Black Death


     In the 1340’s, approximately one third to one half the population of Europe
was wiped out by what was called "The Black Death". The people of the time
were armed with little to no understanding of why and how the plague happened
and how to control it; and this allowed for the vast destruction that occurred
in little more than three years time. The origin of the epidemic has, with
little doubt, been identified as Lake Issyk-Koul in what is now a part of

Russian Central Asia. A flood, or some other natural disaster, drove various
rodents from their habitats around the lake; and with them they carried fleas
infected with the plague. A species of wild rodents normally isolated from
humanity spread the plague to the more common black rat, which has been riding
on board ships since man first set sail. The plague then followed the trade
routes all over Europe. "Ships arrived from Caffa at the port of Messina,

Sicily. A few dying men clung to the oars; the rest lay dead on the decks...

Ships that carried the coveted goods of the fabled East now also carried death.

The Pestilence had come to the shores of Europe" (Wark). The accounts of the
plague tell of the symptoms being ‘tumors in the groin or the armpits’ and
‘black livid spots on the arm or thigh’, typical symptoms of Bubonic plague.

However, Bubonic plague normally takes several days to kill, and many accounts
tell of victims falling dead inside one day of contracting the disease. The
variance in the cases of the Black Death are the workings of three strains of
the plague: the plague proper; a pulmonary (air-borne) version, characterized by
the vomiting of blood; and a septicaemic variant, capable of killing in several
hours, before typical symptoms can even develop. The people the plague
threatened knew neither the source of the disease, nor how to protect themselves
from it. "It was said that the cause of the Pestilence or The Great Mortality
-- 14th-century names for the contagion -- was a particularly sinister alignment
of the planets, or a foul wind created by recent earthquakes. Other theories
existed. ‘Looks,’ according to one medieval physician, ‘could kill’ "
(Wark). They believed their best recourse for avoiding the plague, was to run
from it. When flight was not an option, they attempted to purify the air by
burning aromatic woods and powders. They remained inactive, almost vegetative,
holed up in their homes; if one had to move, he ought to move slowly. Love,
anger, and hot baths were to be avoided; and, based on the belief that bad drove
out bad, potential victims would spend a half-hour daily crouched over a latrine
to build up their resistance. Once one contracted the plague, death was only a
question of time. Physicians stopped visiting the infirm out of fear and the
obvious futility of their efforts. They claimed the plague must be punishment
from God, and therefore beyond their control. Priest still came to deliver the
last rights, and consequently, they died in droves. The effects of the plague
went far beyond the obvious death toll, into the souls of men and women. "
‘Some people callously maintained that there was no better or more efficacious
remedy against a plague than to run away from it. Swayed by this argument, and
sparing no thought for anyone but themselves, large numbers of men and women
abandoned their city, their homes, their relatives, their estates and their
belongings, and headed for the countryside. They maintained that an infallible
way of warding off this appalling evil was to drink heavily, enjoy life to the
full, go around singing and merrymaking, gratify all of one's cravings whenever
the opportunity offered, and shrug the whole thing off as one enormous joke.’
-Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron" (Wark). Still, some people took a
different view of the situation. Germany was the center for two phenomena
spawned by the plague the Flagellant movement, and a wave of anti-Semitism. The

Flagellants believed that by chastising themselves they could avert the wrath of

God.