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How did the impact of the Black Death differ between Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Northern Africa?

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The Black Death seems to have had a greater impact in Europe in terms of mortality relative to Asia or Northern Africa. The World Health Organization says it caused an estimated 50 million deaths, with roughly half in Europe, where a quarter of the population died, implying higher relative mortality rates in Europe. Likely reasons include greater population density in many European cities and the debilitating impact of the Great Famine, which made European populations more vulnerable.

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Although data is scarce and also not certain, the impact of the plague called the Black Death appears to have been higher in Europe relative to Asia or Northern Africa in terms of relative mortality rates, with higher mortality in Europe compared to the other regions.

After originating in Asia, the Black Death of 1347 then spread via trading and through military interactions. People working in or near seaports in Europe were aware that an epidemic was impacting populations in Asia. When Tartar armies invaded a seaport trading town on the Black Sea, the plague spread, and trading vessels from that port carried the disease with them to other ports. By 1348, the epidemic reached the important French seaside village of Marseille and then spread to Paris and throughout Europe.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the Black Death caused an estimated 50 million deaths during the fourteenth century, with roughly half of the victims in Europe, where a quarter of the population died, and the other half spread across Asia and Africa, which implies lower relative mortality rates. The likely reasons that relative mortality was higher in Europe than on the other continents is that population density was greater in the more urbanized European continents and the fact that another crisis just a couple of decades before had made the European population more vulnerable.

Even during the fourteenth century, cities such as Paris and London were meccas that drew inhabitants from more rural parts of the regions. The Black Death arrived in London by January 1349, according to the Journal of Military and Veterans' Health (JMVH), although London knew of and feared the epidemic. People in London had heard that in cities such as Florence, 60% of population died of the Black Death in the prior year. In preparation, Londoners constructed East Smithfield, a huge cemetery for burying the expected victims.

As expected, the disease had a terrible impact on the city. The Black Death was responsible for the deaths of roughly half the city’s population. From 1347 to 1351, it killed 30–60% of all Europeans.

Subsequent archaeological analysis at East Smithfield shows that the impact of the Black Death differed based on social and economic inequalities. Poorer segments of the population and minorities who had limited (or no) access to healthcare were impacted by the disease at higher rates than other population segments.

Moreover, in the two or more decades leading up to the Black Death, the numbers of people categorized as impoverished increased greatly in Europe, which also set the stage for a higher relative impact of the epidemic in that continent than in the others. The Great Famine of 1315–1317 contributed to the death of up to 15% of the populations of England and Wales, according JMVH, as wages fell and food prices rose. Studies of bones excavated from East Smithfield show that older people and those who were already in poor health were more likely to die.

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