8 Common Questions About The Black Plague

Black Plague

What Is The Black Plague?

The Black Plague, or also known as the Black Death or Bubonic Plague, was a Eurasian pandemic during the 14th century.  It was caused by the bacterium Yersinia Pestis, which can manifest as a few types of plague. 

When Did The Black Plague Start?

The first case of the Black Plague was in the Gobi Desert in Mongolia in the 1320s.  It quickly traveled to China, then spread West, making landfall in Sicily in 1347. 

How Many People Died From The Black Plague?

In Europe, between 30% and 60% of the population perished.  Overall, as many as 100 million people died throughout Eurasia.  Because there were no established trade routes, North and South America were completely unaffected.

Symptoms of The Black Plague?

There are 5 main symptoms of the black plague:  fever and chills, seizures, achy muscles, weakness, and headaches.  Lymph nodes can swell into what are known as “buboes.”  These can turn black and rupture, releasing pus.   The term Bubonic actually comes from these swollen lymph nodes.

How Does The Black Plague Spread?

The most common explanation for how the Black Plague spread, is through fleas carried by rats.  Spreading of the disease relied on two types of rats: hosts who are immune and a second group that isn’t. The hosts are immune ensures that it remains endemic and can spread, while the second group die and spread the fleas to human hosts.  Humans were especially easy to infect due to unhygienic conditions across Eurasia during the Middle Ages.

What Was The Survival Rate?

With no treatment, the survival rate was extremely low.  At a minimum, 2/3rds of everyone who contracted the Black Death died.  Those who did survive tended to already be healthy. 

Are There Modern Cases Of The Bubonic Plague?

There are cases of the Bubonic Plague almost every year, though they are extremely rare.  In May 2019 there were two cases in Mongolia. The good news is that it is extremely treatable due to modern antibiotics.

What Was The Long Term Impact Of The Black Plague?

Society was completely upended by the Plague.  The majority of deaths occurred among the peasantry.  Those that remained enjoyed some surprising benefits.  Social mobility rose as there was less competition, wages grew as labor was in demand, and those that remained enjoyed long lives, as their hardiness was one of the main reasons they survived the plague. 

Culturally, the black death marked a dour turn in European art and writing.  Chaucer wrote extensively about the plague and paintings like Triumph of Death explored it with morbid imagery.

Alan Behrens
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