The Bubonic Plague: Crisis in Europe and Asia

The Bubonic Plague: Crisis in Europe and Asia

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The Bubonic Plague: Crisis in Europe and Asia
     There have been many natural disasters throughout history that have caused great damage physically, emotionally and mentally. The Bubonic Plague is considered by most to be the second worst disaster to have occurred throughout history. It all began in October 1348, when Genoese trading ships dropped anchor at the port of Messina, Sicily. The Ships had come from the Black Sea port of Kaffa (Truitt, 2001). The few of the crew members that were left alive carried with them a deadly disease so perilous that it would ultimately lead to death (Douglass, 1996). The sailors became infected when sick rats from Central Asia boarded their ships and the fleas that were feasting on the rats bit the sailors (Truitt, 2001). It was thought that the disease originated from the Far East and was spread along major trade routes. When it became clear that the ships from east carried the plague, Messina closed its port. The Ships were forced to seek harbor elsewhere around the Mediterranean, which allowed the disease to spread very quickly (Truitt, 2001). This would be the beginning of a very traumatic event that would affect all aspects of European society.
     The Bubonic Plague generated from a bacterium called Yersina pestis, which is a one-celled organism that multiplies rapidly once inside its host and produces three types of symptoms, depending on how it is spread (Aberth, 2000). The bacterium that leads to the Bubonic Plague usually is found in the bloodstream of wild black rats. It is then posed to humans by fleas that feed on the blood of rats and then bite humans, in which the bacterium is passed into the human bloodstream (Aberth, 2000). It takes between four and six days for a person infected with the Bubonic Plague to exhibit symptoms (Truitt, 2001). The most common symptom is swellings known as buboes (hence bubonic) that appear in the lymph glands near the initial flea bite (Douglass, 1996). The buboes are red at first, but later turn a dark purple or black they eventually bust open oozing blood and pus (Douglass, 1996). Other symptoms may include a high fever, often causing delirium, violent headaches, subcutaneous bleeding, and damage to the nervous system caused from the bleeding, which leads to uncontrollable twitching and jerking (Aberth, 2000). There is also a foul odor that is associated with the excrement of blood, pus and sweat of those who are infected (Aberth, 2000).

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If untreated the disease kills between fifty and sixty percent of its victims within a week (Pruitt, 2001). A second form of the disease may occur once the infection enters the lungs. This is known as the pneumonic plague which is transferred by air instead of flea bites (Pruitt, 2001). This type of plague is highly contagious because it is airborne. When a diseased person coughs, the bacterium is dispersed into the air and invades the tissue and organs of those nearby (Pruitt, 2001). In nearly all cases of the pneumonic plague, the victim goes into a coma and dies within three days of contracting the disease (Pruitt, 2001). The third form of the plague is the most sudden and deadliest. It is called septicemic plague (Pruitt, 2001). Within hours of the bacteria getting into the bloodstream, the victim breaks out in a rash. Death follows within the next twenty-four hours. How exactly it is transmitted remains a mystery, for it acts so quickly that it leaves almost no symptoms (Pruitt, 2001). While the septicemic form of the plague is always fatal, it is also the rarest form of the disease (Pruitt, 2001).
It was in December of 1347 that the plague had reached the shores of Italy and southeastern France. It then traveled north to Paris and south to Spain by the summer of 1348 (Aberth, 2000). It then reached the southern coasts of England and Wales in the winter of 1348. Then it moved east to Germany and North to the Midlands of England by June 1349 (Alberth, 2000). The epidemic finally encompassed Ireland, Scotland, and Scandinavia by late 1349 and 1350. The only large are seemingly untouched was Bohemia and Poland, perhaps due to relatively few trading contacts there (Aberth, 2000). From the beginning the disease spread throughout England with exceptional speed and fatal consequences (Aberth, 2000). The effect was at its worst in the cities where overcrowding and primitive sanitation aided its spread (Douglass, 1996). On November first the plague reached London, and up to 30,000 of the 70,000 inhabitants succumbed to the epidemic (Aberth, 2000). Over the next two years the disease killed between 30 and 40 percent of the entire population. The population of England pre-plague was estimated to be around five million people, of these five million fatalities reached as high as two million (Aberth, 2000). The plague had devastating effects on England as well as throughout other European countries and Asia. By the end of 1350 the Bubonic Plague had finally subsided, but never really died out until the late 17th century (Douglass, 1996).
     During the rage of the epidemic a cure was even harder to come by. The standard for medieval medical response to serious illness was taking from the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, which was to open the veins with a knife or to use leeches in order to let out a certain amount of blood from the body (Aberth, 2000). The purpose of this was to restore the balance of the body’s four humors—blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile (Aberth, 2000). Doctors would map out the veins that needed to be opened depending on where the buboes appeared (Aberth, 2000). The most common antidote recommended were aromatics, such as sweet smelling herbs that were to be sprinkled around the house or carried under the nose (Aberth, 2000). Under no circumstances should baths be taken, lest they open up the pores of the body to the infected air (Aberth, 2000). It was also common for people to purge the body by using laxatives or by vomiting on an empty stomach. Some even believed that if they bathe in their own urine or drank the pus of lanced buboes they could vaccinate themselves against the plague (Alberth, 2000). To no avail these remedies did not rid them of the disease.
     It is impossible to overstate the effects of the effects of the Bubonic Plague. There was such a massive decline in population that there were not enough workers to work the land. As a result the wages and prices rose (McNeill, 1976). The Ordinances of Laborers (1349) tried to legislate a return to pre-plague wage levels, but the overwhelming shortage of laborers meant that the wages continued to rise (McNeill, 1976). Landowners began to offer extras such as food, drink and other extra benefits to hopefully lure laborers to do work. The nature of the economy changed to meet the changing social conditions. Land that had once been farmed was giving over to pasturing, which was much less labor-intensive (McNeill, 1976). A decline in trade, commerce, agriculture, and industrial production followed the initial outbreak. In some cases market towns had disappeared, or suffered a great decline despite the economic boom in rural areas (McNeill, 1976). The psychological effects of the plague were immeasurable. Not only did the people not know what was causing this epidemic, but they did not know how to prevent or even treat it. They watched as loved ones, friends, neighbors and others died horrible deaths. They believed that God had inflicted this epidemic on mankind as a punishment for their sins (McNeill, 1976). This led some to a life of crime and corruption, while others became religious extremist. An example of this would be the Flagellating movement in which large numbers of people wandered through Europe in religious processions flagellating themselves with metal tipped whips (McNeill, 1976). They believed that if they beat themselves into a bloody mess over a period of thirty days then God would absolve their sins and the plague would end (McNeill, 1976). The terror and devastation that the plague caused profoundly changed Europe’s social and religious mentality. Probably only a massive and unpredicted asteroid hit could produce the same devastation and mind-altering terror in today’s world as the Bubonic Plague did in the fourteenth century.
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