The Black Death raged across Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia in the mid 14th century. Families were thrown into chaos, the Catholic church faced dissension in its ranks, and townships struggled to provide services and control infection. The sheer ubiquity of death even fostered an artistic genre: the danse macabre, which reminded young and old, rich and poor, healthy and sick alike that all would be made equal in death. For this episode in our Death series, what better topic than the Black Death itself?

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Transcript for Black Death:

Sarah: In 1349, a thirty-six year old Florentine man named Giovanni Boccaccio started work on what he believed was his masterpiece: a collection of novellas called The Decameron. In the book, a small group of young people – seven women and three men – flee from Florence to the rural outskirts of the city. To pass the time, each member of the party takes a turn telling a story to amuse the rest of the group. The group isn’t just in the rural region of Fiesole to enjoy a break from city life, but rather to escape the plague.

Boccaccio – likely writing from his own experience living in the city when the deadly disease hit in 1348 – started the book by describing the situation the plague caused in Florence. People, both rich and poor, were confined to their homes without any hope of friends or physicians coming to their aid. Boccaccio writes: “Being confined to their own parts of the city they fell ill in their thousands, and since they had no one to assist them or attend to their needs, they inevitably perished almost without exception. Many dropped dead in the open streets, both by days and night, whilst a great many others, though dying in their own houses drew their neighbor’s attention to the fact more by the smell of their rotting corpses than by any other means. And what with these, and the others who were dying all over the city, bodies were here, there, and everywhere.”

Averill: After a dead body was discovered, Boccaccio wrote, it was taken out of the house and simply left on the front doorstep until local men with a bier (sort of a flat cart) could come and take the body away. “It was by no means rare for more than one of these biers to be seen with two or three bodies upon it at a time, on the contrary, many were seen to contain a husband and wife, two or three brothers and sisters, a father and son, or some other pair of close relatives. At times it happened that two priests would be on their way to bury someone, holding a cross before them, only to find that bearers carrying three or four additional. Biers would fall in behind them, so that whereas the priests had thought they had only burial to attend to, they in fact had six or seven, and sometimes more.”

Giovanni Boccaccio, engraved y Raffaello Sanzio Morghen | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: What Boccaccio was describing wasn’t just any epidemic: it was the Black Death, the virulent disease that had made its way from the lands of the Golden Horde in eastern Europe to the Mediterranean ports of the Italian peninsula. The disease rampaged around Europe between 1347 and 1353, killing by some estimates as many as 60% of the population of the British Isles and European continent. As we see in Boccaccio’s descriptions of Florence during the first wave of the plague, the rate of death was overwhelming, to graveyards and to priests performing funerals, yes, but it was also overwhelming to medicine, social systems, and religious structures. Families were thrown into chaos, the Catholic church faced dissension in its ranks, and townships struggled to provide services and control infection. The sheer ubiquity of death even fostered an artistic genre: the danse macabre, which reminded young and old, rich and poor, healthy and sick alike that all would be made equal in death. For this episode in our Death series, what better topic than the Black Death itself?

I’m Sarah

and I’m Averill

and we are your historians for this episode of Dig

Sarah: It might seem backwards to start the story of the Black Death – a medieval epidemic – in the nineteenth century (and it’s not just that it’s the best century), but I think it’s useful to understand just what it is that caused the disease. The Black Death was an outbreak of what historians and doctors now call the bubonic plague, a zoonotic disease caused by bacteria transferred through the mouthparts of fleas. (Zoonotic means that the disease originated in animals and was shared with humans.) But no one knew that that was what caused the Black Death until the end of the nineteenth century. After Louis Pasteur’s breakthrough disproving the miasma theory and Robert Koch’s innovation in bacteriology in the mid-late 19th century, it was suddenly possible for scientists to identify the cause of diseases. There had been little outbreaks of the plague, particularly in Asia, throughout the 19th century, but in 1894, there was a serious epidemic in Canton, a region in China. Something like 50,000-100,000 people died during the epidemic, which was closely followed by another epidemic in British-held Hong Kong. Terrified the plague would spread, European and Japanese doctors went to Hong Kong to study the disease.

