The Black Death

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The Black Death

The Black Death serves as a convenient divider between the central and the late Middle Ages. The changes between the two periods are numerous, they include the introduction of gunpowder, increased importance of cities, economic and demographic crises, political dislocation and realignment, and powerful new currents in culture and religion. Overall, the later Middle Ages are usually characterized as a period of crisis and trouble. The portrait should not be painted unrelievedly bleak, but the tone is accurate enough and echoes voices from the era itself.

The Black Death did not cause the crisis, for evidence of the changes can be seen well before 1347. But the plague exacerbated problems and added new ones, and the tone of crisis is graver in the second half than in the first half of the century. Standing at the century's mid-point, the plague serves as a convenient demarcation.

The Black Death erupted in the Gobi Desert in the late 1320s. No one really knows why. The plague bacillus was alive and active long before that, indeed Europe itself had suffered an epidemic in the 6th century. But the disease had lain relatively dormant in the succeeding centuries. We know that the climate of Earth began to cool in the 14th century, and perhaps this so-called little Ice Age had something to do with it.

Whatever the reason, we know that the outbreak began there and spread outward. While it did go west, it spread in every direction, and the Asian nations suffered as cruelly as anywhere. In China, for example, the population dropped from around 125 million to 90 million over the course of the 14thc.

The plague moved along the caravan routes toward the West. By 1345 the plague was on the lower Volga River. By 1346 it was in the Caucasus and the Crimea. By 1347 it was in Constantinople.

It hit Alexandria in the autumn of that year, and by spring 1348, a thousand people a day were dying there. In Cairo the count was seven times that.

The disease travelled by ship as readily as by land?more readily?and it was no sooner in the eastern Mediterranean than it was in the western end as well. Already in 1347, the plague had hit Sicily.

What was this disease? Bubonic plague is the medical term. It is a bacillus, an organism, most usually carried by rodents. Fleas infest the animal (rats, but other rodents as well), and these fleas move freely over to human hosts.

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