The Black Death

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Oskar Jagstedt

Oskar Jagstedt 16 år

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Stockholm, Sweden
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High School : Kunskapsskolan
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Introduction

The plague, also known as the Black Death, was one of the most devastating pandemic diseases to ever infect and affect mankind. Historians estimate that this terrifying and unmerciful sickness killed roughly one third of the entire human race during its peak of lethality, between the 1300s and 1400s. The way such a, at it’s core, simple disease has managed to pull humanity to the brink of extinction is fascinating to me and many other people around the globe, because it shows how desperate certain people would become to find an answer to the killing, and I believe that it’s important to look back in time and analyse the events that have gone by to properly understand how to prepare for a possible future epidemic of a similar caliber. I’m not strictly talking about how we would try to cure the disease, but also how to provide safety for the people affected and how to manage the inevitable chaos that would arise. In addition, it’s also compelling to analyse just how this deadly leviathan of a bacteria actually managed to spread and infect its victims, along with what symptoms would arise and how the society would react to it.

 

The History

But let’s back up for a moment and see where this contagion came from, and how it managed to spread at such a rapid, and destructive, pace. The black death is said to originate from China, where the first couple of outbreaks happened between 1331 and 1334. Via merchants travelling in and out of the country, the disease would later be carried out of the country and infect other, unsuspecting, victims. The disease soon after that end up in Europe, 1347 to be exact, because of a fair amount of presumably sick sailors docking at the Sicilian port of Messina.

 

Twelve Genoese ships would arrive in October 1347 with mostly dead or fatally ill shipmates, clutching onto their very own lives. The people on board were covered in big black-tinted warts and boils, spewing and oozing blood. The remains of the crew, who were still alive, were run over with severe fevers and an inconceivable amount of physical pain. The citizens and authorities at land were quick enough to be aware of the problem at hand, and quickly sent out the ships out on the open seas. However, their efforts were futile, as the plague was already infecting the people of this little port.

 

Before long, the disease would spread further, starting with the port of Marseilles and the port of Tunis. It wasn’t until it reached heavily populated cities such as Rome and Florence where it would start infecting people much quicker and in much more brutal ways. That was particularly because of the increasingly intertwining trading routes where the sickness was able to continue to spread in much more efficient ways. This would cause mass hysteria in massive amount of parts in Europe, where the cities would become increasingly more difficult to rule over and many would reach a state of anarchy, where common law started being ignored and the citizens would do whatever they could to be able to spare their own life.

 

It would soon thereafter reach Sweden in 1350, where similar catastrophes would be experienced by the local people. After the sickness had reached it’s peak and started to dwell down a fair bit into the obscurity, the results that scientist have now dug up show that roughly one third of the entire Europe population had passed away. However, that doesn’t mean that the disease would go extinct. It would continue to commit murder to citizens all over the world. Although the bacteria is still active, it’s mostly persisted to stay in rural regions in Africa and on occasion, Asia as well.

 

In fact, it was reported by WHO in 2013 that there had been 783 cases of people being affected by the black death, including 126 deaths. However, because many of the people infected were living in rural environments (where the inhabitants are typically isolated), that number could be missing a decent amount of people.

 

Dissecting the plague

The bacteria, known by many as the Black Death and officially named Yersinia pestis, first started spreading by finding a rodent as it’s host (although typically rats) and living inside it. Because a hefty amount of rats had developed a resistance towards it, they did not get affected by the symptoms and as such was a prime carrier for it. The fleas wouldn’t be able to extract the bacteria, the reason being that the bacteria would create a certain toxin which in turn made it impossible for the flea to swallow the blood, the reason being that their abdomen was being blocked.

 

Because of the poor living conditions and at times abysmal socio economic living conditions, the rats were able to easily make their way into the villages and cities. When the fleas had then gathered enough blood, they would later find a suitable human to prey upon. When they had settled in, they would first bite and in turn vomit up their stored blood which would naturally infect their unsuspecting host.

 

The disease itself travels along the open tissue of the flea’s bite, and without further notice completely decimates the body’s immune system, making it able to carry out its symptoms without any white blood cells stopping it in it’s track. Almost instantly after being infected with this horrific bacteria the carrier would be able to notice the symptoms appearing all over the body.

 

There exists three common types of the plague, bubonic plague, septicemic plague along with pneumonic plague, which appear because of several different reasons depending on where the bacteria managed to spread to.

