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Black Death

This article concerns the world wide pandemic starting in the mid-14th century, with a focus on material available from European records and accounts. For detailed information on the most commonly accepted cause of the epidemic, see bubonic plague.

The Black Death (more recently known as the Black Plague) was a devastating epidemic that first struck Europe in the mid-14th century (1347-1350), when it was estimated to have killed about a third of Europe's population. A series of plague epidemics also occurred in large portions of Asia and the Middle East during the same period, which indicates this outbreak was actually a world wide pandemic. The same disease is thought to have returned to Europe every generation with varying degrees of intensity and fatality until the 1700s. Notable late outbreaks include the Great Plague of Milan (1629–31), the Great Plague of London (1664–65), and the Great Plague of Vienna (1679).

The initial 14th century European event was called the "Great Mortality" by contemporary writers, and, with later outbreaks, became known as the "Black" Death because of a striking symptom of the disease, called acral necrosis, in which sufferers' skin would blacken due to subdermal hemorrhages. Historical records attribute the Black Death to an outbreak of bubonic plague, an epidemic of the bacterium Yersinia pestis spread by fleas with the help of animals like the black rat (Rattus rattus), although today's experts debate both the microbiological culprit and mode of transmission.

Table of contents

Pattern of the pandemic

The bubonic plague was endemic in populations of infected ground rodents in central Asia, and was a known cause of death among migrant and established populations in that region. However, it isn't entirely clear where the 14th century pandemic started. There is speculation that it originated somewhere around northern India, but the more popular theory places the first cases in the steppes of central Asia. From there, it was carried east and west by traders and Mongol armies along the Silk Road.

Whether or not this theory is accurate, what is clear is that several preexisting conditions such as war, famine, and weather contributed to the severity of the Black Death. A devastating civil war in China between the established Chinese population and the Mongol houses raged between AD 1200 and AD 1350. This war disrupted farming and trading patterns, and led to episodes of widespread famine. A so-called "Little Ice Age" had begun at the end of the thirteenth century. The disastrous weather reached a peak in the first half of the fourteenth century with devastating results worldwide.

In the years 1315 to 1322 a catastrophic famine, known as the Great Famine, struck all of Northern Europe. Food shortages and skyrocketing prices were a fact of life for as much as a century before the plague. Wheat, oats, hay and consequently livestock were all in short supply and their scarcity resulted in hunger and malnutrition. The result was a mounting human vulnerability to disease due to weakened immunity. The European economy entered a vicious cycle in which hunger and small scale disease reduced the productivity of laborers, and so the grain output suffered, causing the grain prices to increase. The famine was self-perpetuating. Places like Flanders and Burgundy were devastated by the famine as much as the Black Death was to devastate all of Europe.

Asian Outbreak

The central Asian scenario agrees with the first reports of outbreaks in China in the early 1330's. The plague struck the Chinese province of Hubei in 1334. During 1353–54, more widespread disaster occurred. Chinese accounts of this wave of the disease record a spread to eight distinct areas, Hubei, Jiangxi, Shanxi, Hunan, Guangdong, Guangxi, Henan and Suiyuan (identified as an area within the Chinese capitol), throughout the Mongol/Chinese empires. Historian William McNeill noted that voluminous Chinese records on disease and social disruption survive from this period, but that modern scholarship in either the East and West has not dealt with these references.

It appears that movement by the Mongols and merchant caravans inadvertently brought the plague from central Asia to the Middle East and Europe. The plague was reported in the trading city of Constantinople during AD 1347. In that same year, Kaffa (Feodosiya), a cathedral city and seaport on the Crimean peninsula in modern day Ukraine, came under siege by an army of Crimean Tatar warriors, backed by Venetian forces. Their objective was disruption of a trading empire the Genoan city/state had established in Kaffa. In 1347, a terrible sickness began to strike the besieging army. According to accounts, so many died that the survivors had little time to bury them and bodies were stacked like cords of firewood against the city walls. Although the Tatar/Venetian alliance broke off the siege, the disease had spread to the city.

