A black boil behind the ear, or in the armpit, or in the groin. Fever. Aching joints. Violent pains in the chest. Vomiting and spitting blood. A pestial odor coming from the body and breath. Black pustules all over the body. Gangrenous inflammation of the throat and lungs. Gangrenous inflammation of the extremities.
Once the boil, the bubo, appears, expect to live four to eight more days. In agony. The mortality rate is 60%.
If the disease is in its pneumonic form, add a wracking, continual cough to spread the bloody spittle over a wider range, and cut two to four days off the previous estimate. The mortality rate is 90-95%.
If in its septicemic form, you may have less than half an hour, which at least means you suffer for a lesser amount of time. Mortality rate: 100%.
That, my friends, is the Black Plague. Toss in famine, flagellants, pogroms, widespread and fatal epidemics in cattle and pigs, massive disruptions in trade, various wars and the general filthiness that was the norm in 14th century Europe and you have one of the great horror stories of world history. Combining the 14th century plague with the numbers from various resurgences up to the 19th century, it is estimated that the disease has killed 200 million people in total. That’s almost two-thirds the current population of the United States.
There’s some controversy over whether or not the 14th century disease that killed upwards of 75 million people worldwide over the course of thirty-some-odd years was actually plague or a virulent hemmorhagic fever; the various symptoms described in contemporary manuscripts and the alarming efficiency of the disease is different from modern outbreaks of bubonic plague. But I’m not going to settle that issue here. What is generally agreed on is that the disease the Medieval world called the Great Mortality originated somewhere on the steppes of Asia in roughly 1320. Following trade routes to the west, the disease traveled relatively slowly until it arrived in Messina, in October, 1347. Genoese trade ships put into port and disgorged their cargo of spices, silks, infected sailors and disease-carrying rats. The effect was immediate. The authorities closed the ports, but it was too late Several other ships, denied landing, sailed on to spread the disease in other ports.
The European climate was ideal for the plague. Years of inordinately heavy rains had led to widespread famine and rocketing food prices; population growth had exceeded society’s ability to sustain itself; and curiously, the Medieval superstition against cats, the idea that they were agents of the devil, had led to massacres of the feline population; when the rats arrived, their natural predatory enemies were in short supply.
The Mortality, now established in more densely populated Europe, spread quickly, often traveling as fast as two miles a day. Word of mouth might announce the coming of the pestilence as much as two months in advance, but where were people going to go exactly, especially given the widespread poverty? As many as 200,00 towns and villages were wiped out completely in the four-year reign of terror.
Prayer and church ritual were helpless against it; quack cures sprang up and died away as quickly as the victims. Theories abounded. One such was that the cause of the plague was ‘corrupt air”, and that the “best antidote to bad air was more bad air.”; thus, villagers could be seen hunkering down around the communal latrines, inhaling the foul air as a preventive measure.
John Kelly, in his book, The Great Mortality*, describes what life might have been like in an infected city:
“As the death toll mounted, the streets would have filled with feral animals feeding on human remains, drunken soldiers looting and raping, old women dragging corpses through the rubble, and burning building spewing jets of flame and smoke into the ..sky. There would have been swarms of rodents with staggering gaits and a strange bloody froth around their snouts, piles of bodies stacked like cordwood in public squares, and in every eye, a look of wild panic or dull resignation.”
The Black Death completed its first tour of Europe by 1351, having made a scythe shaped sweep across the European continent and England before disappearing back into the Russian wilderness. But outbreaks continued to occur up until the 19th century.
When it finally abated, as the remaining population surveyed the ruins of civilization, a kind of hysterical reaction set in. People went nuts, partying, wearing bright and ostentatious clothing, and of course, that ultimate declaration of defiance, fornicating in graveyards.
*Kelly’s book deals directly with the history of the Black Death, but A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman, subtitled “Life in the Calamitous 14th Century” puts it in greater perspective, as part of a long series of 14th century disasters, both environmental and man-made.