 

The most common type of the plague, the bubonic plague, is a result of a flea spreading the disease via a simple bite, where the bacteria affects the tissue of the said bite. Once inside the body, it can access the lymphatic system (primarily responsible for keeping the immune system in check) which drains interstitial fluids. It also creates several toxins, one of which is known to cause beta-adrenergic blockade, which can be very lethal. The characteristic “bobos” (black-tinted boils) appear when the bacteria manage to reach the lymph nodes, causing them to expand.

 

The second type of plague, septicemic plague, can appear if the bubonic type of plague manage to reach the bloodstream, which is fairly likely considering the lymphatic system is connected to it. The bacteria can now reach out to almost any part of the body where it typically affects the body’s clotting resources by releasing bacterial endotoxins. This in turn makes it so that the body now longer can control bleeding and consequently resulting in bleeding into the skin along with the carrier vomiting or coughing up blood.

 

The last common type of the plague, pneumonic plague, occurs with the an infection of the lungs. This can either happen because of the the bubonic type of plague, with the bacteria travelling to the lungs by itself, or by airborne droplets containing bacteria. By sneezing or coughing (two very common symptoms of the disease, along with headache and weakness), these droplets can be spread to other potential victims. If left untreated for a couple of days, it wasn’t uncommon for many of the infected to start coughing or vomiting up blood. This blood is typically the liquefied remains of the, back then, functional lungs, which the bacteria has processed thoroughly.

 

The Consequences

Despite everything absolutely gruesome, abhorrent and generally terrible about the black death, there were other consequences related to it, both good and bad, that weren’t related to the body count at the time. For example, the survivors of this pandemic found a much more comfortable time when it came to working. Because of the large number of people dying during this time, labor was scarce and much sought after. Salaries increased significantly and land was plentiful, meaning that mere peasants would be able to be deemed important to society, as workforce was incredibly limited.

 

I feel it’s also worth noting that not only were humans affected by this despicable sickness, but common animals as well. Pigs, sheep and cows were all examples on animals that not only were as vulnerable to the disease as man, but also as lethal to it. In fact, several societies were suffering from a wool crisis back then, mainly because sheep were becoming less and less common. This ‘golden age’ of laborers and peasants would later end, as the the human population increased in numbers and lowered the demand for common workers.

 

Religion also took a major part in how humans reacted during this time of misery. Since almost nobody had any idea on why the plague spread the way it did, people were coming up with their own, almost entirely biased, hypothesis on why people were dying so rapidly. Since Christianity was the biggest religion in Europe at the time, many thought that the black death was the result of God’s divine punishment onto mankind, for the supposed sins of blasphemy, greed and heresy the people on Earth had committed.

 

Continuously, the believers of this tried everything in their might to redeem themselves and mankind by blaming the supposed troublemakers of the time, including non-believers but mostly Jews. Because of this there was a massacre on Jews between 1948 and 1949, leading to many Jews deciding to move to Eastern Europe, where they’d be be safe from the furious mob back where they lived previously.

 

In addition to what I’ve already mentioned, art as a whole was also heavily influenced by the tragedies of the time. Since it was a morbid time, many became pessimistic towards society and tried expressing it in other forms that didn’t require speaking, such as art and literature. Many paintings and books depict the time as horrid as it can be. An example of such a work is Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting, the Triumph of Death, where a large field is littered with suffering humans and animals, desperately grasping onto their last breath as they soon crumble.

 

Moving onto a more positive note, the medicine industry was also affected by this terrible sickness, but in a more positive manner. Despite the notable shortcomings of the medicine during the pandemic, people became more aware of the need for proper doctors. As David herlihy describes in his book ‘The Black Death’, anatomy became a much more bigger and researched topic. Investigations and operations on the human body would ensue, where doctors would directly look at the body in various state of diseases and health. Not only that, surgeons would become more prominent and more sought after by the general masses.

 

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Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Death https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plague_(disease) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Triumph_of_Death https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consequences_of_the_Black_Death#Cultural_impact https://sv.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pest https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bubonic_plague https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pneumonic_plague https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Septicemic_plague History: http://www.history.com/topics/black-death Historiska: http://historiska.se/upptack-historien/artikel/digerdoden/ Historytoday: http://www.historytoday.com/ole-j-benedictow/black-death-greatest-catastrophe-ever Who: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs267/en/ (2016-08-26)

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Oskar Jagstedt [2016-10-04]   The Black Death
Mimers Brunn [Online]. http://mimersbrunn.se/article?id=59884 [2017-11-21]

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