Last Updated 20 Aug 2020

The Black Death: Bubonic Plague

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The Black Death, or Bubonic Plague, was one of the most significant pandemics in time. “The death toll was so high that it had significant consequences on European medieval society as a whole, with a shortage of farmers resulting in demands for an end to serfdom, a general questioning of authority and rebellions, and the entire abandonment of many towns and villages, (Cartwright, June 2018).” The Black Death served as one of the earliest known pandemics, spread quickly throughout Europe and beyond, and had a strong societal impact. The pandemics that we have in today’s society have similarities to the Black Death that can be compared and contrasted with different time periods. The Black Death has shaped the way society reacts to pandemics today.

The origination of the Black Death began in China in the early 1300s. “The Black Death was a plague pandemic which devastated Europe from 1347 to 1352 CE, killing an estimated 25-30 million people, (Cartwright, June 2018).” This was actually a disease carried by fleas that latched onto rodents. The fleas were able to spread the plague to humans which spread very quickly. “Since China was one of the busiest of the world's trading nations, it was only a matter of time before the outbreak of plague in China spread to western Asia and Europe (The Middle Ages.Net, 2011).”

After spreading throughout western Asia and Europe, the Black Death began taking its’ tole throughout Italy, France, Spain, Britain, Russia, Germany and many more within a couple of years. Many were exposed to the Black Death by ships coming and going throughout the nations, bringing the plague to other lands. The people who were exposed unknowingly spread the disease, which compounded the severity of this horrendous pandemic.

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They would become exposed on the ships and unknowingly carry it to other countries. Many who were surrounded by those who had the plague in their town or village would panic and leave to get away from the plague, not realizing that they were already exposed, hence exposing others. The winters often seemed to stop the plague, but it would return in the spring, killing more people. This is one reason that the Black Death seemed to be more severe and unstoppable in some areas than in others. The Black Death would last into the 1600s. “The survivors lived in constant fear of the plague's return, and the disease did not disappear until the 1600s, (The Middle Ages.Net, 2011).”

The symptoms of the black death were so extreme that people would go to sleep with no externally visible signs of the disease and then die before. The host would get large bumps filled with blood and puss everywhere on their body. Being airborne made the disease very efficient at reaching people in an accelerating manner. The name is derived from one of the symptoms of the disease. This is the bumps that were formed on the body were dark compared to the rest of the victim’s skin.

The plague changed the ways people acted when going about their life. One way they took action was by moving away from their homeland entirely. Life during the plague changed everyone in a very shocking and immediate manner. No one could trust one another. Riots broke out in the streets as a result of the sheer panic and fear of the Black Death. Not only did doctors lie to their patients about their situation but many would completely refuse to see anyone out of caution and fear.

The Black Death was spreading, and people were dying rapidly. There was no time for proper burial and corpses were left in the streets or stacked in other areas such as churches or homes, sometimes being cremated. The people experiencing this during this time period were in fear, knowing that there was no known cure. They were worried that they wouldn’t have spiritual deaths and no proper burial. Many believed that they were being punished for sins or that the plague was brought on by astrological happenings, such as how the planets were aligned.

There were many treatments that doctors tried when handling their patients such as bloodletting to reduce their temperature and having them consume herbs and inhale herbal aromas. “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, (History.Com Editors, June 6, 2019).”

Nearly none of their treatments worked at all as medical developments were not progressed enough. Many patients were killed as the result of doctors experimenting with new treatments. The doctors would often lie to their patients by covering up their intentions so they would not find out that they were test subjects. Doctors were also dying from the exposure which led to imposters, posing as doctors, offering potions or other items that supposedly had magical powers to cure or protect them from the plague. As the Black Death continued to wipe out massive numbers of people everywhere it invaded, while also creating social distress and turmoil.

The towns and villages infected by the Black Death were devastated, some more than others. This caused several social norms to slow down, stop, or completely change. Traveling for trade became compromised, leading to low food supply and goods. Farmers who died could no longer take care of crops. The Black Death did not discriminate who it infected. Many rich perished and many poor prospered from their deaths, ultimately forming a middle class amidst all of the upheaval of the Black Death. “The general welfare and prosperity of the peasantry also progressed as a reduced population reduced the competition for land and resources, (Cartwright, June 2018).” This social impact has occurred throughout time and during modern day pandemics. The Influenza Pandemic in 1918 – 1919 killed millions of people.

