The Black Death

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Podcast Transcript

During the 14th century, the world saw one of its most traumatic episodes. 

A plague spread through Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa that was unlike anything the world had ever seen. 

In some locations, over half of the population died. Those who survived found themselves in a whole new world where the social and economic rules had been totally changed. 

Learn more about the Black Death, how it happened, and how it changed the world on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

It is difficult to convey just how big of an impact the Black Death had on the world, and especially Europe. 

The Black Death wasn’t like a war. As terrible as a war might be, losses were usually limited to the battlefield, and it might result in a new leader, but it probably wouldn’t have necessarily affected the average person who lived in a village. 

The Black Death, however, affected everyone. You couldn’t hide from it. It impacted the rich and poor alike. Those who survived found themselves in a different world from the one they had lived in before. 

In a very real sense, you can think of the Black Death as a dividing point in history.

It is arguably the worst pandemic in world history, depending on how you define it. The Great Dying of the Americas, which took place after the arrival of Europeans to the New World, resulted in a dramatic drop in population size, as much as 90%, by many estimates.

However, the Great Dying took place over a period of one to two centuries. It was a multi-generational affair; it didn’t take place everywhere at once, and it was a single pandemic of a single disease. 

The Black Death was like a single bomb that devastated much of Europe during a single decade.

Before we get into the details of the Black Death, I should explain exactly what it was and what caused it. 

The Black Death was a bubonic plague pandemic that took place between 1346 and 1353.

Bubonic plague is a bacterial disease caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis. The bacteria normally can be found in small mammals and fleas that live on them. 

The bacteria is transmitted through flea bites and through handling infected animals. 

Bubonic plague is a particularly nasty disease with a very high mortality rate. 

People who are infected usually begin to show symptoms after 2 to 6 days. 

The most notable symptom is the appearance of one or more swollen, tender, and painful lymph nodes, usually found in the groin, armpit, or neck.  Inflamed lymph nodes are also known as known as buboes, which is where the name bubonic plague is derived.

There are actually three different types of plague that all stem from the Yersinia pestis bacteria. Bubonic plague, septicemic plague, and pneumonic plague.

Each plague type can develop depending on the location of the infection and the way it was transmitted.

What makes bubonic plague so dangerous is its exceptionally high mortality rate. To put it into perspective, the SARS-CoV-2 virus that caused the recent pandemic had an overall mortality rate of less than 1%, with significant variation between age groups and pre-existing conditions. 

Smallpox had a mortality rate of 20-30% for the most common strain of the virus. 

Bubonic plague, however, had mortality rates between 30 to 90%, and death would often occur in less than 10 days after symptoms appeared. 

That was why the Black Death was so terrifying. If someone showed symptoms, they could be dead in just a few days after suffering excruciating pain. 

So, how did this bacteria carried by fleas manage to cause the worst pandemic in human history?

Needless to say, data and recording keeping in the 14th century wasn’t great, so what we know of the origins of the disease and its spread has been determined through historical research and microbiological detective work. 

It is thought that the bacteria originated in the grassy steps of Asia or possibly in China. There, it was passed from small animals that had little contact with humans. What contact there was was amongst nomadic tribes who kept their distance from other people. 

With the rise of the Mongol Empire, these pathogens now had a vector outside of the steppes. Over a period of decades, the bacteria, probably carried by rats, made its way out of the steppes through trade routes until it eventually made its way onto ships. 

The plague of Justinian, which took place in the 7th century, of which I’ve done a previous episode, might have been an outbreak of Bubonic Plague, or it might have been smallpox.

There may have been outbreaks of plague in Asia before it reached Europe. There were epidemics in China from 1308 to 1347, but they were often attributed to diseases that spread in the aftermath of flood and famine. 

Likewise, there were multiple epidemics during the Yuan Dynasty up to,  concurrent with, and after the Black Death in Europe. 

Many of these outbreaks were just as bad as what happened in Europe, but we don’t know if this was the plague. There are differing opinions on if it was, and if it was, it spread in different ways than the disease spread in Europe. 

The epidemics of this period in China are worthy of a future episode of their own. 

The first recorded case in Europe supposedly came from Genoese traders who came from the port of Kaffa, located in the Crimean Peninsula, which at the time was controlled by the Mongol Golden Horde. 

In 1345 and 1346, the Mongols laid siege to the city by tossing plague-ridden corpses into the city. When the plague took hold, the Genoese fled the city and arrived in Constantinople, where the plague arrived with them in the summer of 1347.

Rats were common on ships of this era, and they allowed for a far more rapid transmission of disease than would otherwise be possible. 

In Constantinople, the plague killed the Byzantine emperor, and it spread to other trading cities. 

The crew finally arrived in Sicily at the port city of Messina. When they docked, the dockworkers found a ship filled with dead or infected sailors. They immediately sent the ship away, but the damage had already been done. 

The plague ravaged Sicily and began to spread rapidly throughout Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East.

One of the big questions was how it managed to spread so fast. If the only transmission vector was fleas on rats, it shouldn’t have spread as fast as it did. One theory is that the disease was also spread from person to person. 

