08 July 2011


I. BREAK. We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming for this special apocalyptic announcement: "Ceaselessly passing from place to place, it extended its miserable length over the West. Against this plague all human wisdom and foresight were in vain... In this suffering and misery of our city, the authority of human and divine laws almost disappeared, for, like other men, the ministers and executors of the laws were all dead or sick or shut up with their families, so that no duties were carried out. Every man was therefore able to do as he pleased".[1] Not knowing the source of that quotation it might guessed to be a scenario descriptor from a Dostoyevsky novel, if not Woodstock 1994. In actuality, those words are taken from Giovanni Boccacio's The Decameron, a famous narration on the effects of the Bubonic Plague in Florence, Italy circa 1350.

II. NOMENCLATURE. Only recently referred to as The Black Death, it has had various monikers over the centuries: "The Scourge of God", "The Pestilence", "The Great Mortality", "The Great Death" or just "The Death". These, it is true, sound like names of thrash rock bands viewed on MTV2. Observe the depiction on your right and, goodness gracious, it looks like one of those ridiculous costumes Peter Gabriel used to wear during the early years of Genesis. Mind you, Genesis was a prog rock band and the depiction on the right is of a medical practitioner. The beak-shaped mask contained herbs and spices, supposedly thought to prevent one from acquiring the contagion. And no, surfer dudes, "herbs and spices" isn't a euphemism for Mary Jane, let alone a KFC bargain bucket. So presently our concern is with the distant past, circa mid-fourteenth century.
The Black Death is a historical subject worthy of review, especially if, like me, you occasionally get in the mood for medieval minutiae.

Although the exact location of the plague's initiation is unknown, it is generally thought to have originated in central Asia some time during the 1330s when outbreaks were reported in China. By way of commercial trade routes the contagion eventually spread south to India, reaching the southern tip of Italy in 1347. By 1351, it fluxed northward across the Crimea, into Russia and across the whole of Europe. It reached the British Isles by ship. Iceland and Greenland were hit by 1400. Italy, France, Spain, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Poland, Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Russia... these, including Northern Africa and parts of the Middle East, underwent, said Cardinal Francis Gasquet (1826-1929), "a social and religious catastrophe... sudden and overwhelming, the like of which it would be difficult to parallel".[2] Mortality rates given in the literature range from approximately 25 to 40 percent of the European populace. Some think this to be an overestimation: "Nothing like one-half, or even one-third, of the population died. It may be doubted so much as one quarter died. The statistical records of the age are so fragmentary, even when they are available at all, that little reliance can be place upon them".[3] Nonetheless, the consensus mortality number is estimated to be 25 million.

So what biological mechanism could wipe out a large portion of human life during the latter Middle Ages? Well, it wasn't one organism per se. In fact, scientific data strongly evidence that a triumvirate was operative. Blame goes to these three fellas...

The rod-shaped bacillus of the Bubonic (glandular) Plague, namely Yersinia pestis (formerly Pasteurella pestis), sometimes resides in the bloodstreams of rodents. In this case it was the Black Rat (Rattus rattus). When acquired, the infection seldom incites fatality to the rodent. The potential danger to man, however, changes when the flea Xenopsylla cheopis, also infected with the bacillus, is in whatever way motivated to latch onto the hairs of rodents. It becomes deadly to humans when this flea-rodent parasitical relationship resides in close proximity to largish human populations. Once the flea is transferred to a human host and starts to feed its "sucking mechanism is easily blocked when it is laden with the plague bacilli. That valvular obstruction prevents the flea from feeding by sucking blood. Instead it injects the deadly plague bacilli as it repeatedly punctures its victims in vain attempts to feed".[4]

V. SYMPTOMS. They manifested primarily in the forms of carbuncles and dark blotches on the body, vomiting, spitting of blood, intense chest pain, gangrous inflammation of the throat and lungs, including a stench of the body and breath. A clinical account by the physician to the Papal Court at Avingon, Gui de Chaulic (ca. 1300-1368), described the affliction as occurring in two waves: "The first lasted two months, with continuous fever and spitting of blood, and from this one dies in three days. The second... also with continuous fever but with apostumes and carbuncles on external parts, principally on the armpits and groin. From this one died in five days".[5] Unpleasant, to be sure.

