The Black Death

Courtesy of spookyscotland.net

One aspect of the past that often goes overlooked by modern people is just how absolutely disgusting life was during the past for our ancestors. During the classical period, there were modern advancements to sanitation in cities such as Rome and Athens where they had running water and proper toilets, but when the Roman Empire crumbled, so did the cleanliness of Europe. In the period known as the Middle Ages, or the Dark Ages, filth surrounded people who lived in larger cities daily. Everything from human poop and animal droppings to discarded animal carcasses was a part of everyday life for the citizens. Every person in town had their own little pot under their beds, they used this pot as a bathroom during the black of night. In the morning, people opened their doors and emptied their bodily waste into the streets or out of their backdoors. The waste would run throughout the city and enter the water supplies of the town. This meant that when citizens had a nice, refreshing drink of water, they would drink the waste of countless people and animals. Our ancestors did not know what germs were, germ theory did not become common knowledge until the early twentieth century. The idea of tiny, unseen bacteria swimming in water would sound insane to all citizens before the discovery of germ theory. Little did our ancestors know, they were ingesting dangerous bacteria daily. According to multiple sources, including the BBC, the average life expectancy of an adult in the Middle Ages was a mere 33 years old, meaning I would be an old man by those standards. The low life expectancy is no surprise though, the people of the Middle Ages were in the petri dish of bacteria and germs, and any of the countless diseases brought about by these germs could kill. 

Keeping the filth in mind, it is no surprise that citizens of middle ages cities, both big and small, were ripe for the picking for a disease. If you think COVID-19 is scary, it can’t hold a candle to the destruction and death that was unleashed on Middle Ages Europe and Asia, the Black Death. Scientists are to this day still at odds about what exactly the Black Death was, but the most prominent theory is that the Black Death was a combination of diseases with the most deadly being Bubonic Plague. The Bubonic Plague was a disgusting and deadly disease that killed nearly 80% of all people who contracted it. The disease began with flu-like symptoms such as fever, vomiting and diarrhea. The first step was dangerous enough, but in step two of the disease the afflicted knew they were in deep trouble. Puss-ridden and stinky Buboes began appeared on the bodies of the sick, the lymph nodes of the afflicted swelled to double and triple of their normal sizes, causing extreme pain and internal bleeding. These buboes were extremely painful and could even explode shooting puss and bodily fluids all over the sick person. The plague was dangerously contagious, and by the time these buboes appeared, doctors and family members wouldn’t go anywhere near the sick. It is hard to blame the family members for peacing out on their loved ones, but it is a tragic story to read about the dying being left all alone in their final days. People left the victims of the plague on their own, in excruciating pain and slowly dying. The sickness usually took around three weeks from the onset of symptoms to death, with the final cause of death usually being respiratory issues such as pneumonia. 

The plague spread rapidly throughout western Asia and all of Europe, beginning in the middle of the fourteenth century. Even though the world was not connected like we are today, there were dozens of trade routes that connected both east and west. Fleas riding on the backs of rats that traveled on trade ships throughout Asia and Europe carried the plague. When the ships docked in harbors in places such as Italy and Britain, the rats fled off of the ships and spread throughout the city. All it took was one flea from one rat to jump onto a human and bite it for the disease to begin. The terrible conditions in the cities led to citizens having terrible immune systems, so the plague had easy access to bringing down entire towns and most of the citizens of the large cities. By 1347 the plague was a full-blown pandemic, leaving the citizenry terrified of death. The sickness was so terrifying that even the Pope refused to leave his house, deciding instead to sit around blazing fires daily to burn away the sickness and praying for his health. Who knows if fire actually killed bacteria or if his self-isolation worked, but the Pope did manage to survive the plague. 

Life in Europe came to a standstill. It was all about survival, leading the era to earn its moniker, the Dark Ages. Doctors refused to visit patients, priests refused to administer last rites to the dying, families left their sick relatives alone to die. The Middle Ages was an era of devout Christianity, church was everything to these people, and the idea that they would die without a priest giving the last rites was nearly a fate worse than the disease. The plague traveled rapidly between the cities of Europe, leaving many feeling that this was the end of the world. The Black Death lasted nearly a decade through Europe and Asia, and the final statistics are staggering. While exact numbers are hard to estimate because of poor record keeping, historians generally believe that the Black Death killed about half of the entire population of Europe, numbering near 100 million people. Imagine that, half of the population of your town or city would be alive one day, and gone the next. When seeing the Black Death through these statistics, it is miraculous that Europe survived; it took nearly a century, but Europe recovered and would later thrive as a center of culture and economics for centuries to come. 

Published by TheOddPast by Matthew A. Perry

Writer, teacher, broadcaster, and podcaster from West Virginia. I write about and discuss the wacky and weird side of history on my website www.theoddpast.com and my podcast "The Odd Past Podcast" available everywhere

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