Ten Things You Didn’t Know About The Black Death

Black Death in Bed

Today is this blog’s first anniversary, so I thought I would return to the ever popular subject of the Black Death. Regular readers will know that I’m ever so slightly obsessed with the Black Death, and I haven’t posted about it for a while. What comes after is not for the faint of heart.

The following are ten things that most people don’t know about the Black Death:

1. It wasn’t called the Black Death

The plague that hit Europe in the middle of the fourteenth century was not called the Black Death until much later. The name arose because of the way that parts of the victim’s bodies became blackened due to gangrene and necrosis. At the time, people called it far more expressive things, such as the Big Death or the Great Death. Personally, I find these far more terrifying names than the Black Death.

2. It was caused by gerbils

There is still a lot of debate about how the Black Death was started and how it spread. Rats and their fleas are still the favoured cause, although there were no rats in Iceland at the time and Iceland did not escape the Black Death. Recent research has indicated that the plague might have originated in gerbils in Asia. There’s an article on the BBC website  which talks about this.

3. It wasn’t always fatal

Some of those infected did survive: about a third of them. It’s not known exactly why they recovered.

4. There were three different manifestations

There wasn’t just one form of plague, but three. The three types are bubonic, pneumonic and septicaemic. There is constant debate about this as well, with many researchers believing that the fourteenth century plague was not bubonic, because mortality rates would have been much lower than they seem to have been, even allowing for the probable exaggerations of the medieval chroniclers.

Bubonic plague took three days to a week to kill the infected person. It is this type that we most associate with the Black Death since it was the most common. Buboes (large pus-filled swellings) appeared in the armpit, neck, groin and upper thigh. Bubonic plague was spread by fleas. It was the least virulent form and had the highest survival rate, although ‘highest’ is a relative term here.

Pneumonic plague was the most virulent, but rarest form. It was a respiratory infection spread by coughs and sneezes. Once people were infected they were usually dead within thirty-six hours. Survival rates were less than ten percent.

Septicaemic plague resulted in uncontrolled bleeding. It was spread by exposure to another plague victim and fewer than one in a hundred who were infected survived.

5. It entered England through Melcombe Regis

It’s now fairly certain that the Black Death came into England via Melcombe Regis, brought by sailors from Gascony. Melcombe Regis is on the south coast and is now part of Weymouth. In the fourteenth century it was a significant port.

6. It wasn’t just a one-off occurrence

The initial occurrence of the plague in Europe was between 1347 and 1352, but it didn’t just disappear after that. It returned to England in 1361–62, 1369, 1379–83, 1389–93. There were also recurrences through the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries culminating in the Great Plague of 1665. There have been other occurrences into the twenty-first century in other parts of the world. There is a lot of debate as to whether or not all the manifestations of plague since the fourteenth century have been the same plague.

7.  An English royal princess was a victim

One of Edward III’s daughters, Joan, was on her way to marry Pedro, the heir to the Castilian throne when she was infected. This is the same Pedro who was later aided by Joan’s older brother, the Black Prince, in his fight to regain his throne from his brother. Joan was only fourteen when she died near Bordeaux in 1348. Edward III wrote a very moving letter when he received news of her death. Medieval parents have often been accused of being unfeeling about their children, in part because of the large number they tended to have, but also because life was so precarious that they would always be grieving if they allowed themselves to love their children. There is no doubt that Edward III loved his many children and he and his wife grieved when they lost them.

8. Its victims were once compared to lasagne

In a particularly evocative passage from his chronicle, Marco di Coppo Stefani compares the way in which the dead were buried in Florence with the way in which a lasagne was made. In the morning when a large number of bodies were found in the pit, they took some earth and shoveled it down on top of them; and later others were placed on top of them and then another layer of earth, just as one makes lasagne with layers of pasta and cheese.

9. It could travel one mile a day

This rather surprising fact makes many researchers question the traditionally accepted methods of transmitting the plague and even whether or not the Black Death was really bubonic plague. Modern outbreaks of bubonic plague have travelled much slower, even with modern transportation methods. An outbreak in India at the end of the nineteenth century (from 1896 to the mid-1920s) travelled on average only fifteen metres a week, despite the availability of trains and motor cars.

10.  Some places were spared

A large area around Milan seems to have been spared, as was a lot of Europe east of Krakow and an area north of the Pyrenees. In many countries small areas were unaffected, but there’s no real understanding of why this was.



Filed under Black Death, Fourteenth Century

26 responses to “Ten Things You Didn’t Know About The Black Death

  1. April, that’s all fascinating, thank you for posting. anne stenhouse

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I’ve always been fascinated by the Black Death too. One of the things that would have increased the mortality rates (I think) is that in societies where TB is rife (everywhere, pre-mass inoculation) almost everybody contracts it in the first year of life but it remains dormant unless/until something happens to weaken the immune system. The plague would have done this, meaning that a lot of its victims could have died of acute secondary tuberculosis?
    Another thing I read (I wish I could remember where – I think it was a contemporary Italian source) was that the very young and “the old” (who nowadays we might consider middle-aged, and older) were more likely to survive, whereas the young didn’t. This has echoes of the post WW1 Spanish ‘flu, that tended to kill the same age group that the war did.
    And as for parents in earlier times not loving their children? I’m sure most did, but they also knew how slim children’s survival chances were. That’s not to say they didn’t grieve, though their love for their children, and their grief, would have been more reserved.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m not sure about the first point; it’s not something I’ve come across. On the second point I don’t think age made a difference, although it did in the second occurrence when it was mainly the young who died.
      There’s such a lot about the Black Death that is pure conjecture. Thankfully, there’s also a lot of research being done.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. well-researched and interesting – worthy of a BBC documentry

    Liked by 2 people

  4. ooh I enjoyed this..in a macabre way. Justt hope the subject comes up on University Challenge, so I can show off my knowledge. Thank you!! (gerbils….really?)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Gerbils perhaps. Every now and again something comes out that says it was definitely fleas, then someone comes up with another theory.
      I’m glad you enjoyed it, although it feels wrong to enjoy anything associated with something so dreadful. It’s just fascinating to think about how people managed to carry on in such awful circumstances.


  5. Fascinating piece and terrifying to think of how many died in such horrible ways. The link to the BBC article and giant gerbils gave me the shivers too. I’m not great with any kind of rodents – rats terrify me. As much as is known about it there definitely does seem to be, as yet, quite a number of unknown quantities. Amazing, really, that they’re able to piece so much together from so many different sources.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi April,
    We both know Donna Parker. She is so nice. Thanks for the visit to my site this weekend.
    I teach about the Black Death to my 7th graders. I learned some things by reading your post. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Happy blogiversary! Those are some interesting facts about the plague. And I don’t think I can look at lasagna the same or cook it again anytime soon.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Maybe something I should have read after breakfast rather than whilst eating it! Fascinating piece though, does make you wonder in the current climate if something similar will come around again ..

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Fascinating stuff. In the summer I went for a wander in plague pits valley near St Catherine’s Hill. I wish I’d known all these facts then.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Fascinating post as usual, April. I was saving it up to read when I had a quiet moment

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Pingback: The Siege of Calais and the Mercy of Edward III | A Writer's Perspective

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