Averill: In June 1894, Alexandre Yersin, a French bacteriologist, and Kitasato Shibasaburo, a Japanese bacteriologist, traveled in Hong Kong to study the disease. There had been suspicion about the fact that there had been a ton of dead black rats in Hong Kong in rrecent months, and Yersin and Shibasaburo suspected it might be connected to the outbreak. Within just a few weeks, they identified bacteria in both the blood of plague sufferers and in dead rats. While both scientists were involved in its discovery, the bacterium was ultimately named for Yersin: yersenia pestis. It was also Yersin who connected the dead rats to the bacteria causing the plague in humans, saying “It is probably that the rats constitute the principle vehicle.” Identifying the bacteria was a huge breakthrough, but it didn’t actually solve the mystery of how the bacteria traveled from rat to human – did it travel through the air, like we know that hantavirus does today? In 1903, during another outbreak in Bombay, a British entomologist named Glen Liston observed that many of the plague patients in a certain overcrowded apartment building had fleas – but they weren’t people fleas, they were a particular kind of fleas that only liked black rats. In 1905, in reaction to the outbreak in India, the British government put together the Indian Plague Commission, which was tasked with determining how the disease was spread, and Glen Liston joined it.

Sarah: Liston’s place on the Commission likely influenced just how much emphasis the group placed on investigating the role the flea had in the whole thing. One of the first things they discovered was that the bacteremia (or the level of bacteria in the blood) of people was small – which made it really unlikely that fleas were carrying the disease from person to person. On the other hand, they found that bacteremia in rats was super high – meaning it must be moving from rat, to flea, to person. But how exactly was it doing that? At first, the Commission suspected that it transmitted plague in the same way that lice transmitted the typhus virus – to make a long story short, the disease passed through the louse’s body and was excreted into its poop. When someone scratched at the itch from the louse bite, they ended up scratching the poop into the bite wound, entering the virus into their bloodstream. But the researchers found that while yersenia pestis survived the journey through the flea’s digestive system, and wasn’t strong enough to do any harm after it was pooped out. Then, they thought maybe it was getting stuck on the flea’s proboscis, but the bacteria were so large they didn’t stick around. Eventually, with close study of flea digestive systems, the Commission determined that what was happening was that fleas would drink blood from a rat, filling up its stomach (which, yes, scientists, I know is not called a stomach, I’m trying to make this simpler!) which is then closed by a little flap. The flap keeps all that blood in the tummy, otherwise it would all be shoved back out because it’s essentially pressurized. But the bacteria reproduce so quickly that it creates a blockage. Later, when the flea goes to feed again – say, on a human – it’s forced to regurgitate just a little bit of that blockage in order to suck up more blood, which, of course, injects the bacteria and starts the infection.

Averill: Once it’s in your blood stream, the bacillus reproduces extremely rapidly, making the immune system go insane. Typically, the body would attempt to neutralize and isolate the germ into the lymphatic system; but the bacillus overwhelms the system, causing blood poisoning, causing a rapid onset high fever. As the body tries to isolate the germ into the lymph nodes, the nodes swell and swell and swell, causing what are called buboes, or extremely swollen lymph nodes that’s why it’s called the bubonic plague! These buboes are usually on the groin, but can also be in the armpits or neck, depending on where the flea bites you. It’s possible that if that if the lymphatic system is energetic enough, it can control the infection, but more often, the germ overloads the system. As your body tries to fight the infection, you get a raging fever, become increasingly weak, and generally becoming dehydrated and delirious. Within a couple of days, the person dies of septicemia. Depending on your health at the time of infection and your age, etc. without really strong antibiotics, you would typically die in about 7-10 days. This variant – the bubonic plague – is not all that contagious because it’s not passed from person to person. (For instance, it’s not like the flu, being passed as you cough, or like ebola, passed through bodily fluids.) Instead, it’s almost always spread through the flea. It’s possible to spread from human to human, but only under certain situations – you would need to come into direct contact with blood or pus, which typically would only happen to doctors Bubonic plague is the most common variant, but it can manifest in other ways. Septicemic plague occurs when the amount of bacteria delivered by the flea is particularly large, and it is able to multiply so quickly that it overloads the system, killing a patient within just a couple of days, without the time to develop buboes Pneumonic plague occurs when the bacteria happens to collect in the lungs, where the bacillus infects the lung tissue, and like septicemic plague, it kills very rapidly. Pneumonic plague is highly contagious, because it causes the victim to cough a lot, spreading the disease as it becomes airborne – but in most cases, it doesn’t actually spread the disease much because the person is made so sick so quickly, they don’t have much opportunity to spread the disease. Just to be clear, these are all the same bacteria – yersenia pestis – but just different ways that it affects your body.

