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.