What Was the Plague?
Looking back at history, certain periods stand out as times of progress and prosperity, when people enjoyed a better life than the generations before them had.
The three hundred years from 1000 to 1300 in Europe count as one of those prosperous periods. One reason is that there were not many wars. That meant kings, lords, and knights weren’t off on battlefields and could stay at home in their manors or castles. There, along with noble ladies in rich gowns and headdresses, they could enjoy lavish feasts, often with music and acrobats. Together, they went off hunting deer. They enjoyed playing card games and chess, both of which had originated in the Far East.
Knights who served as soldiers for a lord kept up their battle skills through festive “pretend battles” called tournaments. In a contest called a joust, two knights in full armor on horseback would gallop straight at each other, each trying to knock his opponent off his horse with a hard blow from a lance. After showing off such strength and bravery, the winner might get a keepsake from the lady he loved, who’d been sitting in the grandstand.
The peasants who farmed the lords’ land had none of the luxuries enjoyed by the nobility. Nevertheless, they saw their lives improve, too. Because of certain inventions, the work of peasants was made easier. There were better plows to till the soil. A work harness designed for horses meant that peasants no longer had to depend on slow oxen to pull a plow. Ways of farming also improved. Varying what was grown and leaving part of the land fallow (unplanted) resulted in much bigger crops. That resulted in more food and, in turn, more food meant healthier people who no longer owed as much free labor to the lords, as had been the case in earlier times.
By the year 1300, the cities growing all over Europe gave rise to a new middle class. These were people who had thriving businesses. In the social order, they fell in between the nobles at the top and the peasants at the bottom. There were guilds (groups of people all in the same type of business) producing high--quality goods—-leather shoes, steel suits of armor, wooden furniture, and jewelry made from gold and silver. Trade was showing the first sign of becoming global, with ships connecting all the parts of the world known to Europe.
Western Europe was so prosperous that its population almost doubled between 1000 and 1300. Three cities—-Paris, Milan, and Granada—-each had 150,000 people living in them. Both Florence and Venice could claim a population of 100,000, and while London only had 80,000, it was growing into the most important trade center in Northern Europe.
To many, it must have seemed as if the good times would last forever. No one had cause to think that a disaster was coming. But one was.
About one-third of the population of Western Europe—-an estimated twenty--five million people—-was wiped out between 1345 and 1351. All because of tiny, disease--carrying fleas. The disease was called different names: the great mortality, the pestilence, and the black death. (Often, sick people’s hands, feet, and mouths would turn black. It was that horrible.)
Today, this disease is most often called the plague. The people who managed to survive the plague faced a world that had been changed in almost unimaginable ways. Chapter 1: You Definitely Have the Plague If . . .
The outbreak of the plague that started in 1345 and fizzled out in 1351 managed to reach much of the world known to Europeans at the time. It swept from China all the way west to Spain, and it went from Egypt as far north as the British Isles, Scandinavia, and Russia. When a disease spreads over many countries or continents, it is known as a pandemic.
This pandemic of the plague killed a greater percentage of people than any other natural event in history. In the early 1300s, the total population of Western Europe had risen to about seventy--five million people. The best guess is that at least a third of them died. That’s twenty--five million people. Some historians who have studied the disease think even this enormous number is too low—-they say that as many as thirty--five million to forty--five million people may have died.
The plague pandemic was actually made up of three different kinds of the same disease. The disease was caused by a deadly germ. But unfortunately not even the most well--trained physicians in the Middle Ages had any knowledge of germs or how they spread. As for a cure, that had to wait for another six hundred years.
The least deadly form was the bubonic plague. (Bubonic meant the victims had lumpy sores called buboes.) It struck a person’s lymph nodes, which are located in the neck, underarms, and inner thighs. Normally, lymph nodes work to fight against disease. But when infected with the plague, the lymph nodes turned dark and became swollen with pus.
Having a bubo was very painful. If a person had a large bubo on their neck, the only way to find relief from the pain was to tilt their head to the side and stay that way. Besides the buboes, a person would develop fever, chills, and dark splotches on the skin of their chest and back. They would vomit and have diarrhea. As if that weren’t enough, the bubonic plague made victims smell awful and have terrible breath. Symptoms didn’t appear for about five days. The only “plus” regarding the bubonic plague was that about 40 percent of people survived it.
Sometimes, the germ causing the plague spread from the lymph nodes to the lungs. This led to the second form of the plague: pneumonic (say: new--MOHN--nick) plague. Pneumo is the root of the Greek word for lungs.
Victims of the pneumonic plague coughed up blood and vomited constantly. They died within three days after they started coughing. Only about one person out of twenty survived the pneumonic plague.
The third kind of the plague was the worst. Nobody survived the septicemic (say: sep--tuh--SEE--mick) plague. It occurred when the plague germs were able to enter a person’s bloodstream, sending them to all parts of the body. This turned the skin around the mouth, nose, and hands of the victim black. The septicemic plague killed swiftly—-in less than a day! There are stories of people who went to sleep feeling healthy but were dead by morning, as well as doctors who visited a person who was very sick with the plague and ended up dying even before their patient did.
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