Scientific investigations have confirmed how the disease was transmitted from rats to humans via fleas. Also, trade and travel routes explain the pan-continental character of the plague. Still, unknowns remain. For example, the plague reportedly reached Iceland at around 1400 yet rats weren't introduced there until the 1800s. So what, then, specifically killed 50 percent the country's population in the mid-fourteenth century? Alternative explanations have abounded in this climate of uncertainty. One recent theory says that, instead of the Y. pestis bacillus, a virus akin to Ebola was responsible for the pandemic. Other theories focus on undernourishment and famine (occurring ca. 1315), poor living conditions, low wages, high birth rates and "overpopulation". Given these, it was inevitable that Malthusian explanations arose as The Black Death is a "perfect" case study for Reverend Malthus' law of population: "The increase of human species can only be kept down to the level of the means of subsistence by the constant operation of the strong law of necessity acting as a check upon the greater power".[6] Even Marx has been invoked. The Russian historian E.A. Kominsky, with reference to Das Kapital, stated that any conjecture on the subject cannot be "possible without an examination [of] the mode of production".[7] Whatever. There are also those historians, as is commonplace, who paint the whole Medieval period as a "Dark Age", its denizens as intellectually backwards, religious fanatics, morose, rigorist, and so forth. For example:
The entire era was troubled by a great sense of insecurity and deep pessimism, a general conviction that impending disaster hung overall and that the world was rapidly going from bad to worse. The obsession with the end of the world which characterizes the Middle Ages colours the Black Death and was reinforced by it. The very name "Middle ages" envisions the apocalypse... The Middle Ages were looking for the end of the world, and to many the Black death seemed to be it.[8]
We can thank Eddy Gibbon for such delightful portraits. These alternative explanations seem to a consequence of a paucity in demographic data for the times, the representativeness of Church records and manorial surveys, scanty clues from the archaeological record, historical prejudices and other factors. Even chroniclers are unreliable given that some were prone to exaggeration. Let's return to Boccacio and read the famous "pig incident":
One day among other occasions I saw with my own eyes... the rags left lying in the street of a poor man who had died of the plague; two pigs came along and, as their habit is, turned the clothes over with their snouts and then munched at them with the result that they both fell dead at once on the rags, as if they had been poisoned.[9]
Instant death? A little sensationalism there methinks. Maybe instead the pigs choked on the fabric? Who knows?

Another theory put forward involves changes in climate, specifically an increased frequency of extreme meteorological events (e.g. floods, droughts), including their controls on agriculture. These might have roused the rodent population to migrate en masse nearer to more densely populated centres of human activity. Interestingly, the palaeoclimatological record does evidence major floods in China during the 1300s.[10] In fact, millions were reportedly killed as a result. Thompson again:
In 1333 the country surrounding the Kiang and Hoang So rivers in China experienced a parching drought which devastated the fields and destroyed all vegetable and much animal life. This drying up resulted in a severe famine, which followed very shortly. The following year a heavy rain set in, swelling the rivers and streams until they outflowed in their courses, causing widespread innundations particularly in the vicinity of Canton [Guangzhou]. In this time of flood and famine it would be only natural that disease in one form or another should break out, and the records show us that in Tche, a Chinese town, a plague developed after the floods, killing almost five million people, almost inconceivable.[11]
For the first two or so centuries of the second millennium the European climate underwent a warm temperature phase, having a thermal regime analogous to that which existed during the Holocene epoch.[12] This brief warm period is known at the "Little Optimum". Afterward, say from 1250 AD, the climate turned colder.[13] The beginning of this cooling trend is called the "Climatic Worsening" (Klima-Verschlecterung), which continued until about 1700 AD. The entire period itself is ascribed "The Little Ice Age". Historical evidences of this colder period include: increase in incidences of frozen lakes and rivers, altitudinal and latitudinal lowering of treelines, increased ground wetness, more expansive surface waters, the areal expansion of glaciers and permafrost (i.e. perennially frozen ground), and an increase in the extent of sea ice in the North Atlantic Ocean.[14] According to the eminent climatologist Hubert Lamb (1913-1997), "this particular climate change probably was a change for the worst for most people in most places...It seems a completely haphazard onset of harsher seasons to the inhabitants of Europe at that time but nonetheless it was clearly a time of storms and disasters more frequent than their fathers had known".[15] He continues specifically in relation to the 1300s:
...weather, and its effects on vegetation and crops, has controlled the population bursts among rats and insects which led to outbreaks of the plague or of widespread diseases of cattle and crops... in one, two or three years, between 1314 and 1319 almost every country in Europe lost almost the whole harvest... There were further disastrous harvest failures in 1332 and 1345-8.[16]
Lamb figured this climatic change "had a disastrous effect on human history in some areas".[17] More on the plague's historical significance below.

