of the feudal system, then, probably did much to make people especially vulnerable to the plague, while the aftereffects of the plague would make feudal society even more of a losing proposition.

Fourth, loosely organized and short-lived challenges to authority arose from shifting coalitions of peasants and merchants. People laboring in the fields started to make demands, as though they toonot just the high and mightyhad "rights." Heads of state would remember and remain nervous for centuries to come.

Finally, the devastating and immediate impact of the Black Death prepared the way for a reconstruction of society. Deserted towns and vacant church and governmental positions had to be filled with new people. At first the demand was specific: more physicians, more clergy, andof special urgencymore gravediggers were needed. The demand for new people to move into key positions throughout society opened the door for many who had been trapped in the ancient feudal system. It was also a rare opportunity for women to be accepted in positions of responsibility outside of the home (e.g., as witnesses in court proceedings). People who lacked "social connections" now could find more attractive employment; merit had started to challenge social class membership. These developments fell far short of equality and human rights as understood today, but they did result in significant and enduring social change.

Long-term Influences of the Plague

The plague years enabled European society to shake off the feudal system and make progress on many fronts. Death, however, had seized the center of the human imagination and would not readily ease its grip. The imagination had much to work on. Daily experience was saturated with dying, death, and grief. Religious belief and practice had given priority to helping the dying person leave this world in a state of grace and to providing a proper funeral with meaningful and comforting rituals. This tradition was overstressed by the reality of catastrophic death: too many people dying too quickly with too few available to comfort or even to bury them properly. Furthermore, the infectious nature of the disease and the often appalling condition of the corpses made it even more difficult to provide the services that even basic human decency required.

Fear of infection led many people to isolate themselves from others, thereby further contributing to social chaos and individual anxiety and depression. The fear for one's own life and the lives of loved ones was rational and perhaps useful under the circumstances. Rational fear, however, often became transformed into panic, and at times panic led to rage and the adoption of bizarre practices. Some extremists became flagellants, whipping their bodies bloody as they marched from town to town, proclaiming that the plague was a well-deserved punishment from God. Others took the lead in persecuting strangers and minorities as well as those unfortunates who were perceived as witches. As though there was not enough death ready at hand, innocent people were slaughtered because somebody had to be blamed. Medieval medicine was not equal to the challenge of preventing or curing the plague, so there was a ready market for magic and superstition.

A personified Death became almost a palpable presence. It was almost a relief to picture death as a person instead of having to deal only with its horrifying work. Personified Death appeared as the leader in the Danse Macabre (the Dance of Death), and as "poster boy" for the Ars Moriendi (the art of dying) movement. (The now-familiar skull-andcrossbones image was highly popular, showing up, for example, on rings adorning the fingers of both prostitutes and ladies of high social standing.) Portraying Death as an animated skeleton was not entirely new; there are surviving images from ancient Pompeii as well. Depictions of Death as skeleton, corpse, or hooded figure, however, had their heyday during the plague years. This connection is not difficult to understand when one considers that social disorganization under the stress of the Black Death had severely damaged the shield that had protected the living from too many raw encounters with the dead.

Did another tradition also receive its impetus from the plague years? Throughout the post-Black Death years there have been people who identify themselves with death. The Nazi and skinhead movements provide ready examples. One way of trying to cope with overwhelming aggression is to identify with the aggressor, so perhaps this is one of the more subtle heritages of the Black Death. Furthermore, the fear that death is necessarily agonizing and horrifying may also owe much to the plague years and may have played a role in the denial of death and the social stigma attached to dying.

See also: Ars Moriendi; Christian Death Rites, History of; Danse Macabre; Death System; Personifications of Death; Public Health


Ariés, Phillipe. The Hour of Our Death. New York: Knopf, 1981.

Calvi, Giulia. Histories of a Plague Year. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

Cohen, Samuel K., Jr. The Cult of Remembrance and the Black Death in Six Central Italian Cities. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

Geary, Patrick J. Living with the Dead in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994.

Gottfried, Robert S. The Black Death. New York: Free Press, 1983.