Sarah: How do we know that the Black Death was this particular disease? Well, first of all, archaeologists and scientists have done extensive DNA studies on bodies in Black Death burial grounds, and have proven the presence of yersenia pestis genomes in those remains. In fact, one study published in the journal Cell (written by 32 co-authors) reported that microbiologists discovered traces of yersenia pestis in the bones of Bronze Age people who died around 5000 years ago. But there’s also strong evidence in written sources from the Black Death. Louis Heyligen, the Flemish monk and musician, wrote that there were three forms of plague, describing with surprising accuracy the pneumonic, septicemic, and bubonic strains. A French friar wrote in 1360 that “most who fell ill lasted little more than two or three days, but died suddenly as if in the midst of health – for someone who was healthy one day could be dead and buried the next. Lumps suddenly erupted in their armpits or groin, and their appearance was an infallible sign of death.” Greek scholar Critobulous wrote that for those with plague in Constantinople, “the disease settles in the groin, a symptom that appears more or less clearly.” To put it simply, the descriptions left by those who lived through it match up really well with the symptoms that modern science attributes to yersenia pestis. Then again, not all historians agree – Susan Scott and Christopher Duncan have theorized that the plague in England wasn’t yersenia pestis at all, but a hemorrhagic fever caused by a virus, and since English sources are a little more vague about the symptoms, who knows? (You might be picking up that the historiography on the Black Death is massive and there is tons of debate – not just between historians, but also between archaeologists and microbiologists.)

Averill: Now that we know what the plague is and how it spreads, we can finally start to explore the history of how bacteria-laden fleas caused those mass graves in places like Florence. The outbreak that historians now call the Black Death began its rampage across Europe in 1347, but as scientists have now proved, it existed for centuries before that. There’s evidence of what seems like plague in the Bible, in 1 Samuel in the Old Testament, the author describes a moment during the war between the Philistines and Israelites where an epidemic raged. “The head of the Lord was against the city,” the author wrote, “with a very great destruction, and he smote the men of the city, both small and great, and they had emerods in their secret parts … the hand of God was very heavy there.” Historians have debated the meaning of the word ‘emerods’ here. Many Hebrew scholars have asserted that the word emerod in Hebrew, in conjunction with another word used with it, olafim, meant swelling. Since the swelling was in the private parts, or groin, and later in 1 Kings there are descriptions of cities overrun with rodents, it has seemed pretty clear that these ancient cities were affected by the plague. Others suggested that it actually referred to hemorrhoids, specifically suggesting that the epidemic was actually a kind of dysentery that caused hemorrhoids. (Yes, this was purely because the word emerod and hemorrhoid sound similar.) This seems really unlikely, largely because – as many military physicians have pointed out – dysentery doesn’t really cause hemorrhoids, and while dysentery is deadly, hemorrhoids are not. Archaeological evidence also suggests large numbers of black rats in the region, so it seems likely the sickness affecting the Philistines was plague.

Sarah: There’s more evidence that the famed physicians of the ancient world also knew about the plague. The Hippocratic corpus, the ancient medical text written by several doctors all under the name of Hippocrates, the probably mythical Greek physician, described isolated incidence of what seems likely to be the plague. Other Greek medical writers, like Rufus of Ephesus, wrote about outbreaks of disease that were even more clearly plague with specific reference to the characteristic lymphatic swellings of the bubonic plague: “The buboes that are called pestilential, are very acute, and very fatal, especially those which one may encounter unexpectedly in Libya, Egypt, and Syria, and which they say were accompanied by high fever, agonizing pain, severe constitutional disturbance, delirium, and appearance of large, hard buboes that did not suppurate [secrete pus], not only in the usual regions of the body, but also the back of the knee and in the bend of the elbow, where, as a rule, similar fevers do not cause their formation.” And there was a plague pandemic long before the outbreak of the Black Death in 1346. The first pandemic of the plague wasn’t the Black Death, but the Plague of Justinian, named for Justinian I, emperor of the Byzantine Empire from 527-565. This pandemic ravaged the Byzantine Empire and Persia between 541-767 in fifteen separate outbreaks. (Side note: a pandemic is a series or group of epidemics.) The Justinian plague pandemic began in Constantinople (Istanbul) in 541-542, and at its peak, killed somewhere around 5000 people a day in the city. Paul the Deacon, a historian-monk living in Italy at the time of the Justinian plague wrote, “everywhere there was grief and everywhere tears. For as common report had it that those who fled would avoid the plague, the dwelling were left deserted by their inhabitants, and the dogs alone kept house….sons fled, leaving the corpses of their parents unburied; parents forgetful of their duty abandoned their children in raging fever.” (Side note: this is actually bizarrely similar to Boccaccio’s description of the second plague pandemic.)

