Death on the doorstep
The Black Death was the most severe pandemic ever recorded
In 1348 the Black Death swept through Europe. It is estimated to have killed at least 75 million people, which probably makes it the most devastating pandemic in human history.
Its cause and origins have been debated for a long time. While some have argued it was caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, responsible for the bubonic plague that hit Europe in the 19th century, others say it had the hallmarks of a viral infection. In 2010 an international team of researchers published the results of DNA analyses that they claim show “unambiguously” that Y. pestis caused the Black Death.
Eyewitness accounts give us an idea how devastating the disease was: “Villages and hamlets became desolate, not a house being left in them, all having died who dwelt there.” It spared neither the young nor old: “I observe about me dying throngs of both young and old, and nowhere is there a refuge.”
It was so infectious that “in whatever household it took hold, whosoever took care of the sick, all the carers died of the same illness”. It was so virulent that “almost nobody survived beyond the fourth day”.
There was no treatment, “neither doctors nor medicine proving of any vail”. And the aftermath was bleak. “There were also those who were so sparsely covered with earth that the dogs dragged them forth and devoured many bodies throughout the city.”
Some credit the Black Death with causing a profound social shift in England. After it subsided, labour was scarce, so the remaining serfs found themselves with far more power – landowners were now competing for their services. So the peasants that survived became a little more prosperous. And they also became more mobile, for the ﬁrst time moving around the country for work.
Three plague pandemics
The Black Death was the world’s second pandemic. The Plague of Justinian of 541–42 CE is the ﬁrst recorded. Named after the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I, it killed between 30 and 50 million people – around half of the world’s population. It is thought to have been a factor in the downfall of the Roman Empire.
The ‘Third Pandemic’ began in China in 1855. It went on to kill around 10 million people. Plague remains a threat in some parts of Asia, and there are fears that global warming may increase the risk of new outbreaks by encouraging the spread of bacteria-infected ﬂeas and the great gerbils they live on.Lead image:
Wellcome Library, London CC BY
- Distinct clones of Yersinia pestis caused the Black Death (2010)
- Weddington in decline: the black death 1300–1500AD
- Francesco Petrarca: Ad Seipsum (To himself) – a commentary on the plague
- Florentine Chronicle of Marchionne di Coppo di Stefano Buonaiuti (1327–1385) – a commentary on the plague
- Telegraph: Ancient cemetery of ‘plague victims’ discovered next to Uffizi galleries
- The history of plague – part 1. the three great pandemics (2012)
- National Geographic: Two of history’s deadliest plagues were linked, with implications for another outbreak
- US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Plague
- Plague dynamics are driven by climate variation (2006)