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The Black Death
Medieval World HI127
‘Those who fell ill lasted little more than
two or three days, but died suddenly, as if
in the midst of health – for someone who
was healthy one day could be dead and
buried the next. Lumps suddenly
emerged in their armpits or groin, and
their appearance was an infallible sign
of death.’
Jean de Venette, Chronicle [France]:
chilly stiffness
tingling sensation
an extremely hard, solid boil
an acute and putrid fever
intolerable stench
vomiting of blood
drunken stupor
majority died between the third and fifth day
The Symptons
The Traditional
A bacterial disease (Yersinia
Carried by rats and fleas
Characterised by buboes
Pneumonic form
Problems with Yersinia pestis
thesis (Samuel Cohn)
Modern plague travels slowly. Black Death travelled
extraordinarily fast
Scale of mortality. Modern plague has not proved
very infectious. Contrast with Black Death.
No immunity to the modern plague can be acquired.
People could become immune to the Black Death.
1331- Central Asia
along the Silk Route
1345-6 Southern
1347 From Black Sea
to Constantinople,
Italy, eastern
Mediterranean, near
1348 France, Bavaria,
1349 Northern
England, Central
Germany, Low
Countries, Norway
1350 Sweden
‘This disaster chiefly
overwhelmed the young and
strong; the elderly and weak it
generally spared... People who
one day had been full of
happiness, on the next were
found dead.‘
Geoffrey le Baker, Chronicle
Death Rates
• Impossible to
know for
• England
• Coltishall in
Norfolk 80%
• San
Moral explanations
• Divine punishment
• Penitential response
• But other moral explanations put
forward – not all who die are guilty
• Corruption of the air
• Humoural theories. Avoidance of
strenuous activity to prevent
unnecessary intake of air
• Astrological explanations
• Outsiders are sometimes blamed for
spreading the disease (by, for example,
poisoning wells). The poor, foreigners ,
travellers targeted. But main
scapegoats are the Jews.
consequences of plague
Michael Postan argues that effects of Black Death
have been exaggerated.
Europe by c. 1300 is already experiencing crippling
effects of a high population pressure.
Malthusian ‘natural’ checks are causing population to
shrink – delayed marriage, susceptibility to famine,
soil exhaustion
Disastrous effects of famine of 1315-1317
Causes of demographic
• Why does the population of Western
Europe not recover until the late 16th c.?
• Deliberate changes in fertility, or
renewed bouts of disease?
Effects of decrease in
• Life becomes harder for landlords and
peasants producing surplus because
rents and the price of food are lower
• Labourers are generally getting higher
wages. More mobility, occupational