The Black Death: Rats and Pestilence

The_Black_DeathRecently there has been some media attention afforded to the Black Death, with the discovery of a number of victim’s bodies discovered by railway construction workers in London (this was the subject of a recent channel 4 documentary). You can study the subject in detail through such media, but perhaps someone new to the subject might first wish to read of some of the subjects more basic facts…

The Black Death, which ravaged the Western world in the Fourteenth Century, particularly between 1348 and 1349, was also known as the plague.

Plague comes in two forms. The first, and most common plague, is the bubonic plague, which was spread via infected flea bites. The other, which was far more deadly, was the pneumonic plague, spread by breathing in pathogens (germs) from plague victims coughing or sneezing. Other Black Death symptoms included a headache, chills, fever, nausea, vomiting, back pain, sore limbs, and an inability to stand bright light. After two or three days, hard, painful lumps or swellings would appear in the armpits, thighs, groin and neck. Once these lumps blackened and split open, then the patient was very close to death.

Medieval society was still in the early stages of scientific understanding, and did not know about germs or how disease spread, so they blamed many other things for this terrible epidemic.

The most popular belief in England at the time was that the plague was God punishing humanity for its sins. A more credible concurrent theory for the Black Death was that it was spread by strangers coming into the country (they could be carrying germs from where they had come from), animals (fleas on rats did carry the plague), bad smells, or (less believably), the movement of the planets.

Not only did the Medieval population not understand the cause of the Black Death, it also had some rather strange ideas about how it might be cured. The bottoms of dead chickens were placed on puce spots, frogs or toads were tied around the neck, and the wealthy struck down with this disease are said to have eaten crushed emeralds to dissolve the evil lumps. Many people went on pilgrimages to Canterbury and other major religious centres to plead to God for leniency. Sadly, since this brought large groups of people closer together, these gatherings only served to spread the germs further and increased the problem.

The plague doctors, who could only be afforded by rich victims, covered their whole body in a long coat, and breathed through a mask filled with lavender when examining their patients. This did help to prevent them from contracting the Black Death. The long coat prevented contact with their patients, and the lavender mask, (which they wore to block out bad smells), stopped most pneumonic plague bacteria from getting to them.

The Black Death killed around 2.5 million people. It had a huge impact on society as a whole. Entire settlements were wiped out, the working population was decimated, and it took decades for Britain to recover from this pestilence.



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Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.

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