Herlihy, David. The Black Death and the Transformation of the West. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Malthus, Thomas. An Essay on the Principle of Population. Hammondsworth: Penguin, 1970.

Platt, Colin. King Death: The Black Death and Its Aftermath in Late-Medieval England. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997.

Tuchman, Barbara W. A Distant Mirror. New York: Knopf, 1978.

Twigg, Graham. The Black Death: A Biological Reappraisal. London: Batsford, 1983.

Zeigler, Philip. The Black Death. London: Collins, 1969.


Black Death

views updated May 08 2018


BLACK DEATH , epidemic of various contagious diseases, bubonic, septicemic, and pneumonic, all caused by the same bacillus, pasteurella pestis, a combination of which raged throughout Europe between 1348 and 1350. (See Map: Black Death). It was the worst plague experienced since the sixth century. Between one-quarter and one-half of the total population perished. In centers with denser populations, such as the monasteries, the proportion of victims was much higher. As the bacteria of this disease live in certain temperatures only, the peak periods of sickness and mortality usually occurred at certain months in the year, according to the local climate.

The impact of this unprecedented catastrophe had a profound effect on the behavior of the population. People reacted by extremes, either seeking recourse to religion through repentance and supplication to God, or reverting to licentiousness, lawbreaking, and savagery. These two types of reaction often combined, in particular where they concerned the attitude of the non-Jewish population to the Jews. Toward the end of 1348 and in early 1349 countless numbers of Jews lost their lives in a wave of massacres which spread throughout Europe as a result of the accusation that the Jews had caused the death of Christians by poisoning the wells and other water sources. According to L.F. Hirst, a leading authority in this field, the Black Death "in all probability… originated somewhere in the central Asiatic hinterland, where a permanent reservoir of infection is maintained among the wild rodents of the steppes. Rumors of a great mortality among Asiatics, especially Chinese, reached Europe in 1346, and by the spring of that year bubonic plague had reached the shores of the Black Sea…. From ports on the shores of the Crimea besieged by Tatars, who perished in vast numbers from the epidemic… the infection was carried on shipboard to Constantinople, Genoa, Venice, and other European ports. The disease spread as rapidly as the transport of those days permitted… to the Mainland." At the time of the Black Death no one was aware of this connection and the existence of contagion was only vaguely perceived. By some persons the catastrophe was ascribed to astrological conjunctions; others regarded it as a divine visitation. Pope *Clementvi, in his bull defending the Jews from these accusations, saw it as "the pestilence with which God is afflicting the Christian people." The vast majority of the population, however, was inclined to view it as a pestis manufacta (an artificially induced malady), the simplest explanation to the unsophisticated mind, and therefore sought the human agents thought to be spreading the disease. Initially, the Jews were not the only persons accused; strangers of every type were suspected. An Avignonese physician relates: "Many hesitated, in some countries people believed that the Jews intended to poison the whole world and therefore killed them. In other countries they expelled paupers suffering from deformity; and in yet others, the nobles." Sometimes itinerant monks were suspected of placing the poison and spreading the disease, and they were attacked instead.

Well Poisoning Libel

Soon, however, the feelings of helplessness to stem the plague, and the fierce urge to react against the death and destruction it caused, concentrated the force of the populace on the ageold target of popular Christian hostility, the Jews. Anti-Jewish violence was particularly rabid in *Germany, where it had been preceded by a dark half century of anti-Jewish persecution in conjunction with a succession of *blood libels and accusations of *host desecration. This had added to the sinister traits already attributed to the hateful image of the Jew. In France, also, the way had been paved for this accusation by a similar charge leveled during the *Pastoureaux persecutions of 1321. Amid the general atmosphere of hostility, and the cruelty of the persecutions to which the Jews had been subjected, it was almost logical that Christians could imagine that the Jews might seek revenge. Thus, a Jew who was tortured in *Freiburg im Breisgau in 1349, "was then asked… 'why did they do it…?' Then he answered: 'because you Christians have destroyed so many Jews; because of what king *Armleder did; and also because we too want to be lords; for you have lorded long enough.'" ("… wan umb das, das ir cristen so menigen ju den verdarpten, do kuenig Armleder was, und ouch um das, das wir ouch herren wolten gewesen sin, wan ir genug lang herren gewesen sint;" Urkundenbuch der Stadt Freiburg im Breisgau (1828), nos. 193, 382).

