The Black Death:


The Black Death in England (1348 to 1350):

Bristol was an important European trade port during the Medieval era and it is believed that the plague first arrived there, via ships and sailors, sometime between June and August in 1348; the plague quickly spread from Bristol and reached London by the 1st November 1348; at that time London was a crowded, bustling city with a population of around 70,000; the sanitation was poor and living conditions were filthy; the continuing influx of ships, and its infected sailors and flea ridden rodents, arriving in Bristol and other british ports, including up the River Thames helped spread the plague to the rest of England.

The crowded, dirty living conditions of the English cities, towns and villages led to the rapid spread of the disease; church records show that the actual deaths in London alone were around 20,000; between 1348 and 1350, the plague killed about 30 to 40 percent of the population of England, which at the time was estimated to be about five to six million; the oldest, youngest and poorest died first and due to the lack of places to bury the dead, many were thrown into open communal pits; during that time whole towns and villages in England simply ceased to exist; the plague in England ran its course and ended sometime in 1350.


The Black Death Mortality Rate:

The plague had a mortality rate of around 35 percent, started in Europe in 1328 and lasted until around 1351, although there were outbreaks in several areas for the next sixty years; it has been conclusively proven via analysis of ancient DNA from plague victims in northern and southern Europe that the pathogen responsible is the Yersinia pestis bacteria; it is thought to have originated in the Gobi Desert, in China, and travelled along the Silk Road until it reached the Crimea in 1346; the plague was spread by fleas that were carried by rats and other small rodents and it followed all the Trade Routes to every country.

The plague wasn't fussy, it struck people from all walks of society, including royalty; King Edward III had arranged a marriage for his favourite daughter Joan Plantagenet; she was to marry King Pedro of Castille, the son of Alfonso XI and Maria of Portugal; the marriage was to take place in Castille; Joan left England with the blessing of her parents; at this time the Black Death had not yet taken hold in England; its first victims in France were in August 1348; Joan travelled through France and contracted the disease and died in Bayonne on the 2nd September 1348.

Why was it known as the Black Death?

The plague was known as the Black Death because one of the symptoms it produced was a blackening of the skin around the painful swellings, or buboes, of the lymph nodes that appeared in the armpits, legs, neck, or groin; the buboes were red at first, but later turned a dark purple, or black and when a victim's blood was let the blood that exuded was black, thick and vile smelling with a greenish scum mixed in it.

Other symptoms of the Black Death included, a very high fever, mental disorientation, delirium, vomiting, muscular pains and bleeding in the lungs, the victim also had an intense desire to sleep, which, if yielded to, quickly proved fatal; victims only lived between 2 to 4 days after contracting the disease.

What was the Cure?

During the Middle Ages, neither the physicians or the victims had any idea of what caused the disease; the most they could do was to administer various known concoctions of herbs to relieve the symptoms, there was no known cure; headaches were relieved by rose, lavender, sage and bay; sickness or nausea was treated with wormwood, mint, and balm; lung problems were treated with liquorice and comfrey.

Vinegar was used as a cleansing agent as it was believed that it would kill disease, but bloodletting was commonly thought to be one of the best ways to treat the plague, that and lancing the buboes and applying a warm poultice of butter, onion and garlic; various other remedies were tried including arsenic, lily root and even dried toad.

Many things were tried to prevent the spread of the plague and Pope Clement VI, living at Avignon, often sat between two large fires to breath in what he termed as pure air and seeing as the plague bacillus is actually destroyed by heat, this was one of the few truly effective measures taken.

What stopped the Black Death:

There are several theories as to why the plague ended, one was that the black rats were the main carriers of the disease, the brown rat is a lot more aggressive and wherever they resided the black rats did not gain a foothold, therefore the disease did not spread there; but in the end I believe that the infected rats started to die, which reduced the food source of the bacterium; a built up immunity and basic hygiene, ended the disease, people started to wash their hands, avoid dirty water and burnt or buried their dead deep in the ground.

The Consequenses of the Black Death:

The consequences and effects of the plague were far reaching; due to the high number of deaths and such a rapid drop in population, there was a reduced labour force in England, which resulted in a higher value being placed on labour Prices and Wages rose; this ultimately let to the Peasants Revolt in 1381.

