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Black Death, epidemic of plague which ravaged Europe in the mid-14th century.

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Black Death, epidemic of plague which ravaged Europe in the mid-14th century. Various forms of plague were known in the civilized world since ancient times. Greek and Roman historians described outbreaks of an epidemic disease which were sudden and deadly: at Constantinople in the 6th century AD, for example, as much as half the population may have been killed. The outbreak which reached Europe from China in 1347, and spread rapidly and with disastrous results to most countries, has been given the name the Black Death, though contemporaries did not use this term. Epidemiology of the Black Death The plague bacillus affects wild rodents and their parasites, especially the black rat and its flea, Xenopsylla cheopis. A diseased rat, carrying the bacillae, may infect the flea which feeds on its blood, and in certain conditions the flea can carry the disease to human beings. It is thought by modern historians that this was the most common cause of the spread of the infection. There are two main forms of plague, of varying intensity. The more important is bubonic plague, which affects the lymph glands and leads to swellings (boils or "buboes") in the throat, underarm or, most commonly, in the groin. This type was very familiar to Europeans in the late Middle Ages and Early Modern period, and for those affected mortality ...read more.


In other areas of Europe the impact was much less, and later outbreaks of the disease did more damage. It is thought that the Low Countries, for example, largely escaped the Black Death, but were to suffer other outbreaks later. Responses to the Black Death Contemporaries were baffled by the disease, as well as inflating its impact. It was not until the early 20th century that it was fully understood and effective treatment made available. There was intense speculation as to the cause of the outbreak. Some believed that the corruption of the air, an invisible but deadly miasma proceeding from the ground, was responsible, and pointed to recent earthquakes which had released unhealthy vapours long trapped underground. Bad smells were of course a common feature of medieval life, and insanitary housing, rubbish tips, butchers' shambles, and stinking ditches-always of concern to the authorities-were especially unpopular when plague threatened. Particularly feared were victims' decomposing bodies, or their goods and clothing. In an early form of germ warfare, a plague-ridden army attempting to capture an enemy fortress would catapult decaying corpses into the town to infect the besieged. In well-run urban areas, the magistrates developed ways of dealing with the disease, although of course remaining unaware of the real causes of it. ...read more.


wages rose and landlords' rents fell, a sign of the difficulty in finding tenants and labourers when the pressure of excess population on resources was reduced. For those who survived these disastrous mortality crises, wages were higher and food prices lower a century after the Black Death than they had been before 1347. The living benefited, for a time, from the massive sacrifice of the dead. Plague remained endemic, when it was not epidemic, in Europe for the next three centuries, gradually disappearing in Britain after the Great Plague of 1664-1666. Most Western nations thereafter escaped major epidemics, although Marseille in 1720 was an exception. It did remain, however, in the Middle East and Asia, and precautions were taken to stop it spreading. The frontier between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire was to remain a cordon sanitaire, actively manned whenever there was an outbreak of the disease further east. The cause of the decline in the incidence of plague remains mysterious. It may have been associated with the brown rat superseding the black, and proving a lesser source of infected fleas; the improvement of housing and living conditions; or the development of immunity in humans, after centuries of infection. Medical advances, so important in the elimination of other fatal diseases in the modern world, seem in the case of plague to have had little to do with it. ...read more.

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