Plague and Pestilence

With the outbreak of Covid, many people are drawing parallels between it and the Black Death, and it is worth looking at some relevant echoes, but there are significant differences.

From about 800-1200 was the Medieval warm period, which allowed Europe’s population, agriculture and settlements to expand and thrive. The Norse went fishing further afield and settled in Iceland and fish off North America. They also raided Britain, and water levels rose so Norwich and Bristol, now far inland, became major ports.

Trade flourished but in 1302, a rebellion in Flanders saw most of France’s knights drowned due to incessant downpours. In 1315 saw Europe beset with almost constant rains from Ireland to Germany and Scandinavia, washing away fields that had been reclaimed from forests to feed their growing populations. In northern England thousands of acres of reclaimed farmland became barren and rocky. What little grain was harvested could not be dried, so was ruined by mould. Edward II tried to impose price controls on livestock and distilling of grain, and tried to import food but the problem was too widespread. The problem was exacerbated by the previous century’s mild conditions which had allowed Europe’s population to grow and to clear land clear for agriculture. The Europe wide famine lasted till 1322.

But at the same period, the Mongol Empire was expanding, and by the 14th century their army supply trains were carrying fleas with plague bacteria, possibly originating in the Gobi Desert. The disease broke out in Central Asia in 1338/9, reaching China and India by 1346, possibly helped by hot dry conditions which forced Mongol people to move in search of grazing for their animals. The Plague reached the port of Caffa on the Black Sea in 1347, so is Europe’s Year Zero. Genoese ships fled with fleas on board to their home port and to Constantinople, Venice and Marseilles. The first outbreak in Genoa killed 35% of their people.

Waves of disease spread across the continent. France may have lost 42% of its population, many of whom were survivors of the earlier famines. Britain’s island isolation provided little protection as the many ports – infamous for crowded slums and poor hygeine – were still open. It arrived in Bristol in August 1348 “where almost the whole strength of the town perished, as it was surprised by sudden death; for few kept their beds more than 2 or 3 days, or even half a day.”

It reached Scotland July 1349 where almost a third died, many within 2 days or less. This continued till 1351. It infected the whole of Europe in 3 years, with the exception of Hungary and Bohemia, suggesting water borne trade was a major factor.

Epidemics continued approximately every decade, especially in crowded towns, the streets piled high with organic waste which festered and was tramped into homes, especially of the poor.

They had no idea what was the cause, or of any treatment beyond prayer and public processions. In Germany groups of flagellants whipped their naked backs in public, but nothing helped. Jews seemed to survive better than others, probably due to better hygiene and care in food preparation, and were blamed for spreading the epidemic. It took 3 centuries before quarantine and disinfection were introduced.

By the start of the 15th century famine, plague and was had depopulated huge areas of Europe. France seems to have lost 3,000 villages. Cycles of famine & plagues kept populations down well into the 15th century.

But Europe’s had another problem from the east. The Black Death arrived with troops as was brought from the east as Europe was in retreat from the Holy Land, and the Eastern Christian Church was under attack from the Ottomans, which fuelled the loss of faith and a widespread sense of despair which lowered their resistance to the disease. Many people believed their world was in decline, and some were looking for scapegoats.

When plague hit, it claimed the young and the old, the innocent and the corrupt, the pious and the pagan. This weakened the Christian Church, and the elaborate rituals that developed to reduce a person’s time in Purgatory. People prayed for the souls of the departed as they expected to be prayed for in their turn. But the randomness of the deaths turned this concept upside down. Instead of illness bringing communities together, it bred mistrust between them and it fuelled a distrust of others, especially of strangers.

But many people left funds for prayers for their souls and when the pestilence faded, these funds helped pay for the construction of many new, impressive cathedrals as thanks for those that survived. Many others felt their world was finished, worn out. The Black Death begat an age of science and invention, of the compass, gunpowder, the printing press. It also inspired people to seek paradise on earth rather than in heaven, so helped fuel exploration and colonisation. It also paved the way for the Reformation, the questioning of how Christianity was practiced, which in turn took power from the priests and spread literacy amongst common people and the expansion of vernacular languages which reduced the use of Latin as Europe’s Lingua Franca.

The manpower shortage also had an impact. Famously in England, there was the Peasants’ Revolt and of King John unwillingly signing Magna Carta. In Italy the manpower shortage led to the pope authorising the use of slaves, but only of non Christians.

2 thoughts on “Plague and Pestilence

  1. I found this post fascinating. In light of current concerns about global warming it is interesting that there were significant temperature increases between 800 and 1200, although it sounds as if these increases were beneficial rather than problematic. It is really hard to imagine an epidemic killing 35% of a city’s population (as in Genoa). Studying history certainly helps put into perspective the problems and challenges that we’re facing at the moment!


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