Due to the lack of labour farming land was given over to pasturing, which was much less labour intensive and consequently the wool industry boomed, which in turn led to a boost in the cloth and woollen industry and many peasants moved from the country to the towns looking for work; the Black Death was therefore also responsible for the decline of the Feudal system.

The Black Death and Religion:

During the Middle Ages it was essential that people were given the last rites, so that they had the chance to confess their sins before they died; however, the spread of the deadly plague in England was swift and the death rate was almost 50% in isolated populations such as monasteries, which meant many of the clergy were killed by the plague.

Due to this there were not enough clergy left to offer all of the victims the last rites or to give enough support and help to the victims; the situation was so bad that Pope Clement VI was eventually forced to grant remission of sins to all of those who died of the Black Death; victims were allowed to confess their sins to one another, 'even to a woman'.

NB. "Bless You! & God Bless You!": It is believed that the practice of blessing someone who sneezes, dates back to an actual act of blessing; when Gregory I became Pope in AD 590 an outbreak of the bubonic plague was reaching Rome and in hopes of fighting off the disease, he ordered unending prayer and parades of chanters throughout the streets.

At that time, sneezing was thought to be an early symptom of the plague and when someone sneezed it could mean the beginning of the end; from the first sneeze to actual death might only be a matter of hours, so if someone sneezed you gave them a blessing because they might be dead soon; ergo, the blessing "God bless you!", which is literally asking for God's blessing on their soul became a common effort to halt the disease.

What was the Black Death:

The Black Deaths's real name is the Bubonic Plague, and along with the septicemic plague and the pneumonic plague, are the zoonotic diseases, that circulate mainly among small rodents and their fleas and the three types of infections caused by Yersinia pestis, formerly known as Pasteurella pestis, which belongs to the family Enterobacteriaceae; without treatment, the bubonic itself kills about two out of three infected humans within 4 days; it is generally believed to be the cause of the Black Death which swept through Europe in the 14th century and killed an estimated 25 million europeans.

The term bubonic plague is derived from the Greek word bubo, meaning 'swollen gland.'; swollen lymph nodes, buboes, occur in the armpit, legs, neck and groin in persons suffering from bubonic plague; Bubonic plague was often used synonymously for all plagues, but it does in fact refer specifically to an infection that enters through the skin and travels through the lymphatics, as is often seen in flea borne infections.

The Black Death did not totally die out; it returned at various times, killing even more people, until it left Europe in the 19th century; the worst case of the Plague was between 1348 and 1350, but there was also an outbreak in London in 1665, known as the Great Plague, in which around a hundred thousand people died.

The Sweating Sickness:

Another disease; not known in England before 1485, arrived at the very beginning of Henry VII's reign, and was first noticed a few days after the landing of Henry at Milford Haven on the the 7th Aug 1485, as there is clear evidence of its being spoken of before the battle of Bosworth on the 22nd August.

Soon after the arrival of Henry in London on the 28th August, it broke out in the capital and caused a great many deaths; this plague soon became known as the sweating sickness; it was regarded as being quite distinct from the plague, the pestilential fever or other epidemics previously known, not only by the special symptom which gave it its name, but also by its extremely rapid and fatal course.

The cause of the disease is blamed on the general dirt and sewage of the time, but no-one knows for sure; the first outbreak at the end of the Wars of the Roses means that it may have been brought over from France by the French mercenaries which Henry VII used to gain the English throne, particularly as they seem to have been immune.

Strangely, the disease seems to have been more virulent among the rich, than the poor; it is thought that it may have been Relapsing Fever which is spread by ticks and lice, usually in summer months when they flourish.

What follows is a description by Thomas Forestier, who recorded his observations of the 1485 epidemic;

'... The exterior is calm in this fever, the interior excited... the heat in the pestilent fever many times does not appear excessive to the doctor, nor the heat of the sweat itself particularly high... But it is on account of the ill-natured, fetid, corrupt, putrid, and loathsome vapors close to the region of the heart and of the lungs whereby the panting of the breath magnifies and increases and restricts of itself...'

