To Bathe, or Not to Bathe: Part 2 – The Bubonic Plague

Myself  .By T.V. Antony Raj


In the 13th century, Mongol conquest caused a decline in farming and trading in China. However, by the beginning of the 14th century, China recovered on the economic front. Starting in 1331, many natural disasters and plagues led to widespread famine. A deadly plague arrived soon after. It killed an estimated 25 million Chinese and other Asians in the next 15 years before it reached Constantinople in 1347.

Map of the spread of the Black Death.
Map of the spread of the Black Death.

The disease may have travelled along the Silk Road with Mongol armies and traders or it could have come via ship. In his book “The Epidemics of The Middle Ages,” J.F.C. Hecker says that by the end of 1346 reports of plague had reached the seaports of Europe:

“India was depopulated, Tartary, Mesopotamia, Syria, Armenia were covered with dead bodies”.

Jani Beg was a khan of the Golden Horde from 1342 to 1357. He commanded a massive Crimean Tatar force that attacked the Crimean port city of Kaffa in 1343. In February, an Italian relief force lifted the siege. In 1345 Jani Beg again besieged Kaffa. His assault was again unsuccessful due to an outbreak of the Bubonic plague among his troops. The Mongols catapulted their infected corpses over the city walls to infect and weaken the defenders.

The Genoese traders and sailors fled Kaffa, taking the plague by ship into Sicily. From there, according to the traditional theory promulgated by historians, oriental rat fleas living on black rats that infested merchant ships carried the disease. The plague spread throughout the Mediterranean and Europe. It invaded Italy, Spain, France, England, Germany, Austria and Hungary, sometimes travelling two and a half miles a day.

In the 14th century people called the catastrophe either the “Great Pestilence”‘ or the “Great Plague”. Contemporaries to the plague referred to the event as the “Great Mortality”. Swedish and Danish chronicles of the 17th century described the events as “black” for the first time; perhaps to refer to the sense of gloom or dread that accompanied the plague. The Latin phrase “atra mors” meaning “black death” first appeared in a book on Danish history by J.I. Pontanus published in 1631. He wrote about a disease that occurred in 1348: “Vulgo & ab effectu atram mortem vocatibant.” This may have been a mistranslation as atra can mean black, brooding or terrible. Even so, the name “Black Death” spread through Scandinavia and then Germany. In England, it was not until 1823 that the medieval epidemic was first called the Black Death.

Illustration of the Black Death from the Toggenburg Bible (1411)
Illustration of the Black Death from the Toggenburg Bible (1411)

However, in the late-stage of the disease, the festering lumps in the groins, armpits and necks of its victims blackened due to subepidermal hemorrhages. And, the extremities would darken with a form of gangrene, acral necrosis.

The disease arrived in London in the fall of 1348 and took a catastrophic toll. According to a report from the time, one cemetery in East Smithfield alone received more than 200 bodies a day.

The disease is commonly believed to be Bubonic Plague, a bacterial infection marked by pain, fever, swollen lymph nodes called buboes. The plague was the most catastrophic pandemic the world has yet known. It peaked in Europe in the years 1346–53. It killed at least one out of every three Europeans. During the time of its first visit, an estimated 75 to 200 million people had died – almost 30 to 60% of Europe’s total population. In total, the plague reduced the world population from an estimated 450 million down to 350–375 million in the 14th century. It is clear that several existing conditions such as war, famine, and weather contributed to the severity of the Bubonic Plague.

Boccaccio the author of The Decameron has described the plague’s attack on individuals and society shortly after it devastated Florence. He gives a dispassionate, almost clinical account of the disease. In spite of prayers, processions and last-minute attempts at sanitation, it spread through Florence unchecked. The doctors and priests stood helpless. Patients died on the third day after the appearance of the fatal swollen lymph nodes, some of which were as big as apples. Anyone who had so much as touched any object handled by the sick person risked infection.

The plague’s effect on the able-bodied members of society confounded Boccaccio. He watched as a panic-stricken populace rapidly sloughed off the civility. And, something worse than barbarism took its place. Brothers fled from sick brothers, wives from their husbands and even mothers from their own children.

The women did not observe the time-honoured lamenting in the houses of the dead persons. The men would not congregate at the threshold of the houses of the dead persons. En masse burial of corpses in common burial pits took place without ceremony or attendants.

Another Florentine observer, Marchionne di Coppo Stefani, wrote that every morning, when the burial pits held a fresh influx of dead bodies, the gravediggers shovelled more earth on them. Next morning they added more corpses and then more earth, “just as one makes lasagna with layers of pasta and cheese.”

The governments of Europe were in a quandary. The medical fraternity was at a loss to explain what caused the disease or how it spread. Many believed only God’s anger could produce such horrific calamity. People resorted to astrologers. People considered the earthquakes and the poisoning of wells by Jews as possible reasons for the emergence of the plague.

Pope Clement VI sought the insight of astronomers for an explanation for the occurrence of the plague. Johannes de Muris, a French astronomer, mathematician, was among the team of three who drew up a treatise explaining the plague of 1348. They said the conjunction of Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars in 1341 caused the plague.

The Pope’s physicians advised him that surrounding himself with torches would block the plague. However, he soon became skeptical of this recommendation and stayed in Avignon supervising sick care, burials, and the pastoral care of the dying.

Even though there was so much death around him the Pope never contracted the disease.

The cities ran out of ground for cemeteries. So, Pope Clement VI consecrated the entire Rhone River for the bodies to be thrown into it and considered as buried in holy ground.

Renewed religious fervour and fanaticism bloomed in the wake of the Black Death. People blamed various groups such as Jews, friars, foreigners, beggars, pilgrims, lepers and Romani, for the crisis.  They singled out lepers and other people with skin diseases such as acne or psoriasis, and exterminated throughout Europe.

When popular opinion blamed the Jews for the plague and pogroms erupted throughout Europe, Pope Clement VI issued two papal bulls on July 6, 1348 and on September 26, 1348. The second bull named Quamvis Perfidiam, condemned the violence and said those who blamed the plague on the Jews had been “seduced by that liar, the Devil.” He urged clergy to take action to protect Jews as he had done.

Even after the papal bulls, there were many attacks against Jewish communities. In February 1349, the citizens of Strasbourg murdered 2,000 Jews. In August the citizens of Mainz and Cologne the exterminated Jewish communities. By 1351, the Christians destroyed 60 major and 150 smaller Jewish communities.


Next →  Part 3 – Don’t Bathe Water Is Your Enemy!

← Previous: Part 1 – That Was the Question in Europe!



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