The period between 1350 and 1700 was one of the darkest in the history of humans. During this period, more than 100 epidemics swept across the entire world, claiming the lives of hundreds of millions of people. An estimate put that the death toll during this period would be around 75 million, with one-third in Europe alone.
Types of Plague
- There were three types of plague, namely bubonic, pneumonic, and septicemic plague. People affected by bubonic plague had swollen lymph nodes in the neck, groin, and armpits. Headache, vomiting, and fever were symptoms of this disease.
- In case of the pneumonic type, the affected person showed symptoms of reddish bloody and slimy sputum.
- The septicemic variety had the markings of disseminated intravascular coagulation (skin turning purple). An interesting part of the epidemic was that it could not be ascertained from where it all originated.
- Rise in food grain production in Europe: In the 13th century, Europe saw technological advancements in agriculture, such as heavy plow and three-field farming. This increased the productivity of farmlands. European soil was rich, fertile, and very nutritious for plant growth. Due to this exponential rise in food grain production, the life expectancy increased. Due to this, the population also increased. There had to be a bottleneck where the increase in population would overtake the technological advancements necessary to sustain the huge population. Cost of food grains escalated, and people started starving. Immune systems were compromised, and people became more susceptible to diseases.
- Migration: In addition to the population spurt, migration also became a problem. People from Egypt and the Mediterranean regions migrated to Europe for a better life, carrying with them rats and fleas infested with plague-causing bacteria. People who already suffered in Europe migrated away, some carrying diseases with them.
- Yersinia pestis: The research on dug-up corpses from that era points to the bacteria Yersinia pestis. It hitched a ride on the fleas, which hitched a ride on rats, which in turn hitched a ride on ships carrying grains to Europe. The disease-carrying rodents were also of two types: (i) One that was infected by the disease and affected by it; and (ii) the other that did not show any symptoms, effectively being a host. Either way, if a host died, the fleas would just find another host―in this case, humans.
- Absence of medical care: Medical procedures were non-existent then, and scientific acumen was frowned upon. The plague was described as pestilence in air, and people were advised to get away to places with better living conditions with sparse populations. In theory, it should have helped, but the migrating populations, in turn, carried the disease far and wide.
- Many artists and musicians made their observations of the symptoms that were noticed in the affected population. Some of the symptoms recorded were accurate, while some seem exaggerated, but understandable because of the palpable fear the disease created and the dramatic nature of the artists.
- They spoke about "egg-like bulbs" presenting itself near the groin area and blackened areas on the bodies which rotted away. They also wrote that the affected people had difficulty in breathing, and boils erupted under the armpits. The symptoms are similar to both bubonic and pneumonic varieties of plague. The presence of bulbs in the groin area is a popular symptom of bubonic plague, and the difficulty in breathing is a symptom of pneumonic plague.
- Blackening of the skin is necrosis, while the bulbs are nothing but swelling of lymph nodes. The affected people usually showed small bite marks and red rashes after death, giving evidence that fleas caused the propagation.
- One of the main consequences of the Black Plague was a reduction in population. Around 100 million people succumbed to it. The reduction in population figures was quite noticeable from one country to another. From a mere 20% to about 70 - 75% of the population in different countries lost their lives.
- The first and foremost effect of the plague was the incapacity of the government at that time. There was no medicine available for curing this sickness. People were seeing people dying daily. This led to the belief among different communities that this was due to God's anger.
- Naturally, one section of people thought the other group was responsible for the curse of God, resulting in fighting among different religious groups. Lepers, handicapped people, and anyone even remotely diseased were killed straightaway. People who practiced a different religion were accused of indulging in witchcraft and black magic. They were sentenced to hanging at once. Foreigners were also targeted. They were accused of bringing the disease and spreading them. Beggars were conveniently disposed off because of the filthiness they showed. People with acne and psoriasis were also killed.
- Apart from this, the Jewish community was badly affected. Christians rounded off on the Jews. Jews at that time were very hygienic people and kept themselves very clean. They also lived in close-knit societies and ghettos. This led the majority of the population to believe in a conspiracy theory that the Jews poisoned wells and water supplies in the cities.
- Millions of Jews were killed. The entire population was exterminated in the cities. By the time the effects of Black Plague seceded, the Jewish population in Europe was reduced by 80%. People realized later that it was not religion that caused the plague, neither was it the Gods, nor was it the Jews.
- The other effects include setting of pessimism among people and the fall of alchemy as a medicine. The habit of taking alcohol increased after the plague as the same was used by many as a remedy. Though medical facilities were inadequate during the plague, it led to the study of medicine, especially the anatomy of human body.
- Finally, plague has its own effects on the contemporary as well as modern literature. Poems, rhymes, write-ups, and essays on the same occupied the central stage.