Beginning in the mid-fourteenth century, a plague swept the world like no other. It struck in a series of waves that continued into the eighteenth century. The first wave was estimated to have killed twenty-five million people, about a third of the Western Europe population at that time. Throughout the different outbreaks, the plague, also known as the Bubonic Plague or the Black Death, caused people to react in several ways. Some people believed the plague was a medical problem that can be treated, some found themselves concerned only with their own greed, still others believed there was nothing they could do and reacted in fear, and most people believed it was a form of divine punishment from God.
To begin with, during the time of the Black Death, the medical community knew enough to believe that the plague could be treated; however their knowledge on how to treat it was limited. Various doctors had the infected hand toads around their necks, alive or dead, “whose venom should within a few days draw out the poison of the disease” (H. de Rochas 10). Additional doctors attempted to find the source of the plague.
One named Erasmus believed the Black Death was spread from the filth in the streets and homes. His perspective came from the fact that there was very little hygiene during the time of the plague. Peasants bathed maybe once a year, and even nobles only bathed twice a year. Erasmus was looking for a possible way for the plague to be created, and was not far off. We know now that the plague was a bacterial infection, spread by fleas that had been infected via rats.
In an attempt to stop the plague, people were quarantined in their villages and the infected were often buried in their homes. Giovan Filippo, a Sicilian physician, had the motto “Gold, fire, the gallows”. Gold to fund the pest houses that quarantined the sick, the gallows to punish the people who violated health regulations, and bonfires to eradicate contaminated things.
Moreover, greed drives people’s actions everyday, and this was no different during the Bubonic Plague. Various different people only saw the plague as a way to help their own greedy concerns. One such occurrence was when approximately 40 people smeared the bolts of the town gates at Casale in Western Lombardy with an ointment to spread the plague.
“The heirs of the dead and diseased had actually paid people at Casale to smear the gates in order to obtain their inheritances more quickly”(Johann Weyer 4). Of those who touched the gates, all were infected and many died. To the heirs that did this, the plague was no more than a way to receive their inheritances early. Johann Weyer was a German physician who had possibly treated the residents of Casale that were infected on purpose. Another case of greed ensued in Barcelona. There was a great demand for nurses when the Black Death arrived in Barcelona, nevertheless the ill were perhaps better off without the nurses. Citizens believed often times all a nurse would do was make the patients die more quickly, “because the sooner they died, the sooner the nurses collected the fees they had agreed on”(Miguel Parets 11).
However, the Black Death created times of mass confusion and fear, and Miguel Parets, a Barcelona tanner, may have been putting all the blame for the death of a loved one on the nurses because they couldn’t do much to save the sick.
Additionally, on account of how many people died when the Black Death struck, a great number of people believed there was no way to do anything to stop the plague and thus reacted with incredible fear. After twenty boys died from the plague, parents kept their children home from school. When the plague came to Paris, the rich fled the city, leaving the disease to be “principally directed towards the poor”(Nicolas Versoris 3).
Nicolas Versoris was a French author, and most likely one of the rich to leave Paris. When he wrote about this in Book of Reasons, he may have felt ashamed of how many of the poor died after he fled. Additional people, like Nehemiah Wallington, feared for who in their family would get infected and die.
The public would cut the hair off the dead bodies of the tainted because they were afraid the plague was spread through wigs. When the Black Death stuck Europe once again in 1722, foreign exportation with France, Holland, Spain, and Italy was stopped because these nations were concerned the plague would spread through trade. All of these countries had seen what the plague would do if it were to spread, so they practically quarantined Europe in an attempt to keep the Black Death contained.
Furthermore, the populace was extremely religious during the times of the plague, and many thought the Black Death was a way for God to punish the sinful. Several people believed that as long as God was on their side, they would be safe from the plague.
One such man was Sir John Reresby, an English traveler who wanted to visit Italy. When he learned Italy had been struck by the plague, only he and three others would still risk traveling to Italy. Sir John “resolved to trust Providence rather than not see so fine a place”. Sir John was an exceedingly religious man and because he believed he had no sins and was under the care of God, he would be fine if he went to Italy. What’s more is in 1696, when Emperor Leopold returned after the Black Death had left Vienna, he commissioned the “Plague Column” to thank God for showing mercy to Vienna.
Even doctors believed God created the plague. M. Bertrand, a physician at Marseilles, wrote that the Black Death was punishment from God over sinful people, and therefore medicines wouldn’t be able to help like normal ailments. Because he believed there were no medications to help against the plague, M. Bertrand was almost certainly not an enormously helpful doctor when the sick came to him.
All in all, the people living in the time of the plague either believed the plague could be treated with medication, that the plague was a fine way to harness their greed, there was nothing they could do to protect against the plague and were consumed with fear, or the plague was a punishment from God. All of these beliefs were based off of the perspectives of an individual living through the plague. The Black Death will continue to hold a spot in history as one of the worst plagues to ever circle the globe.
Courtney from Study Moose
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