European outbreak

The Black Death rapidly spread along the major European sea and land trade routes.

In October 1347, a fleet of Genoese trading ships fleeing Kaffa reached the port of Messina. By the time the fleet reached Messina, all the crew members were either infected or dead. It is presumed that the ships also carried infected rats and/or fleas. Some ships were found grounded on shorelines, with no one aboard remaining alive. Looting of these lost ships also helped spread the disease. From there, the plague spread to Genoa and Venice by the turn of 1347/1348.

From Italy the disease spread northwest across Europe, striking France, Spain, and Great Britain by June 1348, then turned and spread east through Germany and Scandinavia from 1348 to 1350, and finally to north-western Russia in 1351. Some parts of Europe were largely spared by the plague, including the Kingdom of Poland and parts of Belgium and The Netherlands.

Middle Eastern outbreak

Bubonic plague struck various countries in the Middle East during the pandemic, leading to serious depopulation and permanent change in both economic and social structures. The disease first entered the region from southern Russia. In AD 1347, Muslim leader Malik Asraf, of the Jalayird dynasty, returned with his troops to Baghdad from a military action in Tabriz (near modern Azerbaijan) where the plague was raging. This same military troop promptly placed the town of Hasan Buzurg, near Baghdad, under siege but had to abort when plague struck the army and spread to Baghdad itself.

By autumn 1347, plague reached Alexandria in Egypt, probably through the port's trade with Constantinople and ports on the Black Sea. During 1348, the disease traveled eastward to Gaza, and north along the eastern coast to cities in Syria and Palestine, including Asqalan, Acre, Jerusalem, Sidon, Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo. In 1348–49, the disease reached Antioch. The city's residents fled to the north, most of them dying during the journey, but the infection had been spread to the people of Asia Minor.

The holy city of Mecca became infected in 1349. The people of Mecca blamed the disease on non-believers entering the city, but it is more likely to have arrived with Muslim pilgrims from surrounding infected areas. During the same year, records show the city of Mawsil (Mosul) suffered a massive epidemic, and the city of Baghdad experienced a second round of the disease. In 1351, King Mujahid of Yemen returned to his country from imprisonment in Cairo, apparently bringing the disease with him.


A graph of the population of Europe before, during, and after the Black Death hits.


Information about the death toll varies widely by area and from source to source. Approximately 25 million deaths occurred in Europe alone, with many others occurring in northern Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

Estimates of the demographic impact of plague in Asia are based on both population figures during this time and estimates of the disease's toll on population centers. The initial outbreak of plague in the Chinese province of Hubei in 1334 claimed up to 90 percent of the population, an estimated five million people. During 1353–54, outbreaks in eight distinct areas throughout the Mongol/Chinese empires may have caused the death of two thirds of China's population, often yielding an estimate of 25 million deaths.

It is estimated that between one-third and one-half of the population of Europe died from the outbreak between 1348 and 1350. As many as 25% of all villages were depopulated, mostly the smaller communities, as the few survivors fled to larger towns and cities. The Black Death hit the culture of towns and cities disproportionately hard; some rural areas, for example Eastern Poland and Lithuania, were so isolated that the plague made little progress. Cities were the worst off because of the population densities and close living quarters making disease transmission easier.

The precise demographic impact of the disease in the Middle East is impossible to calculate. Mortality was particularly high in rural areas, including significant areas of Palestine and Syria. Many surviving rural people fled, leaving their fields and crops. Entire rural provinces are recorded as being totally depopulated. Surviving records in some cities reveal a devastating number of deaths. The 1348 outbreak in Gaza left an estimated 10,000 people dead, while Aleppo recorded a death rate of 500 a day during the same year. In Damascus, at the disease's peak in September and October 1348, a thousand deaths were recorded every day, with overall mortality estimated at between 25 and 38 percent. Syria lost a total of 400,000 people by the time the epidemic subsided in March 1349. In contrast to some higher mortality estimates in Asia and Europe, scholars believe the mortality rate in the Middle East was less than one third of the total population, with higher rates in selected areas.

