Origins and Path of the Black DeathThe Black Death originated in China or Central Asia and was spread to Europe by fleas and rats that resided on ships and along the Silk Road. The Black Death killed millions in China, India, Persia (Iran), the Middle East, the Caucasus, and North Africa. To harm the citizens during a siege in 1346, Mongol armies may have thrown infected corpses over the city wall of Caffa, on the Crimean peninsula of the Black Sea. Italian traders from Genoa were also infected and returned home in 1347, introducing the Black Death into Europe. From Italy, the disease spread to France, Spain, Portugal, England, Germany, Russia, and Scandinavia.
Science of the Black DeathThe three plagues associated with the Black Death are now known to be caused by bacteria called Yersinia Pestis, which is carried and spread by fleas on rats. When the rat died after continual bites and replication of the bacteria, the flea survived and moved to other animals or humans. Although some scientists believe that the Black Death was caused by other diseases like anthrax or the Ebola virus, recent research which extracted DNA from the skeletons of victims suggests that Yersinia Pestis was the microscopic culprit of this global pandemic.
Types and Symptoms of the PlagueThe first half of the 14th century was marred by war and famine. Global temperatures dropped slightly, decreasing agricultural production and causing food shortages, hunger, malnutrition, and weakened immune systems. The human body became very vulnerable to the Black Death, which was caused by three forms of the plague. Bubonic plague, caused by flea bites, was the most common form. The infected would suffer from fever, headaches, nausea, and vomiting. Swelling called buboes and dark rashes appeared on the groin, legs, armpits, and neck. The pneumonic plague, which affected the lungs, spread through the air by coughs and sneezes. The most severe form of the plague was the septicemic plague. The bacteria entered the bloodstream and killed every person affected within hours. All three forms of the plague spread quickly due to overpopulated, unsanitary cities. Proper treatment was unknown, so most people died within a week after infection with the Black Death.
Death Toll Estimates of the Black DeathDue to poor or non-existent record-keeping, it has been difficult for historians and scientists to determine the true number of people that died of the Black Death. In Europe alone, it is likely that from 1347-1352, the plague killed at least twenty million people, or one-third of Europe’s population. The populations of Paris, London, Florence, and other great European cities were shattered. It would take approximately 150 years-into the 1500s- for Europe’s population to equal pre-plague levels. Initial plague infections and recurrences of the plague caused the world’s population to drop by at least 75 million people in the 14th century.
Unexpected Economic Benefit of the Black DeathThe Black Death finally lapsed in approximately 1350, and profound economic changes took place. Worldwide trade declined, and wars in Europe paused during the Black Death. People had abandoned farms and villages during the plague. Serfs were no longer tied to their previous plot of land. Due to a severe labor shortage, serf survivors were able to demand higher wages and better working conditions from their new landlords. This may have contributed to the rise of capitalism. Many serfs moved to cities and contributed to the rise in urbanization and industrialization.