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13 Facts About The Black Death – The Deadliest Pandemic in Human History

Black Death

Today, when the world is finding itself in the throes of another global pandemic, COVID-19, people are trying to draw similarities with The Black Death, the deadliest pandemic in human history. Let us look at 13 astonishing facts about the black death.

1. The Black Death was a devastating global pandemic that struck Europe and Asia in the mid-1300s. 

Black death
Plague. Image credits: Nicolas Eustache Maurin/Wellcomecollection.org

Known widely as “The Black Death,” it started in China and spread across Europe and Asia piggybacking on the trade routes. Kipchak Khan Janibeg, the Mongol ruler from China, was in the middle of war trying to capture the port of Kaffa in Genoese in 1347. During the war, his army was attacked by an unknown assailant later called The Black Death.

The warships carried the disease west from Kaffa onto the Mediterranean ports. From there, the epidemic spread inwards into Sicily, North Africa, Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Austria, and other European countries. By the end of 1350, The Black Death had seized all of England and the Baltic countries. (1, 2)

2. The Black Death is believed to have been the result of plague, an infectious fever caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis

Bacteria Yersinia pestis
Bacteria Yersinia pestis.

The deadliest pandemic in human history is The Black Death, the common name for bubonic plague. Yersinia pestis, a highly virulent bacteria, is responsible for the disease. These bacteria are present in small animals and the fleas that infest them. When these infected fleas bite humans, they transfer the bacteria into humans. Inhalation and direct contact are two other ways a human can get infected.

Alexandre Yersin discovered the cause behind this plague. He found out that an extremely virulent rod-shaped bacterium, Yersinia pestis, was behind this atrocity. The bacteria, upon entering its host, first attacks the body’s defense mechanism – the macrophages. Once the body’s detection and protection mechanism are down, the bacteria grow unhindered. (1, 2, 3)

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3. In the patients of the plague, sores develop on the skin. These sores gradually turn the skin around them “black” giving the disease its infamous name of “The Black Death”.

couple suffering from black death
Depiction of a couple suffering from the blisters of The Black Death.

The early stage of the bubonic plague is marked by vomiting, nausea, and fever. The most common symptom at this stage is the appearance of buboes, swollen lymph nodes around the armpit, groin, and the neck. These sores eventually turn the skin black around them, giving the disease its infamous name, “The Black Death.” (1, 2, 3)

4. From doctors wearing special “plague costumes,” to lighting fires, not bathing, and killing cats, several measures and strange ideas were employed to avoid the plague.

Doctor in a plague costume.
Doctor in a plague costume.

The deadliest pandemic in the history of mankind caused widespread panic giving rise to a host of strange ideas and measures to tackle the disease. Charles de L’Orme, a French doctor, invented a special dress for the doctors called the “plague costume.” The dress was created with a light fabric coated with wax and came with a special mask.

The mask had openings for eyes that were covered with glass and a beak that contained a mixture of herbs, straw, and spices. The shape of the beak was kept slightly elongated and curved to give the passing air enough time to get cleansed by the mixture.

Orders were passed to keep the streets clean and flushed with water. Fires were lit in the streets and inside homes to cleanse the air. Additionally, it was believed that burning some aromatic substances such as resin, tar, turpentine, cedar, juniper, etc., would help to keep the disease at bay.

The Church, believing that the disease was the wrath of God, ordered people to pray to God for forgiveness. It further ordered the extermination of cats and dogs as they were thought of as carriers of the disease.

Some doctors even asked people to avoid bathing as it might open their body pores, making them more susceptible to The Black Death. (source)

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5. To prevent the spread of the plague, sick people were sealed inside their homes. They left the house either after being healed or dying of the disease.

Black death
Black plague depiction. Image credits: Wikimedia

A lot of preventive measures that we see today being used to fight the spread of COVID-19 were developed as countermeasures in the time of The Black Death. For instance, when the news of a plague-infected person reached the authorities, a doctor would visit the person at home. After confirmation, the patient, along with their families, were confined to their homes.

This home confinement carried on until either the patient healed or died. The doors of such sealed houses were painted red to warn people and marked with an inscription “Lord have mercy on us.” The dead were taken out during the night and ferried away to the pits. (1, 2)

6. During The Black Death, incoming ships were forced to wait for 40 days to prevent possible infection. The Italian word for 40, “Quaranta,” is where we get the word “quarantine.”

Ships quarantined
A medical officer examining a ship’s crew for bubonic plague. Image credits: Wellcomecollection.org

The word “quarantine” finds its origin in the Venetian word “quarantena,” meaning “40 days.” This was an isolation period that the people and ship had to practice at the time of the plague. According to a 1377 document recovered from modern-day Dubrovnik in Croatia, newcomers were made to spend 30 days (trientine) in a restricted area to see if they developed symptoms related to The Black Death.

The waiting period was increased to a total of 40 days by the Venetian state in 1448, giving rise to the term “quarantine.” According to some estimates, it is believed that the bubonic plague has a 37-day term from infection to death. This increased the efficiency of the quarantine in managing the outbreaks. Dubrovnik became the first city in all of Europe to set up quarantine sites. (source)

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