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Cause, Symptoms and Impact of Black Death (1348-1350)

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As the Black Death was popularly known, the Great Mortality spread its dark wings across the European civilization without warning. It swept away more than one-third of the population in Europe. The effect was aggravated by the unpreparedness and lack of medical remedies owing to unfamiliarity with the disease. This was one of the worst battles that humankind had to fight against nature. It was perhaps nature’s way of ensuring ecological balance during a time when Medieval Europe was already suffering from a Malthusian crisis arising out of several crop failures (last decade of the thirteenth century), famines over the previous decades, and the increasing population pressure. Over the years, epidemics like Black Death have occurred. The Great Plague of 1665 also preceded the Black Death and resulted in about 15-20 % of the population. The debates around the causes and consequences of the Black Death bring to light the pandemic’s historical importance more than one way.

Cause, Symptoms and Impact of Black Death (1348-1350)


During the second pandemic (The Black Death), deaths were caused by an outbreak that resulted in the emergence of sore lymph node swelling in various parts of the human body (especially armpits and groin). High fever followed this, which quickly caused deaths. Allegedly black rat fleas caused the outbreak and popularly known as the Bubonic plague. In modern times the initial hypothesis about the Black Death’s Death’s endogenous existence does not hold. Scientists have now found any external pathogen, the responsible factor being a rod-shaped bacteria called Yersinia pestis. This was described by a Swiss biologist Alexandre Yersin in 1894, long after the plague had mercilessly depleted Europe’s Europe’s population. Yersin also concluded that rodents and insect vectors amongst humans transmit this bacterium. The unique flea that causes this condition is called xenopsylla cheopis.

Despite differences of opinion among historians, while examining the Black Death factors, they have agreed on some common points. During the High Middle Ages, Europe and the relatively disease-free world experienced a rapid population rise. In addition to this, inventions and advances in technology and agriculture, Europe also managed some political stability, which led to a reduction in the invasion. This offered a perfect framework for population growth from 25 million to 75 million (from 950 to 1250) and rapid urbanization or urban development. A majority of the money, despite all, came from the land and its produce. The advances made in agricultural techniques contributed to improvements in soil and seed quality and, ultimately, led to better cultivation. During the period 1200-1250, Medieval Europe reached the height of production. Some changes took place from 1250 onwards, and among them were significant environmental or climatic shifts. According to historians understanding these developments, the effect on pre-modern culture was essential to note. The movement of glaciers and pollens in this respect suggests a change until the 13th century. This “small maximum” situation allowed for all-round growth in the political, social, and economic arenas. But the climate eventually became colder, and this influenced farming. Even trade was disrupted, and thus food supplies were scarce. The situation exacerbated by high fertility rates and continued population growth. The surplus built up over the years in food production has started to decline. Although the climate has become colder and colder, a severe Malthusian crisis has arisen in Europe, which has become economically weak. Food prices also started to grow, and peasant conditions deteriorated as landlords pressed. However, the peasant population began to grow due to low mortality rates and the absence of any killing disease: continued crop failures and famines. As food crops became scarce, humans started relying more on livestock. Unhealthy eating habits gave rise to illnesses such as dysentery and typhoid that killed many. However, by the beginning of the fourteenth century, the ecological equilibrium was significantly disturbed. This presented the perfect Y-virus scenario—pestis for multiplication.

Amongst many explanations projected to explain the Black Death, William McNeill’ McNeill’s attribution of the epidemic to the Mongolian Empire can be discussed. This Empire formed the connection between China, India, the Middle East, and Europe. The Mongol horsemen kept the communication going across Asia. The Empire spread across the Yunan region of south China. The scholars today believe that this region was the center of the virus Y. pestis carried from East Africa during the first pandemic. According to McNeill, the horsemen and supply trains brought the insects and rodents infected with Y. pestis to the headquarters of the Mongols in the Gobi Desert. This infected the Gobi Desert rodents, and from here, the Mongol horsemen carried the disease to different areas of the Empire. These horsemen dominated most of the Eurasian Empire during this time. Some historians also believe that the Gobi Desert itself was a breeding place of the Y. pestis.