Economic effects

The plague did not only devastate the medieval population, it caused a substantial change in economy and society in all areas of the world. Economic historians like Fernand Braudel have concluded that Black Death began during a recession in the European economy that had been under way since the beginning of the century, and only served to worsen it. The great population loss brought economic changes based on increased social mobility, as depopulation further eroded the peasants' already-weakened obligations to remain on their traditional holdings. In Western Europe, the sudden scarcity of cheap labor provided an incentive for innovation that, some argue, caused the Renaissance. In Eastern Europe, by contrast, renewed stringency of laws tied the remaining peasant population more tightly to the land than ever before through serfdom. In many ways the Black Death was good for peasants, at least in Western Europe, because of the shortage of labor they were in more demand and had more power, and because of the reduced population, there was more fertile land available; however the benefits would not be fully realized until 1470, nearly 120 years later, when overall population levels finally began to rise again.


As with other natural and man-made social disasters, renewed religious fervor and fanaticism bloomed in the wake of Black Death. In many parts of Europe, rumors circulated that the plague was caused by the deliberate poisoning of wells by Jews. Fierce pogroms frequently resulted in the death or banishment of most of the Jews in a town or city. This persecution was often done, not solely out of religious hatred, but as a way of attacking the Kings or Church who normally protected the Jews, indeed Jews were often called the Kings property. It was a way of lashing out at the institutions who had failed them. Because fewer Jews died from the Black Death, in part due to rabbinical law which called for a lifestyle that was, in general, cleaner than that of a medieval villager, and Jewish ghettos which kept them more separate from the general population, inevitably Jews looked suspicious. This, coupled with the fact that the elite members of the Jewish community, such as rabbis and bankers, were participating in a mystical religion known as the Kabbalah, placed notable blame on Jews. Lepers were also singled out and persecuted, indeed exterminated throughout Europe. Anyone with a skin disease such as acne or psoriasis was thought to be a leper, and leprosy was believed to be an outward sign of an inner defect of the soul. Both Jews and lepers were persecuted because they became scapegoats for the disasters of society.1


Flagellants practiced self-flogging to atone for sins. The movement became popular after general disillusionment with the church's reaction to the Black Death.

The Black Death led to cynicism toward religious officials who could not keep their frequent promises of curing plague victims and banishing the disease. This increased doubting of the clergy culminated in either support for different religious groups such as the flagellants which grew tremendously during the opening years of the Black Death (angering church and political officials greatly) or to an increase in interest for more secular alternatives to problems facing European society and an increase of secular politicians.

The Black Death hit the monasteries very hard because of their close quarters and their kindness in helping the sick, so that there was a severe shortage of clergy after the epidemic cycle. This resulted in a mass influx of new clergy members, most of whom did not share the life-long convictions and experiences of the veterans they replaced. This resulted in abuses by the clergy in years afterwards and a further deterioration of the position of the Church in the eyes of the people.

Social Change

The Black Death greatly helped accelerate social and economic change during the 14th and 15th centuries. First, the church's power was weakened and, in some cases, the social roles it had played were replaced by secular ones. It also led to peasant uprisings in many parts of Europe, such as France (the Jacquerie rebellion), Italy (the Ciompi rebellion, which swept the city of Florence), and in England (the English Peasant Revolt).

The Black Death should have opened the way to increased peasant prosperity. Europe was overpopulated before the plague, and a reduction of 30% to 50% of the population should have meant less competition for resources: more available land and food, and higher wages. However for reasons that are still debated, population levels in fact continued to decline until around 1420 and did not begin to rise again until 1470, so the initial Black Death event on its own does not provide an entirely satisfactory explanation to this extended period of decline in prosperity. See Medieval demography for a more complete treatment of this issue and current theories on why improvements in living standards took longer to evolve.

