We’ve all heard of the black plague. This sad episode of humanity has appeared in many literary works and films, such as An Endless World by Ken Follet or The Cathedral of the Sea by Ildefonso Falcones, the latter having recently been shown on the small screen.
However, the literature on the epidemic dates back to the 14th century, when Giovanni Bocaccio, a survivor of the great mortality of the city of Florence, conceived his novel, the Decameron, as a series of short stories which are told by a few friends, locked away. in the field to escape the plague. The novel begins with a vivid description of the epidemic, which is one of the most eloquent witnesses to the calamity it has caused to the people of Europe.
Bocaccio tells us about thousands of deaths (in one city); husbands who have abandoned their wives, and vice versa, for fear of contagion, and even parents who have left their children dying in bed, alone, without attention or care. He tells us about mass graves laden with dead, quick and stealthy burials, barely priests and no relatives present to mourn the deceased. It testifies to the speed with which death came, silent, almost without warning, the horrible torment of the sick, the loneliness of the dying, chaos, terror, confusion.
It was the black plague, the worst and deadliest epidemic in human history. In this article, we will try to save all its aspects, and also to discern, as always, between reality and fantasy.
The black plague or the evil come from the east
14th-century Europe was an eminently commercial land. Gone are the first centuries of the Middle Ages, when the economy was mainly local and practically subsistence. In fact, around the 11th century, everything began to change: the towns gained in strength with the reactivation of the economy; the bourgeois class appears and, with it, the trade routes, which deepen their roots in distant Asia, acquire new vitality and importance.
One of the most important routes (the Silk Road) started from China, crossed the Asian continent and ended in Europe. More precisely, he found himself in Italian cities, which had established themselves as true leaders of international trade. One of these reception centers was Venice, which, due to its geographical location, was the gateway to products from the Orient.
Between 1346 and 1347, a Mongol army besieged the Asian city of Caffa (on the shores of the Black Sea, which was at the time a Genoese trading colony). According to chronicler Gabriele de Mussis, Asians hurled their plague victims into the city using powerful catapults. Supposedly, this was how the Genoese of Caffa became infected with the disease, and then moved to their home, Italy.
However, the source of the plague is certainly unknown. Some historians, like Ole J. Benedictow, insist that its origin was the Black Sea itself, especially the Crimean Peninsula, as no trace of any focus is found in the regions closest to China. Therefore, the disease is unlikely to cross the Silk Road, as other researchers have suggested.
Anyway, the fact is that in 1348 the plague was already in Europe. The pandemic was evolving at an extraordinary speed compared to other epidemics of antiquity.By the middle of that fateful year, most of Europe’s territories had been razed to the ground. The figures are frightening: only 2 in ten inhabitants escaped death. The terror was only just beginning.
The end of abundance and God’s chastisement
Europe had left the so-called terrors of the year 1000 far behind. The decades before the great plague had been fruitful: prosper agricultural and livestock activity thanks to the good climate and the improvement of cultivation techniques, And all of this resulted in a tremendous improvement in the food which in turn led to an extraordinary increase in the population.
But at the start of the 14th century, things started to take a turn for the worse. According to many authors, including the eminent French medievalist Jacques Le Goff, this situation led to a depletion of production capacity, and it reached a point where it was impossible to feed the entire European population. In addition, the good climatic conditions have disappeared, giving way to the so-called Little Ice Age, where hail and frost caused poor harvests and certainly insufficient for so many mouths.
All of this, as expected, caused a disproportionate famine that weakened the population and left them virtually powerless in the face of the onset of the Black Death. The result: death has gotten bigger even among the youngest and apparently the healthiest, And makes no distinction between gender, age or social class. For all this, the Europeans of the time believed that the plague was a punishment from God for his many and grave sins.
Penance against Carpe Diem
At this point, religious hysteria broke out. Endless, rogatory processions to ask God for mercy, Flagellants which tore the skin to wash away the sins of the world with their blood … spread the so-called Dances of Death, macabre musical performances in which La Parca called the living to leave for his kingdom. Pessimism has spread throughout Europe; no one really believed that humanity could survive this second flood. It was finished.