It may have gone airborne as bubonic plague can develop into pneumonic plague, which is an infection of the lungs. If people spread it, then it could have been transmitted back to fleas and lice by infected people.

Nonetheless, it spread rapidly, and the results were devastating. When it arrived in a town or village, the death tolls were astronomical. In the city of Florence, Italy, 90 percent of the population died. There were so many dead that there weren’t enough living to bury the dead.

There were villages in France that were wiped out to the last person. The villages became reclaimed by nature, and it was only through modern observational techniques that these villages were discovered. 

Not every community had death tolls that high, but even when they weren’t that high, they were still astounding compared to any other pandemic. 

There are modern theories as well as to why the pandemic was so deadly. One theory holds that the bacteria mutated somewhere between Central Asia and Europe. Samples of plague bacteria have been found in Kazakhstan, and they differ genetically from those found in Europe. 

A second theory holds that there might have been a secondary pandemic taking place alongside the plague. Anthrax has been found in the graves of plague victims. If anthrax had been spread along with the plague, it would have resulted in a deadly double whammy that would have been hard to recover from.  

Other reasons have to do with the conditions of the time. Hygiene was horrible. Cities and villages were often open sewers, which were breeding grounds for rats. People seldom bathed, and lice were common. Fleas often lived in clothes and bedding that people used. 

Regardless of the reason, no one had a clue why this was happening or what caused the disease. The germ theory of disease didn’t exist at the time and wouldn’t for another 500 years. 

Various theories were floated, all of which, if they were offered up today, would be considered medical quackery. 

The prevailing theory was that of miasma. Miasma was thought to be vapors in the air that caused the disease. Doctors at the time wore long beak-shaped headdresses that were thought to keep the miasma away. 

While this was the dominant theory among European physicians, it was far from universal. 

Many people pointed to supernatural explanations. Many Christian theologians thought that the plague was a punishment from God and that those who suffered shouldn’t be treated because they were sinners. Over in the Middle East, Islamic scholars thought that Allah sent the plague to bring people into paradise, and for that reason, doctors shouldn’t interfere.

There were also conspiracies. A popular target in Europe was Jews. They were accused of poisoning wells, which supposedly caused the pandemic. This resulted in a widespread persecution of Jews, with almost 200 Jewish communities being destroyed. Many of them eventually migrated to Poland, where King Casimir III welcomed them.

People with leprosy were attacked as they were thought to be the cause of the illness. 

Because of the staggering number of dead, burial practices changed everywhere. Cremation was a practice that had largely ceased with the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire, but it returned as a way to destroy corpses. Likewise, mass graves became a necessity because digging individual graves was no longer possible. 

Eventually, the Black Death began to burn itself out. Those who survived either had a natural or acquired immunity to the disease. Also, the bacteria once again mutated into a more begin form, as highly lethal pathogens tend to do, lest they run out of hosts in which they can spread. 

One genetic analysis showed that prior to the Black Death, about 0.2% of Europeans had genes that could resist the disease. Today, the number of people of European descent with that genetic resistance is approximately 15%. This is almost entirely due to survivors being able to pass down that genetic trait. 

The world after the Black Death was one that was completely changed. In fact, I’m probably going to do a follow-up episode at some point about just how much the Black Death changed the social, economic, and cultural institutions that existed at the time. 

Suffice it to say there weren’t as many people, which resulted in labor shortages. Serfs who were previously tied to the land where they worked just up and left for better opportunities. Wages rose, and in the years immediately following the Black Death, the overall standard of living went up….assuming you had managed to survive. 

Likewise, institutions like the Catholic church went through changes. Traditional medicine proved to be a failure, and the long process of developing scientifically based modern medicine began. 

There were peasant revolts, and governments changed, usually in the form of weakened local lords. 

One of the things that shock people is that bubonic plague is not a thing of the past. There were many epidemics of plague after the Black Death, and there are still cases that arise today. However, none were as widespread as the Black Death.

The Great Plague of London broke out in 1665–66.  In 1855, an epidemic broke out in the Yunan province of China, which eventually spread to India, killing 15 million people in the two countries. 

In 1894, there was an outbreak in Hong Kong, and smaller outbreaks occurred in 1900 in San Francisco and 1924 in Los Angeles.

As recently as 1994, an outbreak in India resulted in over 700 infections and 52 deaths. 

Even in the 21st century, there are cases of Bubonic Plague that still occasionally appear. Every year, a handful of cases appear in diverse places such as the American Southwest, Australia, Madagascar, India, and China. 

The odds of another bubonic plague pandemic occurring are close to zero. We know what causes the disease, how to treat it, and how to stop its spread. Hygiene is also much better today than it was in the past, meaning the conditions for its spread no longer exist. 

If bubonic plague is diagnosed early, it can be easily treated. 

The Black Death is considered to be the worst pandemic in World History. The global death toll from it ranges from 25 million to as high as 75 million. The wide range is due to the poor record keeping of the time. That resulted in a loss of population, just in Europe, of between 30 to 60 percent of the population. 

The drop in population was so great that it took 200 years for population levels to return to levels from before the Black Death. 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Peter Bennett and Cameron Kieffer.

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