The Black Death in Europe
The Black Death
The Black Death is the name given to a severe epidemic of bubonic and pneumonic plague that spread across Europe from about 1348 to about 1350. The plague originated in the Crimea and was brought westward on trading ships. It was highly infectious and was spread by flea and rat bites and by close contact with the infected. Symptoms included raging fever, delirium, aching joints, vomiting, and ugly, painful swellings in the armpits and groin. Very little could be done to make a sick person comfortable, let alone cure him or her. Most of the plague’s victims died within a week of catching the disease.
Historians estimate that the Black Death killed 30 to 60 percent of Europe’s population. The loss was highest in cities, where people were crowded together in unsanitary conditions: the populations of Florence, Paris, and London were cut in half. The death rate was comparatively lower in isolated rural areas, where there was less chance of infection.
Naturally, this was a time of terror throughout Europe. Medical science was at a primitive stage, and no one understood where the disease had come from or what caused it. Many people believed it was a sign that the world was coming to an end. People turned to the Church for help, as it was the universal authority of the time. However, the Church could do nothing to combat the epidemic. Priests who cared for the sick caught the plague and died like anyone else.
The Black Death helped to bring about the Renaissance in a number of ways. First, survivors began moving to cities looking for work as the disease receded. Cities grew larger as a result. Second, so many workers and artisans had died that those who were left found that their services were in greater demand. Third, people began to doubt that the Church was as omnipotent as it had always claimed to be. If it was so helpless in the face of real disaster, what power did the Church really have?
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