Term Paper: Black Death or Bubonic Plague

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European History

The Black Death: Transmission though Prosperity

The Black Death was quite simply the most devastating natural disaster in European History. Though we don't necessarily think of plagues as natural disasters, they are. This makes them somewhat unpredictable and difficult to control. Compounded by the general lack of knowledge of pestilence and the spread of disease in the Middle Ages, Europe was poised to take significant human losses when the Black Death first entered Europe in 1347. Interestingly, though, the most important contributing factor in the spread of the Black Death throughout Europe was actually a function of the prosperity and general economic growth that had occurred on the continent at the end of the 13th century. As we shall see, it was the development of long-distance trade routes -- especially those that operated via ships -- that contributed to the rapid spread of the disease and its devastating effects in Europe.

The Black Death was an epidemic of the bubonic plague that spread west from the steppes of Asia throughout Europe from roughly 1346/7 to 1351/3 (Duiker and Spielvogel 449; Benedictow 44). Bubonic plague is caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis, a disease that circulates commonly through dense populations of wild rodents. When those wild rodents came into contact with the black rats that lived in close proximity to humans during the Middle Ages, the bacteria was spread to those black rats, which then became the primary vector for the spread of the disease to humans. When the rats are infected, it takes anywhere from ten to fourteen days for the disease to kill of the rats. Once the rats are dead, fleas that live on the rats remain there for roughly three more days in a state of relative dormancy caused by the sudden disappearance of their food supply. Eventually, though, the fleas will go looking for another food source. In the case of black rat populatons, the fleas quite often jumped to humans (Benedictow 43).

When the fleas jump to new human hosts, they bring with them the same bacteria and diseases that existed in the blood of the rats they had just been feeding on. When the fleas begin to feed on humans, those diseases are immediately transferred to their new human hosts. Contrary to popular misconception, bubonic plague is very rarely spread through human-to-human contact. Though in some cases it can become airborne and infect new victims that way, predominantly the disease spread when humans are in contact with infected rat populations. The reason for this is that concentrations of the bacteria are hundreds of times higher in rat blood than in human blood. Though this makes little difference to individuals who have been infected, it significantly increases the difficulty of human-to-human transmission of the disease (Benedictow 43).

After Yersinia pestis enters the bloodstream, it almost immediately travels to and concentrates itself in the lymph nodes. The result is that the nodes swell painfully, causing buboes that form most often on the groin, thigh, armpit, or neck Once infected, the disease incubates in humans for about three to five days. After that, the disease runs its course in another three to five days, with mortality rates as high as 80%, though other more conservative estimates place the mortality rate at 50-60% (Benedictow 43; Duiker and Spielvogel 449). In other words, in much less than two weeks, individuals who are infected will largely die from the disease. Human infection occurs about two weeks after the resident rodent population is infected with the bacterial disease. Thus, within a month of the disease first reaching a new city or village or region, victims can begin to appear.

The rapid spread of the disease, combined with high mortality rates, should be considered one of the most significant factors in its dramatic effects in Europe in the 14th century. By the time that the first victims began to appear and plague was recognized as the cause, the disease would have already been widespread having killed off much of the local rodent population and the fleas having already transitioned to new human hosts. After the appearance of the first victim, others probably prayed that they would not also be afflicted with the disease. The unfortunate reality is that by the time that the first victim appeared, a large proportion of the human population had already been infected but was still in the incubation stage of the disease.

Because the nature of disease and its spread was not well understood at the time, Europe had little recourse or response for curtailing the spread of the Black Death. Many believed that the disease was divine retribution, or the work of the Devil, and that strict adherence to Biblical teachings was the only sane response (Olea and Christakos 291). As a result of this poor understanding and entirely inappropriate response, the Black Death claimed anywhere from 25 million to 50 million victims in Europe between 1347 and 1353 -- depending on estimates of Europe's population at the time and the estimated mortality of the disease. In general, scholarly research has concluded that the Black Death wiped out between 25% and 60% of Europe's total population in that short span (Olea and Christakos 291; Benedictow 49; Duiker and Spielvogel 449). This incredible decline in the continent's population would have dramatic long-term effects on the social and economic structure of Europe and affect development for centuries.

Though to some degree we can conclude that the spread of the disease was entirely outside of the control of Europe, given their lack of knowledge about disease, it is nonetheless clear that the state of Europe at the time that the disease appeared on the Asian steppes actually facilitated its rapid spread and the consequence devastation it wrought. In fact, we can quite reasonably assert that the robust and -- relatively -- speedy long-distance trade networks that had been established throughout Europe and into Asia were the primary factor that increased the success of the disease in infecting such a large body of people in such a short amount of time. In fact, some reports suggest that the Black Death first arrived in Europe via Genoese merchants who brought the disease with them to Sicily along a trade route to the Middle East in 1347 (Duiker and Spielvogel 449). Of course, it is likely that the disease entered Europe from multiple points around this time, especially considering the extent of the trade networks that interconnected the region.

Those trade routes actually improved the speed at which the disease could spread from urban center to urban center. Obviously, the plague would do better in places that first had high concentrations of black rats, and second in places where the population density of humans was also high. Urban centers offered the best chance for the disease to quickly infect large numbers of people. Not coincidently, urban centers are those that are most often connected to major trade routes and those that suffered the highest mortality rates. Many Italian trading cities suffered mortality rates as high as 60%, while more isolated farming villages suffered rates as low as 30% (Duiker and Spielvogel 449). The density of the human population would have affected the success of the disease's transmission, as well as the likelihood that the disease would quickly reach that part of Europe (Benedictow 45-46).

The prosperity of Europe at the beginning of the 14th century was a product of high population density and relatively rapid trade routes. Ships were able to move along these routes at speeds of 40km/day, much improved over primary land routes of 2km/day, or 0.6km/day on secondary land routes (Benedictow 46). This means that in the course of the month it takes for rodent populations to become infected, die, transmit to humans, and then for the… [END OF PREVIEW]

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