How The Bubonic Plague Was a Turning Point in History

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The Bubonic Plague (also known as: the Black Death, the Black Plague, the Great Pestilence, etc. ) is a disease that devastated the medieval world with a 9 out of 10 mortality rate (Vyas). It is so resilient that cases of infection are still being recorded in America today –although in a much milder manner. The plague then rid Europe of almost one-third of its population, leaving lasting effects wherever it had touched (Bussema and Witowski). This pestilence has since changed how we take on such diseases, and modified our tactics on handling epidemics and other contagious diseases.

The Black Plague is an infection caused by the bacterium, Yersinia pestis (originally known as Pasteurella pestis) (Kohn). The name of the bacterium comes from the scientist that discovered it; French bacteriologist, Alexandre Yersin (Tyson). The pestilence has a typical incubation period of two to seven days before the symptoms begin to show. The plague has many symptoms, some of which include: chills, fever, nausea, and painful swelling of the lymph nodes (called buboes –from which the disease is named) that occur in the armpits and neck and groin.

Other symptoms of the illness are: red spots on the skin that turned black, the rotting of flesh whilst still living, severe headache, weakness, and vomiting. Yet, most cases were fatal by the third day (Vyas). This disease was transferred from infected animals -most often rodents- into the fleas that were feeding on the rats. The bacteria were then injected into the bloodstream of humans at the site of the fleabite (Kohn). It is this transfer from rats to people which is why the plague was commonly referred to as a “poor person’s disease”.

Because whereas the wealthy had buildings constructed of stone with slate or tile as roofing material (which are not very hospitable and inviting to the common house rat), the shoddier people had homes of dirt floors and thatched roofs with beds of straw. And with many of these houses tightly packed together in what were already less-than-sanitary conditions, this was the ideal breeding ground for the rats that housed the plague-infested rats (Tompson). The first outbreak of the Bubonic Plague was in China, in the early 1330’s.

However, trade ships arriving in Sicily from China in 1347 were infected. By the time the ships had docked, the crew was either already dead or beginning to die from the plague. Italy was the center of commerce and trade in Europe at the time, and seeing as such was the case, the plague then spread very expeditiously and affected the surrounding country sides and more urban areas (Bussema and Witowski). The Black Death breached Europe, primarily through trade routes that involved China and Italy, in 1347.

By 1348, it had reached as far north as London, England; as far west as Seville, Spain; and as far south as the northernmost regions of Africa (Palomino). Even though the plague affected most of the Eastern Hemisphere, some would argue that the plague hit England the hardest. The Great Mortality of England began in 1348 and lasted through 1350. It is believed that the plague had entered England through a port on the southern coastline in a place called, Melcombe Regis -what now is Weymouth. The Channel Islands were also said to have been the origin of the English Plague.

Because the plague was a “poor person’s disease”, and the people in poverty usually lived in areas of tightly packed and substandard houses (“slums”) that provided for the majority of city population, the authorities required the presence of muck and rubbish to be eliminated from the streets. Although, due to the lack of correspondence between filth and plague (they still had yet to discover the connection that the rats and fleas had with the contraction and spreading of the sickness), their commendable efforts were in vain.

The only reprieve that was had from the pestilence was during the winter months when the fleas would become dormant. However, that remission was short-lived, because the fleas would reawaken in the spring; and with them, the plague (Tompson). From 1349 – 1351, the plague then spread its deadly reach to areas of Russia, most of the northern regions of Africa, and throughout the entirety of Europe (Kohn). The only place in Europe that was left untouched -for the most part- by this epidemic was an area in Central Europe that is now referred to as Poland, which had little to no outbreaks at all.

It is said that this protection from the disease was due to Poland’s lack of trade routes and interaction between other countries (Palomino). By the early 1350’s, approximately twenty-five million people (one-third of Europe’s population) were dead (Bussema and Witowski). However, in some countries, the trouble was just beginning. Though the plague had ended in England, its effects were still being felt thirty years later when the peasants rebelled against royal agents. This rebellion was over poll taxes and the increase of land that had been made available due to those that had died from the Great Plague.

And while the peasants saw means for economic gain from this land, the landlords saw means for economic ruin. Due to these issues, the Statute of Laborers was created. This mandated that peasants that received higher wages would be provided with fines. Although enforcement was difficult to provide, due to many people of various working classes striving and rivaling each other for the smaller labor supply. It was this lack of enforcement which caused lawyers and other government officials to become the targets for resentment among the town (Phillips and Axelrod).

This plague was so prevalent that there was even a nursery rhyme (“Ring Around the Rosies”) that was written to capture the grotesqueness and tragedy of the time. The rhyme, “Ring Around the Rosies”, signified: the red spots on the skin, the stench of rotting flesh that had to be masked by flowers, and the cremation of those that died from the plague (Alchin). The Great Pestilence, albeit a fatal epidemic, was not entirely bad. It gave us perspective on how to manage widespread sickness.

It also helped us to develop a way to deal with those who were already sick without increasing everyone else’s risk around you of contracting the illness. Without the plague, we may not have developed the quarantine until much later in time –if ever. Even though the exercise of quarantine has been used in the times of the Old Testament with the separation of lepers, it was not until the 14th century when the quarantine was used systematically. The first practices of the quarantine were in Italy, where infected ships were mandated to anchor offshore for forty days before coming into port to dock.

In fact, quarantine comes from the mid-seventeenth century Italian word ‘quarantina’ which meant ‘forty days’ (Tyson). This form of quarantine was to be expected during such troubling times. In 1374, the Duke of Milan ordered that those infested with the plague were to be taken far from the city and positioned in a field or forest away from town until they either recuperated or died. In 1377, the town of Ragusa instituted a sort of quarantine station. This station was where newcomers from regions infected with the plague were forced to go and be secluded for a month of “purification” (Tyson).

Later on in 1403, Venice created the world’s first known maritime quarantine station (‘lazaretto’) on an island located in the Venetian lagoon. Over a century later, in 1521, France opened its first maritime quarantine station located at Marseilles. A century later, a law would be passed mandating that foreign travelers could not enter the city without the proper medical documentation and examinations. After a plague outbreak in Naples, in 1656, that killed one hundred-thousand people, Rome started searching all arriving ships and watching the boundaries.

They did this, hoping to keep the plague out of their city (Tyson). Throughout time, variations were continued to be made to the quarantine. However, by the late 1800’s, the practice of quarantine was mostly rendered obsolete by the discovery that germs were the origin of infection –along with the invention of antibiotics and vaccinations (Tyson). Quarantine today is used to separate those who have been exposed to a contagious and lethal disease, not for those who are already ill.

However, a quarantine may only take place when: a person or people have been exposed to a highly contagious and equally fatal illness, there are resources at the ready for those who need to be quarantined, and when there is the ability to sustain said materials throughout the duration of the quarantine (State Legislators). The Bubonic Plague, though not as common and severe today, was once a formidable and intimidating illness that swept through and infected most of three continents in the span of -approximately- twenty years.

Due to this unfortunate travesty that annihilated one-third of the population of Europe, we have developed new strategies for undertaking such illnesses. An example of the strategies would be the quarantine. Although it is not used much in modern society today, the quarantine has been a major contribution to the medical world and has been quite affective as well. Whether it is nursery rhymes or quarantines, it goes without saying that the Black Plague was an extremely influential matter. It also may have been the most significant worldwide sickness and a very, very important turning point in history as well.

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