The first occasion on which Jews were tortured to confess complicity in spreading the Black Death was in September 1348, in the Castle of Chillon on Lake Geneva. The "confessions" thus extracted indicate that their accusers wished to prove that the Jews had set out to poison the wells and food "so as to kill and destroy the whole of Christianity" ("ad interficiendam et destruendam totam legem Christianam"). The disease was allegedly spread by a Jew of Savoy on the instructions of a rabbi who told him: "See, I give you a little package, half a span in size, which contains a preparation of poison and venom in a narrow, stitched leathern bag. This you are to distribute

among the wells, the cisterns, and the springs about Venice and the other places where you go, in order to poison the people who use the water…." This indictment, therefore, shows that his accusers recognized that the plague had spread from the south northward. As the case dragged on, details were extracted telling of further consultations held among the Jews, about messengers from Toledo, and other wild allegations. On Oct. 3, 1348, during the summing up, an allegation providing a motive for the total destruction of Jewry was made; it was asserted that "before their end they said on their Law that it is true that all Jews, from the age of seven, cannot excuse themselves of this [crime], since all of them in their totality were cognizant and are guilty of the above actions" ("asseruerunt praefati Judaei ante eorum ultimum supplicium per legem suam esse vera dicentes quod omnes Judaei a septem annis circum non possint super hoc se excusare, quoniam universaliter sciant omnes, et sint culpabiles in dicto facto").

Outbreak of Persecutions

These "confessions" were sent to various cities in Germany. The accusation that the Jews had poisoned the wells spread there like wildfire, fanned by the general atmosphere of terror. The patricians of *Strasbourg attempted to defend the Jews at a meeting of representatives of the Alsatian towns at Benfeld, but the majority rejected their plea, arguing: "If you are not afraid of poisoning, why have you yourselves covered and guarded your wells?" Correspondence on the subject between the authorities in the various cities has been preserved. In general, it reveals a decision to expel the Jews from the locality concerned for good, and to launch an immediate attack to kill them while they still remained. At *Basle the patricians also unsuccessfully attempted to protect the Jews. In various cities Jews were tortured to confess their part in the conspiracy. The defamation, killings, and expulsions spread through the kingdoms of Christian Spain, France, and Germany, to Poland-Lithuania, affecting about 300 Jewish communities. On Sept. 26, 1348, Pope Clement vi issued a bull in Avignon denouncing this allegation, stating that "certain Christians, seduced by that liar, the devil, are imputing the pestilence to poisoning by Jews." This imputation and the massacre of Jews in consequence were defined by the pope as "a horrible thing." He tried to convince Christians that "since this pestilence is all but universal everywhere, and by a mysterious decree of God has afflicted, and continues to afflict, both Jews and many other nations throughout the diverse regions of the earth to whom a common existence with Jews is unknown [the charge] that the Jews have provided the cause or the occasion for such a crime is without plausibility." Both the emperors Charles iv and Peter iv of Aragon also tried to protect the Jews from the results of the accusation. The arguments generally put forward by the rulers were expressed by the physician Konrad of Megenberg in his Buch der Natur arrived at in the light of his own experience: "But I know that there were more Jews in Vienna than in any other German city familiar to me, and so many of them died of the plague that they were obliged to enlarge their cemetery. To have brought this on themselves would have been folly on their part." However, all these appeals to reason were ineffective. The massacres of the Jews continued, and Jewish property was confiscated. Despite his policy of protecting the Jews, in 1350 the emperor Charles iv formally absolved the burghers of *Cheb (Eger) in Bohemia for the killings and robbery they had committed among the Jewish population. In doing so, he stated: "Forgiveness is [granted] for every transgression involving the slaying and destruction of Jews which has been committed without the positive knowledge of the leading citizens, or in their ignorance, or in any other fashion whatsoever." By this time it was well-known that the accusation that Jews had spread the plague was false. In many places Jews were killed even before the plague had visited the locality. Further outbreaks of plague continued later in the 14th century but Jews were no longer accused of being the cause.