Averill: The first plague had serious ramifications – the population decrease and economic decline seriously harmed the strength of the Byzantine Empire, with particular effect on the army. Formerly occupied Byzantine territories like the Baltics and Italy were invaded and occupied – the Baltics by the Slavs, and Italy by the Germanic Lombards. In North Africa, it meant that Muslim Arab armies seized Byzantine land in Egpyt, Syria, Palestine and Armenia, eventually invading into the Mediterranean, taking most of Spain, and making it all the way into France. But then the plague seemed to disappear – there were other ‘plagues’ (‘plague’ was a term that medieval people applied to all sorts of things from insects to diseases), but none that appear to be chalked up to yersenia pestis. So what made it come back in the mid-1300s? Well, no one’s completely sure, but here’s one theory that lots of historians buy into. The plague existed naturally in wild rodents in particular regions – specifically, in the American southwest and in Southern Russia. The plague that hit Europe likely originated somewhere in southern Russia – but some historians say it was probably actually Manchurian or Mongolian steppe (northeast China) while others say it was actually the Yunnan/Burma (Myanmar) (southern China) region. Other folks say it couldn’t have originated in China at all, and actually probably came from Russia. Historian Ole Benedictow, who has written one of the most insanely detailed synthetic histories of the Black Death, dismisses the China theory and instead argues that it most likely originated in the Crimean Peninsula on the Black Sea in the land of the Mongol Khanate known as the Golden Horde. Anyway, wherever it originated, unless it was disturbed, that wild rodent disease would just hang out in those wild rodents and never travel – but something happened to transfer the flea from wild rodents to commensal black rats. It could have been armies traveling through the region, bringing rats with them, or it could have been traveling merchants – there just aren’t written records from the era or area, so it’s really guess work.

Sarah: One theory that does come from the written record is that the plague was transmitted from the Golden Horde into Eastern Europe through biological warfare. Italian merchants recorded that Djanibeg, a warrior from the Kipchak Khanate (aka, the Golden Horde) flung plague-infested corpses into the Crimean port city of Kaffa, and fleeing Genoese merchants accidentally brought the disease back to the Italian peninsula with them. While it’s definitely possible this happened, Ole Benedictow points out that the plague isn’t really spread through contact with infected bodies – it’s spread by the flea. And while the bodies might have had fleas on them, it’s not likely they had a big impact. But even more damning is that …. medieval people didn’t know anything about bacteriology. Instead, they believed that disease was spread by miasmas, or bad smells – so in order to believe they were spreading the disease using corpses, they would have had to keep around dead bodies until they got nice and decomposed, which seems like a great way to give yourself plague, too. More likely, Benedictow says, it seems likely that the plague entered Kaffa with the commensal rats that accompanied the attacking Horde – no need to fling bodies, rats can go wherever they want. And once the rats were in Kaffa, it seems like a no-brainer to believe that they also made their way onto Italian merchant ships loaded down with delicious grain.

Averill: The departing Italian ships from Kaffa sailed through the Bosporus and anchored in Constantinople, bringing the plague with them. A historian later described the Black Death’s first effects in the city: “So incurable was the evil, that neither any regularity of life nor any bodily strength could resist it. Strong and weak bodies were similarly carried away, and those best cared for died in the same manner as the poor…. Those who could resist for two or three days had very violent fever at first, the disease in such cases attacking the head; they suffered from speechlessness and insensibility to all happenings and then appeared as if sunken in a deep sleep. Then, if from time to time they came to themselves, they wanted to speak but the tongue was hard to move and they uttered inarticulate sounds because the nerves around the back part of the head were dead; and they died suddenly.” From Constantinople, ships traveled through the through the Sea of Marmara and the Aegean Sea to the Mediterranean, bringing the plague to cities all around the sea so that Sicily and Alexandria were hit at the same time in 1347. In the winter of 1348, it arrived in northern Italy – one account says the Genoa blocked its ports to try to keep it at bay, but ships arrived further west on coast in Marseilles, which seems to have been enough to get the disease into mainland Europe. It soon hopped the Alps into Central Europe, where it moved quickly on trade ships zipping around Europe’s rivers. According to historian Jean-Noël Biraben, the plague also moved rapidly on land routes, traveling, he estimated, 1-4 kilometers a day during 1348-49.