Many priests and religious died from the Bubonic Plague, including candidates thereof. Various authors have written of its deleterious effects on Church operations. P. Ziegler: "The abrupt disappearance of nearly half the clergy, including a disproportionately great number of the brave and diligent, inevitably put a heavy strain on the machinery of the Church and reduced its capacity to deal effectively with movements of protest or revolt".[18] Cardinal Gasquet once again: "It is obvious that the sudden removal of so large a proportion of the clerical body must have caused a breach in the continuity of the best traditions of ecclesiastical usage and teaching... Many instances could be given of the ignorance consequent upon ordinations being hurried on, and upon laymen, otherwise unfitted for the sacred mission, being too hastily admitted to the vacant curés".[19] Needless to say, this terrible loss of religious was debilitating to both discipline and observance. As a consequence more responsibility for Church affairs shifted to upper echelons in the hierarchy. It could also be argued that the lack of clergy and the rushed admittance of inadequately educated religious made the intellectual climate more conducive to heresy. "To the great dearth of clergy at this time may, partly at least, be ascribed the great growth of the crying abuse of pluralities".[20] Recall: the nominalist storm was gathering at this time. Ironically, even symbolically, the influential heretic William of Ockham died in 1348, soonafter the plague started to ravage Europe.

IX. THE FLAGELLANTS. They were known as the "Brotherhood of the Flagellants" or the "Brethren of the Cross". The origin of the movement is difficult to trace. I remember Germany, specifically, and Eastern Europe, generally, but cannot recall the sources making these claims. Other sources give first reports in Italy during the mid-thirteenth century, a response to crop failure. But it was during the Black Death when Flagellant groups exploded throughout Europe. Processions of them would enter a town (with forewarned notice) and begin to scourge themselves with whips. Bodies were beaten until bruised and bleeding, singing and crying along the way. Think Jansenist-inspired Captain and Tennille. All this was supposed penance, reparation for sins, to obtain forgiveness from God, with the hope of mitigating plague's effects. As it turned out, the Flagellants lefts towns in a state worse prior to their arrival. Not only anti-Semites, some members claimed healing powers and to cleanse inhabitants for their transgressions against God. Townspeople confessed sins but the promised miracles never eventuated. And the plague remained when they departed. Indeed, they sometimes introduced the plague to whatever town. Consequently, they were denied entry at other localities. Some priests joined their ranks even though forbidden to do so. The Church tolerated the Flagellants for a short while but the alarming spread of the movement prompted Pope Clement VI to condemn it in bull issued on October 20, 1349.

The immediate problem of underpopulation put great stress on plague survivors to adequately attend to daily administration and local political affairs. The suddenness of it killed off a significant proportion of agricultural workers, legislators, court officials, shopkeepers, tailors, blacksmiths and a whole array of other occupations. Everyday affairs of towns and villages were halted. Land owners endured difficult times. Reduced rent values, dwellings without occupants, mills without workers, expansive tracts of land left uncultivated, desolate or abandoned - these increased prices in services and commodities. Cardinal Gasquet argued that the plague's effect enhanced hostilities between nations: "the void [of population] ...enlarged exigencies of the English war with France".[21] Another historian adds and apocalyptic tenor: "Economic chaos, social unrest, high prices, profiteering, depravation of morals, industrial indolence and inefficiency, frenetic gaiety, wild expenditure, luxury, debauchery, social and religious hysteria, greed, avarice, maladministration, decay of manners, followed in the path of the plague".[22] If not the modern day, that sure sounds like a summation of the Weimar Republic. During "the second half of the fourteenth century the disintegration of the manorial system was inevitable and already well advanced. The Black death immeasurably aided the process; exacerbated existing grievances; heightened contradictions, made economic nonsense of what previously had been a situation difficult but still viable... The Black Death did not initiate any major or social economic trend but it accelerated and modified... those which already existed... a cataclysmic event of the first order".[23] Not very nice at all.

