How the Black Death Worked

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Candace Gibson: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm editor, Candace Gibson, joined by staff writer Jane McGrath.

Jane McGrath: Hey there, Candace.

Candace Gibson: Every now and then, just as a treat for you really special listeners out there we like to discuss something really grisly and macabre. And in the past it's been torture devices or bloody wars. And today we have another treat for everyone, the Black Death.

Jane McGrath: And I like this one a lot better than the other very grisly ones that we've talked about before. I don't know why, but it's an interesting topic to me. I guess it's just the sheer effect of the Black Death and how people it did kill. If you look at the stats, the one most often quoted is that Europe lost a third of its population in the Black Death. And this was only in the short period that's referred to as the Black Death. In the actual plague lived on after that.

Candace Gibson: So the Black Death we're talking, 1347-1351. And there are geneticists today who are studying the effects of the Black Death. And they say that England's population, especially, one of the reasons there is so little genetic diversity there is because of the Black Death. And other parts of Europe are still trying to catch up. And it took a long time to recover from the effects of losing 25 million people. Like you said, that's a third of the population of Europe. We're talking about all the way from the Mediterranean countries to the Scandinavian ones, even to parts of Russia and parts of Africa where trade routes were established.

Jane McGrath: And that leads us to going back to the beginning of how the Black Death began. They believe today that it started in Asia. The first case came from the Mongol Territory. They can trace that the cases came up through the trade routes, so obviously people going back and forth were carrying this disease and spreading it. It eventually made its way to Europe. And it's pretty interesting the way it go there, because there was a trading post called Kafa in what is now the Ukraine, where the Genoese were using it. And they got attacked by the Tartars. So when the Tartars attacked, they contracted the disease in the process because the Genoese were inflicted with it. So the Tartars started dying. And at first the Genoese were like, "Sweet!"

Candace Gibson: Yeah, the battles won.

Jane McGrath: Yeah. This is god saying we won and we're on god's side. And then they started realizing that this disease was spreading towards them. And the Tartars actually launched - I love this. They catapulted a rotting body - rotting from the plague - into the town of Genoese so that it spread the disease towards them even more.

Candace Gibson: And the Tartars thought that certainly the malodorous emanating from the rotting corpse would be enough to drive them out. Well for one, yeah. It did. But for two, also it disseminated this awful disease. So the Genoese go back to Italy. And we can trace how the Black Death went on its major trade routes around Europe. We know that some of the bigger paths were from Italy, and then to Austria and Germany - and then from France to England and Ireland. And then eventually, by '47, '49, and '50 we see that it reaches part of Russia and even parts of Africa along these routes. So Black Death, why is it so bad? Well, we will tell you. You would get these purples splotches on your body. They referred to them as God's tokens because once your body became infected with these little purple splotches or black spots it was a sign from God that your time was almost up. And if there were a blessing behind the Black Death, it was that it killed quickly. It didn't kill softly, but it quickly.

Jane McGrath: And people would also get these tumors that were the size of egos or apples -

Candace Gibson: On their necks. And sometimes they were so big that your head would get pushed to the side and you couldn't even cock it upright again, because it would just be completely turned over from this giant node of puss and grossness. And there were different variations on the Black Death. Some would get a bubonic form of the plague and they would be taken with trembling and chills and fever. And some got the pneumonic form would be coughing up blood. Your body would be rotting from the inside out, so you would have foul breath and your body would just - oh, just nastiness would seep from your pores. You didn't want to be around anybody at all, so you would see pestilence houses where people would go to die. Or your neighbor's house would be covered with a black X over the door to show that there were people who'd been afflicted with the Black Death. Husbands would leave their wives. Babies would be abandoned. Sometimes entire villages would just be shut down.

Jane McGrath: And this was partially a problem because they didn't quite know how it was spread. And even to this day, it e ludes a lot of historians and people studying this, in how fast it did spread. It did spread so fast that it doesn't really make sense. People didn't travel as much as they do today - but anyway, to get back to what caused it, people weren't sure. And a lot of people attributed it immediately to God's wrath. God wants to inflict this on us for something we did. And one group that came out of this idea are called The Flagellants. This is a group of people who at the time believed the plague was certainly a consequence of their sins. And they would start inflicting suffering and scourges on themselves to that they could make up for their sins. And this comes from the idea of redemptive suffering, which still holds a place in Catholic teaching. But The Flagellants took it way out to left field. These Flagellants were seen as way too out there. And I believe the Vatican basically said, "Keep it down." They eventually disappeared, almost overnight. But there are lots of other theories about what caused it in the first place.