Sarah: The disease likely hopped the channel from France to enter England, where it moved quickly around the small country. By 1350, the plague had reached even to the most remote areas, including the Orkney and Faroe Islands. Even the Danish and Norse colonists living on Greenland were hit, leading them to abandon the island. Russia was spared for many years, but when the disease finally hit Moscow in 1353, it took a heavy toll, killing the metropolitan bishop Theognostus of Kiev, plus Grand Prince of Moscow Simeon (Semen) Ivanovich, his two sons, and his brother Andrei. 1353 was the final year of the this first wave of the Black Death, but it was far from over: between 1353 and 1500, 18 major epidemics took place around Europe. As Francesco Petrarch, poet of the Italian Renaissance, wrote in 1367: “Plague has been heard and read of in books, but no universal plague that would mpty the world had ever been seen or heard of; this one has been invading all lands now for 20 years sometimes it stops in some places, or lessens, but it is never really gone. Just when it seems to be over, it returns and attacks once more those who were briefly happy. And this pattern, if I am not mistaken, is a sign of the divine anger at human crimes. If those crimes were to end, the divine punishments would grow less or milder.”

Citizens of Tournai bury plague victims
Citizens of Tournai bury plague victims, by Pierart dou Tielt | Public Domain / WIkimedia Commons

Averill: Petrarch’s reference to divine retribution is really telling there, because it raises the question: where did people believe the Black Death came from? French astrologer Geoffrey de Meaux wrote a treatise on the cause of the plague in which he blamed astrological phenomena that took place in 1345 before the outbreak: “Wherefore it has been, and is, known by all astrologers that in the that in the year 1345, there was a total eclipse of the moon of long duration, on 18 March. At the longitude of Oxford, it began an hour after the moon rose, and at the time the two planets were in conjunction in Aquarius, and Mars was with them in the same sign, within the light of Jupiter.” French physician John Jacobus, as recorded by Swedish cleric Bengt Knutsson, argued that the disease was caused by corrupted air. When environmental factors aligned (a hot sun, for instance, accompanied by a strong wind from a certain direction) foul air could spread disease. “Sometimes it comes of dead carrion or the corruption of standing waters in ditches or sloughs or other corrupt places, and these things are sometimes universal and sometimes particular.” Jacobus called this ‘inspissated’ air, or air that was thick – when that thick air gathered over a person it corrupted the ‘spirits’ of man, causing, among other things, swellings. Jacobus also tried to explain why some people were infected while others weren’t by linking this bad air to the humoral theory. (As a quick reminder, the humoral theory was the idea that the body contained 4 humors that had to be kept in balance, blood, phlegm, black bile & yellow bile.) According to Jacobus, people who ran hot and dry in their humoral balance tended to have large, open pores, which allowed more miasma in.

Sarah: Others agreed that it was miasma, but believed that the miasma didn’t just come from something like rotting carcasses – it came from the center of the earth. One anonymous German writer wrote that the plague was caused by “a corrupt and poisonous earthy exhalation.” He believed that the earth was full of fumes, which ‘batter against the side of the earth’ trying to get out. When air gets trapped in the earth, it “becomes so corrupted that it constitutes a potent poison to men.” Earthquakes released these terrible vapors, causing disease. To explain why the rich became sick less frequently than the poor (which I’m not sure is actually accurate but whatever) he said that rich people ate good hot food and lots of wine, which filled them with fumes, leaving no room for poisoning earth fumes. Poor people, without access to such fume-producing foods, had plenty of fume-space inside them and easily got infected. While this guy’s theory is bonkers, it demonstrates that the prevailing theory of infection was the miasma theory – an idea that would last well into the 19th century.