“The Spanish flu (as it was known) infected an estimated one-third of the global population and hit young adults especially hard, sweeping over the planet in waves, (Silver, October 26, 2010).” People died from this disease very quickly just as they did during the Black Death. They also didn’t have a cure and the most sensible thing they could due was to wear a mask and stay away from others. The Polio outbreak in 1916 haunted many and killing thousands.

“It was only in the 1950s that Dr. Jonas Salk finally developed a vaccine, (Silver, October 26, 2010).” During that time, people were also told to stay away from others and were even quarantined, just as in the Black Death and Influenza pandemics. Today, Polio vaccines are given at an early age to prevent this disease. Several vaccines, including flu shots, are administered to prevent pandemics and shield society from illness that can be spread through exposure. Obtaining vaccines, wearing masks, and staying clear from others when we are ill are all ways in which we’ve been educated through the years to prevent illness.

SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) is an example of a modern era epidemic originating in 2003. Many people died from this pandemic for which there was no cure. In line with the Black Death, Influenza, and Polio, people wore masks and stayed away from other people due to being spread by coughing and sneezing. “More than 8,000 people were sickened and 774 died after contracting the disease from droplets released through coughing and sneezing, (Romero, October 26, 2010). This impacted the world socially and economically in similar ways as the Black Death. Travel and tourism were compromised; therefore, creating a colossal economic loss.

The shock and fear of the SARS pandemic resulted in loss of trust in the Chinese health system and in doing business or investing with them. The SARS pandemic exposed their poor handling and communication in beginning, thus deeming their health care system weak and less capable of handling a pandemic efficiently and effectively. When pandemics arise, they socially impact how we live, behave, and have the ability to change society in profound and sometimes devasting way.

From the Black Death era to the SARS era, society has reacted similarly by knowing that there is no cure and to stay away from others as to not expose them. As advancements in medicine have improved societal knowledge, they have also brought about faster containment. “Beyond preventing outbreaks in the first place, rapidly detecting them is the next best thing, says Paul Biddinger, vice chair for emergency preparedness at Massachusetts General Hospital: “It gives you an opportunity to intervene.” As global travel and trade continue to increase, so too will the need for accurate and rapid threat detection, (Gynup, January 29, 2018).” Being prepared for epidemics is important in preventative medicine today. Facts must be analyzed and understood to rapidly rollout disaster plans and communicate to the public before the disease spreads and the pandemic unfolds.

The Black Death shaped the way society reacts in the face of a pandemic. The fear and upheaval of people being exposed to a disease and rapidly dying in numbers with no known cure. The impact the Black Death had on Western Civilization was immense, redefining social order, economic gain and loss, spirituality, and survival. The way in which society initially reacted to the Black Death is similar to the way in which society has reacted through the years with people rapidly dying, knowing that they must stay away from these infected persons as to not catch it and die. The Black Death ceased travel, trade, tourism, diminished food supply, and rearranged social status as pandemics through the years have followed suit.

After taking its toll on millions of people throughout Western Civilization from the 1300s through the 1600s, society was changed with new social classes, religious beliefs, and trading practices. The Black Death serves as one of the worst pandemics of all time. Medical advances, vaccines, and rapid response to pandemics have improved through the years and society is better prepared to handle outbreaks; however, outbreaks can occur at any time without any known cure. Modern society continue to improve response to pandemics. Society continues to do its part to prevent total devastation and loss of life.

Modern society depends more on evidence-based care practice, not like what information they had to go on during the era of the Black Death. Communicating accurate facts quickly is part the modern societal plan of containing epidemics. Society must prepare for outbreaks to lesson economic devastation. Although much has changed from the Black Death pandemic to that of the SARS epidemic, the bottom line that outbreaks can and will happen has remained the same and very real. The Black Death serves as one of the most devastating pandemics in Western Civilization and of all time.

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