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The Bubonic Plague: Origins and Impacts

By Edited Jun 8, 2015 4 10
The black death. Watercolour by Monro S. Orr
Credit: Painting by Munro Scott Orr/Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license

The Bubonic Plague is an infectious disease which is best known for spreading sickness to a significant population of the world in the 14th century. The plague, also referred to as "the Black Death," spread across several continents. It was an infectious and ravaging disease that blazed through civilization and left behind a massive trail of illness and death.

The plague first arrived in late 1340s and continued to persist and devastate until the early 1700s.1 While the cause and origin of the plague is not completely known, some scholars suggest it originated in Asia. 2, 3 Although, there are researchers who suggest it started as long as 2,000 years ago in China.

Overall, the Bubonic Plague affected regions which spanned from China to Iceland to North Africa. Its influence spread throughout society and its presence spanned centuries. In addition to the devastation and number of deaths it caused, the Bubonic Plague caused significant impact on civilizations. While there is still debate about its origin, one thing everyone seems to agree upon is its devastation.  In Europe, the Black Death had a profound effect, transforming European economic, religious, cultural and political practices. 4

Plaque in Weymouth, England, noting the entrance of plague into the country.
Credit: Mark A. Wilson (Department of Geology, The College of Wooster)/Public Domain

Plaque in Weymouth, England, noting the entrance of plague into the country

Economic Impact

The Bubonic Plague had many ramifications which reached beyond the physical illness and death that were occurring during this time. During the centuries it spread rapidly and in mass volume causing an estimated one-third of the population in Europe to perish (some statistics suggest this statistic was higher). The Black Plague continued to manifest and emerge for several centuries in different areas and, when this occurred, it quickly wiped out entire regions, impacting not only the people, but the economies as well. 5 In the 14th century a weakened Europe suffered an economic depression. The cost of living soared and many of the elite found themselves at the mercy of the working class. This was due to a labor shortage, and paying the additional wages demanded by workers made their fortunes dwindle.

However, the workers had to pay higher prices for food and, with even the increased wages, the additional money was not ample enough to pay their expenses.  Since the Black Death had impacted the economy so drastically, and this also affected the professional guilds. People couldn't afford to pay trainees and some were forced to work for free during their learning period; this could take several years. Due to this and other reasons, guilds became more "elite."

As a result, social tensions emerged which came in the form of revolts and violence. These revolts spread to other regions and the lower class began to protest the upper class, demanding tax and economic reforms.

There is perhaps a correlation between the hardships people had to endure just prior to the Black Death occurrence and the spread of the plague itself. Before the Black Death reached out and spread across civilizations, the freezing of the Baltic Sea (1306-07) and subsequent flooding across Europe (due to ongoing heavy rains) led to flooded fields and ruined crops. 8 Next came the Great Famine, circa 1315, after three years of failed crops.

This scarcity had caused a significant decrease in food supply leading to an agricultural crisis. There was also a large population boom after the Crusades, and this meant the depletion of the food supply made nutrition even higher in demand. Farmers could not keep up with the supply and demand aspect of producing enough food and this also contributed to the Great Famine.

Animation showing the spread of The Black Death from 1346 through to 1351
Credit: Timemaps/ Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Religious Impact

People sought out religious guidance during these troubled times to help cope with the suffering and death that was occurring during the plague. 6 Unfortunately, the Church, like everyone else, had also been heavily impacted by the Black Plague and Great Famine. They were not adequately equipped to help everyone who came to them for spiritual consolation since they had their own problems and sicknesses to contend with and, in some cases of clergy not exposed, did not want to get sick themselves. People essentially lost faith. 

As a result, a large segment of the population began to look away from the Pope for guidance and founded other religious comforts which resulted in the beginnings of the fragmentation of the Roman Catholic Church. The trauma associated with the Black Death is said to have later influenced Martin Luther’s Reformation. This continued over a long period of time and shaped religious frameworks which still exist today. Over the course of time, the Roman Catholic Church and the Pope began to lose the influence and power they had previously attained before the arrival of the Bubonic Plague.

Political Impact

Up until this time, the Roman Catholic Church had been an integral part of society, reaching its hand into government and political matters, but the Black Plague both directly and indirectly affected its influence.

Additionally, from a political perspective, the aristocrats had a lot of political influence and were extremely protective of their property. As part of their elite status, aristocrats were allowed to act as judges in the courts for crimes and offenses committed in their territories. The aristocrats were often implicated in disputes and this ultimately led to corruption; obviously being a conflict of interest since they ran the court systems. This weakened the existing established political structures and transformed the political framework.

[Related reading: The Seven Deadliest Diseases in History]

Cultural Impact

Due to the tragic events afflicting civilizations, violence and death also manifested itself in cultural events, literary works and the arts as a prominent theme. The death theme integrated with life in general and people viewed death much differently than they did in earlier civilizations, such as Egypt. Impressions became morose as the plague heavily influenced people's perception of death, as it generally changed the way society behaved in relation to the concept of dying.  Creative works took on a darker perspective and the presence of such hopelessness and depression became firmly entwined with the arts and humanities.

