The Black Death (June 2014 Source Paper)

  • Created by: Geot
  • Created on: 22-05-14 08:55
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  • The Black Death
    • Causes
      • Caused by a bacterium named Yersin Pestis which infected Oriental fleas on rats. When the flea tried to feed on an uninfected host - such as Humans - the bacteria was regurgitated into the wound.
      • Carried by rats on cargo ships coming from China and the East. Expanding world  trade and travel, all coming through Constantinople, allowed it to spread across the civilised world within months.
        • Although the previous outbreaks were thought to have come from Egypt, it could either have been dormant in China since the 8th Century, or could have come from China originally, passing via Egyptian grain ships.
      • Also possibly carried by traders and Mongol invaders along the Silk Road, passing through Crimea in 1347 (although there are possible graves near Lake Issyk Kul dating as early as 1338). Geonese trading ships could have carried it back to Sicily.
    • Beliefs
      • Miasma ('Bad Air') Theory - people thought that disease was airborne. Because many bacteria cause a smell whilst decomposing matter, they misinterpreted the correlation between disease and smell
      • Divine Retribution - some people proposed that the plague was punishment from God in retribution for their sins. As Christian fundamentalism became more fervent across Europe in the 14th Century, more people became convinced of divine judgement and believed that the End of the World was imminent.
      • Jewish Conspiracy - another theory was that the plague was as a result of immigrating Jews from the late Byzantine and North Africa were poisoning the water supply. This lead to increased persecution of the Jews, forcing them northwards into Germany and France
      • Other incorrect ideas included planetary alignment, Romani, lepers, and the belief that the disease could transferred by sight.
    • Prevention
      • Quarantines were imposed in many cities such as Milan and Venice.
      • Pope Clement VI was advised to isolate himself in Avignon. Although he did not contract the plague, he assisted by publicly condemning the persecution of Jews and urging clergy to help protect them and consecrating all rivers so they could be used as burial sites.
      • Large red saltires (diagonal crosses) were famously painted onto the doors of all plague bearing houses, warning people away.
      • Bodies were collected by the local authorities directly from houses, allowing for less contact with the body.
      • Herbs and spices like juniper and rosemary were used to combat the bad air and try and stop the spread by miasma. However, all they did was cover up the smell.
    • Treatment
      • There was little anyone could do to cure the plague, as it killed so quickly. Many doctors and priests refused to treat or administer Last Rites to victims fearing for their own lives.
        • Some doctors used methods such as bloodletting and sweating, induced by Mithridate and Bezoar-Water, to try and purge the disease from the patient.
      • Those who believed the divine retribution theory reacted by praying for salvation, constant vigils, and most of all, flagellation.
        • Flagellants were religiously fervent Christians who thought that mortification and self harm was a show of piety and repentance. Common rites took place in public places and along the streets of major cities, whilst reciting hymns and psalms.
      • More superstitious 'cures' included piercing buboes with pigeon tail feathers, patients drinking their own urine, and eating crushed precious stones such as emeralds.
    • Other Plagues (Possible comparisons)
      • Plague of Justinian - 6th and 7th Centuries; originated in Egypt, killed around 25 million people in Constantinople and the Byzantium Empire, and the Sassanid Empire. Named after the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. Possibly the same bacterium that caused the Black Death
        • Lomabards, Vandals and Goths greatly prospered from the weakened condition and economy of the Byzantine Empire, fragmenting Italy in several petty kingdoms and fiefdoms.
      • Chinese outbreak - 1890. A third outbreak devastated China and some parts of India c. 1860 - 1920, killing around 12 million in the Far East. However, thanks to increased trade casualties were reported as far afield as San Francisco, Cuba and Brazil.
    • Major Effects
      • Killed around 6 million in England; lowest estimates at 3 million, highest at 7 million.
      • Killed around 110 million people worldwide; lowest estimates at 75 million, highest at 200 million.
      • Killed around 50% of Europe's population; lowest estimates at 30%, highest at 60%.
      • Decreased labour and landowners power. This allowed labourers to force wages up, lowering profits and bankrupting some landowners.
        • The Peasants' Revolt in 1381 came as a result (among many) of how landowners refused to pay the higher wages that labourers could now demand. The poll taxes that also caused much resentment were created to help restart the English economy, mainly used in fighting France and Flanders.
        • Led to the end of the feudal system of power being centred around only the landed.
    • Direct Effects
      • Many of the dead were left unburied, stacked by the roadside or tossed into plague pits (which are our greatest source of archaeological knowledge). There was little to no organisation of burials and creating new gravesites.
      • Belief that the plague was a punishment from God increased religious fundamentalism across Europe, especially in France and Germany. Flagellants quickly grew in numbers before being losing the support of the Papacy and suffering swift suppression.
      • As many religious people believed that the End of the World was near, people decided to make the most of what they had. Crime, violence and debauchery became commonplace and law and order collapsed in some regions.


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