Exposing those dirty rats!

MedievalLifeAndTimesWarning: Do not consume with breakfast.

Josse Lieferinxe [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Josse Lieferinxe [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Black Death killed as many as two-hundred million (200,000,000) people in Europe and Asia in the middle years of the 14th century — roughly 1330 to 1360. Europe’s population in the years leading up to 1350 was reduced by as much as sixty percent. Some believe the disease originated in east Asia and moved over trade routes by way of traveling merchants and ships.

For most people, the death was horrifying. Symptoms included headaches, chills, and fever. Within a few days hard lumps formed on the neck, in the armpits, and in the groin area. These lumps usually turned from red to black and often broke open oozing putrid-smelling pus and blood. The lumps, called bubos, are infected, swollen lymph glands — hence the term Bubonic Plague. Once these lumps appeared, the person began to bleed internally. They passed bloody stool and urine and sometimes bled from the nose.

The disease was extremely painful and physicians didn’t know the cause or how to effectively treat it. The best they could do was to try to alleviate the symptoms with various herbs and sometimes bloodletting. The disease hit with a vengeance and within a very short time symptoms appeared, the patient worsened, and sometimes died within several days to a week. Few people survived the disease. In some instances, entire villages were wiped out. At one point, it is said that in Paris as many as 800 people died each day at the peak of the outbreak.

Today, we know that the disease is caused by bacteria Yersinia pestis. Because sanitation practices were, well, questionable in the middle ages, an abundance of rats lived in cities, towns and villages. Rats then infected the fleas they carried, and they in turn passed the disease on to humans (and other animals).

Of course, the church had their say in the Black Death. They convinced people that God was punishing them for their sins. Because even church officials died from the disease, few remained to absolve people of their sins before they died. The pope finally proclaimed that those who died of the disease were automatically absolved of their sins. The church even allowed people to confess their sins to each other.

The disease reared its ugly head in Europe and Mediterranean area again several times from 1400s through to the 1600s. Other minor outbreaks have occurred in various areas around the world since, but nothing like the devastation of the 1300s.

The disease is also known as the Black Plague, and Bubonic Plague (as mentioned earlier). In medieval times, the disease was also called the blue sickness, the Pestilence, and the Great Mortality.

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4 thoughts on “Exposing those dirty rats!”

  1. I read Geraldine Brook’s novel Year of Wonders some years ago which deals with a village in Derbyshire dealing with the plague and the role of the ‘witches’ in the town who actually had a better clue as to how to treat it than anyone else and who suffered for having such knowledge.
    I have always been fascinated by the struggles of those who came forward to what was at the time ‘revolutionary’ theories about disease….the guy who dared to mention washing of hands when going from patient to patient was ridiculed at first….as humans we often learn lessons the hardest way possible…..thanks for sharing this Caerlynn.

    1. Hi. That sounds interesting. Ken Follett also dealt with it in his novel “World without End,” where the MC, Caris, discovered that hand washing and having the nuns cover their noses and mouths kept them from contracting the disease. And, if I remember correctly, the “physicians” thought she was nuts (being a woman probably didn’t help her case in those days).
      Thanks for reading and taking a moment to comment. 🙂

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