Averill: But the miasma theory wasn’t enough for some people. Whether it was corrupted air or nasty earth burps, it must have a deeper cause – and for many people, that deeper cause was the wrath of God. An anonymous poem written sometime in the 14th century decried sin as the ultimate cause of the pestilence. “See how England mourns, drenched in tears. The people, stained by sin, quake with grief. Plague is killing men and beasts. Why? Because vices rule unchallenged here. Alas! The whole world is now given over to spite. Where can a kind heart be found among the people? No one thinks on the crucified Christ, and therefore the people perish as a token of vengeance.” Heinrich von Herford, a friar from Westphalia (in Germany), blamed the clergy for indulging their own vices instead of doing their best to be humble and godly pastors. “Look at all these abbots, priors, wardens, masters, lectors, provosts and canons, and groan! Look at their life, the example they give, their career and their doctrine, and at the risks to their people, and tremble! And you too, Lord, father of mercies, look down and have mercy, for we have sinned against you!” One sin in particular – pride – seemed to concern clerics the most. An anonymous English monk believed that increasingly intricate and lavish clothing was to blame. “Women flowed with the tides of fashion in this and other things even more eagerly, wearing clothes that were so tight that they wore a fox tail hanging down inside their skirts at the back to hide their arses. The sin of pride manifested in this way must surely bring down misfortune in the future.” Another writer was angry about gowns, particularly men’s gowns. (Gown = tunic over hose) “This garment has an apt name, being called gown in the vernacular, and well called, since it is said that ‘gown’ derives from gouyn, which outght properly be pronounced wounyng, that is to say, “wide open to mockery….They also have particolored and striped hose which they tie with laces to their patlocks, and which are called harlottes, and thus one ‘harlot’ serves another…. Because the people wantonly squander the gifts of God on rage, pride, lechery and greed, and all the rest of the deadly sins, it is only to be expected that the Lord’s vengeance will follow.”

Sarah: With such terrible sin causing uncontrolled pestilence, some medieval Christians didn’t believe that regular old mass attendance and prayer were sufficient to meet the threat. Something had to be done to truly atone. Religious fraternities of laypeople were common in medieval Europe, focusing on different kinds of religious service. Some functioned like public charities, offering support for the poor and, during the plague, even helping to bury the dead. Others, though, focused on performing a kind of collective penance for the world’s sins. These men, who called themselves disciplinati, used whips, often with three thongs with bent nails at the tips, to punish themselves and each other as a form of atonement. They were also sometimes called flagellants, named for the Latin word for whip, flagellum. These groups were not aligned or connected to the Catholic Church – although they were certainly Catholic, this wasn’t a sanctioned practice. When the Black Death arrived, these flagellant societies morphed into something larger. It seemed obvious to a deeply religious society that if the plague was caused by sin, it required serious atonement to appease God, and so many people joined, or at least supported, flagellant groups. Despite the hostile relationship between the Church and the flagellants, the need seemed so great that Pope Clement VI participated in a flagellant gathering in France in 1348. Soon, bands of flagellants were wandering around Europe, traveling from town to town to perform this act of penance.

woodcut of flagellants
Woodcut of Flagellants, 1493 | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Averill: Groups as large as 200 might walk into a town, strip themselves to the waist, sing, and whip themselves in a central gathering space. Heinrich von Hereford, the German friar, remarked that flagellants “straggled along behind the cross,” forming into a procession when they entered a town , “with hoods or hats pulled down over their foreheads and sad and downcast eyes, they went through the streets singing a sweet hymn…. But whenever they came to the part of hymn which mentioned the passion of Christ they all suddenly threw themselves down prostate on the ground regardless of where they were, and whether there were thorns or thistles or nettles or stones.” Hereford, a real clergyman, was not a fan of the flagellants – he called them ignorant, stupid, annoying, and suggested they were heretical, which the upper echelons of the church eventually agreed with. By October 1349, Pope Clement issued a papal bull condemning the flagellants, and insisted that local parishes refuse to entertain the itinerant bands. Those who joined the flagellants, or even supported them, faced excommunication. They didn’t entirely disappear, and in fact new crops of flagellants popped up all through later waves of the plague.

Sarah: Not unrelated to the belief that the plague was the result of rampant sin, many Catholic Europeans believed that a perceived “enemy of Christianity” might be to blame: the Jews. While the position of the Catholic Church was officially to support and protect European Jews, many Catholics felt that Jews were a kind of enemy as the “killers of Christ.” It didn’t seem like a stretch for these Catholics that Jews, who they didn’t want in their societies anyway, might be the culprits for the plague outbreak. Herman Gigas, another German friar, discusses the causes of the plague this way: “Some say it was brought about by corruption of the air; others that the Jews planned to wipe out all the Christians with poison and had poisoned wells and springs everywhere. And many Jews confessed as much under torture: that they bred spiders and toads in pots and pans, and had obtained poison from overseas; ad that no every Jew knew about the wickedness, only the more powerful ones, so that it would not be betrayed.” In 1349, a physician in France wrote that while the first waves of the plague were natural, the third wave (hitting France in 1349) was “human artifice” and suggested that men were filling glass jars with “gaseous poison” and smashing them on rocks to spread pestilence. As a result of such stories, communities began to punish Jewish populations for their ‘crimes:’ even before guys like Gigas and this French physician were blaming them, in 1348, about 40 Jewish people were murdered while they slept in their beds in Toulon, France. There are many other examples of this comparatively smaller scale murder – though it seems awful to refer to the murders of 40 people ‘small-scale,’ there was much worse to come. In Basle, Switzerland in 1349, 200 Jews were locked in a barn and burned alive; in Strasbourg, in the Alsace-Lorraine region on the border of France/Germany, 900 Jews were burned alive and another other 900 were expelled from the city, effectively removing all Jews from the region.