From 1485 nothing more was heard of it untill 1507, when the second outbreak occurred, which was much less fatal than the first; but in 1517 there was a third and much more severe epidemic; in many places, like Oxford and Cambridge, the death rate was high; in some places half the population are said to have perished; there is evidence of the disease having spread to Calais and Antwerp, but with these exceptions it was confined to England; contemporary observers distinguished the condition from plague, malaria, and typhus.

In 1528 the disease recurred for the fourth time and with greater severity; it first showed itself in London at the end of May, and speedily spread over the whole of England, though not into Scotland or Ireland; many people in Henry VIII's court fell sick with the sweating sickness and Henry developed a morbid fear of contracting the disease himself; he would change residences every other day in an effort to avoid coming within contact with those of his court who became infected.

He also busied himself with a study of the disease and its purported cures such as herbs laced with molasses and bleeding from certain points on the body, the arm, between the thumb and forefinger, or between the shoulders.

The French Ambassador to the English court, Du Bellai, wrote in 1528, "...One of the filles de chambre of Mlle Boleyn was attacked on Tuesday by the sweating sickness. The King left in great haste, and went a dozen miles off...This disease is the easiest in the world to die of. You have a slight pain in the head and at the heart; all at once you begin to sweat. There is no need for a physician: for if you uncover yourself the least in the world, or cover yourself a little too much, you are taken off without languishing. It is true that if you merely put your hand out of bed during the first 24 become stiff as a poker".

The most remarkable fact about this epidemic is that it spread over the Continent, suddenly appearing at Hamburg, and spreading so rapidly that within a few weeks more than a thousand people died; thus was the terrible sweating sickness started on a destructive course, during which it caused fearful mortality throughout eastern Europe; France, Italy and the southern countries were spared.

It spread much in the same way as cholera, passing, in one direction, from north to south, arriving at Switzerland in December, in another northwards to Denmark, Sweden and Norway, also eastwards to Lithuania, Poland and Russia, and westwards to Flanders and Holland; it declared itself simultaneously at Antwerp and Amsterdam and on the morning of the 27th September, arrived inEngland.

In each place which it affected it prevailed for a short time only generally not more than a fortnight; by the end of the year it had entirely disappeared, except in. eastern Switzerland, where it lingered into the next year; it seems that the terrible English sweat never appeared again on the European Continent.

England was, however, destined to suffer from one more outbreak of the disease, which occurred in 1551 and with regard to this we have the great advantage of an account by an eyewitness, John Kaye or Caius of Gonville Hall, Cambridge, the eminent president of the Royal College of Physicians.

The disease began very suddenly with a sense of apprehension, followed by cold shivers (sometimes very violent), giddiness, headache and severe pains in the neck, shoulders and limbs, with great prostration. After the cold stage, which might last from half-an-hour to three hours, followed the stage of heat and sweating. The characteristic sweat broke out suddenly, and, as it seemed to those accustomed to the disease, without any obvious cause. With the sweat, or after that was poured out, came a sense of heat, and with this headache and delirium, rapid pulse and intense thirst. Palpitation and pain in the heart were frequent symptoms. No eruption of any kind on the skin was generally observed; Caius makes no allusion to such a symptom. In the later stages there was either general prostration and collapse, or an irresistible tendency to sleep, which was thought to be fatal if the patient were permitted to give way to it. One attack did not offer immunity and some people suffered several bouts before succumbing.

All accounts agree as to the summer preponderance of the sweating sickness; all the epidemics disappeared with the onset of winter; narrative accounts recorded in Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland and in correspondence reported a distinct age and sex predisposition: "It is to be noted, that this mortalitie fell chieflie or rather upon men, and those of the best age as between thirtie and fortie years. Few women, nor children, nor old men died thereof".

These narrative accounts emphasized the susceptibility of upper class men; such epidemiologic characteristics, however, rely heavily on observer interpretation; the preponderance of wealthy male victims in narrative accounts probably reflects the high profile of these men within society rather than an actual susceptibility to the sweating sickness.

The Catholic Church could offer no reason for the deadly disease and religious beliefs were sorely tested; the plague had such a devastating effect that people started to question religion in general, such as "How could God allow this to happen?"; many, previously devout, people became disillusioned with the church and its power and influence went into decline; these doubts ultimately resulted in the English Reformation.

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