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Sunday, 7 October 2012

Black Death

The Black Death was a terrible epidemic of plague, mainly the bubonic variant, that ravaged Europe in the mid-14th century. The cause of the plague was the bacterium Yersinia pestis, transmitted by fleas that infested migrating Asian black rats.

Originating in China, the disease followed the trade routes through India into Europe, travelling at a rate of ten miles a day.

Symptoms were violent headache; dark blotches caused by bleeding under the skin; and buboes, massively swollen lymph glands that could grow to the size of an orange in the groin or armpit. Buboes were variously described as black pustules, boils, and abscesses. Few victims lived longer than four to seven days, though there were rare cases of survival if the buboes burst.

The plague arrived in Sicily, Italy, in October 1347, reached southern France in January 1348, and was first recorded in England in August 1348, after two fishing boats from France docked at Weymouth, Dorset.

The Black Death arrived in Norway on a ghost ship that just so happened become beached near a major port. Even tho all the crew had died the surviving rats and flees managed to spread the disease throughout the country and later to Sweden and Russia.

Contemporary estimates that it killed between one-third and half of the population (about 75 million people) are probably accurate. Britain’s population decreased from 3,700,000 in 1350 to 2,000,000 seven years later. Among those lost to the plague was the King of England Edward III’s daughter, Joan.

Jewish communities had lower death rates during the Black Death due to their hygienic practices. This in part inspired a wave of antisemitic violence in Christian Europe, where some communities attributed the pandemic to a Jewish conspiracy.

Strasbourg, part of the Holy Roman empire, was the scene of the first mass holocaust of Jews in Europe. Collectively accused of causing the Black Death by poisoning the local water supplies, 2,000 men, women and children were herded into a circle and burnt alive.

The Fifth Siege of Gibraltar came to a sudden end in March 1350 when King Alfonso XI of Castile became the only monarch to die in the Black Death.

Many people feared the Black Death was God’s judgement on a wicked world. Dice-makers turned their dice into beads for prayer and the Archbishop of York ordered solemn processions to ask for God’s mercy. One particular group who subscribe to this judgement theory were the Flagellants, groups of hooded men who marched with their white robes emblazoned on both sides with a red cross. They marched in parties of around 100 in a funeral procession from town to town with a combination of hymnal singing and sobbing. Throughout Europe they preached against church corruption and persecution of the Jews. Twice a day they performed a ceremony in public where they whipped themselves or beat themselves with iron spikes. The general public had tremendous regard for them as they see their acts as symbolizing man’s remorse for his wicked ways in a period when God’s judgement and wrath were manifestly evident.

The Black Death may have reduced the world's population from an estimated 450 million in 1340 to between 350 and 375 million in 1400

The Black Death resulted in a stronger and longer-living human population. Scientists examined the bones of those who died before and after the plague and determined that its survivors and their descendants were healthier and longer-living.

The Black Death  produced a religious revival aimed at atoning for whatever sins may have caused the tragedy. This revival leads to an increase in charitable works and the founding of many new hospitals across Europe.

Also many people paid money to their priests to dedicate Masses to them and their families, believing that this will ensure divine protection on Earth. The result of this was a large income for the church that was spent on intricate decoration and liturgical music. Most churches had at least one resident musician whose task was to produce music on a weekly basis for both the Mass and the choir.

Feudalism died out largely thanks to the Black Death, which made labour scarce and gave workers power to demand more money and transfer their skills from one lord to another.

The name Black Death was first used in England in the early 19th century due to the dark discoloration of the skin.

Sources Hutchinson Encyclopedia © RM 2012. Helicon Publishing is division of RM.

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