Averill: The horrific persecution of the Jews during the Black Death demonstrates just how much damage the plague did to European society. Not to say that Christians were excellent to Jews beforehand, but this particularly catastrophic moment certainly shows how desperate and angry people were in the face of unexplainable and uncontrollable disease. The economy was thrown into flux – the vast death toll meant a shortage of agricultural labor, which incongruously lead to higher wages and better conditions for peasants, but landlords suffered. In Italy, according to historian Joseph Byrne, some landlords were eventually so impoverished they became outlaws and mercenaries. In England, this eventually lead to the restructuring of English society – new wage laws tried to stop peasants from using labor shortages to their advantage, and aligned the Crown with middling landowners, helping to create a new gentry class and kill the old feudal system. It also ushered in changes that we might recognize as public health laws. The most famous example is the Italian city of Pistoia, which put in place a strict codes that have become known as the Plague Ordinances. These ordinances controlled the trade of certain items, including wool cloth, which was suspected of harboring disease, controlled movement in and out of the city, and banned trades associated with foul odors, including tanning leather, inside the walls of the city. It also dictated lots of new rules on funerals and burial. Dead bodies could not be brought into the city for any reason, non-family members were not allowed to enter the homes of the dead, and bodies must be buried in wooden boxes at least two and half arms-lengths deep to avoid stench.

Sarah: What’s really interesting in this section is that the ordinances also tried to control mourning – funeral gifts, a common European custom, were banned, as was any public mourning for anyone who died outside of Pistoia, no one was allowed to buy or wear new mourning clothes, and the bells could not be rung during funerals. Averill, why do you think the governing council of Pistoia enacted these really sort of weird and specific ordinances?

The heavy presence of death, of course, made the biggest impact. Death was everywhere, all the time. One Englishman, thinking back on the plague as an elderly man, stated that “at the time of the first great pestilence the servants of William Wyngrave, then rector, [of whom, this guy was one]went with a cart to Templeton to bring back the bodies of the dead by night for burial at Witheridge; and at Belbyford, so full was the cart, one body fell off; and William atte Henne was given a penny to go back and fetch it the next day.” In one record from Lancashire, England, accounting for the property distribution of the dead in the area between September 1349 and January 1850 reads like this: “Within the parish of Preston 3000 men and women died, of whom 300 made wills … 200 parishioners of Preston died intestate … within the parish of Kirkham, 3000 men and women died, of whom 600 had wills … 60 parishioners of Cockerham died intestate…” and on and on. In numerous cities and towns around Europe, burial grounds were unable to keep up with the number of dead – as we saw in Boccaccio’s Decameron, sacred burial ground was a constant problem. In London, a guy named Walter Manny with great foresight set aside an additional 13 acres of land and had it consecrated for use as a burial site. Within that year – 1349 – there were 50,000 people buried there. According to a later account, the cemetery had a stone cross with the following inscription: “In the year of Our Lord 1349, during the reign of the great pestilence, this cemetery was consecrated, in which, and within the boundaries of the present monastery, there were buried more than 50,000 bodies, not counting the many buried there since that time; upon whose souls may God have mercy, amen.”

