All you need to know about the Black Plague
- Friday March 10th 2023
Widely considered to be one of history’s deadliest diseases, the infamous ‘Black Plague’ is generally known for ravaging different countries in Europe from the 14th to the 17th century, and not least Britain and London itself. Identified by the ugly lumps (called buboes) that form on the bodies of its victims, the Black Plague is as fascinating as it is disgusting and deadly. From the causes and symptoms to the mysterious, and, let’s be honest, quite terrifying, plague doctors and the Great Plague of London epidemic, we’ve created a guide to all things plague.
• What was the Black Plague?
• What was the Black Death caused by?
• Symptoms of the Black Plague
• How did the Black Plague spread?
• Who was the Plague Doctor?
• How did the Black Plague end?
• Does the Black Plague still exist?
• FAQs about the Black Plague
What was the Black Plague?
Caused by the Yersinia pestis bacterium (don’t worry, it won’t be on the test, so you don’t need to remember that), the Black Plague (sometimes referred to as simply the ‘Bubonic Plague’) is an ancient disease that has infected different parts of the globe for many centuries. It was the cause of the Black Death pandemic in Europe and the Great Plague of London during the late 1600s.
From the ancient Philistines to Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in the 6th century, historians believe the Black Plague was the cause of several epidemics (and pandemics) throughout history, including the dreaded ‘Pestilence’ mentioned in the Old Testament of the Bible.
Medical historians describe three great waves of the Black Plague in human history. The first wave is often referred to as the ‘first great plague pandemic’ or the ‘Plague of Justinian’, named after one of its most famous sufferers, Justinian I, though he’d probably prefer to be remembered for other things. Unlike the smaller instances and outbreaks of plague that occur in remote parts of the world today, the effects of the disease during these early centuries were truly devastating; millions of people died and national populations were almost halved in a matter of years. Some local communities were nearly wiped out completely.
However, the Black Plague is most often remembered for the ghastly outbreaks that ravaged Europe from 1347 to 1670 (that’s over 300 years of plague). Known as the ‘second great plague pandemic’ or the ‘medieval epidemic’, this wave was not only responsible for the ‘Black Death’ pandemic in the 14th century, but it was also behind the catastrophic ‘Great Plague’ epidemic of London in the 17th century.
The disease was spread to humans by fleas carrying the infected blood of different rodents (such as rats). With some variants of the plague killing you in days (and some killing you in a mere matter of hours), once the disease was in humans, it could be easily spread through the air via coughs and sneezes, similar to the spread of the common cold that we know today.
The third great plague wave took place during the 19th and 20th centuries. Beginning in the Yunnan region of southwest China, it quickly spread to Canton and Hong Kong, where Dr Alexandre Yersin officially identified the bacterium in 1894 (that’s why they named the bacterium Yersinia pestis). It was then carried by ships to Japan, Singapore and India. Within a few years, the Black Plague had spread to the Americas and Europe, with the earliest known European cases being reported in London in 1896.
What was the Black Death caused by?
The Black Death plague pandemic in Europe was caused by an outbreak of bubonic plague between the years 1347 and 1351. The plague was mostly transmitted to humans by fleas infected with the Yersinia pestis bacterium. These fleas usually travelled on small rodents, like rats, and people’s clothing, which allowed for the rapid spread of the disease in 14th century Europe.
The outbreak was thought to have originated in China and Inner Asia via the Black Sea port of Kaffa (now Feodosiya) in the Crimea. Researchers believe the popular trading port was invaded by a heavily infected Mongol army, which spread the disease to the traders working there. One story even suggests the Mongol invaders deliberately threw infected corpses over the walls of the city as a form of biological warfare. Imagine waking up and seeing that fly by your window.
From there, the disease was transported to the Mediterranean (by rats and people) on Genoese trading ships. Once the plague had found its way inland from Italy and Spain, there was no stopping it, and it made its way to England via boats coming from the city of Calais in northern France.
Symptoms of the Black Plague
The symptoms of the Black Plague depend on what form of the disease someone is unfortunate enough to have. In humans, there are three clinical forms: bubonic, pneumonic and septicaemic. Let’s take a look at the most common variant, the bubonic.
Making up nearly three-quarters of all cases, bubonic plague is the least dangerous (but probably the most uncomfortable and revolting) of the three, killing only half of its victims at the time (and almost no one today, you’ll be glad to hear). You could expect a fever, shivering, vomiting, headaches, pains in your arms and legs, and the classic pus-filled boils (often black in colour), which are most commonly associated with depictions of the disease.
Pneumonic plague primarily involves an extensive infection of the lungs and respiratory system. Symptoms are similar to severe pneumonia (such as fever and shortness of breath) and quickly progress to fluid build-up in the lungs. If you were unfortunate enough to catch the pneumonic plague, death would typically occur within three to four days. This variant of the disease was extremely infectious, as it spread from person to person via coughing and sneezing, which is pretty disgusting when you think about it.
The most dangerous of them all, septicaemic plague involves the bloodstream of the victim being invaded by the plague bacteria. Sufferers often develop a fever, chills, abdominal pain and, eventually, serious internal bleeding, which, as you can imagine, isn’t very pleasant. As a result, death could occur in as little as a few hours. Most terrifying of all, this variant of the disease can be caused by either leaving the bubonic form of the plague untreated, or immediately following a simple flea bite (you’d have to be pretty unlucky to get bitten by that type of flea today).
How did the Black Plague spread?
The black plague was largely spread by the bites of fleas infected with the Yersinia pestis bacterium. During the Black Death pandemic, these fleas spread through local populations on people’s clothing and the skin of small rodents (like rats).
