Impact of the Black Death Pandemic on Burgundy

The Bubonic Plague —also called the Black Death—first engulfed Europe in October of 1347. This dreadful plague originated when twelve ships from the Black Sea placed their docks at the Sicilian port of Messina. These vessels had traveled from Italy to Marseille. The local individuals who had gathered to witness these vessels from the docks were met with a horror scene.

The majority of the sailors aboard the vessels had died. The ones still breathing were very sick, and they had boils that oozed pus and blood. It was the start of the bubonic plague, also known as the Black Death, which prevailed in France between 1347 and 1352. It first spread through Southern France, followed by Northern France. After reaching Dijon, the Bubonic Plague had become a major catastrophe in the form of an epidemic in Burgundy. It was so infectious that it could be transmitted by a bite of an infected flea or exposure to an infected material.

The most common symptoms were tender and swollen lymph glands that were termed buboes. Other symptoms included vomiting, chills,  diarrhea, fever, and aches that would ultimately result in death. The infection could spread to the lungs if left untreated. According to an estimate, nearly half of the population in Western Europe was wiped out at the end of this ferocious plague in 1352.

Some research studies claim that the Black Death claimed close to 20 million lives in Europe in four years – 30 to 40% of Europe’s population. People had no scientific understanding of the disease during the epidemic, but they realized that it had something to do with proximity. Today, scientists have discovered that the Bubonic Plague is actually caused by a bacillus termed Yersinia Pestis.

Shortly after striking Messina, the Black Death arrived in Marseilles in France. It eventually reached Florence and Rome, which were major cities at the center of trade routes. By 1348, the plague had struck all major cities across Europe, including London, Lyon, Paris, and Bordeaux. Surprisingly, the plague had also struck Syria, China, Egypt, India, and Persia in 1345.

All the way from Lyon, the plagues affected all of Burgundy. The intensity of the disease was so severe that in the village of Givry in Burgundy, nearly half of its population died between August and November of 1348. The Burgundy region in France has been historically known for a specific type of wine that could be white or red.

In Dijon, the capital of Burgundy, the death rate was recorded as 15.1% for the 2,149 registered heads of households. During those days, Paris was the most prominent European city, with a population of close to 200,000 individuals. The famous French author Jean de Venette confirmed in June 1348 that the plague had reached Roissy close to Gonesse. He reported that 16,000 individuals had lost their lives in Saint-Denis.

Moreover, approximately 800 individuals died in Paris daily from November to December in 1348, while nearly 500 bodies were carried from Hôtel-Dieu, Paris, for mass burial. Many nuns and sisters serving to attend the sick people had also died along with them. The pandemic remained prevalent in Paris until January 1349.

Similarly, the presence of the Black Death was also noticed in Normandy during the feast of John the Baptist held on 24 June 1348. In the Normandy region, the plague had swept away lives in countless small & remote villages. Any village plagued by Black Death would raise a black flag to warn the incomers not to enter the village to avoid any contraction with the pandemic. In the Northern parts of France, the plague struck the city of Tournai by August 1349. Consequently, the religious clerics created many controversies in the city by not incorporating scientific and rational factors.

Instead, they announced that God had sent the Black Death pandemic as a punishment for the crimes and sins committed by humanity. As a result, the authorities decided to prohibit any activities regarded as sins, including forced marriages, gambling, and drinking.

Due to the massive geographical terrain of France, the plague could not reach certain regions of the country. The infections would pervade more slowly through land than by oceans. For instance, cities like Auvergne and Brittany were not affected by the plague until 1349, and many remote French regions were not affected until 1351. Eventually, the plague reached the last French regions by 1352.

In the following years, the plague would return in the form of different waves. However, the authorities in Ragusa were finally able to contain the spread by creating social distancing regulations and putting the incoming sailors into isolation camps until they were declared healthy and safe to interact with the society.

They were usually held for one month in their vessels to complete their quarantine period, which was later extended to 40 days. If a vessel was considered as suspected, the period could be further increased. Many different forms of plague kept returning to Europe until the 18th century, resulting in fewer deaths each time. In 1720, the Great Plague of Marseille was declared the final epidemic of the Bubonic Plague in France.

In Burgundy, the tally of new infections and the corresponding death rates began to increase significantly as the regional economy dwindled due to instability and social uncertainty. Consequently, the authorities launched an elaborate misinformation campaign by hiring doctors and health professionals to declare the plague as a malignant fever instead of taking emergency measures to contain the disease.

Nearly three months after the first reported cases in Marseille, the authorities decided to respond appropriately to prevent the spread of the disease. These measures included food & aid distribution, quarantine facilities, the prompt burial of corpses, setting up trade embargoes, and persistent campaigns of disinfection using herbs, fire, vinegar, and smoke.

Between 1348 and 1350, the Burgundy region had become devoid of any space to bury the dead due to the pandemic. It was an unprecedented situation for the citizens and authorities. According to some studies, Black Death remained the deadliest epidemic in the history of Burgundy in terms of the total number of deaths. To get an event of similar proportion, one can imagine a nuclear war. The spread of the plague induced a great panic across Burgundy, and people started searching for scapegoats.

For instance, many rumors were spread to misinform the general public that the plague was actually caused by some miscreants who had poisoned the wells in order to terminate Christianity. Consequently, the false accusations would target any weak members of society or any travelers arriving from other cities. Later on, it was discovered that the most prominent target of such rumors and social upheaval was the Jewish population in Burgundy.

To counter this widespread rumor, Pope Clement VI had to announce a public condemnation of the persecution of Jewish people during the pandemic. He declared the plague as a punishment inflicted upon the people by God. Hence, it was totally wrong and unjust to accuse the Jewish people. He also added the Jews under his personal protection.

After the pandemic had ended, many survivors considered its impact favorable, as the massive workforce reduction had created high demand for labor and other job opportunities. The plague transformed the lifestyle of entire communities, families, and individuals. Moreover, it highly influenced the region’s social, political, and socioeconomic conditions.

Countless theaters befell empty, and graveyards became full of deceased people, while the Burgundy streets were rumbled with wagons of death on a daily basis. The infection was so fast and tragic that the infected individuals could seamlessly pass the disease to the health folks – even through brief interaction. Any social conversation, near encounter with a sick, and touching their clothes could all result in a severe infection that could lead to death.

Many ongoing wars were stopped, and trade activities were reduced during the pandemic years. Another consequence was the reduction of cultivated land due to a disproportionate number of laborers’ deaths. Due to an extreme shortage of skilled workers, peasants and artisans, their wages had significantly increased. Despite the death of half of the region’s population, the survivors in Burgundy were left with more resources.

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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.

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