Candace Gibson: As far as sanitation goes during the 14th century, there was none. It was awful. People would throw their food scraps into the street. There would be excrement from animals and from humans just everywhere. And we know that waste like that attracts vermin. And rats were a big carrier of fleas. So scientists today have a theory about these fleas and the rodents that carried them! And the idea was that a flea would bite a rodent that had this bad bacteria in its blood, the bacterium that ultimately led to the Black Death. And because it would infect the flea, somehow it would get stuck in the foregut - which is the upper part of the flea's stomach - and essentially the flea - the way I think of it is the Lap-Band system. If you guys have seen commercials for that, you know how it cuts off part of your stomach so you're not hungry. Well, it had the opposite effect. The top part would get full, but the bottom part would still be wide open for more food. So the flea would go searching for more food and feast upon more and more rats. And it just could never get enough. So eventually, the rats are being infected by these bad fleas with bad blood and they would all die. And when the fleas needed more fodder, they would start latching onto humans. And because the rats and fleas were so plentiful, the Black Death could spread up to two and a half miles (that's four kilometers for all of you out there) per day. So it was incredibly fast, incredibly swift - and you died fast from it, too.

Jane McGrath: And this theory about the flea to rat thing, it might explain why people blamed Jews at the time. There was a general feeling of anti-Semitism at the time, obviously. But people actually believed that the Jews were intentionally tainting the water supply with the plague. This was of course not true, but people believed it. And today, people think perhaps what actually happened - supposedly Jews actually died in fewer numbers than the Christians, which may or may not be true. But it seemed that way at the time.

Candace Gibson: It makes sense, because the Jews and Christians had such disparate ideologies they typically didn't live together.

Jane McGrath: Exactly. They were isolated.

Candace Gibson: Yeah, they were. And it worked in the Jews favor at first, at least, because they had their own quarantine.

Jane McGrath: And not only that, but there are theories that the Jewish people had more advanced ideas of hygiene at the time. So this helped them. And also, I remember hearing the theory when I was in school, that Jews were actually more likely to keep cats. And cats would scare away or kill the rats that were likely to carry the fleas. So that was one theory. But anyway, to get back to anti-Semitism that was going on at the time, Jews weren't immune obviously. Many died of the plague, but many were blaming them. So the Christians who did blame them would go on these riots. They would even take whole buildings full of Jewish people and burn them to the ground. Or, they would take individual Jews and burn them at the stake. They would even stuff them into wine caskets and throw them into the river.

Candace Gibson: And as if foreshadowing the future, one of the countries that persecuted the Jews the most was Germany. And we know that most of the Jews who died during the period of the Black Death, it wasn't due to contracting the disease, but being put to death as scapegoats for the plague. Now if you didn't buy into the idea of fleas and rodents, as many people at the time didn't because mysticism and superstition was much more advanced than medicine. They just didn't have that kind of knowledge back during the Middle Ages. There was another idea floating around. And this is sort of crazy, so you guys will have to bear with me. But the thought was that, on March 20, 1345, Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars were all in Aquarius. Now, I'm not familiar with astrology, so I'm not sure what this keynotes, but apparently they were all working together. They were all in line. Conditions were ripe for a big reaction to occur. And Jupiter is known as a hot and wet planet, and Mars is known as a dry planet. So Jupiter was able to absorb these evil vapors from the earth, but Mars reassimilated them back down to the earth's atmosphere - specifically over Europe, I guess. And it spread what they called a death fog. And people had a lot of different ideas about how to keep out of the way of this death fog. One of the ways was avoidance, which was pretty smart - especially since they didn't have any preventive medicine. But the others were you didn't eat meat, you didn't eat figs, you didn't exercise, and you didn't have sex. All great ways to avoid the Black Death!