However, the environmentalists essentially attribute the attack of the plague to the climatic conditions, which became wetter and colder as described before. This further facilitated the breed of rats and rodents. On the other hand, Central Asia received hot and arid sirocco winds from the Sahara. The Mongolians and the Turks gradually moved their flocks towards the east and the west, looking for greener pastures. Similarly, the wild rodents of Central Asia also moved in search of food and, in the process, spread the plague virus. In both the theories, which are entirely enforcing in nature, the Mongolians’Mongolians’ role is significant. One thing is evident from these two theories – the rodents and the men from the desert and the steppes were the main causal factors behind the pandemic. Some of the customs of the nomads were also responsible for the breeding of rodents. For instance, trapping the marmots was prohibited. These rodents could only be shot at a safe distance. Even animals moving slowly could not be touched by custom. Also, the nomads had reservations against the use of furs of some of these animals. Apart from the ecological factors, the human activities were also responsible for the extent of the East-West trade activities marked by three channels connecting Europe and Asia.

The Eurasian network during the 1340s was quite efficient, and the fleas and rats carried the virus Y. pestis by the trading ships, and the merchants were perhaps the carriers of pneumonic plague. According to scholars, the overland route across central Asia was most significant. The Black Death also attacked the Chinese population and swept away the community by 1393. There was a drop to around 90 million from 125 million. Apart from these, the unhealthy living habits such as the throwing of slaughtered animals on streets and into the River Thames, have also aggravated the chances of rodents to breed. However, owing to superstitions and unfamiliarity, the Medical Faculty of the University of Paris even attributed the pandemic to the astrological factors like the conjunction of Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars in the house of Aquarius.

The first records of the Black Death were found through the archaeological evidence, which showed that a large section of the Nestorian Christian people residing around Lake Issyk Kul and the Tien Shan area in Central Asia were affected bubonic plague and died. However, conventionally, the Black Death’s Death’s entry into Europe, was brought about by the conflict between the Christian traders and local Muslims. This conflict led to war. The Muslims sought help from the local Tatar Lord, who led a large army at Caffa. The Genoese began to strengthen their position in town, and in the process of war, plague erupted amongst the military. The dead and affected victims were tossed across the walls, and this accumulation of unattended corpses spread the disease across the country.

On the other hand, Genoese had to run back to Italy and carried the disease to their hometown. Also, despite belonging to a rural population, most of them lived in small abodes in large families, and hence chances of contracting this disease were high. This incidence has become a remarkable one in the pages of history.

Impact of the Black Death

Historians like Cantacuzenos suggested that the Black Death spread from Constantinople and covered the remaining Byzantium and eastern Mediterranean Basin. Another historian Nicephorus Gregoras explained the eventual spread as follows, “it invaded Aegean Islands. Then it attacked the Rhodians… and those colonizing other islands. The calamity did not destroy men only but many animals living with and domesticated by man. I speak of dogs and horses…and all species of birds, even rats that happened to live within the walls of the houses”. The interesting observation of the historian lies in the mention of rats. Like the chronicler, physician, and theologian, he did not account for the rats’ importance while discussing the Black Death’s Death’s origins. The pandemic struck the population during a time when owing to the Malthusian crises; the mass was already declining in numbers. This brought about a decisive blow to this decline.

