The Century Of Plagues – Black Death
The Black Death was an epidemic that killed upward of one-third of the population of Europe between 1346 and 1353. The precise specification of the time span, particularly the end dates, varies by a year or so, depending on the source. A less severe follow-on epidemic in 1361, seemingly of the same disease, is, by convention, separate from the Black Death. A common misconception is that black refers to skin discolorations accompanying the disease. Black is meant in the metaphorical sense of terrible. In fact, the term “Black Death” was not used until the middle of the sixteenth century.
Contemporaries called it the “pestilence”. The historical importance of an event that killed such a huge proportion of Europe requires little elaboration. Even by contemporary standards, the Black Death was shocking. Certainly, life in the fourteenth century was short from a modern perspective, but even 1 the worst mortality events in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, up to 1346, do not compare to the Black Death. However, it is important to bear in mind exactly what these mortality crises were during the end of the high middle ages, and in the early period of the late middle ages up to the Black Death. The 1290s witnessed numerous wheat failures throughout Europe, caused in the main by unfavorable weather, and the agricultural situation did not improve in the early fourteenth century. Famine mortalities reached ten percent in some localities.
There are even reports by chroniclers of cannibalism, though these are regarded as apocryphal by some historians. Historians debate whether these stresses represented a true long-run Malthusian crisis. The counter-argument is that medieval agriculture was capable of feeding Europe, meteorological bad luck aside. In any case, the hypothesis that the Black Death itself was an inevitable consequence of population pressure that the Black Death was endogenous, if you will – is no longer well-regarded. The intercession of some external pathogen is now regarded as a condition without which the Black Death would not have occurred. Just what that pathogen was, and from where it came, are debated to this day .
Apart from the second plague (1361), the closest thing to a repeat of the Black Death was the Great Plague of 1665, which by some estimates killed fifteen to twenty percent of the population in certain locales. In modern times, the 1918–19 influenza pandemic comes to mind, and it killed more people than the Black Death because it was truly worldwide and because the twentieth century had much larger population denominators than the fourteenth century. The 1918–19 flu killed perhaps 2.5 percent of the world population — for percentage mortality it doesn’t even come close to the Black Death. These comparisons are somewhat arbitrary, as the Black Death struck Europe and western Asia, while the flu was global, but it’s safe to say that the world has not experienced anything quite like the Black Death since the fourteenth century.
The historiography of the Black Death is chock full of debates, none more heated of late than the question of etiology. Plague has been used as general term for any great epidemic, but it is also a specific disease caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, named after the French bacteriologist Alexandre Yersin (previously called Pasteurella pestis, after Yersin’s employer, the Institut Pasteur). Like many diseases, plague is a zoönosis: it comes to humans from animals.
Plague has a natural reservoir among wild rodents, and a vector in fleas. Plague 3 persists to this day. Plague foci, as enzoötic regions are called, exist throughout the world, including in Asia, Africa, South America, and the southwestern United States. Plague ecology is complex, but a thumbnail sketch is that when humans become inserted into the rodent-flea-rodent cycle of Yersinia pestis transmission, an outbreak occurs. Although plague exists in a wide variety of rodents including squirrels and marmots, rats are indicted in the Black Death because of their tendency to nest around humans and to stowaway on ships.
The Century Of Plagues – Black Death