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14th Century Crises

The Black Death

Keith Tankard
The Time Traveller
Updated: 14 December 2009
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The 14th Century was a time of great tragedy. Everything seemed to go wrong at the same time, almost as if Europe was suffering from a hangover from the heady days of the High Middle Ages. The climate changed dramatically, ushering in a couple of centuries of colder and wetter weather.

Then came the Black Death, a bubonic plague pandemic. As if all this was not enough, the papacy seemed to lose its head and, in doing so, the Catholic Church lost the support of the hearts and minds of its own congregation.


The plague is often regarded as one of the greatest scourges of man. The disease is caused by the bacillus Yersinia pestis which invades the body of the host. Although it is primarily a disease of rodents and is carried by fleas, occasionally humans do become infected, usually after high mortality among rats.

The disease occurs in three forms. The most common is the bubonic plague in which the bacillus infests the glands, causing buboes or swellings. The bubo, sometimes as big as an orange, tends to grow in the groin, armpit or neck. If it bursts within a week, the patient may live but, if not, then sheer pain would cause death. Today it is comparatively easy to diagnose this form.

When the bacillus infests the lungs, then pneumonic plague develops, a contagious form which is difficult to diagnose because its symptoms are similar to bronchial pneumonia. It almost always caused death, usually within about two days, and is spread by people coughing the bacilli into the air, to be breathed in by other people in the same room.

The third form, known as septicaemic plague, is the most deadly and can cause death within a matter of hours, long before buboes have formed.

The plague erupts occasionally as local epidemics. Sometimes, however, it takes the form of an international epidemic, or pandemic. The high mortality of its initial impact is followed by a long period in which it lies endemic, with occasional eruptions. Finally, after several hundred years, it dies away altogether.

There have been three known major plague pandemics in recorded history. The first occurred during the reign of Justinian in the 6th century. The second and most commonly known was the Black Death of the 14th century, but which had its last outbreak in the Great Plague of London in 1665. The third pandemic started in China in the 1880s, spread to India, and from there travelled along the trade routes to Africa and South America. It broke out in Cape Town in 1900 and in East London and King William's Town in 1903. It has recently erupted in the Azores, South America and India.


The Black Death seems to have originated in Central Asia in about 1338, from where it spread to China and India, reaching Europe in late 1347. It first struck Sicily in October 1347, arrived in France in January 1348 and reached Germany and England by June that year. It raged until about 1350 and then dissipated.

Within hours of its first appearance, it caused hundreds of deaths and during the three years between 1347 and 1350 the population of Europe shrank by an estimated 25% to 60%. Of all cities it probably devastated Florence and London the most, and it is from the former that we have the most vivid contemporary descriptions of it by Boccaccio. His depictions seem accurate although he probably exaggerated the numbers of dead listed.

At its worst, it is estimated that some 600 people died per day, although it is difficult to estimate numbers. One has therefore to indulge in a bit of guesswork. Contemporaries gave figures which modern historians tend to dismiss as the "products of hysteria".

Nevertheless, it is generally accepted to range between 25% and 60% depending on the area, although some towns and districts escaped altogether while others were totally destroyed.

It was, however, a degrading and humiliating death. Everything about the Black Death was disgusting so that the sick became more objects of detestation than of pity. One contemporary wrote, "All the matter which exuded from their bodies let off an unbearable stench: sweat, excrement, spit, breath, so fetid as to be overpowering; urine turbid, thick, black or red."

One of the major tragedies of the Black Death is that it struck Europe when the people were at their weakest. Europe was in the grip of climatic instability, weakened by hunger and malnutrition, distracted by warfare and religious uncertainty. The bubonic plague eruption therefore only served to worsen an already critical condition.


Contemporaries had no way of knowing what was causing the sickness. In the days of deeply religious sentiment and incredible superstition, the people were quick to believe that it was an affliction sent by the wrath of God. They had numerous Old and New Testament examples and predictions to call upon to substantiate such an argument, since they were fairly well-versed in scripture.

They were not so sure what they had done, in what way they had sinned, but the range of choice was fairly wide: lechery, avarice, decadence of the Church, irreverence of the knightly classes, greed of kings, drunkenness of the peasants. Each vice was condemned according to the prejudices of the preachers and presented as the last straw which had broken the back of God's patience.

Medicine during the late Middle Ages proved particular helpless in the face of the plague and the most commonsense advice was for the people to flee. The alternative, of course, was to pray - which proved even more fruitless.

The burning of dry and richly scented woods was advised. The use of anything aromatic was considered of value and the houses were to be filled with flowers. Hot baths, on the other hand, were to be avoided because they opened the pores of the skin to the foul air.

Bleeding was considered useful and so was the inhaling of bad odours, the theory being that bad would drive out bad. Attendants who looked after public latrines were considered immune and it was not unknown for terrified citizens of a plague-stricken city to spend hours each day crouched over a latrine, relishing the fetid smells exuding therefrom.


Another cure was the use of flagellation. Whipping as a means of penance has existed in many societies, although it seems only to have crept into the Catholic Church in about the 11th century. The "Brotherhood of the Flagellants" and the "Brethren of the Cross", therefore, soon made their appearance, especially in eastern Europe and Germany. Members of these new religious groups moved about in long crocodiles, two by two, sometimes numbering up to a thousand.

Usually they went to the market place of a village where they stripped to the waist and marched around in a circle. At a word from the Grand Master, they would fall to the ground in the crucifix posture. The Master would then move among them thrashing those who had committed special crimes, designated by special postures. Then began the collective flogging.

The Jews in Germany, France and Spain were also held responsible for the Black Death, and so began massive persecutions.

The plague also gave rise to a new "heresy", known as the "Free Spirits", people who justified sexual licence and social immorality. There was also the development of a deviant movement called the "dancers" where women marched through the countryside imitating the flagellants, but substituting promiscuity for penitence.

Art of the time increasingly stressed the morbid and the pessimistic, with popular themes being the Seven Deadly Sins and the Last Judgement. The Virgin Mary, who had been portrayed during the High Middle Ages as radiant and full of hope, was now depicted as slumped in tears at the foot of the cross. Tombstones frequently depicted putrefying bodies, while gallows humour became popular.

One of the sickest results, however, was the rise of the becchini who forced their way into the houses of the living and carried them away as though dead, unless the men paid for their safety with bribes, or the women consented to sex. The former was parodied in the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

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