In sparsely populated Eastern Europe, less affected by the Black Death, peasant revolts were less common in the 14th and 15th centuries, not occurring in the east until the 16th through 19th centuries. Because the social upheavals of the 14th and 15th centuries in Western Europe were believed to have been caused in part by the Black Death, the Black Death is seen by some as a factor in the Renaissance and even the Reformation in Western Europe. Some historians have even cited the plague as a contributing factor in Eastern Europe's failure to experience either of these movements on a similar scale as the West. Extrapolating from this, the Black Death may be seen as a partly responsible for Eastern Europe's considerable lag in scientific and philosophical advances as well as in the move to liberalise government by restricting the power of the monarch and aristocracy. A common example is that England is seen to have effectively ended serfdom by 1550 while moving towards more representative government; meanwhile, serfdom was not abolished in Russia until an autocratic tsar decreed so in the nineteenth century.

Inspired by Black Death, Danse Macabre is an allegory on the universality of death and a common painting motive in late-medieval periods.

On top of all this, the great population reduction due to the plague brought cheaper land prices, more food for the average peasant, and a relatively large increase in per capita income among the peasantry. However the upper class attempted to stop these changes by instituting laws which barred the peasantry from certain actions or material goods. A good example of this is the sumptuary laws which were passed throughout Europe which regulated what people (particularly of the peasant class) could wear.

The science of Alchemy was affected by the plague. As a specialty and method of treatment, it was considered the norm for most scientists and doctors prior and during the Black Death. However, after the plague had taken its toll, the practice of alchemy slowly began to wane. The citizenry began to realize that, in most cases, it didn't affect the progress of the epidemic and that some of the potions and "cures" used by many doctors throughout Christendom and the Islamic world only helped to worsen the condition of the sick. Liquor (distilled alcohol), originally made by alchemists, was commonly applied as a remedy for the Black Death, and as a result the popularity and consumption of liquor in Europe rose dramatically after the plague.

After 1350 European culture in general turned very morbid. The general mood was one of pessimism, the art turned dark with representations of death. The Dies Irae was created in this period as was the popular poem La Danse Macabre. See also Decameron.

Forms of the plague

Yersinia pestis seen at 2000x magnification. This bacterium, carried and spread by fleas, is generally thought to have been the cause of millions of deaths.

The plague consisted of three forms: bubonic, pneumonic, and septicemic. The bubonic and septicemic plague are transmitted by direct contact with fleas. The bacteria multiplies inside a flea, blocking its stomachs and causing it to become very hungry. The flea then voraciously bites a host and continues to feed because it is unable to satisfy its hunger. During the feeding process, infected blood carrying the plague bacteria flows into the wound. The plague bacteria then has a new host and the fleas eventually die from starvation.

The pneumonic plague has a different form of transmission. It is transmitted through infected droplets of saliva coughed up by bubonic or septicemic infected humans. The airborne bacteria enters the lungs through the windpipe and starts attacking the lungs and throat.

Signs and symptoms

The three forms of plague brought an array of signs and symptoms to those infected. Bubonic plague refers to the painful lymph node swellings called buboes. The septicemic plague is called "Blood poisoning" and pneumonic plague is an airborne plague that forms a first attack on the lungs. The classic sign of bubonic plague was the appearance of buboes in the groin and armpits, which ooze pus and blood. Victims underwent damage to the skin and underlying tissue until they were covered in dark blotches. This symptom, called acral necrosis, led to the disease being called the "Black" plague. Most victims died within four to seven days from when they were infected. When plague reached Europe, it first struck port cities and then followed the trade routes both by sea and land.

The bubonic plague was the most commonly seen form of the Black Death. The mortality rate was thirty percent to seventy-five percent. Victims were subject to headaches, aching joints, nausea, and fevers of 101 to 105 degrees Fahrenheit, vomiting, and a general feeling of malaise. The pneumonic plague was the second most commonly seen form of the Black Death. The mortality rate for the pneumonic plague was ninety to ninety-five percent. Symptoms included slimy sputum tinted with blood. As the disease progressed, sputum became free flowing and bright red. The Septicemic plague was the most rare from of all three forms. The mortality was close to 100 percent. Symptoms were high fevers, and skin turning deep shades of purple due to DIC (Disseminated Intervascular Coagulation).