The Dance of Death, The Abbot, by Hans Holbein | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Averill: It’s little wonder, then, that death affected society in chaotic ways. In the Decameron, Boccaccio talks about families abandoning each other, desperate to flee the city and get away from the pestilence. At the same time, “all respect for the laws of God and man had virtually broken down and been extinguished in our city…everyone was free to behave as he pleased.” People behaved, he wrote, “as if their days were numbered, and treated their belongings and their own persons with equal abandon.” People partied, drank, and boned like there was no tomorrow – because they might not actually have a tomorrow. In Padua, one account states that the fear of the spreading plague tore families apart, afraid to even touch each other for fear of infection: “The infection was incurable, it could not be avoided. The wife fled the embrace of a dear husband, the father that of a son, and the brother that of a brother. Even the houses or clothes of the victims could kill.” The heavy presence of death and suffering also crept into culture as Europeans struggled to come to terms with what the pestilence meant. The most famous example of death’s heavy influence on culture is the artistic genre called the danse macabre, which typically depict skeletons representing Death dancing living humans to the grave. Often, Death is shown approaching or seizing people, often members of high society. Skeletons, sometimes wearing crowns, pull priests, deacons, and wealthy women away with them. In an Estonian church, a fresco depicts morbid looking, brownish skeletons clasping hands and dancing with priests, kings, lords and ladies. Underneath, an inscription reads: “Emperor, your sword won’t help you out/Sceptre and crown are worthless here/I’ve taken you by the hand/For you must come to my dance.” Often, the humans look fairly blaise about being seized by Death, but in others, like Hans Holbein’s 16th century engravings, people resist, crying out and trying to escape.

Sarah: There are dozens and dozens of these images, featuring all different sorts of people. One of my favorite Holbein engravings shows an annoyed looking skeleton grasping a beaker of what is likely urine from a doctor. In some, the skeletons dance, play instruments, and basically have a great time. It reminds of me of a phrase that was common during the Civil War era – that ‘death held high carnival.’ I don’t know the origin of that phrase, but it seems really similar to the message behind these engravings, paintings, and poems. These images had one intention: to remind viewers that death was ubiquitous, inescapable, and came for everyone regardless of station. Not even the most distinguished physician’s urinalysis can save you – Death is all-powerful. A famous poem called “A Disputation Betwixt the Body and Worms,” written in about 1460-70, captures this idea in a really interesting way. The poem is narrated by a person who, during a “period of great mortality with pestilence reigning,” goes for a walk by a country church in search of fresh air, when he overhears a conversation between the corpse of a beautiful, rich woman and the worms that await her. The woman, upset at the impudence of these worms who threaten to eat her, accuses them of being discourteous and demands that her knights come to her rescue. The worms are not impressed, and respond:

The Worms answer the Body:

What should they do? We want to hear.

We dread them not, nor fear their moans,

For we’ve to the uttermost made good cheer

With all that were mighty, who’ve left their thrones

Before this time, having received their bones.

All of them: conquerors, emperors, kings,

Lords both over temporal and spiritual things.

All the nine worthy: Alexander the Great,

Judas Maccabeus, and David of old,

Caesar and Hector and Guinevere’s mate,

Godfrey and Joshua and Charlemagne bold,

With all Trojan knights, each with honor untold,

And beautiful Helen, so fair of visage,

Polyxena, Lucrece, and Dido of Carthage.

These—and more—were your equals in looks

Yet dared they not to stir or move

Once we possession of them took.

For all venomous worms it does behoove

To do this labor, as soon they’ll prove.

With us to stay they’re fully set:

They’ll waste and devour you utterly yet.

disputation betwixt the body and worms
A Disputation Betwixt the Body and Worms | The British Library

Averill: And while this poem is a little tongue in cheek, it’s message was intended as a warning: death is all around us, and will claim us all, no matter how rich, poor, powerful, or plain. And, given the death tolls, this message makes sense. It’s very difficult to get a good statistic of the plague’s toll because of the complexities of record keeping across regions, but historians currently seem to agree somewhere around a third to a half of Europe’s population died. If anything, historian Joseph Byrne says, these estimates have increased in recent years. In England, historian Christopher Dyer has asserted, half of the English population died in 1348-49. Ole Benedictow estimates that Norway lost 64% of its population between 1300 and 1500, and wouldn’t return to its pre-plague population for another century. No wonder those who survived felt the oppressive presence of death all around, waiting to dance them into the grave at any moment.


Ole Benedictow, The Black Death, 1346-1353: The Complete History (Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 2004)

Joseph P. Byrne, The Black Death (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2004)

Joseph P. Byrne, Daily Life During the Black Death (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2006)

Rosemary Horrox, The Black Death (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994)

David Herlihy, The Black Death and the Transformation of the West (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997)

John Kelly, The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, The Most Devastating Plague of All Time (New York: Harper Perennial, 2005)

A Brief History of the Danse Macabre, Atlas Obscura


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