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The Black Death


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Measured by the horrors endured and the colossal drain upon the life of Europe, which was deprived of not less that twenty-five per cent, of its population, the Black Death, a deadly form of plague which made its appearance in 1347, is reckoned among the greatest disasters in world history.

Like most other epidemics of a similar character, the Black Death had its origin in the East, where it had raged for several years before it finally reached Europe towards the end of 1347.

The toll of life taken by the great pestilence, before its devastating influence was felt in Europe, may be summarised in the words of Hecker, who says, "Cairo lost daily, when the plague was raging with its greatest violence, from 10,000 to 15,000, being as many as, in modern times, great plagues have carried off during their whole course. In China, more than 13,000,000 are said to have died; and this is in correspondence with the certainly exaggerated accounts from the rest of Asia. India was depopulated. Tartary, Mesopotamia, Syria, and Armenia were covered with dead bodies; the Kurds fled in vain to the mountains. In Caramania and Caesarea, none were left alive. On the roads, in the camps, in the caravansaries, unburied bodies only were to be seen. In Aleppo 500 died daily; 22,000 people, and most of the animals, were carried off in Gaza within six weeks. Cyprus lost almost all its inhabitants, and ships without crews were often seen in the Mediterranean, as afterwards in the North Sea, driving about and spreading the plague wherever they went on shore. It was reported to Pope Clement, at Avignon, that throughout the East, probably with the exception of China, 23,840,000 people had fallen victims to the plague."

Various conjectures have been made regarding the causes of the tremendous spread of the pestilence, but the consensus of opinion favours the belief that it was communicated from one country to another by means of trading vessels sailing from the East to European ports, and also by merchants following overland routes to the West.

The symptoms of the disease were not universal, although in the countries of Europe they were almost identical. In the East the earliest indication of affection was bleeding at the nose, but in Europe the disease was generally shown to be present by the appearance of swellings and carbuncles under the arms and also in the groins, which later spread to other parts of the body. There followed distressing inflammation of the throat and lungs, intense pain in the chest, and frequent vomiting accompanied by the spitting of blood. The sufferer, too, would emit a foul odour from the body, and the breath would be likewise affected with a pestilential smell.

The most virulent form of the disease, however, was that in which there was an absence of swellings, and almost all who were attacked in this way were dead within a few days. Contemporary writers agree that many recovered from the disease where swellings and carbuncles were present, but that those whose symptoms included the spitting of blood were almost without exception doomed to death.

Although not every one who displayed all the symptoms succumbed to the disease, yet, on the other hand, in many cases a single symptom was alone sufficient to bring death. The disease affected those who contracted it in different ways; some would be overcome by stupor and relapse into a deep sleep, from which generally there was no awakening, while others would be unable to obtain sleep or rest of any kind. The tongue and the back of the throat became black, as if suffused with blood, and the victims would be consumed with a burning thirst which no liquid could assuage, and relief from suffering and anguish came only with death. No medicine had power to cure or even check the dread disease.

After devastating the countries along the trading routes, the pestilence was in 1347 carried, probably by merchant vessels, from the Crimea to Constantinople, whence, according to the emperor-author John Cantacuzene, it "traversed almost the entire sea-coasts and was carried over the world, for it invaded not only Pontus, Thrace, and Macedonia, but Greece, Italy, Egypt, Libya, Judea, Syria and almost the entire universe."

It was at the beginning of 1348 that the great pestilence descended upon Italy. Almost simultaneously Genoa and Venice felt the full force of the disease, which followed immediately upon the arrival of ships voyaging from the East. De Mussi records that the sailors were already in the throes of the disease when they arrived in port, and that contact with one man was sufficient to spread it among many others, and that even the carrying of a corpse to the grave proved fatal to the bearers.

He mentions many specific cases of the fatal consequences of contact with clothing or other belongings of those who had died from the disease. In one instance four soldiers stationed in the vicinity of Genoa returned to their quarters with a woollen blanket they had obtained from a house at a small coastal town, which had been denuded of its entire population. On retiring the next night they covered themselves with the blanket, and in the morning they were all found to be dead.

