Ring-a-ring o’ roses,
A pocket full of posies,
We all fall down.
It’s from the Black Death you see. Posies were the herbs and flowers that people carried around and then they cough with the plague and when they fall down they die.
Well that’s how the explanation generally goes. Or you may hear that the plague was carried by rats but foolishly people thought that it was something to do with cats so they were all hunted which left the real culprits with no natural predator.
But what it rarely asked is how a disease, which returned regularly for centuries afterwards, happened to kill one in three people in Europe within five years? I will attempt to answer that today.
Before the arrival of Yersinia Pestis in 1347 the European population was weak. Due to a fall in world temperature by roughly one degree Celsius agriculture was in turmoil. Grain and cereal production in Scandinavia virtually ceased and wine production stopped in Britain. From 1300 onwards the European population may have dropped by 10%. China was ravaged by widespread famine in the 1330s which created ideal conditions for the disease to rapidly spread west. Medieval society was routinely ravaged by war which further weakened the general population whose food and resources were requisitioned by the military. The One Hundred Years War between England and France had begun in 1337. Battles were also waged between German Teutonic Knights and the Poles, the Swiss Confederation surged through central Europe, Ireland and Scotland were torn from within by Civil War and floods hurt the trading cities of Florence and Venice. To add insult to injury, from 1309 the Pope no longer resided in Rome but in southern France under the influence of the powerful French monarchy. The condition of the papacy seemed to reflect the condition of the people of Europe. All was not well in Christendom.
The plague itself was a bacterium called Yerstinia Pestis which had evolved to spread through airborne infection and fleas before attacking the blood initially through the lungs. Symptoms began with a fever then the lymph nodes, located in the neck and armpits, swelled into black ‘buboes’ which could be as large as golf balls. Smaller blood vessels in fingers and toes clogged and ruptured turning black. Death finally came from septicaemia usually in about three days.
Talk of the Black Death reached Europe before the plague itself. Towns and cities prepared by regulating trade in and out, isolating areas for potential victims and rather reluctantly digging mass graves away from the general population. Kaffa on the Crimean peninsula was the first town to be hit as it lay on the Silk Road, the principal trading route between Europe and Asia.
Thereafter it rapidly spread across Europe and North Africa, generally through trade whether on ships or in goods drawn by horses. Although it did spread in the Islamic Empire, their standards of hygiene and greater understanding of medicine limited the impact.
It eventually hit Scandinavia on an English ship in which all occupants had died since setting off carrying their cargo of wool. As it drifted aimlessly towards the coast of Norway, thieves boarded it to steal the precious cargo. Unwittingly they escorted the hungry killer again onto dry land. It then spread clockwise into Russia before petering out in the plains where it had first appeared five years before.
As humans descended into a pack mentality, minority groups were blamed for the great pestilence. Jews, friars, foreigners, lepers, Romani and pilgrims were all persecuted in different forms across the continent. Pope Clement VI issued two Papal Bulls condemning these actions but the cat was out of the bag.
Nobody can be sure how many died within this short period of time. Roughly one in three Europeans died although in certain towns such as Kilkenny in Ireland 80% of the population perished.
On a local level the social consequences were polarised. Some embraced their religion with a fervent passion, begging god for mercy through public acts of reverence. Groups such as the flagellants took it to an extreme by travelling the country publicly whipping themselves in a frenzy of religious devotion. Others figured that they had been spared death and made an effort to enjoy the fruits of life while they could. At the far end of this scale, the pseudo-flagellants travelled the country performing sexual acts publicly to the fixation of townspeople and villagers. The church soon put an end to this as their power exponentially grew because so many of the dead had left them land and possessions in their wills.
On a grand political and economic scale the feudal system began to break down. Wages naturally increased as the demand for labour grew. No longer could lords deny peasants the right to leave their fiefdom in search of work. An economy based on supply and demand slowly replaced the previous system in which peasants would till their lord’s land in return for meagre resources and protection. In cities such as Paris and Florence powerful groups were created to protect the rights of peasants and in England this shift was noted most clearly in the Peasants Revolt of 1381. In the fifteenth century the power of the monarch gradually waned and in the sixteenth the parliament grew more powerful until the Civil War in the seventeenth century. Although this overwhelmingly basic narrative of English history cannot be traced solely to the Black Death.
Although the consequences of this epidemic cannot be emphasised enough, it must be noted that the plague did return in 1369, 1374, 1379, 1390, 1407 and countless other times throughout Europe until there were widespread improvements in hygiene and medicine. It’s last great sweep was in China and India in 1855 and in 1959 the World Health Organisation finally declared it finished.
What separated this this plague of the 1340s from it’s weaker predecessors and subsequent versions was that the victims it had preyed upon had been gradually weakened for decades by a consistent lack of food for a large population mainly due to environmental shifts and to a lesser extent, war. These factors combined to make what could have been a plague into the vicious Black Death.