The Great Pestilence
By Sherry Michaels Perry
In the mid-1300’s a devastating plague raged across Europe, leaving millions dead. There was no treatment, and superstition and panic held sway over the helpless population. This was the Bubonic Plague or the Black Death, also known as, The Great Pestilence. It spread quickly and caused rapid death; a person could go to bed healthy and be found in their bed the next morning covered with boils that leaked pus and blood and be quite dead.
Pope Gregory IX and his superstitions generated a substantial contributing factor to this plague. During the latter part of the 12 the century Pope Gregory decided that cats were evil and associated with witchcraft and the devil. So in his infinite wisdom, he ordered the mass execution of any cats which ultimately lead to the overpopulation of rats and their fleas. And rats love to hang out at the pier and climb aboard ships looking for food, and so it began.
In October of the year of Our Lord 1314 twelve ships docked at the Sicilian port of Messina. The caused much excitement and the townspeople flocked to the pier to see what delights the vessel must surely hold. Imagine their horror when they realized that most of the sailors on the ships were dead, and the few remaining were covered with boils seeping pus and blood. The authorities immediately ordered the vessel away from the docks, but it was too little too late. For even though flea and rat bite spread the Black Death, it was also airborne and highly contagious. And so it began and over the course of the next five years 20 million Europeans died, over 1/3 of the population. By the early 1340’s it had already spread to China, India, Persia, Syria, and Egypt.
The panic was real. No one knew at that time how it spread and no one knew how to stop it. According to history.com, a doctor was quoted as saying “instantaneous death occurs when the aerial spirit escaping from the eyes of the sick man strikes the healthy person standing near and looking at the sick.” Doctors at first tried to treat the disease by bloodletting, lancing the boils, which caused even more problems in the unsanitary conditions and burning aromatic herbs. The suggested bathing in vinegar and rosewater to ward off the disease.
Doctors eventually began refusing to get near the sick, priests would refuse to perform last rites, shopkeepers were closed, and no one could obtain any supplies they needed to care for the sick. Families eventually fled to the countryside, leaving their sick behind to die, but succeeded only in taking it with them and the cows, sheep, goats, pigs, and chickens sickened and disappeared from the disease. This incidentally led to a considerable wool shortage throughout Europe.
Being that they were a superstitious society, people began to believe that the plague was Gods punishment so this led to a purge of who was thought to be heretics and troublemakers, the Jews. Between 1348 and 1349 thousands of Jews were slaughtered, forcing them to seek asylum in other countries. Since killing the Jews didn’t work and the doctors were useless, men of the upper class became “flagellants” and traveled from town to town performing public displays of penance and punishment. They would beat themselves and others with a device similar to a “cat-o-nine tails,” heavy straps of leather studded with sharp metal. They did this for 33 days three times daily until the Pope decided it was taking attention away from him and the church and he put a stop to it.
The plague had pretty much run its course by 1350, and the cases slowly dwindled down, rearing its ugly head every few generations, but never to the extent of the first plague. Modern sanitation and public health practices brought about this change. At the end of the 19th century Alexander Yersin, a French biologist isolated and identified the bacillus Yersinia Pestis as the culprit. There are no effective vaccines, but it can now be treated with streptomycin and doxycycline. It is predominately seen in Africa these days.
Interestingly enough, many economists believe that the plague was a turning point for the European economic development because there was such an intense need for workers that wages were increased. It’s sad that it took millions of deaths to bring that about.