The Black Death ravaged Europe from 1347-1351, killing an estimated one-third of its population. It caused wars to stop, and trade to slump. People tried many remedies to prevent and cure the plague, but nothing worked. It was blamed on everything from divine punishment to unbalanced humor to cats and even Jewish people.


The Black Death was one of the worst infectious disease catastrophes in human history. It killed from a third to over half of Europe’s population over the course of eight years. Its name derives from the blemishes on victims’ skin that were often black, swollen and painful. Symptoms included fever, aching joints, headache and vomiting. It was especially deadly in its bubonic form, which caused painful lymph node swellings or “buboes” that oozed and bled.

There was no cure, and surviving the plague meant a long period of suffering and possibly death. It could take from five days to over a month to die of plague. Those who survived had to cope with fear and uncertainty.

Some people resorted to extreme measures to cope with the fear and stress of the plague. Many resorted to bloodletting or boiling their own boils. Others tried to ward off infection by avoiding activities that opened the pores, such as exercise, bathing, luxurious living and sexual intercourse. Physicians argued over how best to treat the plague. John of Burgundy thought that the disease was the result of a pestilential atmosphere that entered a person’s body through their pores. This noxious atmosphere could be dissipated by burning aromatic herbs and by bloodletting.

Other people found comfort in religious prayer and rituals, particularly in the Jewish faith. Many of the first victims of the Black Death were Jews, who were blamed for spreading it. This was partly because some Jews carried recessive familial Mediterranean fever (FMF) mutations that conferred natural immunity to Y. pestis, but also because Jews died at higher rates during the outbreak than Christians. Blaming minorities for epidemics has a long history and continues into our own era of coronavirus pandemics.

Researchers still debate how the Black Death spread so quickly, although they know that Y. pestis reached western Europe through trading routes that involved ports and maritime trade. Until recently, the most likely source was infected merchant ships that arrived at Constantinople from the east and then spread the plague to nearby Genoese trading vessels and then to other cities and ports. These ships carried infected fleas and rats that infected other harbor rats and then the ships’ crews and passengers.

Social Change

The Black Death was one of the largest infectious disease catastrophes in human history. It killed up to 60% of the European population over its eight-year course. It also had profound effects on the economy and social structure of Europe as a whole.

The plague ravaged people of all classes. Serfs were especially hard hit, and the shortage of farmers led to demands for an end to serfdom, rebellions against lords, and general questioning of authority. The death toll was so high that the populations of many towns and villages simply disappeared.

Symptoms of the bubonic plague were terrible: bloody, painful swellings (buboes) in the armpits and groin, chills, fever, sweating, vomiting and diarrhea, terrible aches and pains, and eventually a quick death. The infection was very contagious. It was transmitted by fleas that carried Y. pestis bacteria from infected victims to uninfected rats, and then to other rats and humans. Even touching a cloth smeared with the bacteria could transmit the infection. The bacterium attacked the lymphatic system, and if it went untreated, the infection would spread to the blood or lungs, leading to a rapid, usually fatal, hemorrhage.

Although scientists have speculated that warfare and trade routes might be important factors in the initial spread of Y. pestis, they remain uncertain how the disease reached western Eurasia. George Christakos and his colleagues have used sophisticated computational tools to track the spread of the plague across Europe. They found that the outbreaks traveled at varying speeds, and that different regions were affected at different times of the year.

Less severe plague epidemics returned to Europe regularly for 100 years after the Black Death, but they never killed nearly as many people. Then, in 1900, Alexandre Yersin discovered the bacterium and the flea-rat connection. Today, the only cases of plague are found in fleas that live mainly among rodents like squirrels in isolated wilderness areas. Fewer than 200 people die worldwide each year from the disease, compared to millions during the fourteenth century. Modern sanitation and public health practices have mitigated the impact of plague, but it still exists, and there is a risk of a new pandemic.

Religious Change

Many religious attitudes were changed by the Black Death. People believed that God was punishing humanity for its sins, including greed, blasphemy and heresy. During the plague outbreaks, many embraced strange penitential practices like flagellants, who went from town to town whipping themselves until they bled. The church also lowered its standards of theological training and literacy in order to attract more recruits. Good priests were especially important in this crisis, as they could administer last rites and comfort the dying.

Cities were hit harder than the countryside, because sanitary conditions were worse and overcrowding was much more common. As a result, some towns saw up to half of their population die of the disease. This triggered renewed religious fervor.

For example, Christians began to target Jews and other non-Christians, who were viewed as a source of the disease. This was a major social change, because Jews were allowed to live peacefully with Christians for centuries prior to this period. Historian R.I. Moore explains that as the Church gained power, it became legal and ecclesiastically favorable to root out anyone who did not follow the Church’s beliefs.

Religion can also be spread by force, as in the case of the Crusades and the Inquisition. Other forms of social influence can play a role, however, such as economic conditions that affect fertility rates.

A recent study found that decisions about affiliation are more likely to be based on personal religious motives than those regarding denominational change or conversion. The authors suggest that this may be because disaffiliation is often a conscious choice, whereas denominational switching and conversion tend to happen as a reaction to personal or family circumstances.

This research sheds light on the role that religion plays in secular and social changes that occur in societies, and it suggests that the nature of these processes can vary across religions and geographical areas. In addition, it provides insights that can help religious leaders understand how to attract and retain new members. In particular, the study found that demographic characteristics such as level of education and household wealth strongly influence religiosity.


In the medieval period, a single outbreak of plague ravaged Europe, killing a greater percentage of its population than had been killed by any war or epidemic up to that time. The bacterium Yersinia pestis caused this horrific pandemic, which took the lives of more people than any other illness or disease in history. Modern genetic analyses have found that the strain of Yersinia pestis introduced by the Black Death was ancestral to all currently circulating Yersinia pestis strains.

The Black Death also had a profound effect on Burgundy’s economy, with many of its most productive towns and cities being decimated. Those that survived were forced to change their agricultural practices, with fewer and smaller fields being planted. The loss of food production reduced the food supply and increased the price of grain. It also decreased trade with other areas, which had previously been an important source of income for the region.

This increase in prices lowered living standards for everyone, but it also made it more difficult for the poor to get food. They were forced to find new sources of income, and some began to engage in illegal activities. They included buying and selling forged documents, as well as stealing. These activities pushed the number of thieves to unprecedented levels, and the police were forced to establish a system of patrols.

Until recently, most researchers have assumed that the Black Death was spread by rats. However, studies by both those who support (Benedictow 2004; Audoin-Rouzeau 2003) and those who oppose (Twigg 1984; Cohn 2002; Christakos et al. 2005) this theory have shown that there are a great many problems with it.

One problem is that a contagion-based understanding of the Black Death’s speed and distribution tends to elide obvious evidentiary lacunae. In addition, the evidence shows that the Black Death did not hit an area yearly for a long period of time, like modern plagues do.

A number of studies have also suggested that the Black Death might have been spread by cattle. This was based on the discovery of anthrax spores in a plague pit, and also on reports of symptoms that are not consistent with either bubonic or pneumonic plague.

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Many historical documents and records have reported that poor people could afford a better and healthy diet. For instance, according to DeWitte, they frequently ate fish & meat with better quality bread in significant amounts.

Want to read more? Try these books!

Burgundy (Guides to Wines and Top Vineyards) The Wines of Burgundy by Clive Coates M. W.

Categories: Oldest Wine RegionsTags: , , , , , , By Published On: October 28, 2022Last Updated: February 26, 2024

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