Other cities and villages were similarly affected, among them the beautiful city of Florence. It was in the spring of 1348 that Florence fell a prey to the disease, and so devastating was its effect that for some time it was generally referred to in Europe as the pestilence of Florence.

Giovanni Boccaccio, author of the Decameron, has left us a graphic account of the ravages of the plague in the city of his birth. "Such was the deadly character of the pestilential matter, that it passed the infection not only from man to man, but, what is more wonderful, and has been often proved, anything belonging to those sick with the disease, if touched by any other creature, would certainly affect and even kill it in a short space of time. One instance of this I took special note of, namely, the rags of a poor man just dead having been thrown into the street, two hogs came by at the time and began to root amongst them, shaking them in their jaws. In less than an hour they fell down, and died on the spot. Strange were the devices resorted to by the survivors to secure their safety. Divers as were the means, there was one feature common to all, selfish and uncharitable as it was - the avoidance of the sick, and of everything that had been near them; men thought only of themselves."

Soon there remained no room for burials in consecrated ground, and the corpses were piled in heaps in big trenches dug out specially for their reception; and when there was room for no more the trenches were covered over with earth and fresh ones were prepared. In less than six months it is estimated that the city's population was depleted by no fewer than 100,000.

Although its mortality was greater than that of any other city of Italy, Florence was only one of many that felt the full effects of the ravaging disease, which raged throughout the entire extent of the peninsula, leaving exempt a city here and there, among which Milan was fortunate to be numbered.

The scourge was carried from Genoa to Venice, from Pisa to Padua, and the same story of appalling loss of life was recorded in every case. Whole families were stricken, and in most instances none survived. The Pisans died at the rate of hundreds every week, and barely a third of the inhabitants of Padua survived.

In most of the cities it was observed that the pestilence lasted for about five months, and in the majority of them the mortality was equally high. In Venice the deaths were estimated at nearly 100,000, and many of the smaller cities calculated their dead at from 30,000 to 40,000.

From Italy the plague was carried into France, where it raged shortly after its appearance in Genoa. It first attacked Marseilles, whence it was thought to have been introduced by the sailors of a small fleet of merchant vessels. Avignon, some twenty-five miles to the north-west, was soon overwhelmed by the contagion, and thence it made a rapid advance in a northern direction throughout the country. Death took its toll with the same avidity and disregard of class as it had done in Italy, and the cities were left with but a skeleton of their normal populations. The deaths in Marseilles averaged nearly 20,000 a month while the pestilence lasted, and it was no infrequent experience for ships to be seen at the mercy of the sea from having no living soul left on board to navigate them.

Even greater was the mortality in Avignon and the neighbourhood, where the deaths are stated by a contemporary chronicler to have exceeded 150,000. In a letter to friends he wrote: "More than half of the people are already dead. Within the walls of the city there are now more than 7000 houses shut up; in these no one is living, and all who have inhabited them are departed; the suburbs hardly contain any people at all."

The whole of Provence was soon stricken with the disease, and by the beginning of May it had passed westward to Toulouse. Sweeping northwards it reached Lyons, and by the end of the summer it had covered almost the entire extent of the country.

In Paris it made its appearance towards the middle of the year, and altogether some 50,000 persons are stated to have succumbed, although this estimate is a conservative one compared with that of other chroniclers, one of whom places the total as high as 80,000.

As in other places, it respected neither rich nor poor, and royalty paid the penalty as well as those of humbler station, two of the victims it claimed being Joan of Burgundy, the consort of Philip of Valois, and Joan of Navarre, daughter of Louis X.

In some parts of France the contagion did not reach its greatest intensity until well into 1349, in which year it raged fiercely in Amiens. So violently was the epidemic in this comparatively small town, that the cemeteries were soon unable to receive further corpses, and the king had to be petitioned for permission to set aside fresh land as a burial-ground.

