Shades Of Trade: The Black Plague

Everyone would have thought that the world population had always been on increasing trend. True enough, the general trend was as such. However, look at the following graph.

Global Population Trend
Global Population Trend

The general trend is obviously an increasing trend – but do you see a sharp plummet in 1400s CE?

Yes, the world population dropped by around 20% - from 450 million to around 350 million. In fact the population in Europe continent decreased by nearly 60%.

Wow, such a huge ‘wipe-out’. What happened?

It wasLa mortalega grande – “the great mortality” as the Italians called it, or more familiarly, “The Black Death”.

As learnt not too long ago, The Silk Road has enabled the spread of goods, ideas, culture and intellect in the ancient world. It has, one way or another, improved the lives of many. Yet, it also had ruined and took away countless lives as well. This is because the Silk Road had the capability of spreading almost anything, including diseases. One disease that the Silk Road played a key role in was the Black Death. Let’s unravel this topic, which would be interesting and relevant to our recent themes – Silk Road (trades) and European civilizations.

WHAT WAS IT?

The Black Plague or The Black Death (or the bubonic plague as it is known today) plagued through towns and villages, taking millions of lives in a short period of time. Then, it was called ‘the Pestilence’ or ‘the Great Disease’. It killed 1.5 million people out of an estimated of 4 million people between 1348 CE-1350 CE in Medieval England. The Black Death started in China and Asia in about 1346 CE but had spread to Europe in less than a year later. Bubonic plague, the most common form, is associated with painful, swollen lymph nodes, called buboes. After an incubation period of two to six days, symptoms appear, including severe malaise, headache, shaking chills and fever. Plague can also infect the blood or lungs. The latter form, pneumonic plague, can be transmitted person to person. They had different symptoms but the outcome was the same: almost inevitable death. Not only that, it’s a very quick death. Someone who got infected could just die overnight.

HOW DID IT SPREAD?

  • The plague was caused by Y. pestis bacillus, spread via rats and fleas that travelled with the livestock, food and spices on the Silk Road from Asia to Europe.
  • First contact of Black Death in Europe was in October 1347, when 12 Genoese trading ships docked at Sicilian port of Messina after a long journey through the black sea.
  • Most sailors were found dead or were gravely ill. Strangely, they were all covered in mysterious black boils that oozed blood and pus, which gave rise to the name of the illness ‘Black Death’.

For interactive maps of the spread, click here.

Crowded cities with huge populations and terrible sanitation problems those days, as well as large human-to-human interaction (mainly due to trades) had caused the disease to be spread more rapidly.

WHAT THE PEOPLE THOUGHT WAS HAPPENING

(which made matters worse)

Sadly, due to lack of knowledge, the people then actually related the outbreak to witchcrafts, superstitions, religions and other strange things; instead of searching for scientific accounts (like how we would have done it today.)

  1. They thought it’s Jews’/Muslims’ fault. Christians started accusing the Jews (and also the Muslims) for spreading the plague. They alleged that the Jews wanted to eradicate Christianity. (Although in reality both Jews and Muslims were as badly affected by the plague, so why would they do that?)

As a result, many Jews were actually tortured. They eventually ‘admitted’ that they poisoned different water sources including wells to help spreading the plague. Thousands of Jews were either killed or expelled. Also, they were forced to convert to Christianity.

2. God’s wrath 

Because they did not understand the biology of the disease, many people believed that the Black Death was a kind of divine punishment–retribution for sins against God such as greed, blasphemy, heresy, fornication and worldliness. So to them, the way to overcome the plague was to seek God’s forgiveness. Some people believed that the way to do this was to get rid of heretics and other troublemakers (such as the Jews).

  1. They thought bad smell could drive the disease out. When the plague reached its peak, the ‘doctors’ suggested treatments using urine, dung and other weird stuff, which actually catalyzed spreading of the disease!

There were several other suggested practices during those days, which they believed pretty strongly would help cure and prevent the spreading of the plague, namely:

Eating and drinking in moderation.

Maintaining a household as per a person’s status.

Refraining oneself from abusing the poor people.

Avoiding lechery.

Adding aromatic herbs in beverages.

Not eating fruits.

Drinking good wine.

Avoiding bad thoughts.

Staying happy.

The list isn’t exhaustive.

Also, things couldn’t get any worse – bathing was actively discouraged during the plague. There were two reasons for this:

First, it was believed that bathing would open up pores which would in turn allow easy entry and exit of polluted air into and from the body, which would help the spreading of the disease.

Secondly, bathing (and hence changing clothes) was deemed as a disrespect to the gods, which had invited the wrath of the gods as a punishment and that the plague was one of the weapons used by God for punishing people for such vanity.

Are you not rolling your eyes now?

IMPACTS

Overall:

A very significant population decrease. 50 million people died in Europe within 3 - 4 years.  The population was reduced from some 80 million to 30 million. It killed at least 60 per cent of the population in rural and urban areas.

Economics:

The economy experienced high inflation, mainly because of shortages of manpower which led to rise in wages, and as it was so risky and hard to procure goods through trade and to produce them, the prices of both goods produced locally and those imported from afar hence hiked up drastically.

  • Animals were also affected by the Black Death. Chickens, pigs, goats, sheep and even cows. The number of sheep deaths was so high that it led to what's known as “European Wool Shortage”. 

Social:

People started losing their trust in the Church and their faith was somehow shaken, as they thought God could not help them to get out of the plague.

IS THERE ANYTHING GOOD ABOUT IT, THOUGH?

Medical historians today have established that there is somehow higher resistance to AIDS in populations whose ancestors were exposed to the Black Death.

So, in a way, the Black Death might help some communities fight AIDS.

- In attempt to fight the epidemic, the whole idea of quarantine came about! City of Ragusa (Italy) began the earliest ‘quarantine’ and increasingly developed measures to isolate the infected and control its borders during 14th and 15th centuries. Then, many Italian regions followed Ragusa’s lead, and after them, other regions of western and central Europe.

FOR “EVERYTHING HAPPENED FOR A REASON” – WHAT CAN WE LEARN?

The black plague has taught us (or should make us ponder on) a few things:

  1. We should not be too engrossed with progress that we forget what matters most; lives
  2. History apparently repeats itself. If the black plague has taught us anything at all, it will be that diseases will spread between nations if not contained. SARS, Ebola, Mers etc are clear examples
  3. Could it be that plague’s and diseases are Mother nature’s way of healing herself? In the sense that humans are overpopulating the earth, and killing her by depleting her resources etc..

Yeah, when we look back to history, we’ll laugh. We’ll laugh at the (now we realized) past stupidity – which we used to confidently call ‘truths’ (and this false confidence could result in unnecessary chaos or fights).

This thus got me wondering: in future, would we laugh at some of today’s famous phenomenons? Will our children and grandchildren laugh at this era we’re living in?

Well, we’d never know. Only one thing is certain: now we know things may not be the way they seem and there are just zillions of new possibilities and truths that have yet to unfold. That’s why keeping an open mind is crucial. Don’t be too surprised when current good things produce bad things or, conversely, current bad things give birth to goodness. What doesn’t kill you make you stronger – what makes you stronger could also kill you.

How shall we live? The answers would vary. But for sure, we shall live better than the past. After all, (other than to clear this module) isn’t that precisely the point of studying history?

[BONUS: FUN FACT]

Some say, The Black Death was where nursery rhyme ‘Ring Around A Rosy’ came about. Scholars said ‘Ring Around A Rosy’ was about the plague’s symptoms. You can watch it here:

https://youtu.be/UaspFUkcPjo

Cheers!