How the Black Death Decimated Europe and Asia

WORLD HISTORY | February 3, 2019

Devastation of the Black Death. Source: (historic-uk.com)

From 1346 to 1353, Europe and Asia were plagued with a highly fatal disease which would later come to be known as the Black Death. Though dissenting opinions exist, that disease is believed to have been the bubonic plague, caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestia, which is generally transmitted among rodent populations by fleas. Unlike airborne diseases which thrive in cold weather, the insect-borne plague was more prevalent in warmer seasons and infected high proportions of rural communities rather than the highly populated urban cities.

The most prevailing theory behind the epidemic is that it spread from rats to humans via fleas. The specific culprits indicated are black rats, which commonly live among humans. As the flea-infested rats began to die off, the fleas were forced to find new hosts from which to feed. The nearby humans made easy targets. Once the fleas started biting humans, they became infected and most of them died less than a week after showing symptoms. On average, it took twenty-three days from the time the plague was introduced among the black rats until the first human death. However, more recent studies have suggested it was human fleas, rather than rat fleas, which caused the rapid and wide-spread progression of the epidemic.

Black rat. Source: (scvnews.com)

In any case, by the time of the first death, the disease would already have infected other residents of the community. Because the disease would incubate for three to five days before the host became sick, it was not uncommon for infected humans to attempt to flee their disease-ridden towns, unknowingly bringing the plague with them. Additionally, the infected fleas often came along for the ride. Those fleas would then infect the rats (or humans) of the new community and the whole process would begin anew. Ships were a major contributor to the spread of the plague as they allowed it to travel great distances.

Monguls attack Caffa. Source: (interestingfacts.org)

It was originally thought that the Black Death began in China, but recent studies suggest that it began in the steppe region of Central Asia. The epidemic is thought to have begun when the Mongols attacked the Italian trading station, the Crimean city of Caffa. It is alleged that the Mongols used the plague as a weapon by throwing the bodies of its victims over the walls of the city. The attack ended with the traders fleeing the city and bringing the disease with them. On their way home to Genoa and Venice, the traders stopped in Constantinople and Pisa. From Constantinople, the plague spread through the European Mediterranean, reaching Marseilles by mid-September of 1347. The commercial city of Pisa delivered Black Death to distant locations aboard trading ships.

Map showing the spread of the Black Death. Source: (historytoday.com)

From the port cities, the plague began to spread inland. It had encompassed all of England by 1349. From there it spread through Norway and Denmark. From Austria and Switzerland, it spread into Germany. Russia, which had been spared an onslaught from the east due to the closure of the Silk Road caravan route between China and Europe, was contaminated from the west instead in the late of autumn of 1351, though the onset of winter delayed the full outbreak until the following spring. Eventually, the disease died out, though there would continue to be smaller-scale outbreaks for the next three hundred years.

Plaque at Weymouth Old Harbour. Source: (travelgumbo.com)

The exact number of victims to be claimed by the Black Death is uncertain. It was once believed that twenty to thirty percent of Europe’s population was wiped out by the disease. But later studies have suggested that number to be too low. These studies took into account the census registers which only recorded individuals who paid rent or taxes. This would eliminate most women and children as well as much of the lower class. In-depth research of the mortality data from that time has led historians to conclude that the death toll may have been closer to sixty percent of the population of Europe. Based on the assumption that Europe’s population was eighty million, this would mean fifty million people died as a result of the Black Death.

Tags: the Black Death plague, rats, 1300s

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