A typhoid epidemic was to be a predictor of the coming disaster. Many thousands died in populated urban centers, most significantly Ypres. In 1318 a pestilence of unknown origin, sometimes identified as anthrax, hit the animals of Europe. The disease targeted sheep and cattle, further reducing the food supply and income of the peasantry and putting another strain on the economy. The increasingly international nature of the European economies meant that the depression was felt across Europe. The failure of the wool exports of England due to pestilence led to the destruction of the Flemish weaving industry. Unemployment bred crime and poverty.

There was no effective response to these crises by the governments or Church of Europe because no one knew what caused it or how it spread, although most thought it spread through air, called miasma. Most monarchs instituted measures that prohibited exports of foodstuffs, condemned black market speculators, set price controls on grain, and outlawed large scale fishing. At best, they proved mostly unenforceable, and at worse they contributed to a continent-wide downward spiral. The hardest hit lands, like England, were unable to buy grain abroad, from France because of the prohibition, and from most of the rest of the grain producers because of crop failures from shortage of labor. Any grain that could be shipped was eventually taken by pirates or looters to be sold on the black market. Meanwhile, many of the largest countries, most notably England and Scotland, had been at war, using up much of their treasury and exacerbating inflation. On the eve, in 1337, of the first wave of the Black Death, England and France went to war in what would become known as the Hundred Years' War. This, another of the crises of the fourteenth century would deplete the treasuries, manpower, and infrastructure of both kingdoms throughout and beyond the worst of the plague. Malnutrition, poverty, disease and hunger, coupled with war, growing inflation and other economic concerns made Europe in the mid-fourteenth century ripe for a tragedy.

Alternative explanations

Recent scientific and historical investigations have led researchers to doubt the long-held belief that Black Death was an epidemic of bubonic plague.

Twigg, 1984: Anthrax

In 1984, Graham Twigg published The Black Death: A Biological Reappraisal, where he argued that the climate and ecology of Europe and particularly England made it nearly impossible for rats and fleas to have transmitted bubonic plague. Combining information on the biology of R. rattus, R. norvegicus, and the common fleas X. cheopis, and P. irritans with modern studies of plague epidemiology, particularly in India, where the R. rattus is a native species and conditions are nearly ideal for plague to be spread, Twigg concludes that it would have been nearly impossible for Y. pestis to have been the causative agent of the beginning of the plague, let alone its explosive spread across all of Europe and England. Twigg also shows that the common theory of entirely pneumonic spread does not hold up. He proposes, based on a reexamination of the evidence and symptoms, that the Black Death may actually have been an epidemic of pulmonary anthrax caused by B. anthracis.

Scott and Duncan, 2001: Ebola-like Virus

In 2001, epidemiologists Susan Scott and Christopher Duncan from Liverpool University proposed the theory that the Black Death might have been caused by an Ebola-like virus, not a bacterium. Their rationale was that this plague spread much faster and the incubation period was much longer than other plagues confirmed to be caused by Yersinia pestis. A longer period of incubation will allow carriers of the infection to travel farther and infect more people than a shorter one. When the primary vector is humans, as opposed to birds, this is of great importance. Studies of English church-records indicate an unusually long incubation period in excess of 30 days which could account for the rapid spread, topping at 5 km/day. The plague also appeared in areas of Europe where rats were uncommon like Iceland. Epidemiological studies suggest the disease was transferred between humans (which happens rarely with Yersinia pestis), and some genes that determine immunity to Ebola-like viruses are much more widespread in Europe than in other parts of the world.