Now whether the late-medieval Bubonic Plague was one of those "turning points in history" is a difficult question. It did occur during the times leading up to Luther's revolt, which undoubtedly was a turning point in history. Was it a real precursor to the Reformation? Was it correlation or causation? Many scenarios have been proposed. Here are just a few: The aforementioned climatologist Hubert Lamb surmised: "It is far from the writer's meaning to ignore the religious and political ideas of independence and democracy about which the struggle of Jan Hus in Bohemia and other risings... were fought. But it is informative to note the coincidences in times with stresses produced by adverse weather and harvests that were disappointing or worse. These must surely always produce a disposition to unrest and are liable therefore to increase the readiness of many to join the conflict".[24] The Whigish view of Hus and his times was probably due Lamb's Protestantism (he was a Quaker). More importantly, the statement as such betrays a climatic determinism. Not buying that one. Cardinal Gasquet offered an interesting thesis: "In truth, this great pestilence was a turning point in the national life. It formed the real close of the Medieval period and the beginning of our Modern Age... The sudden sweeping away of the population and the consequent scarcity of labourers raised... new and extravagant expectations in the minds of the lower classes... labour began to understand its value and assert its power... The fifteenth century witnessed the beginnings of a great middle-class movement, which can be distinctly traced to the effect of the great pestilence, and which, whether for good or evil, was checked by the change of religion in the sixteenth century".[25] G. Deaux disagreed with Gasquet: "The Black Death did not bring the Middle Ages to an end... Great revolutions in institutions, values and culture are invariably the product of long and complex processes of change, and it is simplistic to assign any event, no matter how momentous, the full responsibility for such change".[26] P. Ziegler presented a fair explanation: "The Black Death did not cause the Reformation, it did not stimulate doubts about the doctrine of the Transubstantiation; but did it not cause a state of mind in which the doctrines were more easily doubled and in which the Reformation was more immediately possible?... Assumptions which had been taken for granted for centuries were now in question, the very framework of men's minds seemed to be breaking up. And though the Black Death was far from being the only cause, the anguish and disruption it had inflicted made the greatest single contribution to the disintegration of the age".[27] Finally, there is my favourite explanation by the great Hilaire Belloc:
By the middle of the fourteenth century the decaying of the flower was tragically apparent. New elements of cruelty tolerated, of mere intrigue successful, of emptiness in philosophical phrase and of sophistry in philosophical argument, marked the turn of the tide... Upon all this came the enormous incident of the Black Death... from that additional blow the great experiment of the Middle Ages could not recover... I, for my part, incline to believe that wills other than those of mortals were in combat for the soul of Europe, as they are in combat daily for the souls of individual men, and that in this spiritual battle, fought over our heads perpetually, some accident of the struggle turned it against us for a time. If that suggestion be fantastic (which no doubt it is), at any rate none other is complete.[28]
On that quotation, we close this medieval chronicle. Regularly scheduled programming will recommence with the next post.


1. G. Boccacio, The Decameron of Giovanni Boccacio, trans. R. Aldington (New York: Garden City Books, 1939), p. 3. For fascinatingly dismal depictions of the plague see the plates given in J. Nohl, The Black Death, A Chronicle of a Plague (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1926), passim.

2. F.A. Gasquet, The Black Death of 1348 and 1349 (New York: AMS Press, 1977), pp. 252-254. Originally published in 1893 under the title The Great Pestilence.

3. J.W. Thompson, Economic and Social History of Europe in the Later Middle Ages (1300-1350), (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Company, 1965), p. 381.

4. From the introduction to The Black Death, A Turning Point in History?, ed. W.M. Bowsky (New York: Holt, Reinhart and Winston, 1971), p. 1.

5. Quoted in P. Ziegler, The Black Death (New York: The John Day Company, 1969), p. 19.

6. T.R. Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population (Cambridge University Press, 1992), bk. I, ch. i, p. 20. First published in 1798. See opinions for and against the Malthusian explanation by M.M. Postan and D. Herilhy in W.M. Bowsky (loc. cit., pp. 56-64).