At the time, food and other goods were carried increasingly longer distances in order to be traded in markets around the globe. As a result, the Black Plague travelled around the world on trading ships and boats carrying rats and people harbouring these infected fleas. During the Black Death, some scientists and historians estimate that the Black Plague spread more than a mile per day. Even for a plague, that’s quick.
The disease is also incredibly contagious in its pneumonic form, as it can spread from person to person via droplets in the air. These droplets are produced when infected people sneeze and cough. As medical knowledge was not quite the same as it is today, the people of these centuries did not understand the dangers of not covering your face when you sneeze (or cough) and not washing your hands when you are unwell.
In the history of the Great Plague epidemic of 17th century London, the disease spread through the nation’s capital via fleas (on rats and clothing) and those suffering from infectious forms of the plague. However, as many of the city’s poorer residents lived closely together in cramped and filthy homes, the disease spread at an even more alarming rate. Estimated to have killed almost a fifth of London’s population at the time, the epidemic, luckily, only lasted a year. It could’ve been much worse if it had continued.
Who was the Plague Doctor?
As the Black Plague was once one of the most feared diseases in the world, it is only fitting that it has an equally creepy physician to go with it. Plague doctors were medical professionals charged with treating victims of the bubonic plague during the epidemics of the 16th and 17th century.
They treated both rich and poor people, even those who could not afford to pay for their services. Towns infected by the disease would often hire these ominous and sinister looking people to perform a variety of tasks, including administering ‘antidotes’, poking victims with their medical rods/canes, witnessing wills and performing rather messy autopsies. But none of these tasks really explains why they did this all whilst wearing those strange bird masks.
Credited to French physician Charles de Lorme (a doctor known to many European royals at the time), the plague doctors’ uniforms consisted of an overcoat covered in scented wax, boots, a tucked-in shirt, gloves and a hat made from goat leather, a ‘medical’ rod/cane, glasses and a mask with a long beak filled with perfumes and herbs. All of this (including the mask) was designed to protect the wearer from the disease. At the time, physicians believed that the plague was spread through poisoned air, creating imbalance and sickness in people with the illness. The masks were designed to filter out the poisonous air. Unfortunately, they didn’t make much of a difference and many plague doctors died of the disease as a result.
How did the Black Plague end?
The black plague still exists today. However, its spread has been controlled by modern health measures. For each of the great plague pandemics, historians cannot agree on exactly what ended the spread of each disease. Traditionally, a pandemic ends when the death rate falls back to (near) normal levels and the fear of the disease is no longer widespread in society (which is very tricky to calculate).
Some researchers think that changes in the weather patterns might have killed the disease-carrying fleas. Others think that the plague bacterium evolved to be less deadly. One hypothesis states that, by the 19th century, brown rats, which are more likely to live further away from humans, were predominately carrying the virus, which reduced the number of outbreaks (thank you brown rats). In all cases, the impacts of the Black Plague on England were far-reaching and significant.
After the Black Death plague pandemic, much of the country’s land was left barren and uncultivated (due to a lack of workers), which led many landowners into bankruptcy. Equally, many families who lost their loved ones had also lost their primary income providers, leading many households to poverty and utter ruin. The consequences of the Great Plague of London were equally morbid. The city lost 15 to 20 percent of its population in a single year and, after the Great Fire of London in 1666, many survivors were left homeless. So, as you can imagine, a rather difficult time for those who remained in London.
Does the Black Plague still exist?
Despite the considerable advances of modern medicine and sanitation, the plague has not completely disappeared from the world we know today. Although no outbreaks of plague have been reported in the UK since 1918, the disease has resurfaced in several countries in Africa, Asia, North and South America. So, if you’re travelling there, remember to check if there’s any plague before you go.
Between 2010 and 2015, there were 3,248 cases reported worldwide. In Madagascar, there is a seasonal surge in plague cases, which occurs every year between September and April. In the USA, there are about seven cases a year on average.
In Summary: Quick Answers to your most common Black Plague Questions
What was the Black Plague?
Caused by the Yersinia pestis bacterium, the Black Plague is a disease that was responsible for the Black Death pandemic in Europe in the Middle Ages and the Great Plague of London in the 17th Century. It is an ancient disease that has infected different parts of the globe for many centuries and still exists today.
Who was the Plague Doctor?
Plague doctors were medical professionals who treated victims of the bubonic plague during the epidemics of the 16th and 17th century. They are characterised by their overcoat covered in scented wax, their ‘medical’ canes, glasses and a mask with a long beak.
How did the Black Plague spread?
The Black Plague was spread by the bites of fleas infected with the Yersinia pestis bacterium. During the Black Death pandemic, these fleas spread through local populations on people’s clothing and the skin of small rodents (like rats). The plague was also spread by victims with the pneumonic form of the disease via droplets in the air.
How did the Black Plague end?
Despite modern sanitation and medical advances, the black plague still exists today in remote parts of the world. For each of the great plague pandemics, historians cannot agree on exactly what ended the spread of each disease. Scientists have put forward a range of possibilities, including weather changes, bacterial evolution and even a change in the species of rat carrying the infected fleas.
What type of plague was the Black Death?
The Black Death consisted of all three types of plague caused by the Yersinia pestis bacterium: bubonic, pneumonic and septicaemic. The plague was mostly transmitted to humans by fleas infected with the bacteria. These fleas usually travelled on small rodents, like rats, and people’s clothing.
Where did the Black Plague originate?
The Black Plague is a disease that evolved in ancient times. During the Black Death pandemic, the Black Plague is thought to have originated in China in 1334 and spread to Europe via the Black Sea port in the Crimea. Researchers believe the popular trading port was invaded by an infected Mongol army, which spread the disease to Genoese traders, who then took it back to Europe.