Black Death

The Black Death was one of the worst natural disasters to hit Europe, and it did so twice, first in the late 5-6th century AD and the second time during the 14th century AD. The second we have more information on the disaster, where as the first pandemic, also known as Justinian’s Flea we have very little written documentation about. On both occasions it caused millions of deaths and the consequences were devastating.


Both pandemics changed the course of history, the first saw the end of the ancient world and brought us towards  medieval Europe, where as the occurence in the medieval period brought us enlightenment and the birth of the modern world. We know that the plague of 1347 killed 1/3 of European population, “the impact upon the future of England was greater than upon any other European country.” (Cartwright, 1991).

We also now know the plague was carried by the fleas of the brown rat or Asian Rat.  Both of these pandemic came in the wake of climatic change, the change in climate allowed the rats to breed beyond normal, which meant they came in to closer contact with humans and so the disease spread initially due to an explosion in the rat population. Its believed that the plague first emerged in Asia and followed traders, armies and people moving west along the trade routes.  The plague spread due to people trying to move away from plague infested towns and cities, carrying the disease with them.

End of the Ancient World

Climatic change between the 4th – 6th century gave rise to a pandemic we know now was most likely the Black Death, description in written documentation by citizens of Byzantine Empire, suggests that this disease was the same as that of the 14th Century AD.

This disease always took its start from the coast, and then went up to the interior.” Procopius, History of the Wars, II, xxii, 8

Again it seems to have risen in the east and possibly in  Africa as well, which also explains some of the migration of various people during this period into the west, which affected the Roman Empire. Slowly the disease made it way across Asia and Africa into Europe where it devastated the European community.

A day’s moderate fever would be followed by a week of delirium. Buboes would appear under the arms, in the groin, behind the ears, and grow to the size of melons. Edemas – of blood – infiltrated the nerve endings of the swollen lymphatic glands, causing massive pain. Sometimes the buboes would burst in a shower of the foul-smelling leukocytes called pus. Sometimes the plague would become what a modern epidemiologist would describe as “septicemic” ; those victims would die vomiting blood from internal hemorrhages that formed even more rapidly than the buboes. Those who contracted septicemic plague might have been the fortunate ones; though they all died (bubonic plague kills “only” four to seven out of ten victims, septicemic plague is virtually 100% deadly) they at least died fast. They weren’t tortured with pain for a week or more, nor did they go insane, as thousands of citizens of Constantinople did, leaping into the sea in the hope of ending their suffering.  William Rosen, Justinian’s Flea

As we can see from the above description it is very similar to the disease of the 14th Century, so we can assume that the pandemic of the 6th Century had the same devastating effect on the population, economy and society as the Black Death did in the Medieval period. Around 25  million people were killed by the disease, which weakened both the Roman and Persian Empires.

Islam spread in the wake of the disease moving across the middle east and into Africa, giving rise to a number of Islāmic nations and dynasties.

14th Century Black Death

The biggest change in the 14th century was due to the disease was the economy, with the loss of so many people there were fewer peasants to work the land. Those who survived demanded higher wages, Landlords increased rents and taxation became higher. The peasant class now had a greater say, the disease brought about the eventual death of the feudal system.

Scene of the Black Death

The medieval church lost some of its authority because they failed to give answers to why it happened, they said it was god’s will but couldn’t explain why. In many places priests abandoned their duties and fled in the wake of the plague deserting their parishioners.

Society was changed by the disease, whole villages became abandoned, noble lines ended with the plague. Events that followed the Black Death that can be attributed to it, such the Peasants Revolt of 1381, caused by high taxation, charters that forced peasants to stay on low wages whilst paying high rents, it took nearly 400 years before the population was at pre pandemic levels, wealth moved from being land based to a more portable skills, money and services. More people moved into towns and cities, which meant that rural society declined and gave birth to modern way of life.

Are we at risk today

The disease hasn’t disappeared, there are several cases each year across the globe, though as yet it hasn’t erupted in to an epidemic or pandemic, but are we at risk from the disease today, the answer is yes, though there are antibiotics to treat the disease. Recently a new strain was found in  Madagascar that is antibiotic-resistant, as with any disease there always a possibility of it becoming an epidemic or worse a pandemic. Recently we saw how quickly Swine Flu spread across the globe last year, with modern transportation and movement of goods and people, a disease will probably find it easier to disperse across the world in today’s modern world.

Further Reading

Frederick F. Cartwright, DISEASE AND HISTORY, Dorset Press, New York, 1991

William Rosen, Justinian’s Flea: Plague, Empire and the Birth of Europe, Pimlico, 2000

John Hatcher, The Black Death: The Intimate Story of a Village in Crisis, 1345-50: An Intimate History, Phoenix, 2009

Susan Scott , Christopher Duncan , Return of the Black Death: The World’s Greatest Serial Killer, John Wiley & Sons , 2005

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