Jane McGrath: But they also said you shouldn't bathe, which I don't know if that helped.

Candace Gibson: Oh, yeah. Not such a good idea.

Jane McGrath: And they called this fog of death miasma. According to a book by Joseph Patrick Burns, they believed that when you were infected with a small amount of this miasma, the body could actually combat it by moving it away from the heart to organs that could get rid of it. So this ended up being places like the ears, the armpits, and the liver. And these were places were bubos would show up, these marks on your body. So they believed these bubos were actually good and when they opened it actually lets out the bad tainted puss. So you would recover after that. So there was this whole theory going around about miasma. Even the Pope subscribed to it. He was actually an interesting defender of the Jews at this time. He loved Jews for some reason. And he subscribed to the theory of miasma, and not the idea that Jews poisoned the wells. So he would actually sit between things of fire - and this is one thing that could actually protect you from the miasma, burning wood.

Candace Gibson: Fire. Yeah. Aromatic woods - things like rosemary and thyme - any sort of herb that was very fragrant. And Jane was mentioning this idea of letting out the bad stuff from inside these big sores. That's why there were some very primitive attempts at lancing them and bloodletting - very primitive medicine, but medicine nonetheless. And that's something very interesting because after the Black Death phased out - and it did. It eventually phased out and ran its course, and a lot of things happened. One of the biggest changes was an advancement in education. People saw that before it was inadequate what they had. Superstition was no way to treat a big epidemic like this. They needed serious learning and serious medicine. So we saw an increase in education. But there were also big changes in the religious and economic sectors of society. For one, Europe in the middle ages had been a big feudal system where the serfs worked for the lords and they all shared this land and they all lived in the country. Everything was pretty happy go lucky for the most part, but so many people had died that there were no more people to work the land. So the cost of labor had skyrocketed, but there was enough food to go around and not enough people to eat it. So the cost of food remained the same. So eventually, people started moving toward the city and the urban areas grew up. And the feudal system dissipated. And what else was interesting about the religious sectors of society was that, if you were still a devout person after you had seen this epidemic come in and wipe out all of your family, then you worshiped in a very small and private chapel. Because on the whole, people started engaging in all sorts of debauchery! They would wear very elaborate clothes, eat very expensive foods, party, and drink because the predominant idea was that God had turned his back on society and people couldn't trust him anymore. So why be devout?

Jane McGrath: So the Catholic Church lost a lot of power in that way over people's personal lives. And like you said they'd go on these debaucherous parties and things - this is also played into the idea of the dans makob, which was a dance with death. It was a reminder that death is around the corner. And people at this time, at least immediately after the Black Death were very preoccupied with the idea of death. And it's very understandable when you think about it. You think of so many people that you would know so many people in your family who had died at this time. And you would obviously feel all the time like death might be coming for you at any moment.

Candace Gibson: So the dans makob could be manifested in so many different ways. It was an art form, but underneath that broad umbrella we had visual arts, theater, music, and different ways to express the relationships between the living and the dead and how the living could interact with the dead.

Jane McGrath: And so it did run its course. But it stuck around in certain places for the next few hundred years. There was always at least one town in Europe that was suffering from it at one time for this period. It phased out a little bit after that. And then by the 1800s again, it actually came back in areas of East Asia. And it was by this time that people were studying it a bit more closely and knowing a little bit about how bacteria works. And they discovered a particular bacteria that they attributed to it, and they felt that they had finally figured out the key to what caused the Black Death in the first place. But there's still a lot of controversy to this day about what actually caused it. A lot of things just don't make sense with what accounts were written in the 14th century about the Black Death.

Candace Gibson: Right. Reconciling people's accounts of what they observed in their fellow man versus what the science has discovered about the bacterium today.

Jane McGrath: And it's also tough, because the people back then - we can't always trust exactly those accounts because they don't have the same knowledge and terminology we do in describing medical conditions. So how much can we trust their accounts? We don't know.

Candace Gibson: Exactly. So we're working with what we have in historians, geneticists, and epidemiologists. I think they're still researching it. There's still a lot to find out. And in the interim, if you want to know more about epidemics and contagious diseases and historical epidemics, you can find out much more at

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