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Smallpox01.jpg
Credit: Miniatur aus der Toggenburg-Bibel (Schweiz) von 1411/public domain

Description on Wikimedia Commons states: "Miniature out of the Toggenburg Bible (Switzerland) of 1411. The disease is widely believed to be the plague. The location of bumps or blisters, however, is more consistent with smallpox (as the bubonic plague normally causes them only in the groin and in the armpits). is generally interpreted as a depiction of the plague - "the Black Death"."

Environmental Changes

Starvation, malnutrition and disease were a result of the lower food supply and increased cost of living with inflation (some accounts indicate the cost of wheat rose 800 percent). In addition, the world experienced a shift in global temperatures which also impacted the food supply. During this era, the climate had shifted and resulted in cooler temperatures for extended times which affected crops. Due to the mass malnutrition and starvation that occurred, people's immune systems were potentially opened up to exposure to epidemic diseases such as typhus, cholera and dysentery. The Bubonic Plague soon followed. As the Black Death followed the Great Famine, could it be that those weakened immune systems allowed for the Bubonic Plague to take a stronger hold?

All of the factors which occurred as a result from the Black Death affected the overall economic, religious, cultural and political aspects of life in Europe during the 14th and 15th centuries. The Plague had an acute impact on society and the way future civilizations developed after this era.

Many of the events which transpired during the Bubonic Plague and its aftermath ultimately colored the way life and death is still viewed in modern times. Many of the factors, such as cause or the actual disease itself, is still under debate. However, its impact is very clear. Even today, society is still routinely uncovering evidence of the tragedy that afflicted the world so many centuries ago. While this tragedy has long ended in Europe, the Bubonic Plague still exists in modern day. Research over the past few years has found it "still lurks in pockets of the globe," reported Live Science in 2013. 9

[Related reading: For Sale! Poveglia, the Island of Death]

Bubonic plague victims-mass grave in Martigues, France 1720-1721.jpg
Credit: U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC)/Public Domain (found on Wikimedia Commons)

Bubonic plague victims in a mass grave in Martigues, France

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Comments

Feb 5, 2015 12:59pm
WriterJoanne
Like most people I have heard of the Bubonic Plague but didn't really know much about the history. Very interesting and informative.
Feb 6, 2015 2:18am
LeighGoessl
Thank you Joanne for reading/commenting. I didn't know a lot about the Plague either until I went back to school (now several years ago) and found I was missing a Western Civ class. It was an intriguing class, it also tied in a lot of the religious aspects of earlier eras too.
Feb 21, 2015 3:46pm
ologsinquito
What an amazing article that deserves to be featured like this. Of course this plague must have decimated society.
Feb 22, 2015 7:51am
LeighGoessl
Thanks so much for reading and for your kind comment Ologsinquito.
Feb 21, 2015 10:32pm
RoseWrites
Wow, what a fascinating account and there are so many parallels to what has happened with Ebola. Bubonic plague will probably always be 'with us' since it routinely cycles between rats and their fleas. Certain areas of the world are more susceptible. In fact, up to 2,000 cases have been reported in third-world countries in recent years. Source: http://www.cdc.gov/plague/maps/ Early treatment with tetracycline and streptomycin does work - if caught in time.
Feb 22, 2015 7:58am
LeighGoessl
Thank you Rose, appreciate your comment and also your input on this topic. It seems in recent years the plague has been getting more news coverage (along with the mass graves from this era being unearthed). Even though it is often thought to be an "old" disease, it is definitely still around with people being affected, thank you for sharing current stats - I did not realize they were so high. The page you shared noted that true stats are likely much higher :(
Feb 22, 2015 11:38am
TanoCalvenoa
Awesome article. Freaks me out when they say in the news that there were a few cases in places like Colorado.
Feb 22, 2015 2:07pm
LeighGoessl
It is pretty scary to hear that! Thanks so much TanoCalvenoa, I appreciate your kind words.
Feb 25, 2015 12:47pm
maria52gr
A very well-informed article. A pleasant read,too-despite the subject! Thank you!
Feb 26, 2015 2:46am
LeighGoessl
Thank you very much Maria, appreciated!
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Bibliography

  1. Professor Tom James "Black Death: The lasting impact." BBC History. 17/02/2011. 30/01/2015 <Web >
  2. "Bubonic Plague Originated in China." Discovery . 1/11/2010. 30/01/2015 <Web >
  3. Dr. L. Kip Wheeler "The Black Plague: The Least You Need to Know." Carson-Newman University. 30/01/2015 <Web >
  4. Decameron Web "Social and Economic Effects of the Plague." Brown University. 30/01/2015 <Web >
  5. "Economic history: Plagued by dear labour ." The Economist. 21/10/2013. 30/01/2015 <Web >
  6. "The Black Death and Religious Impact." Catholic University of America. 30/01/2015 <Web >
  7. Stephanie Pappas "14th-Century Black Death Graveyard Found in London." Live Science. 15/03/2013. 30/01/2015 <Web >
  8. Brian Levack, Edward Muir, Michael Maas and Meredith Veldman The West: Encounters & Transformations Volume I. United States: Pearson Education, Inc., copyright 2007.
  9. Tia Ghose "Bubonic Plague Still Kills Thousands." Live Science. 27/09/2013. 31/01/2015 <Web >

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