Interestingly, this certainty that times are drawing to a close, and with them life, has led to the proliferation in some sectors and social groups of a reaction that is absolutely contrary to what we have discussed before. Instead of withdrawing to pray or do penance to ask God for forgiveness of sins, some people chose carpe diem in response to the collective wreck. So many devote themselves to having fun, eating and drinking, frequenting city brothels more than ever, and even neglecting their chores and homework. What else did he give? The world was ending. And if it ends, these people must have thought about it, better to take advantage of these last moments and bring back a good memory to the other world.
This second reaction is the one that Bocaccio collects in the aforementioned Decameron, when he tells us the story of these ten young people who are locked up in a beautiful village in the countryside to wait for the plague to pass, and to relieve their love, food, music, laughter and mockery. In short: they laugh at death.
“The stigmatization of the Jews
Ignoring the nature of the disease, medieval people could only guess about it. And as we know that in all misfortunes there must always be a scapegoat, this time it was the turn of the Jewish community.
Jews have been accused of such vile and unheard-of acts of poisoning water wells to spread the plague. Thus, many popular attacks were recorded in the Jewish quarters, and in some places became really atrocious. In Tàrrega, for example, there are around 300 victims, all of whom died in a very brutal manner.
However, it is not known whether the attackers really believed the poisoning story, or if it was just an excuse to curb their hatred. It should be remembered that the impoverishment of the population had made it impossible to repay the loans granted by Jewish bankers … and many Christians have not forgiven him.
Rats and the plague
Obviously, in the Middle Ages the pathogens causing the disease were unknown. In fact, it was not until very recently, 1870, that science finally succeeded in discovering these tiny beings responsible for so much death and suffering. And it was at the end of the 19th century, following a plague epidemic in China, that Dr. Yersin described in detail the microorganism responsible for the disease. In his honor, the little enemy was baptized Yersinia Pestis.
But how did Yersinia work? The main vector of the bacteria has been shown to be the black rat, which is very common in Europe. Rodent, fleas that fed on their blood could travel to humans and transmit the disease. With minimal levels of hygiene, this contagion was practically impossible, but we must remember that in the Middle Ages, rats were regular guests in cities and in the countryside.
The various plagues
In addition to the rat flea contagion, there was another way to get the disease. And it was by the expectoration of the sick. At this point, we need to clarify that the Black Death has manifested itself in three different ways.
One, the bubonic plague (the most common and the most famous), for that the bacteria have passed through the lymphatic system and inflamed the lymph nodes, Who became buboes.
A second form, also quite common, in which the bacteria it was able to reach the bloodstream and, through it, settle in the lungs of the patient. In this case, pulmonary plague appeared, the symptoms were a persistent cough and sputum of bloody sputum, which was very contagious.
finally a third form of black plague was sepsis, the most dangerous of all and that he never left any survivors. In this case, the bacteria overgrown in the blood and infected it. Black spots then appeared on the patient’s skin and he died a few hours after the infection. It was the mode that aroused the most terror (“sudden death”), as a person could be healthy in the morning and die hours later, amid convulsions and very high fevers.
Europe after the Black Death
At the end of the 14th century, Europe was literally devastated. By 1353, three parts of its population had died (approximately 25 million people). Whole villages were uninhabited, the fields were not cultivated for lack of laborThe cities had lost their commercial momentum due to the high mortality (in Florence, for example, only a fifth of the population survived).
The plague also caused a major social change: the few remaining peasants, aware that the lords needed them to work the land, began to demand more and more rights. It is therefore not surprising that the great peasant revolutions, like La Remença, which bathed Catalonia in blood, took place in these years of instability and change.
The world would never be the same after the Black Death. In fact, few historians place this key fact as the gateway to the Middle Ages in Europe.
- Benedictow, Ole J., The Black Death (1348-1353). The Complete Story, ed. Akal, 2011
- Le Goff, Jacques, The end of the Middle Ages, ed. 21st century, 2016
- Bocaccio, Giovanni, El Decamerón, ed. Sword Books, 2010
- Various authors, Handbook of medieval history, Editorial alliance, 2016