One Venetian observer states that around 90 percent of the population was destroyed. This could be a sure exaggeration, but this observation provides a good overview of the impact brought about by the Black Death. Some embellishments in estimates were also found in different historian’ shistorian’s works. For instance, Benedictow’s Benedictow’s estimate of Europe’s mortality due to Black Death is 60 percent t. Even this day, the precise figure about the mortality is not confirmed. Herlihy’s Herlihy’s famous work The Black Death and the transformation of the west in 1997 suggest that the Black Death ““broke the Malthusian deadlock that …medieval growth had created and which might have impeded further growth in different forms”. This event turned the balance in favor of the peasants and laborers. These peasants transformed later into yeoman farmers (with free land holdings) during the fifteenth century. This led to a rise in food prices. Kelly in his work, The Great Mortality, suggests certain positive aspects of the post Black Deposit-Black. Peasants had more lands to till. The female workers had more opportunities and earned more wages. New methods of accommodating methods te fewer technicians were developed along with innovating techniques of mining. Priest education faced a crisis, and hence n, ew colleges (with charters explaining this case) were built for higher education. In short, the Malthusian deadlock occurred owing to too many people for the restrained resources. The plague helped eliminate the consumers, and bringing about the event mentioned above helped break this deadlock or crisis. Scholars like

Cantor suggests a causal association between the Renaissance in Italy and the Black Death. The Black Death struck the famous Europe ‘of Europe when medical science could not deal with the disease. Doctors often avoided treatment of plague affected people. At other times, they were attracted by high fees, No antidote existed for the plague and the doctors hardly knew of the infection or its quarantine. They often suggested closed windows, filtering of the air and eradication of extreme habits. The city government nts tried to quarantine the households affected by the plague. They also took initiatives to dig up mass graves for disposal of the bodies. In some cases the bodies were unearthed by the dogs. The priests o,r clergymen fled from hearing the confessions of the dead in many cases. One report said, ““…there were none who wept for any death…so many died, that everyone thought it to be the end of the world”. Therefore, the most significant impact was on the people’s critical techno, logy, and p; people were scared of the disease. Hence they isolated their relatives and neighbors in the struggle for survival. Even parents refused to take care of their children. Owing to the increased deaths, the availability of the number of efficient attendants was restrained. Boccaccio associates the plague with the forms of art and literature. The modernist historian Meiss suggested that the ““Creative surge”” of Giotto’s Giotto’s period was over, and the plague, therefore, showed the direction towards a more reserved style. Innovations came in only from the early 1400s. The idea was now to create art for the sake of art and to create a romantic place, away from the horrors of reality. The new generation of literary and artistic composers took some time to emerge. This marked the latest phase of socio-cultural transformation towards Renaissance (humanism).

Current Treatment of the Disease

The Bubonic plague attack is no more a matter of grave concern since modern medicines have devised its remedies. Like many other diseases, the standard treatment of Bubonic plague is through antibiotics. Previously doctors resorted to cutting the buboes (swellings) and letting the patients bleed. But these never worked as acceptable treatment methods. These antibiotics were discovered during the 1940s. The doctors derived these remedies after extensive study of rats’ bodies, especially during the bubonic plague in New Orleans in 1914. Hence one may infer that unfamiliarity with the disease and the rapid spread, on the one hand, caught the people unprepared and, on the other, surprised the doctors who could not detect the proper remedial measures. Like many other diseases (measles, smallpox, typhoid), human beings have devised the corrective processes to combat the disease through severe ordeals and will to survive.

Concluding Remarks

There have been questions regarding the occurrence of the plague as the cause of the Black Death. The chroniclers detected the cause from specific symptoms prevalent amongst the victims of that time, for instance, the buboes similar to those in the case of Yersinia plague. Scientists and historians often have differences in opinions centering on the Black Death and its causes. However, recent scientific studies have adopted a DNA diagnosis of the teeth pulp of victims’ victims’ corpses. Inferences reinforced the classic accounts of the pandemic. The impact of the Black Death has been quite extensive. It influenced not only the economy and socio-demographic scenario but also affected the psychology of people who faced the crises. In many cases, one may observe how a situation of dire emergency and the determination to survive can turn a person too selfish and immune to humanitarian responsibilities. The Black Death’s Death’s historical significance lies in the gradual end of the medieval era and a new transformation period in social, cultural, and economic fields.

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