Bubonic plague has emerged and spread rapidly across towns, cities, and rural areas in several worldwide epidemics through the whole of history. Probably the earliest mention of bubonic plague is the Old Testament record in the First Book of Samuel giving an account of swellings and rodents that made attack on the Philistines (Ackroyd 55-57). The bubonic plague later hit the falling apart Roman Empire in the period of the sixth and seventh centuries.
And from 1348 to 1350, the plague known as the Black Death brought the suffering and death across Europe and China, killing perhaps one-quarter or one-third of the population. This terrible epidemic outbreak of the deadly and highly infectious plague in China and Europe, that became possibly the worst catastrophe in all written history, still remains one of the most important and controversial tragic events through the history.
Many professional historians of medicine analyzed the origin and spread of the Black Death, trying to explain or understand the origin and flow of epidemic disease during that period. This paper will discuss some of the perspectives and historical accounts by giving a glimpse of the evidence that various historians have considered. The Cause of the Black Death Most historians acknowledge that Europe and China experienced population pressure and famine in the 1300’s. Supporters of the demographic model usually link famine with plague, sometimes directly, sometimes vaguely.
Famine and population pressure, state North and Thomas (1970), “set the stage for disease” and often were associated with the origin of the plague (1-17). Supporting such point of view, Le Roy Ladurie (1972) described the Black Death as a “holocaust of the undernourished” (3-34). Historians indicate that the Black Death had been preceded by the periods of famine, in particular the great famine of 1315-17 that was experienced by European population in the north, and it is also recorded that considerable population increase in general had already been reported before the Black Death.
Consequently, analysis of supporters of the demographic model would suggest that the massive expansion of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries generated a situation where population growth went faster than food resources, with the outcome that lack of means by which population could maintain life became more serious and facilitated the origin of the epidemic. Other historians disagree.
Thus, for example, Jean Meuvret (1993) argued that there was no simple or direct cause-effect relationship between famine/population pressure and Black Death. Jean Meuvret’s position was confirmed by Jean-Noel Biraben in a great study of the plague (Grmek and Fantini 319). Biraben demonstrated that although bubonic plague often originated after famine, there were many examples when famine came after plague and other cases in which plague was not accompanied by famine and vice versa.
The historian came to conclusion that in the case of the Black Death there was no cause other than the plague itself that could have brought about epidemic. There may be found some relationship between famine and disease, he indicates, but it was not because famine became the cause of the plague; rather, it was because plague, after striking, aggravated famine as a result of the considerable stagnation of agriculture and economic disorder.
Moreover, in all the recent medical literature that examines plague taking into account historical cycles, there is found no direct connection between lack of food and plague origin. These considerations generate doubt about the position of the demographic model. The Spread of the Black Death This section will begin by asking where Black Death came from, and why it emerged when it did. There is general agreement among contemporary observers and today’s historians that the Black Death of the fourteenth century originated in central Asia.
Although it is hard to tell for sure, but there is also a growing opinion among historians that the Black Death came and expanded across Central Asia from China in the period of the 1340s and in 1347 it infected medieval Genoese traders who had established roots between Europe and Central Asia, it almost instantly emerged in Constantinople and was then right away communicated by the trade routes to the widespread areas of Mediterranean and western Europe. Historians have found out that already by the end of 1348 most population of southern and western Europe had been infected with this rapidly developing disease.
It soon appeared in England and two years later it already hit the rest of the British land, Germany and Scandinavia. It is estimated that between a third and a half of all Europeans were killed by the Black Death of 1348-53 (Loudon 66). The dreadful disease spread every day from the sick to the noninfected. It was even not necessary to be near the infected: even being in contact with their clothes or anything they had touched was enough to become infected.
Most of the poor population was not allowed to leave the houses and became sick every day by thousands. And for insufficiency of appropriate medical service and other things, almost all unavoidably were destined to terrible death. The epidemic killed whole communities. John Saltmarsh presents account of the genocide, economic stagnation and depression brought by plague. He refers to a French historian who described in detail deserted villages and farms. Saltmarsh cites a Franciscan Friar, John Clyn:
Lest things worthy of remembrance should perish with time, and fall away from the memory of those who come after us, I, seeing these many evils, and the whole world lying, as it were, in the wicked one – myself awaiting death among the dead – inter mortuos mortem expectans – as I have truly heard and examined, so I have reduced these things to writing; and lest the writing should perish with the writer, and the work fail together with the workman, I leave parchment for continuing the work, if haply any man survive, and any of the race of Adam escape this pestilence and continue the work which I have begun (Creighton 115).
This situation was not confined only to Europe. Beginning from the 1320s, the Black Death had carved its way along the roads of Central Asia. In particular China was hard affected. Some sources indicate that by the 1390s the population of China may have dropped to approximately 90 million from 125 million (Gottfried 35). Interpretations of the Black Death Medical professionals are now of the same opinion that the Black Death was the bubonic plague, arriving from central Asia, and carried by fleas and rats, which were widespread in medieval Europe.
Medieval doctors, however, naturally possessed no knowledge to determine by diagnosis anything so dependent upon microscopic examination of phenomena. As a result, the plague was often attributed to God’s rage against the special depravity and corruption of that period. Thus, for example, in Piers Ploughman, Reason “proved that these pestilences were for pure sin, and the south-west wind on Saturday at even was for pure pride, and no point else” (Sumption 15). Contemporary astrological specialists noticed the deadly union of Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars.
In addition, Jews were oppressed and destroyed as there was information that they had poisoned wells. Medical representatives had two opinions: the first group claimed that the cause was miasma, pollution of the air, and the second group considered that direct contact was the cause and recommended complete isolation. The quarantines were absolutely useless, taking into consideration the fact that the disease was transmitted by rats and fleas, but these nuances were not known until additional studies were done after the next great plague emerged in the 1890s.
Conclusion Human devastation was tremendous in the period of the Black Death, and the demographic, economic, political, social, and psychological impact of the plague was greatly felt for many decades. This paper explored various points of view of historians studying epidemics of the past and their explanations of how and why the great epidemic emerged, spread rapidly and caused so high mortality. It also looked at various interpretations of this disease by contemporary observers.