A Medical Disaster : The Black Death
In the centuries before the widespread use of antibiotics in the 20th century, disease was rampant and epidemics were not uncommon. The life expectancy of the average human was less than 40 years, and the infant mortality rate was much higher than today. Nevertheless, the Plague, or “Black Death,” that struck Europe in the middle of the 14th century, was a medical disaster unequalled in human history.
Prior to the Plague, the epidemics that had occurred were usually fierce but short-lived. Most importantly, they had been confined to relatively small geographic areas. By contrast, the grip of the Black Death was relentless, and it spread throughout Europe, from Sicily to Sweden and from England to Spain.
The disease took his name from the way its manifested itself as blackish blood blisters that formed under the skin. The blisters were usually accompanied by a very high fever, intense pain, and swollen glands, eventually resulting in death. Incurable pneumonia or syphilis was frequently also present. Because the cause of the disease remained unknown, it was widely believed to be an act of God. Clinically bubonic plague, which is caused by Bacillus pestis germs injected into the bloodstream by the bites of fleas carried by brown rats.
People everywhere went mad with fear. Some committed suicide. Others burned all their possessions in a vain attempt to stop the spread of the disease. The failure of religious invocations to stop the tide of the Plague resulted in displeasure with the Church, and counter religious activities, such as “Black Masses,” began to appear.
Estimates of the death toll from the plague range from 25 to 35 million. As much as one-third of the total population of Europe died between 1348 and 1350. Some smaller cities lost 90% of their people. Hamburg, Germany lost two-thirds of its citizenry, and England may have lost up to half of its population. Entire families died, and many others were broken apart as orphans were adopted by other families.
The economy of Europe was altered dramatically. A profound labor shortage resulted in higher wages, a higher cost for goods and runaway inflation. Many businesses went bankrupt and land owners lost their property because in many cases they had no one to tend their shops or work the fields. The labor-intensive feudal system began to disintegrate.
The Plague was a cataclysm that changed the course of European history. It not only impacted Europe’s economy, but its religious life as well. By showing that the Church was powerless in nthe face of the disease, the Plague may well have hastened the Protestant Reformation.
Although the Plague was less severe after 1350, it continued to persist for many years. So high was its death tall, that it would be another 200 years before Europe’s population reached the level where it had been in 1347.