The Martyrs

It was recognized by the Jews that the Christians "have opened wide their mouths about me: they have put and spread poison on the water, so they say, in order to libel and attack us," to quote a contemporary dirge. Faced with this overwhelming antagonism, the Jews tried to defend themselves wherever possible and in whatever way they could. In many localities fierce conflicts took place between the Jewish population and their attackers. At *Mainz the Jews set fire to their homes and to the Jewish street: according to some sources, 6,000 Jews perished in the flames. This also occurred at *Frankfurt on the Main. In Strasbourg, 2,000 Jews were burnt on a wooden scaffold in the Jewish cemetery. The manner in which the martyrs met their deaths is described in a contemporary Hebrew source concerning "the holy community of Nordhausen….They asked the burghers to permit them to prepare themselves for martyrdom: permission having been given…they joyfully arrayed themselves in their prayer shawls and shrouds, both men and women. They [the Christians] dug a grave at the cemetery and covered it with wooden scaffolding…The pious ones [among the Jews] asked that a musician be hired to play dancing tunes so that they should enter the presence of God with singing. They took each other by the hand, both men and women, and danced and leapt with their whole strength before God. Their teacher, R. Jacob, went before them; his son, R. Meir, brought up the rear to see that none should lag behind. Singing and dancing they entered the grave, and when all had entered, R. Meir jumped out and walked around to make certain that none had stayed outside. When the burghers saw him they asked him to save his life [by apostasy]. He answered: 'This now is the end of our troubles, you see me only for a while, and then I shall be no more.' He returned to the grave; they set fire to the scaffolding; they died all of them together and not a cry was heard" (Sefer Minhagim of Worms). This was the spirit that enabled European Jewry to emerge spiritually unscathed from the avalanche of hatred and cruelty released on the Jews by the Christians in Europe.

The Black Death not only resulted in the immediate destruction of thousands of Jewish lives and the loss of Jewish homes and property in hundreds of communities, but had more far-reaching consequences. Popular imagination invested the already odious image of the Jew with even more horrible characteristics. It was this image that helped to shape the stereotype of the Jew represented by *antisemitism and racism in modern times. After the Black Death the legal status of the Jews deteriorated almost everywhere in Europe. Although Jews were frequently received back into the cities where many had been killed or driven out, sometimes within a year of the decision to expel them for good, they usually only gained permission to resettle on worse terms and in greater isolation than before. The position of the Jews in Aragon and Castile (*Spain) deteriorated sharply after 1348–49. The only countries in Europe where the events of the Black Death did not leave a permanent scar on the Jewish communities were Poland-Lithuania. The reconstruction of the Jewish communities and of Jewish life and cultural activity in the second half of the 14th and the beginning of the 15th century clearly evidence the social and spiritual vitality of the Jewish people in Europe in the period.


P. Ziegler, Black Death (1969); R. Hoeniger, Der schwarze Tod in Deutschland (1882); J. Nohl, Der schwarze Tod (1924), 239–73; L.F. Hirst, Conquest of Plague (1953); E. Carpentier, in: Annales, 17 (1962), 1062–92; E. Littmann, in: mgwj, 72 (1928), 576–600; J. Trachtenberg, The Devil and the Jews (1943, repr. paperback 1961), 97–108; S. Guerchberg, in: S.L. Thrupp (ed.), Change in Medieval Society (1964), 208–24; Baron, Social 2, 9–12 (1965–67).

[Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson]

Black Death

views updated May 11 2018


This name is given to the pandemic bubonic and pneumonic plague that swept across the Middle East, the Mediterranean region, and Europe in the fourteenth century. Great epidemics had occurred before, but never with the ferocity of the Black Death. It seems to have begun in Asia Minor in 1345 or 1346 (although there may have been earlier outbreaks farther east in what is now Iran, and there were a large epidemic around this time in China). The incessant wars and failed harvests of those times encouraged turbulent population movement, and food shortages bordering on famine sapped resistance to contagious disease, thus aggravating the severity of the epidemic. It was the first great pandemic of recorded history, with death rates reaching and in places exceeding 70 percent. The plague spread along trade routes as well as in battle fields. In 1347 it reached Naples and Genoa, and from there it rapidly spread across western Europe, striking heavily populated cities, such as Vienna and Paris, and isolated rural villages alike. The Black Death caused large painful swellings to appear in the groins and armpits and black blotches on the skin due to blood leaking from the veins. Fever, delirium, and death followed in short order. The dramatic and sudden onset, rapid course, and terrible aspect evoked horror and fear, leading many who came in contact with it to fleeand as they were contagious contacts, they aggravated the further spread of the disease. The terrifying onslaught of the Black Death in an era of superstition was explained as the wrath of God or relief was sought by seeking scapegoats. Jews, witches, and others were burned at the stake.

There has been considerable debate about the nature of the Black Death. Was it due only to the plague bacillus, Yersinia pestis, to this and other conditions such as overwhelming streptococcal and/or staphylococcal infections that coexisted, or could it have been due to anthrax? There are reliable clinical descriptions, though there is much folklore from which inferences can be made. The ecology of plague is complex: Yersinia pestis may be transmitted by direct contact or a droplet spread from infected to susceptible persons, but bubonic plague typically is a zoonosis, a disease of rodents, especially rats, transmitted by the rat flea. It spreads from rats to humans in rat-infested dwellings. There is good historical evidence on the prevalence in those days of black rats, Rattus rattus, which prefer indoor habitat and nesting sites close to where people live. Over the next one hundred to two hundred years, black rats were supplanted by brown rats, Rattus norvegicus, whose preferred habitat is outdoors, removing them and their fleas to a slightly safer distance from people.

The Black Death waned slowly, and smaller localized epidemics broke out over the centuries that followed. The waning of the pandemic was due to several factors: extermination of susceptibles, leaving resistant survivors alive (blood group frequencies and other genetic markers are evidence of this); displacement of black rats by brown; and ecosystem changes (the use of brick and stone reduced indoor nesting sites for rats).

John M. Last

(see also: Epidemics; Plague )


Tuchman, B. W. (1978). A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century. New York: Knopf.

Zeigler, P. (1969). The Black Death. London: Collins.

Black Death

views updated May 14 2018

Black Death. An epidemic of catastrophic proportions, the Black Death first struck England in the summer of 1348, and spread rapidly from the south coast, reaching virtually all parts of the country within twelve months. This first outbreak probably killed between a third and a half of the population, as is shown by figures showing death rates for the clergy, and for peasant landholders. The plague struck again in 1361, and further outbreaks followed as the disease became endemic. It is usually considered to have been bubonic plague, spread by fleas and rats, but its rapidity and morbidity were much greater than any previous outbreak, perhaps because it took a highly infectious pneumonic form. The Black Death had major economic effects, although these did not become fully apparent until the 1370s. The area under arable cultivation was sharply reduced, as demand for cereals fell, and some lands were turned over to pasture. Labour became more expensive, and attempts to revive peasant labour services were unsuccessful. The plague also caused social dislocation, notably with a rapid turnover of peasant holdings. The aristocracy suffered less than the population at large, and the workings of government were little affected.

Michael Prestwich

Black Death

views updated May 29 2018

Black Death the great epidemic of bubonic plague that killed a large part of the population of Europe in the mid 14th century. It originated in central Asia and China and spread rapidly through Europe, carried by the fleas of black rats, reaching England in 1348.

Black Death

views updated May 29 2018

Black Death (1347–52) Pandemic of plague, both bubonic and pneumonic, which killed about one-third of the population of Europe (200 million) in two years. It was first carried to Mediterranean ports from the Crimea and spread throughout Europe, carried by fleas infesting rats. Plague recurred less severely in 1361 and other years, until the 18th century.