Invasion of the Black Death in Europe

The invasion of the Black Death, or plague, created physical and psychological devastation, but also brought an end to Church domination in the Middle Ages and ushered in numerous social and economic reforms.

Summary of Event

Apparently originating near Delhi in the 1330’, the plague spread to southern Asia by 1346 and to the cities of Kaffa and probably Constantinople by the end of the following year. Merchants traveling from Kaffa and probably from Constantinople effectively transmitted the plague to the ports of Genoa and Venice in northern Italy, to Messina in Sicily, and to Marseilles in southern France. The pandemic spread through Spain and France in 1348, arriving in England in the autumn of that year and eventually reaching Scandinavia and northern central Europe in 1349. Northern Russia first suffered its effects in 1352, after the plague had declined in Western Europe. China experienced the disease between 1352 and 1369; Iceland and Cyprus were totally depopulated. [kw]Invasion of the Black Death in Europe (1347-1352)
[kw]Black Death in Europe, Invasion of the (1347-1352)
[kw]Europe, Invasion of the Black Death in (1347-1352)
Black Death
Europe (general);1347-1352: Invasion of the Black Death in Europe[2820]
Environment;1347-1352: Invasion of the Black Death in Europe[2820]
Health and medicine;1347-1352: Invasion of the Black Death in Europe[2820]
Social reform;1347-1352: Invasion of the Black Death in Europe[2820]
Boccaccio, Giovanni
Chaucer, Geoffrey
Guy de Chauliac
Jean de Venette

An increase in both maritime and overland trade facilitated the movement of the plague bacillus, and the southern European seaports were devastated first. Boats were loaded with two commodities: spices and disease-ridden rats. The “king of terrors” ravaged populated areas so severely that at least one-fourth of Europe’s inhabitants had died by 1350. Sometimes entire villages were depopulated by death, since 60 percent to 80 percent of those infected failed to survive. Half of Florence’s ninety thousand people vanished; some two-thirds of the population of Siena and Hamburg died.

French physician Guy de Chauliac Guy de Chauliac encouraged rational and professional courtesy in the face of the disease and also understood some of the demographics and social conditions that encouraged its persistence. The biological spread of the plague bacillus (Yersinia pestis) was facilitated when engorged, bacilli-infested fleas would leave their original animal hosts in search of new hosts, usually humans. The bite of the flea produced oval swellings called buboes. These chestnut-sized lumps appeared commonly near an area of lymph nodes, usually in the groin, the armpit, or the neck. The blackened color of these buboes gave the disease its common name—the Black Death. It appears that three types of plague existed. The first was the simple bubonic plague. The second and the most common type was pneumonic plague, which occurred when the bacillus invaded the lungs or was transmitted through exposure to a coughing plague victim. The third type was the always fatal septicemic plague, which occurred when the bacillus fully invaded the bloodstream and overwhelmed the nervous system before producing pustules.

Europe experienced great physical and mental anguish as whole families vanished. The plague created an even greater sense of demoralization, anomie, and relative deprivation, exacerbated by numerous viral epidemics, including measles, smallpox, influenza, dysentery, typhus, tuberculosis, and whooping cough. Medical treatment was invariably irrational, even dangerous to the patient, as were numerous preventive procedures.

The practice of “sewage pharmacology” became widespread as people turned to unusual treatments in the hope of preventing the disease. Believing that strong odors could prevent transmission of the disease, some people would bathe daily in urine and even drank urine; others smeared human excrement on their clothing. Attempts were made to bottle flatulation; others allowed male goats to live in their houses, filling rooms with the malodorous smell of their urine. It was also the practice for people to hover over open latrines and inhale the stench. One witness reported “many were so courageous that they swallowed the pus from the mature boils in spoonfuls.” Boils were incised, dried, and powdered for inhalation or administered orally in a drink. Geoffrey Chaucer’ Chaucer, Geoffrey
The Canterbury Tales
Canterbury Tales, The (Chaucer) (1387-1400) describes such psychological and behavioral responses to the plague.

Attempts at prevention assumed other procedures as when walls, furniture, and even a person’s face and hands were washed in rose-water or vinegar. It was not an uncommon sight to see people with garlands, wearing nosegays, and even cloth masks with large noses stuffed with flowers, which were believed to act as a filter against miasma. Further evidence of this belief is revealed in the nursery rhyme “Ring Around the Rosey, Pocket Full of Posies,” which signified the rose-colored swelling “ring” on the skin as an early stage of plague. Even the wearing of pointed shoes was avoided because such shoes were thought to resemble Satan’s cloven hoof.

This wood engraving, from a fifteenth century German book in the Rosenwald collection (Library of Congress) depicts a plague victim pointing out his boils to three physicians.

