Manchester Historian

Student newspaper for the University of Manchester's History Department

Tuesday 12th December 2017 | Manchester, UK

The Black Death

 

The Black Death was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history. Its death toll rangedfrom between 70 and 200 million people across the globe. The significance of such a horrendous disease is extraordinary, it took around 150 years for the world’s population to recover, and was not fully eradicated until the 19thcentury. On top of this, the disease had a noticeable impact on religion, economy, and society as a whole. It therefore only seems right that we should explore what made the Black Death one of the mosthorrendous and historically famous pandemics in history.

Jews Being burnt to death in 149 in Strasbourg as part of the Black Death persecutions

 

The Black Death was caused by Yersinia Pestis (a bacteria known to infect humans and animals) commonly found to be carried by fleas and rodents. Symptoms included swelling under the armpits, groin and neck, fever and vomiting of blood.The disease is thought to have originated in Central Asia in the 1300s, but travelled fast. By 1346 reports claimed that the Black Death had reached the Middle East and Europe – the latter of which it would kill 30-60% of the population.

 

The Black Death was able to spread so quickly because of the poor hygiene that existed in the world during the 14thcentury. Rats, fleas and other dirty animals were common-place on the streets, all of which meant that the Black Death could be easily transmitted into the world’s population so it is hardly surprising that it infected and killed so many. While it is easy for us to see now why the disease was so devastating in the 14thcentury, a commonly accepted explanation for the Black Death was that this was God’s disease to take revenge for the sins committed around the world. As religion was a much more central force in the Middle-Ages it is not hard to see how this explanation gained weight and legitimacy.

 

The Black Death also had a huge impact in religious, economic, and social areas, which would all be dramatically altered due to the disease. The Black Death killed anywhere up to 200 million people meaning that social classes were destroyed in Europe. Famines and new forms of the plague were a constant feature for many years following the Black Death. China, for instance, had its population halvedby the late 14thCentury. However, it was not all bad because the survivors, in particular the peasants, saw a positive transformation in their lives. This was due to theneed for labour to produce crops and replace a lost workforce. Here, therefore, history must remember that although the Black Death is portrayed as beingdisastrous for everyone, this was not the case, a minority prospered from the Black Death pandemic.

 

One group that certainly did not profit from the Black Death was the Jewish community. This was becausethere was no explanation for what had caused the disease, so people started to blame each other. One group in particular that was blamed was the Jewish community, they were ridiculously accused of poisoning wells, and purposely causing the disease so they could prosper. As a result, in the late 14thcentury, many Jewish communities were attacked resulting in the deaths of many Jews. Other minority groups such as foreigners, beggars, and lepers were blamed andprosecuted as well. No one at that time was able to see that the very thing that caused the Black Death was painfully obvious, simply being poor hygiene.

 

The Black Death had dramatic effects on both culture and medicine. Following the Black Death, European culture became morbid and pessimistic and would take decades to return to its old ways. As for medicine, although a lack of medical understanding is what allowed the plague to spread, following the disease there were positive changes such as recognizing the importance of surgeons and anatomical investigations.

 

Overall, the Black Death rewrote history and proved to be one of the most devastating diseases in human history. It claimed hundreds of millions of lives and would take Europe centuries to recover from its impact. Whilst today it is easy to point to poor hygiene and lack of medical knowledge as the cause, back then it was a chance to victim-blame and point the finger, revealing just how cruel humans can be. Even though the Black Death was eradicated in the 19thcentury its legacy continues, and more importantly, should never be forgotten.

 

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