Bubonic plague

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An epidemic of the bubonic plague commonly called The Plague or (since the late 16th century) the Black Death killed millions in Europe and many parts of Asia between 1347 and 1352. The plague was spread and transmitted by rats and other rodents, who carried infected fleas in their fur, but this cause was not known at the time.

About 20 million of the 60 million people in Europe at the time died. In all of recorded history, this epidemic has only two rivals: the plague of 542 and the flu epidemic of 1918. The long term effects affected the economy by causing a long-term labor shortage.


The germ theory of disease had not been discovered, so the means of transmission and cure were a mystery to contemporary doctors. After the 3-7 day incubation period, the sufferer would experience initial symptoms of chills, fever, diarrhea, headaches, and the swelling of the infected lymph nodes. If it was untreated, 30-75% of those who contracted the plague died.

Among the most prominent signs of the disease were the development of blackish colored swellings called "buboes."


It spread rapidly along trade routes and especially the Silk Road. It originated amongst the Mongols in Asia, who allowed their sacks of food to be exposed to rats and fleas that carried the fatal disease. Traders brought it with them into the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe. In four short years, a third of Europe's population was lost to the plague, especially the poor.

Slow recovery

The fatality rate was even higher in China, where an estimated 25 million died from it. It took 100 years for Europe and China to recover, and a longer period of time for Islamic countries and the Middle East. Egypt was hit particularly hard, with some areas not recovering for 500 years.

Impact on economy

The era of the Black Death witnessed a series of important long-term changes in demographic behavior, agriculture, manufacturing, trade, and technology. Real wage series reflect the productivity increases from these changes and suggest that the Low Countries and England were able to resist to a greater extent the general tendency for wages to decline during the second leg of the demographic cycle that began with the Black Death. A wage gap thus began to emerge between the northwest and the rest of the continent after 1450.[1]

The devastation of the serfs, who made up the vast majority of the population, also strengthened their socio-economic position. The scarcity of labor meant that, through proto-strikes, they could bargain with land-owners to improve their conditions of life. This led to the beginning of the end of feudalism in Europe, as it weakened the force behind the success of the manors. The plague also created a demand for more centralized government that could respond effectively to disease.

The Black Death spurred monarchies and city-states across much of medieval Europe to formulate new wage and price legislation. These legislative acts splintered in a multitude of directions that to date defy any obvious patterns of economic or political rationality. A comparison of labor laws in England, France, Provence, Aragon, Castile, the Low Countries, and the city-states of Italy shows that these laws did not flow logically from new post-plague demographics and economics - the realities of the supply and demand for labor. Instead, the new municipal and royal efforts to control labor and artisans' prices emerged from fears of the greed and supposed new powers of subaltern classes and are better understood in the contexts of anxiety that sprung forth from the Black Death's new horrors of mass mortality and destruction.[2]

Popular response

Anxiety levels were very high—death was at hand for everyone. One result was social behavior such as the flagellant movement and the persecution of Jews, Catalans, and beggars. In some regions such as Alsace the Jews were blamed and were driven from the main cities.

St Sebastian by Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510)

Artists often depicted the mass trauma using three popular cultural representations that surfaced in performance, poetry, and painting: the Triumph of Death, the Dance of the Dead ("danse macabre"), and Death and the Maiden. The story and image of St. Sebastian became popular; the arrows with which he was pierced represented the plague, but he survived the deadly assault and became a protector against the plague.

The Plague was commonly interpreted by popular religiosity as a divine punishment despite some efforts to treat the disease medically. The theological interpretation viewed premature death by the plague as either God's rescue of His own from unmitigated evil or as punishment for the victim's sins. Other interpretations blamed the plague on evil lifestyles or, in the case of Bavarian physician, humanist, and astrologer Joseph Grünpeck (d. 1532), on unfavorable juxtapositions of the heavenly bodies. Piety, contrition, and repentance were recommended as therapies, along with intercessory prayer by the saints and sometimes even exorcisms and magic. Natural remedies included treatment with garden herbs. Intended for both physicians and literate society at large, the treatises indicate a close relationship between practical piety and natural-empirical treatment - something Dutch historian Johan Huizinga called "the almost irreconcilable contradictions" of late medieval religious life.

Hans Holbein, "The Dance of Death." Woodcut, about 1538

Public health

Modern methods of disease control originated in response to the Plague. Cities such as Venice created public health boards to use sanitation, quarantine, and isolation to slow the spread of the plague. Gradually these early boards became permanent fixtures and often employed elaborate inspectorates to identify possible disease sources. These boards spread slowly to northern Europe, with the first health boards appearing in France only in 1580. Soon northern Europe began to implement health measures on a national scale, such as the 1709 Prussian regulations on dealing with the plague. Such measures culminated in the Habsburg 'cordon sanitaire,' a thousand-mile, guarded border in the Balkans in effect from 1770 to 1871 to insulate the empire from epidemics common in the Ottoman Empire. These national endeavors tended to be more effective in dealing with large outbreaks of plague and other such diseases, but local measures retained their effectiveness against other endemic diseases.[3]


The bubonic plague is still endemic to some parts of the world, such as Tanzania.[4] In May 2007, there was an outbreak of the bubonic plague among animals in Denver, Colorado.[5] However, due to modern sanitation in European countries, it is unlikely to ever reach epidemic proportions again. [6]

Further reading

Part of the series on
The Middle Ages
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Early Middle Ages (6th-10th century)
High Middle Ages (11th-13th century)
Late Middle Ages (14th-15th century)

Medieval History

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Investiture Conflict
Black Death
The Crusades

Medieval Society

Medieval religion
Medieval politics

  • Cantor, Norman. In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World It Made (2002) excerpt and text search
  • Clark, James M. The Dance of Death in the Middle Ages and Renaissance (1950), 131pp
  • Cohn, Samuel. "The Black Death: End of a Paradigm", American Historical Review 2002 107(3):703–738
  • Gottfried, Robert S. The Black Death: Natural and Human Disaster in Medieval Europe (1985) excerpt and text search
  • Hollar, Wenceslaus. The dance of death (1804) 70pp; art history full text online
  • Huppert, George. After the Black Death: A Social History of Early Modern Europe (1998) excerpt and text search
  • Naphy, William G., and Andrew Spicer. Plague: Black Death & Pestilence in Europe (2004)
  • Platt, Colin. King Death: The Black Death and Its Aftermath in Late Medieval England (1996) 262pp. excerpt and text search


  1. Sevket Pamuk, "The Black Death and the Origins of the 'Great Divergence' Across Europe, 1300-1600," European Review of Economic History 2007 11(3): 289-317,
  2. Samuel Cohn, "After the Black Death: Labour Legislation and Attitudes Towards Labour in Late-Medieval Western Europe," Economic History Review 2007 60(3): 457-485,
  3. Gary B. Magee, "Disease Management in Pre-industrial Europe: A Reconsideration of the Efficacy of the Local Response to Epidemics," Journal of European Economic History 1997 26(3): 605-623,
  4. http://news.yahoo.com/s/afp/20070517/hl_afp/tanzaniahealthplague_070517161454
  5. https://www.cnn.com/2007/US/05/21/bubonic.plague.reut/index.html?section=cnn_latest
  6. http://wcbstv.com/national/topstories_story_142072816.html