The Black Death
It so happened that in the month of October in the
year of our Lord 1347, around the first of that
month, twelve Genoese galleys, fleeing our Lord’s
wrath which came down upon them for their
misdeeds put in at the port of the city of Messina.
They brought with them a plague that they
carried down to the very marrow of their bones,
so that if anyone so much as spoke to them, he
was infected with a mortal sickness which
brought on a n immediate death that he could in
no way avoid. (Michele de Piazza)
Geographic Origins
•Most chroniclers agree that the plague came from the East.
•Louis Sanctus was convinced it came from India.
•Ibn al-Wardi says it spread to India and China (first) from a
“land of darkness,” but he is not clear on where that land of
darkness was.
•Some modern epidemiological studies suggest that the
plague bacillus is endemic in the rodent populations of the
central Asian steppes.
•Al-Maqrizi speaks of torrential rains in the Mongol heartland
prior to the outbreak of the plague; it’s possible this forced
rodents native to the region into closer contact with humans.
•We should also note the prevalence of the fur trade, which
included ermine and marten, during this period.
Climate Change
Pathology of the Plague
Yersinia pestis
Bubonic Plague
Pneumonic Plague
Septicemic Plague
Plague victims. The illustrator of an early fifteenth- century German chronicle imagined
the plague of Egypt—sent by God, according to the Book of Exodus in the Bible, to make
Pharaoh “let my people go”—with the same symptoms as the Black Death. In the
background, Moses brings the plague down on Egypt by prayer. By implication, prayer and
obedience to the will of God could also be remedies for plague.
Religious, Medical, Scientific
Priests, Friars, and Doctors
Muslims and Christians
The notion of contagion
Treating the plague. In the mid–fifteenth century, a patron who was probably a plague survivor endowed a chapel in the high Alps at
Lanslevillard. The chapel was dedicated to St. Sebastian, adopted by plague victims, perhaps because his arrow wounds resembled the
pockmarks and pustules of so many diseases. The scene reproduced here shows the underarm buboes that are also a symptom of
bubonic plague, the indiscriminate nature of the disease, its supposed origin as a punishment from God, and physicians’ efforts to cure it
by lancing pustules.
Flagellants. In 1349, the Black Death inspired thousands of penitents to organize processions and
cults of self-flagellation across Europe in an attempt to deflect God’s wrath. Like many others,the
Flemish chronicler whose work is depicted here denounced the flagellants for claiming that their
penance was a kind of baptism, that it could wipe out sin, and that it was a sacrifice akin to
Christ’s death on the cross. The king of France banned flagellation, and the pope outlawed it.
Christianity’s Supremacy over Judaism.
Church and Synagogue are clearly sisters,
but the Church is crowned and upright,
while the Synagogue is blindfold, with
bare, inclined head. These examples are
from Bamberg Cathedral in Germany but
the pairing of Church and Synagogue
appears, with remarkable consistency,
all over Europe. Typically, the
Synagogue has a broken staff, while the
tablets of the law slip from her other
hand. If the sculpture of the Church
shown here were undamaged, she
would almost certainly hold a cross and
a chalice.
Social Impact
Social bonds and mores.
Peasant Status
Memento Mori
The Wife of Bath. “Thanks be to God,
who is for aye alive, / Of husbands at
Church door have I had five.” “The
Wife of Bath” was a fictional character
of about 1400—shown here in a
contemporary illustration to the
English writer Geoffrey Chaucer’s
verses about her. But, like all good
satire, she was representative of the
society of her times: sexually
shameless, irrepressibly bossy, and
determined to exert “power, during all
my life” over any husband “who shall
be both my debtor and my slave.”
“Facsimile of Ellesnere Chaucher, The
Life of Bath” 1400–1410. VdA
Museum, London. Picture Desk,
Inc./Kobal Collection
Summary of Effects
– Peasants: end of serfdom, many gain freedom, end of labor services,
better wages available in the cities
– Monarchs take advantage of aristocratic families weakened by the
disasters to centralize their power.
– Many become more religious, but now more often in personal
• Franciscans: die in enormous numbers because of their care for
the sick, but also gain tremendous respect.
– Many begin to question the church.
– The scapegoating of Jewish and Muslim communities, along with
others, rises in Europe.
– Economic effects
• Initial deflation and economic decline
• Desire for luxury goods increases
• More and more different opportunities for making money arise.
• Economy takes off as population begins to grow again.
Effects: Regional Comparison
• China
– Social and political effects
• Massive population loss
• Loss of power for Mongols in China by 1368
– Loss of the “mandate of heaven”
• Reestablishment of native rule under the Ming
– Economic effects
• Temporary commercial and trade loss on the Silk Road
• Government lost revenues because of lost taxes
• Europe
– Social and political effects
• Massive population loss
• Clergy was especially hard-hit
• Leveling effect, as all die from plague and famine
• Islamic World
– Social and political effects
• Massive population loss
• Weakens Il-Khan rule
– Economic effects
• Worsens an already bad situation resulting from economic
mismanagement during the Il-Khan period
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