Cantor, 2001: Anthrax and other diseases

In a similar vein, historian Norman F. Cantor, in his 2001 book In the Wake of the Plague, suggests the Black Death might have been a combination of pandemics including a form of anthrax, a cattle murrain. He cites many forms of evidence including: reported disease symptoms not in keeping with the known effects of either bubonic or pneumonic plague, the discovery of anthrax spores in a plague pit in Scotland, and the fact that meat from infected cattle was known to have been sold in many rural English areas prior to the onset of the plague. see ISBN 0060014342


Counterarguments have been drawn in defense of the bubonic plague theory.

  • The uncharacteristically rapid spread of the plague could be due to low levels of immunity in that period's European population. Historical examples of pandemics of other diseases in populations without previous exposure, such as smallpox and tuberculosis amongst American Indians, show that the low levels of inherited adaptation to the disease cause the first epidemic to spread faster and to be far more virulent than later epidemics among the descendants of survivors.
  • The plague returned again and again and was regarded as the same disease through succeeding centuries into modern times when the Yersinia bacterium was identified.
  • Tooth pulp tissue from a 14th century plague cemetery in Montpelier tested positive for Y. pestis DNA. However, such a finding has never confirmed in any other cemetery. In September 2003, a team of researchers from Oxford University tested 121 teeth from 66 skeletons found in 14th century mass graves. The remains showed no genetic trace of Yersinia pestis, and the researchers suspect that the Montpelier study was flawed.


  • It has been alleged (since 1961) that the Black Death inspired one of the most enduring nursery rhymes in the English language, Ring around a rosie, a pocket full of posies, / Ashes, ashes, we all fall down. However, this explanation is a literary interpretation [1] without historical supporting evidence.
  • The plague repeatedly returned to haunt Europe and the Mediterranean throughout the 14th to 17th centuries, and finally disappeared suddenly after the Great Plague of London in 1665. One possible explanation for the disappearance of plague from Europe may be that the black rat (Rattus rattus) infection reservoir and its disease vector was subsequently displaced and succeeded by the bigger Norwegian or brown rat (Rattus norvegicus), which is not so prone to transmit the germ-bearing fleas to humans in large rat die-offs (see Appleby and Slack references below). The Great Fire of London in 1666 contributed to the ascendancy of brown rats in England. It is also said that the Great Fire of London killed off the remaining plague bearing rats and fleas left which also declined the plague.
  • Gunnar Karlsson (Iceland's 1100 Years: The History of a Marginal Society) points out that the Black Death killed between half and two thirds of the population of Iceland, although there were no rats in Iceland at this time. Rats were accidentally introduced in the 19th century, and have never spread beyond a small number of urban areas attached to seaports. In the 14th century there were no urban settlements in Iceland. Iceland was unaffected by the later plagues which are known to have been spread by rats.

See also



  • Appleby, Andrew B. “The Disappearance of the Plague: A Continuing Puzzle.” Economic History Review 33, 2, 1980 161–173.
  • Deaux, George (1969). The Black Death 1347. New York: Weybright and Talley. ISBN 0241015146.
  • Derr, Mark. "New Theories Link Black Death to Ebola-Like Virus." The New York Times, Science Section, October 2, 2001.
  • Dols, Michael W. (1977). The Black Death in the Middle East. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. ISBN 069103107X.
  • Gottfried, Robert S (1983). The Black Death. New York: The Free Press. ISBN 0029123704.
  • Herlihy, David (1997). The Black Death and the Transformation of the West. Cambridge: Harvard UP. ISBN 0674076133 , This text is a definitive short text on the Black Death.
  • Kelly, John (2005). The Great Mortality, An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time. HarperCollins Publisher Inc., New York, NY. ISBN 0060006927
  • Marks, Geoffrey (1971). The Medieval Plague: The Black Death of the Middle Ages. New York; Doubleday. ISBN 0385006306.
  • McNeill, William H. (1976). Plagues and People. New York: Anchor Books. ISBN 0385121229.
  • Slack, Paul. “The Disappearance of the Plague: An Alternative View.” Economic History Review 34, 3. 1981 469–476.
  • Ziegler, Phillip (1969). Black Death. ISBN 0061315508

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