Scarcely a country in Europe escaped the disease, all suffering from its ravages in greater or less degree. From the Mediterranean islands of Corsica, Sardinia and Sicily, to which the contagion came in the closing days of 1347, it had passed westward into Spain, attacking on its way the Balearic Islands, where upwards of 25,000 people are said to have perished.

Its first onslaught was felt at Almeria, a seaport of Granada, on the southern coast, whence it quickly spread to Valencia, denuding that city of its people, at one time to the number of more than 250 daily. The insanitary conditions prevailing in the more populous cities of Spain provided a fruitful field for the pestilence, and the loss of life in most of them was enormous. Spain, in fact, was one of the worst sufferers, for the disease remained with that country far longer than with most others, and even as late as the spring of 1350 it had not finally thrown off the dread scourge.

In that year it deprived Castile of its king, Alfonso XII, who fell a victim while engaged in besieging Gibraltar, and many of his army also suffered the fate of their royal leader.

To Austria and Hungary the pestilence was carried from the northern cities of Italy, the towns on the east coast of the Adriatic having in the meantime also fallen prey to its violent march of destruction. From Northern Italy, too, it shaped a north-western course and brought devastation to Switzerland, which almost coincidentally was swept on the west by a wave advancing from France.

In its swoop upon Austria, the contagion appears to have signalled out Vienna for special violence, and the deaths there are estimated to have risen to as many as 900 in a day. The total mortality in this city is fixed by one authority at 100,000, and frequently as many as 6000 bodies are reported to have been interred in a single trench.

Prussia was invaded towards the end of 1349, and here the disease prevailed until late in the following year, one of the greatest sufferers being Bremen, of whose inhabitants scarcely a third survived. The Low Countries and Scandinavia were made to feel the devastating power of the dread scourge, which entered Holland towards the close of 1349. The disease passed into Norway and Sweden even earlier, having been carried first to Norway, according to a contemporary writer, by a boat sailing from London to Bergen, where it was cast upon the shore, the whole of the crew having died on the voyage.

News of the great pestilence on the Continent had reached England early in 1348, but there had been no sign of its spreading to this country during the first half of the year. It was fervently hoped that its westward course would be arrested before it crossed the English Channel, although grave fears were entertained that this would not be the case. Nor were these fears groundless, for in August the plague made its appearance in Melcombe Regis, now part of Weymouth, the germs having been carried to the port probably by a ship from Normandy, whose crew were affected by the disease.

Had more attention been given in those days to sanitation and hygiene, it is possible that the epidemic might have been confined to the locality in which it first appeared; even if medical treatment had been more freely resorted to, the course of the disease might have been stayed. As soon as its presence in Melcombe Regis was reported, the Bishop of Bath and Wells urged the people to proceed to church every Friday and pray to God for deliverance from the scourge which had come upon them from the East; he instructed them also to give alms and to fast, in order to avert God's anger.

But the plague did not abate, and from Melcombe Regis it spread through Dorset and then invaded Devon and Somerset. Its passage from town to town and village to village was rapid, and few who contracted the disease lived more than three or four days, many, in fact, dying on the day they were first afflicted. The victims were numbered by the thousand, and as many as fifty or sixty bodies were interred together in common graves.

County after county was stricken with the foul contagion, and each paid heavy toll of its inhabitants. A contemporary historian, writing of the effects of the pestilence in Bristol, says:

"In 1348 the plague raged to such a degree that the living were scarce able to bury the dead. The Gloucestershire men would not suffer the Bristol men to have access to them. At last it reached Gloucester, Oxford and London; scarce the tenth person was left alive, male or female."

In England, as in other countries, the disease attacked without distinction members of all classes and creeds, and the clergy were among the greatest sufferers, so much so, in fact, that often there was none available to perform the last rites for the dead. In one Cistercian abbey twenty monks and three lay-brothers succumbed, leaving only the abbot and two monks remaining; and this experience was typical of many other monasteries.

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