The Bubonic Plague

The Bubonic plague was an infection transmitted to humans and other animals by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. It is carried by a specific type of flea, commonly known as a rat flea, that feeds on humans and animals. Humans can get bubonic plague from the bite of an infected flea, from the bite of a Y-pestis-infected animal, or from handling the carcass of an infected human/animal. Common symptoms of Bubonic plague include pain in the legs, arms, and abdomen; headache; Large and swollen lumps in the lymph nodes (buboes) that develop typically in the armpit and leak pus.

The infection spread throughout Europe and killed an enormous percentage of the population in the 14th-century. The disease also spread through the populations in Asia, and is believed to have originated somewhere in Asia. 

According to historical reports that reached Europe about the disease, 20 million people died in Asia.

According to current estimates, at least 25 million people died in Europe between 1347 and 1352. This amounted to nearly 40% of the population (some estimates go as high as 60 percent). Half of Paris’s 100,000-person population perished. In Italy, the population of Florence fell from 120,000 in 1338 to 50,000 in 1351. The Bubonic plague was a disaster unlike any other in recorded history, and it took 150 years to recover.

The Great Plague

Writers of the time often referred to the plague as the “Great Mortality.” For the first time, Swedish and Danish chronicles of the 16th  century described the unequivocally detestable events as “black,” most likely to refer to black as glum or dreadful, denoting the scourge of the time.

Bubonic Plague

Regarding the disputed origin of the plague, some historians and experts reported that in October 1347, a ship arrived in Messina, Sicily, from Crimea and Asia. It is widely believed that Yersinia pestis was carried by black rats that traveled on the ship. Once it arrived ashore, it spread mainly by person-to-person contact. The first case of the Bubonic Plague or the Black Death is said to have arrived in Lyon in April 1348.

The bubonic plague spread throughout Burgundy from Lyon. In the Burgundy village of Givry, the local friar, who used to record 28–29 funerals per year, recorded 649 deaths in 1348. Half of these deaths occurred in September alone. In Burgundy, all social classes were affected, though the lower classes, which lived together in unhygienic conditions, were the most vulnerable.

Research published on the spread of the plague suggests that the bubonic plague spread relied on two types of rodent populations: one type was resistant to Yersinia pestis and acted as a host, keeping the disease endemic, and the second type lacked resistance to Yersinia pestis, and were quickly killed.

When the vulnerable rodents died, the infected fleas would look for their next host, often humans and continue to spread the disease. In addition to rodents, the black rats were the first carrier of the plague-infected fleas thought to be responsible for the Black Death.

The plague affected all the classes of European society at that time. However, The only European monarch to die of the plague was Alfonso XI of Castile. But many family members of monarchs were killed.

Because of the size of France, certain areas were not immediately affected by the plague, which moved more slowly by land than by sea. Brittany and Auvergne were not reached until 1349, and some remote areas took until 1351. Tonnerre was the last part of France to be infected by the Black Death in 1352.

The spread of the plague caused panic throughout France, and people began looking for scapegoats. Rumors began to circulate that the plague was caused by people poisoning the wells to cause the plague and exterminate Christendom. Initially, these accusations were leveled at anyone who appeared suspicious simply because they were different or unidentified, particularly travelers (such as pilgrims and beggars), invalids, or people in possession of any kind of powder.

When the plague swept across Southern France, King Philip VI of France commissioned the University of Paris to create the ground-breaking work Compendium de Epidemia in response to the pandemic.

In April 1348, Louis Heyligen reported that people were executed in Avignon for well-poisoning. During the same month, Andre Benezeit, secretary of mayor Aymar of Narbonne, reported to the mayor of Gerona in Catalonia that many beggars had been arrested, tortured, and executed for well-poisoning in Narbonne, Carcassonne, and Grasse.

These accusations spread were eventually directed at the Jewish population. Pope Clement VI issued a condemnation of the Jewish persecutions during the Black Death, explaining that because the plague was a punishment of God himself, accusing the Jews of causing the spread was sinful, and declaring the Jews to be under his protection.

The plague had a wide-ranging impact on society. The plague doctors customized their uniforms to include an ankle-length coat, a mask with bird-like beak and glass eyeholes, gloves, and boots.

The beak could be filled with dried flowers (such as roses or carnations), herbs (such as mint), spices, camphor, or a vinegar sponge. The mask’s purpose was to cover up foul odors, which were thought to be the primary cause of the disease. To indicate their profession, they wore a wide-brimmed leather hat. They examined patients without touching them by using wooden sticks to highlight areas that needed attention.

The plague significantly changed the drinking habits of the population. Medical experts of the time suggested that beer was safer than water to boost resistance against the infection. Alcohol, according to modern doctors and medical writers, did work as a plague preventative in two ways.

First of all, it was thought that drinking beers, wines, and spirits would help to strengthen the body’s vital defensive organs, such as the brain, heart, and liver. They were encouraged first thing in the morning, with many critics proposing fortifying liquid plague breakfasts.

Also read:

Richard Kephale, a minister and medical writer, claimed in his 1665 plague treatise, Medela Pestilentiae, that it’s good “to drink a glass of Maligo [Malaga wine or port] in the morning against the infection.” (He also extolled the “inexpressible virtues of tobacco”.) Many formulas for the renowned ‘preventative’ and ‘cure’ for the plague included wine, spirits, and pharmaceutical herbs.

Secondly, moderate alcohol consumption was believed to enhance psychological power against the terrifying mental states which caused melancholy. It was suggested that melancholy makes individuals more prone to getting the plague.

Want to read more about wine? Try reading this book!

Bubonic, The Bubonic PlagueBubonic, The Bubonic Plague

Share This Story, Choose Your Platform!