This week is plague week at Retrospectacle, and every day I will be posting something about the Black Plague.
The Black Plague was responsible for wiping out 1/3 of the population of Europe during the 1300s, and is considered one of the worst (is not THE worst) pandemic in recorded history. The plague was particularly feared due to its high infectiveness, low chance for survival, and ability to wipe out entire villages in a matter of weeks. Once infected, a patient died in a matter of days amidst much agony. The names for the Black Plague (in the 1300s) included the “Great Pestilence,” the “Great Death,” and the “Great Plague.” The terms “Black Plague” and “Black Death” were used for the first time in the 19th century.
During the worst outbreak in the 1300s, doctors were afraid to treat it, few scientists studied it and lived to report their findings. With no cure in sight, authorities relied on containing it best they could. Methods varied from housing victims together in ‘pest houses’ to locking people in their houses and waiting for them to die. Not that there wasn’t plenty of speculation on the causes of the plague.
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Various theories as to the origins of the plague abounded. At first, livestock or natural disasters were blamed for outbreaks, but as the amount of human misery became staggering, divine causes became popular. The pious believed that the Plague was punishment from God, sent to purge sinners and leave the innocent untouched. This unfortunately led to attacks on Jews, and in 1349 entire communities in Mainz and Cologne were exterminated, as well as 2,000 Jews in Strasbourg. Lepers and other people suffering from an obvious malady were also targeted, and other minority groups like foreigners, gypsies, and beggars were also singled out. In Egypt, women were blamed after religious lawyers informed the sultan that the plague was a result of God’s displeasure with rampant fornication. This led to women being unable to appear in public, lest they tempt men.
The route of transmission was another mystery. One theory was that ‘bad air’ or ‘miasmas’ were responsible, which led to people trying to sniff herbs or smelling salts to purge their air. The Catholic Church could neither explain nor cure the pestilence, and lost much credibility as a result (although some people did take to flagellating themselves as a penance to avoid the plague). The consumption of alcohol rose dramatically during the Plague (for various reasons) and was considered a remedy, as was coffee. The gemstone citrine was also considered a talisman to ward off the Plague, also ineffectual. While tens of thousands of cats and dogs were culled, no one thought that controlling the rat population might reduce infection.
It wasn’t until the end of the 19th century, in 1894, that the infectious organism responsible for the Plague was identified. Two research teams – one led by the Japanese scientist Shibasaburo Kitasato and the other by the Frenchman Alexandre Yersin, a former pupil of Louis Pasteur – simultaneously isolated the bacillus Pasteurella pestis (now called Yersinia pestis, picture at right) that is thought to be responsible for the Plague. It was a disease of rodents and was spread by their fleas. As the rats died, the fleas would frantically look for new hosts, jumping on human beings. Later experiments illustrated how virulent the Plague really was: mice died after being infected with just three bacilli, and fleas can disgorge up to 24,000 in one bite.
Three main ‘types’ of Plague were then identified– bubonic, septicaemic, and pneumonic–which varied by the entrance of the infection. Bubonic plague entered a human via the lymph system and was characterized by ‘buboes’ (swelling of lymph nodes). Septicaemic plague resulted when the bacillus entered the bloodstream directly, and was almost always fatal. Pneumonic plague was the most deadly, and could be acquired without a flea-bite, by breathing the bacillus into the lungs.
There is some recent controversy that Pasteurella pestis is not the actual bacillus involved in the Black Plague. But, you’ll have to wait until Part 2 to hear about it!