The Black Death. The most destructive and devastating disease of all time. And not just once. The Plague, Yersina Petis, has stuck on a number of occasions. In it’s most devastating epidemic, it wreaked havoc on Asia, then Europe. Only identified in the late 19th century the spread of the disease has been blamed on a wide range of things over history. Preventative measure and cures have been as varied as human belief allows.
Black Death: Beliefs
So, with the organism that spreads the disease not even being identified until 1894, what did people think caused the disease?
Plagues have hit civilisations for as long as records have been kept. This gives us a breadth of source material about different theories about the causes of the disease. Most of these can be applied to the Middle Ages in some way.
Miasma. Miasma is bad air. Think of overcrowded towns with poor sanitation. Even in towns and villages where the rules, and there were rules, were kept, there was bad air. It comes from all kinds of waste. It comes from the tannery. It comes from swamps and stagnant water. It comes from a lot of places. Simple observation led people to realise that you are more likely to become ill if you are in contact with bad air. They didn’t know why this was the case, and let’s face it, not all bad smells do cause disease, but the connection was made. Solution? Simple, try and make the air smell better. There are examples of perfumes being burnt. Slaughterhouses had to be maintained and waste couldn’t simply be tossed into the gutter. In a nutshell, the people in the 14th Century, the time of the Black Death, weren’t stupid.
Heaven sent. If you are familiar with the Old Testament you will be familiar with the stories of plagues being sent as punishment. The Old Testament, as the name suggests, is very old. The same beliefs that existed when these events happened, were pretty much the same in the 14th Century for lots of people. If there is evil in the world, a plague is a punishment from god. There was evil in the world. Plenty of it. Wars were ongoing in several parts of Europe. The Papacy was often divided into Pope and Anti-Pope. Much of the Holy Land had been lost to the Muslim empire. That is a lot for god to be angry about. So, a plague would be a fitting punishment. Solution? Pray. Pledge to the church. Prepare for Crusade. Punish yourself to repent for your sins. The latter saw Flagellation occurring. This needs more explanation than I have space for here but it’s basically whipping yourself whilst undertaking religious rituals. It’s still practised today by some people.
Consequences of the Black Death
Lots of people died across Asia and Europe. This had a huge impact on society. In some parts of Europe up to 90% of the population had died. Whole settlements could be wiped out. Across a region, or country, this had consequences. Labour was in demand but there were fewer workers to do the jobs. Wages rose. This made life hard for those employing people, so laws were imposed to limit pay. In England, this was a contributory factor in the Peasants Revolt of 1381.
The Black Death arrived in England in 1348. This was during the reign of Edward III. It was at pandemic or epidemic proportions in England and Europe for roughly four years. The Black Death occurred during the Hundred Years War. It affected the armies of both the French and the English. The disease killed people of all classes. Archaeological evidence suggests that people with poor diets were more likely to have died of the disease.
Timelines.tv – Brief documentary about the Black Death. Ideal for school aged learners.
|Henry II||Richard I||King John|
|Henry III||Edward I||Edward II|
|Edward III||Richard II|
|House of Lancaster|
|Henry IV||Henry V||Henry VI|
|House of York|
|Edward IV||Edward V||Richard III|
|Murder of Thomas Becket||Magna Carta||Ten Facts about the Black Death|
|Edward I's Conquest of Wales||Madog ap Llywelyn||Causes of the Peasants Revolt|
|Timeline of the Peasants Revolt|
|Sources and Interpretations|
|Paston Letters||John Rous|