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"No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal-the redness and horror of blood." (Edgar Allen Poe The Masque of the Red Death.)
Many thought the Black Plague was a curse from God; punishment for the sins the infected had committed. Those that survived were the chosen people, the ones who abided by the laws of the Church. Scientists know now that the devastating disease was not a result of sins or spiritual inadequacy, but the terrible illness was caused by a strain of bacteria called Yersinia pestis. The bacteria were carried by fleas on rats, which were quite abundant in Medieval towns due to unsanitary conditions and overpopulation. The fleas would bite the rats and become infected with the diseased blood. The fleas would then jump from the rats onto people, thus infecting the host. Because the plague was spread easily, through sneezing and coughing as well as the fleas, the infection spread like wildfire. By the end of the 1300s over one third of the populations of Europe, Asia and Africa were completely annihilated. The Black Death was by far the most deadly disease ever known to man. It spread and killed with such a virulence that the course of human history was forever changed.
Little known to the average person, three forms of the Black Death existed. All were caused by the same bacteria, but they each were comprised of very different symptoms. The three forms, though not equally as deadly, viciously killed millions of people during the Middle Ages.
The most common and well-known strain of the Black Death was the bubonic plague. Victims were subject to enlarged and inflamed lymph nodes, a characteristic known as bubo, thus the reason for receiving the name the bubonic plague. The lymph nodes would swell to enormous capacities until they burst. Other symptoms included headaches, nausea, joint aches, a high fever and vomiting. Symptoms usually took about a week to appear and the mortality rate was around 30-75%.
The second form of the Black Death was the pneumonic plague. It was the next most commonly seen form of the illness, although it was not as prevalent as the bubonic plague. Many of the victims died before they could infect others. This form of the plague attacked the lungs. Slimy mucus tinted with blood was spewed from the mouth and as the disease progressed the sputum became free flowing and bright red.
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The rarest and certainly most deadly type of the Black Death was the septicemic plague, which was a disease of the blood . The victims experienced a high fever and their limbs turned a deep shade of purple as a result of respiratory failure. The people infected with this form of the disease commonly died within the first day of showing symptoms.
No one can account for were the disease originated, but many believe the European outbreak started in Asia during the 1340s. Because of trade with Europe the infected rats were exported on ships and released into the ports of metropolitan cities. It followed the trade route, thus destroying most major cities. By 1347, the plague had reached the capital of Turkey and one of the largest cities in Europe, Constantinople. In the same year, the illness had ravaged Sicily and continued to head West. It pillaged Paris and London in 1348, leaving half the populations of both cities lying in piles on the streets or in mass graves.
The plague was not prejudice to race, religion, sex or economic background. It killed almost everyone who crossed its path, just as viciously and grotesquely as the previous victim. No one knows how the epidemic ended, but miraculously it eventually stopped. It devastated three of the most populated continents in the world at the time , but left enough survivors to bury the dead and rebuild the society. The epidemic is one that will not be forgotten, but hopefully with new knowledge and advances in medicine, society will never have to experience such a tragedy again.