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Black Death

The Black Death (also The Plague, and latterly Black Plague though not called this in earlier times) was a devastating epidemic in Europe in the 14th century which is estimated to have killed about a third of the population. Most scientists believe that the Black Death was an outbreak of bubonic plague, a dreaded disease that has spread in pandemic form several times through history. The plague is caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis which is spread by fleas with the help of animals like the black rat (Rattus rattus) -what we would call today the sewer rat. Sometimes, the term "Black Death" is used for all outbreaks of plague and epidemics.


It is not entirely clear where the major epidemic of the 14th century started, but it was probably somewhere around the northern parts of India. It then spread west to the Middle East. The plague was imported to Europe by the way of the Crimea, where the Genoese colony Kaffa (Feodosiya) was besieged by the Mongols. History says that the Mongols catapulted infected cadavers1 into the city. The refugees from Kaffa then took the plague along to Messina, Genoa and Venice, around the turn of 1347/1348. Some ships didn't have anyone alive when they reached their port. From Italy the disease spread clockwise around Europe, hitting France, Spain, England (in June 1348) and Britain, Germany, Scandinavia and finally north-western Russia around 1351.


The information about the death toll varies widely from source to source, but it is estimated that about a third of the population of Europe died from the outbreak in the mid-1300s. Approximately 25 million deaths occurred in Europe alone with many others occurring in Africa and Asia. Some villages were deserted with the few survivors fleeing and spreading the disease further.

The great population loss brought economic changes based on increased social mobility as depopulation eroded peasant obligations (already weakened) to remain on their traditional holdings. The sudden scarcity of cheap labor provided an incentive for innovation that broke the stagnation of the Dark Ages and, some argue, caused the Renaissance, despite the Renaissance occurring in some areas (such as Italy) before others . Because of the depopulation, though, the surviving Europeans became the biggest consumers of meat for a civilization before industrial agriculture.

The popular legend that the Black Death inspired one of the most enduring nursery rhymes in the English language, Ring around a rosie, a pocket full of posies, / Ashes, ashes, we all fall down. (or a-tishoo, a-tishoo, we all fall down) turns out on closer examination to be false. However it did lead to the displacement of French with English.

See also Danse macabre, Decameron, flagellant, pogrom.

1 A cadaver is another name for a corpse or body.

Alternative explanations

Recently the scientists Susan Scott and Christopher Duncan from Liverpool University have proposed the theory that the Black Death might have been caused by an Ebola-like virus, not a bacterium. Their rationale is that this plague spread much faster and the incubation period was much shorter than the plagues caused by Yersinia pestis. It also took place in completely ratless areas like Iceland. It was transferred between humans (which happens rarely with Yersinia pestis), and some genes that determine immunity to Ebola-like viruses are much more widespread in Europe than in other parts of the world.

In a similar train of thought, historian Norman F. Cantor, in his 2001 book In the Wake of the Plague, suggests the Black Death might have been a combination of pandemics including a form of anthrax, a cattle murrain. Among the evidence he cites are reported disease symptoms not in keeping with the known effects of either bubonic or pneumonic plague; the discovery of anthrax spores in a plague pit in Scotland, and the fact that meat from infected cattle was known to have been sold in many rural English areas prior to the onset of the plague.

Moreover, what was previously considered to be final evidence for the Yersinia pestis theory, tooth pulp tissue taken from a 14th century plague cemetery in Montpellier containing Y. pestis DNA, was never confirmed in any other cemetery.

There are counter-arguments to this theory, however. Historical examples of pandemics of other diseases in populations not previously exposed, such as smallpox and tuberculosis amongst American Indians, show that because there is no inherited adaptation to the disease, its course in the first epidemic is faster and far more virulent than later epidemics amongst the descendants of survivors. The Middle East and Far East were affected equally badly (as the Rihla of Ibn Battuta testifies), so the prevalence of immunity genes specifically in Europeans is curious. Furthermore, the plague returned again and again and was recognised as the same disease through succeeding centuries into modern times when the Yersinia bacterium was identified.

In September 2003, a team of researchers from Oxford University revealed the surprising results of tests made on 121 teeth from 66 skeletons found in 14th century mass graves. The remains showed no genetic trace of Yersinia pestis, and the researchers suggest that the Montpellier study might have been flawed.

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