7. W.M. Bowsky, op. cit., pp. 38-46.

8. G. Deaux, The Black Death, 1347 (New York: Weybright and Talley, 1969), p. 145. To my understanding, the etymology of the phrase "Middle Ages" is as follows: In Latin, media tempestas (1469), media etas (1518) and medium aevum (1604). In English, "middle age" (1621) and "medieval" (1827).

9. G. Boccacio, op. cit., pp. 2-3.

10. C. Chu, "Climate pulsations during historical times in China", Geographical Review, 1926, vol. 16, pp. 274-282. For a tabulation of the number of severe floods occurring from the eleventh to fourteenth centuries see H.H. Lamb, Climate: Present, Past and Future (London: Methuen & Company Limited, 1977), vol. 2 (Climatic History and the Future), Table 13.4, p. 127.

11. J.W. Thompson, op. cit., pp. 378-379.

12. That would be circa 6000 to 3000 BC. The warmer and wetter Holocene followed the last ice age, during which global average air temperature was 5 degrees Celsius lower than today, with expansive ice sheets veneering both Eurasia and North America. See a reconstruction of the glacial surface and climate in CLIMAP Project Members, "The Surface of the Ice Age Earth", Science, March 1976, vol. 191, no. 4232, pp. 1131-1144.

13. For a description and graphical depiction of the drop in temperatures in England see H.H. Lamb, "The Early Medieval Epoch and its Sequel", Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 1965, vol. 1, p. 26.

14. A ice-ridden North Atlantic, evidencing very cold temperatures, likely explains the vanishing/abandonment of Vikings settlements in Greenland circa 1350 to 1400 AD.

15. H.H. Lamb, loc. cit., vol. 2, pp. 449-450. Further: "It is from eastern Europe... that... we have the harshest climatic disasters... winters of such unaccustomed severity and depth of snow... and a few winters so mild that the people were anxious about seed time and harvest. There were summers with continual rains and others with such prolonged heat and drought that, in either case, the crops failed" (p. 8).

16. H.H. Lamb, loc. cit., vol. 2, pp. 259, 6-7.

17. Ibid., vol. 2, p. 37.

18. P. Ziegler, op. cit., p. 262.

19. F.A. Gasquet, op. cit., pp. 238, 240. Cf. also P.G. Mode, The Influence of the Black Death on the English Monasteries (The University of Chicago Libraries, 1916), pp. 11-19. This text is a doctoral dissertation.

20. F.A. Gasquet, op. cit., p. 248.

21. Ibid., p. 243.

22. J.W. Thompson, op. cit., p. 382.

23. P. Ziegler, op. cit., pp. 250-251.

24. H.H. Lamb, loc. cit., vol. 2, p. 459ff.

25. F.A. Gasquet, op. cit., pp. xxi-xxii, xxiv.

26. G. Deaux, op. cit., p. 205.

27. P. Ziegler, op. cit., pp. 270, 274.

28. H. Belloc, Europe and the Faith (Rockford, IL: Tan Books and Publishers Incorporated, 1992), pp. 151-152. Originally published in 1920.



AllenT said...

I haven't seen that sketch of what a doctor wore during the plague in ages. It is interesting how, in a way, history is repeating itself. Because of AIDS concerns these days, every time I visit the dentist the hygenist wears a mask.
As for the Flagellents being "Jansenist-inspired Captain and Tennille", I'll take Muscrat Love any day over what these guys did. ;)
Small aside about TAN Books, they are now under new ownership & operate out of Charlotte NC. But they are still publishing the Belloc book you cite & several others.

TH2 said...

Can remember as a kid when the dentist wore no gloves, no mask. Things certainly have changed. I am constantly amazed at the many technological advancements made in dentistry every time I go for a check-up. Last time my dentist introduced me to his trans-dimensional holographic tooth extractor powered by gamma rays. Neato.

Most of my books by Belloc are from TAN Publishers.

Patrick Button said...

Excellent post!  To the socioeconomic effects, I might add the fact that because so many laborers died, the serfs who survived were worth more and as a result gained greater power.  The black death was one reason for the freeing of the serfs in the High Middle Ages.

TH2 said...

Cheers Patrick. Your view seems to be consistent with Cardinal Gasquet (cf. para. XI, note 25).

Patrick Button said...

Indeed.  I ought to have read more closely. 

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