Death in the Late Medieval Period: The Black Plague

A mass gravesite used for burying victims of the bubonic plague | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

During the 1300’s, strong thirsts for power between countries, religious divisions in Europe, and competition for trade routes were common. Trade routes connected the Eastern Hemisphere with the trade of various goods and information, and controlling these trade routes proved to be rewarding. Unfortunately, these trades routes “also likely carried the deadly plague that killed as many as half of all Europeans within seven years, in what is known as the Bubonic Plague.”1

Beginning in 1348, Bubonic Plague infested merchant ships sailing from the Black Sea to Mediterranean ports, causing so much death that it was common for ships to enter European docks and harbors with at least the majority of the crew dead. Despite efforts to prevent ships from reaching land and spreading the disease, the Bubonic Plague made its way ashore. Unfortunately, people found out how contagious the Bubonic Plague was as it swept through Sicily, Italy, and into the rest of Europe. As a result of the virtual inability of people to stop the spread, many suffered and died.

The spread of the Black Plague in 1348
The spread of the Black Plague in 1348 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

At the height of the Bubonic Plague, it had spread from China to London, devastating entire villages and bringing trade to a virtual standstill. It has been estimated that as many as 200 million people lost their lives as a result of the Bubonic Plague. In fact, it had a mortality rate that varied between regions.2 Although the Black Death was responsible for killing millions of people in Europe, it was a strong force in influencing the structure of power in the Eastern Hemisphere.

Marchione di Coppo Stephani, a chronicler who lived through the ravages of the plague in Florence during the summer of 1348 wrote,

At every church they dug deep pits down to the water level; and thus those who were poor who died during the night were bundled up quickly and thrown into the pit; they then 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 lasagna with layers of pasta and cheese.3 

It not only underlines the crisis for a major European city, generated by the death of tens of thousands of people, but also demonstrates how, even in recording such a profound crisis, a chronicler might evoke a homely, if provocative, image of lasagna.4 People believed that the world was coming to an end. Who was to blame? Other religions, or was it God punishing people for their sins?

As a result of much death and destruction on a scale that people have never seen before, people began wondering if God had been punishing them all along. There was no safe haven for people, even in isolated Russia, for the Black Plague did not hesitate to take any lives—every one was a target.

In the same year [1346], God’s punishment struck the people in the eastern lands, in the town Ornach [on the estuary of the River Don], and in Khastorokan, and in Sarai, and in Bezdezh [at an arm of the River Volga], and in other towns in those lands; the mortality was great among the Bessermens, and among the Tartars, and among the Armenians and the Abkhazians, and among the Jews, and among the European foreigners, and among the Circassians, and among all who lived there, so that they could not bury them [sic]. 5

In fact, religious hatred and persecution was very inhumane and common. With the strong belief that other groups were responsible for the Plague, the methods involved in persecuting other religious groups were cruel. Some common examples were: burning, stoning, decapitation, and exile.

The Black Death was devastating. It had killed millions of people across Europe and Asia. Anarchy, fear, and insecurities dominated the landscape in Europe during the 1300’s.[ 5. Sharon N. DeWitte, “Age Patterns of Mortality During the Black Death in London, A.D. 1349–1350,” Journal of Archaeological Science 37, no. 12 (December 1, 2010): 3394-3400,  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3094018/ (accessed October 12, 2016).]

  1.  Andrew Lawler, “How Europe Exported the Black Death,” Science 352, no. 6285 (April 29, 2016): 501–2.
  2. Encyclopedia Britannica, February 2015, s.v. “Black Death.”
  3. Marchione Di Coppo Stefani, “The Florentine Chronicle,” 1903-1913, accessed, October 18, 2016.  http://www2.iath.virginia.edu/osheim/marchione.html.
  4.  John Henderson, “Debating Death and Disease,” History Today 64, no. 4 (April 2014): 58–59.
  5.  Celestine Bohlen, “Diphtheria Epidemic Sweeps Russia,” The New York Times, January 29, 1993, sec. World, http://www.nytimes.com/1993/01/29/world/diphtheria-epidemic-sweeps-russia.html.
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65 Comments

  • I knew the Black Plague as this whole thing were it killed so many people and destroyed places. After reading this article I found it was much more than that and brought much more than just death. Like many people used this and blamed certain groups for causing the plague. There should of been a reason behind this why these people found the need to put the blame on other helpless victims to achieve whatever they were trying to achieve. It was a good thing this plague was ended because this could of been much worse. Much worse than it was already.

  • Unfortunately, thousands of people lost their lives due to the Black Plague, which was harsh in the way they ended dying. I also think that poor class families had a harsh time living in Europe, because they didn’t have any form of assistance due to their financial status. It’s crazy to imagine that some people were buried alive, because they had or were believed to have the plague. Although the article was short, it was still precise and accurate and it leaves the reader with a visual image of what happened during the Black Plague.

  • In a very descriptive article I learned how people reacted to the plague. People buried the dead poor down wells, people felt it was gods punishment for their sins in Europe and people thought other religions were at fault for the plague in Europe. I learned that the plague was not handled well in Europe but also I learned that there’s not really much that they could have done as far as medicine went. I think the most interesting fact is that Europe lost one third of their population due to the plague.

  • Unfortunately for the people in the 1300s, many of them did not know they were carrying a deadly disease that will soon kill 200 million. It was extremely sad to have the plague at the time and knowing you were not able to do anything about it. Thankfully it has perished and hope that no disease cause such an impact such as this on. The bubonic plague may have wipe out a third of Europe, but this made Europe and others to come back even stronger. Great article.

  • I can now understand how severe the black plague was and it’s disappointing to find out that many people used it to blame certain groups for causing this plague. There should be no reason on why these people found the need to place the blame on helpless victims to achieve some sick goal of theirs. I’m glad the plague finally came to an end, it’s just sad that not many lives were saved.

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