The Black Death was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, peaking in Europe between 1348 and 1350. Thought to have started in China, it travelled along the Silk Road and reached the Crimea by 1346. It spread throughout the Mediterranean and Europe. It is estimated to have killed 30–60 percent of Europe's population.
Social effects of the plague were felt immediately after the worst outbreaks petered out. Those who survived benefited from an extreme labor shortage, so serfs once tied to the land now had a choice of whom to work for. Lords had to make conditions better and more attractive or risk leaving their land untended, leading to wage increases across the board.
Today, this grim sequence of events is terrifying but comprehensible. In the middle of the 14th century, however, there seemed to be no rational explanation for it. Physicians relied on crude and unsophisticated techniques such as bloodletting and boil-lancing (practices that were dangerous as well as unsanitary) and superstitious practices such as burning aromatic herbs and bathing in rosewater or vinegar.
In many German towns, terrified Christian citizens looked for outside scapegoats and slaughtered the Jewish community. Cities, aware of the risk of infection although ignorant of its process, closed their gates and turned away their outsiders. Individuals with means fled to country houses or locked themselves in their homes to avoid contact with others. Nothing worked.
Responses to the plague were varied. Across Europe, terrified people thought that by joining penitential groups that prayed, fasted, and even whipped themselves they could turn away divine wrath through self-mortification. Others thought it best to abandon themselves to pleasure, either out of despair or in the hope that a pleasant life of eating and drinking would ward off the terror of the plague.
The Black Death ravaged the continent for three years before it continued on into Russia, killing one-third to one-half of the entire population in ghastly fashion. The plague killed indiscriminately – young and old, rich and poor – but especially in the cities and among groups who had close contact with the sick. Entire monasteries filled with friars were wiped out and Europe lost most of its doctors.
Symptoms include high fevers and aching limbs and vomiting of blood. Most characteristic is a swelling of the lymph nodes. These glands can be found in the neck, armpits and groin. The swelling protrudes and is easily visible; its blackish coloring gives the disease its name: the Black Death. The swellings continue to expand until they eventually burst, with death following soon after.
The Black Death touched every aspect of life, hastening a process of social, economic, and cultural transformation already underway. The initial outbreak shattered social and economic structures. Fields were abandoned, workplaces stood idle, international trade was suspended. Traditional bonds of kinship, village, and even religion were broken by the horrors of death, flight, and failed expectations.
Today, scientists understand that the Black Death, now known as the plague, is spread by a bacillus called Yersina pestis. They know that the bacillus travels from person to person pneumonically, or through the air, as well as through the bite of infected fleas and rats.
The Black Death was actually a combination of three different types of plague: bubonic, pneumonic, and septicaemic, with bubonic being the most common. The bacteria which causes the diseases lives in the digestive tract of fleas, most frequently rat fleas. Plague bacteria can continue to survive in places like rat burrows (dark, moist environments) even after the plague has killed off all the rats in an infected group.
The Black Death erupted in the Gobi Desert in the late 1320s. No one really knows why. The plague bacillus was alive and active long before that; indeed Europe itself had suffered an epidemic in the 6th century. But the disease had lain relatively dormant in the succeeding centuries.