(Library of Congress)

In keeping with Galenic medicine and the concept of humors, people were advised to avoid any excesses in eating, drinking, exercise, and even sexual relations. At the same time, many people felt doomed and frequently indulged in extreme forms of debauchery and antisocial behavior. Individuals and groups roamed streets robbing people or entering houses to rape and plunder. In Spain, the Tarrantella dance (bite of the tarantula spider) was forbidden.

Mass hysteria became endemic to much of Europe. Various social movements became the focus of the people’s frustration. Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio, Boccaccio, Giovanni in his work Decameron: O, Prencipe Galeotto (1349-1351; The Decameron
Decameron (Boccaccio) , 1620), presented a series of graphic biographies explaining social dysfunction and class structure during the plague. In one such display of social dysfunction, pilgrimages of the Brethren of the Cross Cross, Brethren of the or the Brotherhood of the Flagellants Flagellants, Brotherhood of the would go from village to village whipping themselves and others with metal-tipped leather thongs as penitence for presumed wrongs. This form of mortification of the flesh was actually based on an earlier concept of exorcism, one that the Church later came to despise. The Flagellants roamed throughout much of Europe, releasing criminals and patients from insane asylums. Carmelite friar Jean de Venette Jean de Venette made a number of astute observations and descriptions of flagellantism.

A similar social movement was the so-called charisant mania, whereby hundreds, sometimes thousands, would dance and sing uncontrollably in village or city streets. The sinister aspect of this mania was that some would dance themselves to death through exhaustion or trample others to death while performing awkward and erratic dances. Yet for some, the dance of death was not a psychological disorder but rather represented a later stage of plague, when the subcutaneous hemorrhaging created black blotches on the victim’s skin. Eventually, the victim’s central nervous system deteriorated, creating bizarre and painful neurological dysfunction and disorientation.

Unfortunately, another antisocial movement, also documented by Jean de Venette, was the rise of anti-Semitism, particularly later in Germany and central Europe, although the first instances of widespread persecution were in Marseilles in 1348 when thousands of Jews Judaism;persecution of were burned to death. The notion of anti-Semitism probably developed as early as the First Crusade (1095-1099), when the Catholic Church contended that Jews represented demons of Satan, poisoning the wells of plagued communities. By 1349, the number of persecutions had begun to decline, perhaps because the populace realized that Jews were also victims of the plague. With the decline of the Black Death in 1351, the persecution of the Jews waned.


The Black Death resulted in many lasting changes: better medical literature, programs of public sanitation, decline of feudalism and the manorial systems, the beginning of the end of the medieval period, and almost complete control of all ecclesiastical matters by the Catholic Church. For example, certain city governments imposed programs to prevent contagion and improved sanitation. Florence and Venice established commissions for public health in 1348; in the same year, the Italian city of Pistoia issued regulations on burial, clothing, and food to counter the spread of plague.

Further Reading

  • Aberth, John. From the Brink of the Apocalypse: Confronting Famine, War, Plague, and Death in the Later Middle Ages. New York: Routledge, 2001. A study of social upheaval and strife in the late medieval period, thematically organized around the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
  • Campbell, Anna M. The Black Death and Men of Learning. Reprint. New York: AMS Press, 1966. The author argues that education suffered a decline after the Black Death since the number as well as training of professors had deteriorated.
  • Cantor, Norman F. In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World It Made. New York: Perennial, 2002. A broad-ranging, multifaceted text, this study covers the effects of the plague on individuals and society at large, as well as surveying all major theories of the cause of the Black Death, from contemporary superstition to modern science.
  • Coulton, George. The Black Death. New York: Robert M. McBride, n.d. In this work, published c. 1930, the author is convinced that the plague gave rise to the Protestant Reformation and was instrumental in major changes in land rights and in the sense of individualism.
  • Gasuet, Francis. The Black Death of 1348 and 1349. 2d ed. London: George Bell and Sons, 1908. A lucid treatment of the subject anticipating Coulton’s thesis that the plague brought about a revolution in Church development.
  • Gottfried, Robert. The Black Death: Natural and Human Disaster in Medieval Europe. New York: Free Press, 1988. A thorough study of how the plague brought dramatic transformation to medieval Europe, particularly within the Church.
  • Shrewsbury, J. A History of Bubonic Plague in the British Isles. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1970. Detailed descriptions of socioeconomic and demographic effects of the plague.
  • Twigg, Graham. The Black Death: A Biological Reappraisal. New York: Schocken Books, 1985. The author presents significant data to demonstrate that plague diseases produced clinical signs akin to anthrax, which was a major killer in medieval Europe.
  • Ziegler, Philip. The Black Death. London: Collins, 1969. A critical review of the major historians who describe the social and economic consequences of the plague.