The Black Death

The Black Death was a pandemic of the Bubonic plague that swept through Asia and Europe from 1346 to 1351, killing an estimated 200 million people.

What caused it and where it came from

The disease was caused by the bacteria called Yersinia pestis, living in the intestines of fleas in black rats and other rodents. These rodents fled areas in Asia that were becoming drier because of climate change and they brought their fleas to human settlements where the bacteria began to infect humans.

The Black Death spreads in Europe

The plague entered Europe several ways, but the main transmission, according to scholars, is when Mongol leader Jani Beg threw corpses over the wall of Kaffa, a port city he was besieging. Beg’s men were already dying of the plague so he threw corpses of his men into the city and the disease spread.

Genoese and Venetian traders left Kaffa in their ships and took the disease with them to the rest of Europe.

From Genoa and Venice the disease spread to the rest of Italy. From Italy it would spread to the rest of Europe, even crossing the English Channel to reach London in 1348.

Rodents with infected fleas also came on merchant ships traveling from Asia to Europe on the Silk Road.

The Black Death spreads in the Middle East

The Black Plague also spread in the Middle East. The Mongols had already spread it throughout China on their way to Kaffa. It also reached Russia. By 1347 it was already in Alexandria, from there it was brought to Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Accra, Jerusalem, and even Mecca.

The Black Death ends

Since the disease spread quickly in thickly-populated areas, it slowed down as it got to less-populated areas. Measures like quarantine also helped slow the spread of the disease among people.

Interesting facts about the Black Death

  • After the Black Death it took almost 200 years for the world population to go back to its previous level.
  • People believed the disease signaled the end of the world.
  • Others thought it was a punishment from God, as a result people looked for someone to blame. In this case it was Jews and other religious minorities who were targeted.
  • Many of those who died as a result of the Black Death didn’t die of the disease directly. Many also starved because many farmers died and no one could harvest crops.
  • Many cities could not build coffins fast enough to keep up with the number of dead people, so they dug mass graves where people could bury their dead. These pits would later be called “plague pits”.
  • Lacking understanding of bacteria, people during the time thought the plague was spread by “dirty air.”
  • Different “cures” were prescribed for the plague including chopping up a snake and rubbing it on a victim, drinking vinegar, and eating crushed minerals like arsenic and mercury.
  • The cities of Milan and Douai in Flanders, both huge centers of commerce, escaped the worst of the disease despite being in its path.

What is a pandemic?

A pandemic is a disease covering a huge area. While an epidemic only affects a community, a pandemic can affect an entire country or even an entire region in the world.

How did the bacteria affect humans?

A bite from a flea could transmit the bacteria to humans. From there human-to-human infection occurred when an uninfected person was exposed to the infected tissue or the cough of someone with the disease.

What is the Silk Road?

The Silk Road was a network of trade routes over land and sea that allowed merchants to move their good between Asia and Europe. It got the name because silk from China made up majority of the trade items from east to west.

What are the signs someone has the Black Plague?

People infected with the Bubonic Plague had blackish lumps called buboes appear in the neck, groin, or armpits. These buboes oozed pus and bled when broken.

This was followed by fever and vomiting of blood. The victim would usually be dead within two to seven days after being infected.