What was the Black Death?
The Black Death is the name given to three kinds of plague that were related but slightly different. These plagues created a pandemic that killed over 25% of the population of Europe in the late 1340s and early 1350s.
The majority of plague cases were of bubonic plague. This is spread by fleas carrying a bacterium, Yersinia pestis. The fleas lived mainly on rats and spreaed from them to people. If the plague bacteria spread to the lungs, it was called pneumonic plague. This could be transmitted from human to human by coughing. There was also septicaemic plague, which was carried by insects but was very rare.
The Black Death, the generalized name given to the plague-ridden period in Europe between the years of 1348-1350, was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history. The pathogen responsible, a combination of the bubonic and pneumonic plague, is believed to have begun in China or central Asia.
A main stream of passage for the disease was through the expansion of the Ottoman Empire from Asia to Europe along trade routes such as the Silk Road. The pathogen most likely attached to the Mongol armies and traders on the routes and transferred to Oriental rat fleas living on black rats that were regular passengers on merchant ships, which then led to the spread of the pathogen throughout the Mediterranean and Europe.
Furthermore, the people in Europe were particularly susceptible to the disease for a variety of reasons. Climate change leading to much colder winters than the Europeans were used to meant that plantation technology such as the heavy plough and the “three-field” system were not as effective, because the soil was much more clay-like. As a result, there were widespread food shortages and rapidly inflating prices made everyday life difficult and malnutrition ran rampant. This made people susceptible due to weakened immunity.
The spread of the disease was encouraged due to a lack of personal and general hygiene among cities and streets. The importance of personal hygiene was not realized until the 19th century.
The results of the Black Death were vast and widespread. Firstly, there was an upsurge of renewed religious fervor. The “mechanism of infection” of diseases was not common knowledge in the 1300’s. As a result, people turned to religious meaning and many people believed that only the anger of an all-powerful being could have caused it.
The plague also had a massive impact on the art and literature that came out of the generation that went through it. It was often more melancholy and depicted sorrowful scenes of death and destruction, even in poetry and other forms of writing.
In the long run, lots of Europeans lost their faith in any kind of religion during and after the Black Death. This was because they spent days praying for their god to remove them of the punishment they believed was the plague, and asked for forgiveness of sins they believed had caused it. In stark contrast to the times of Roman conquest, when Christianity spread to the poor with promise of reward for a good life, the people affected by plague heard no response and felt no passion, and saw no reason to continue. Hundreds of thousands of people went through this at the same time there was a religious upsurge. The effects rippled through Europe and religion was no longer the biggest focus of people’s lives. Instead of living for an afterlife, they began to live for “the now”, which was also reflected in the art of later periods, going into the 15th century.