The   Black   Death

The Pestilence, as the Bubonic Plague was referred to at the time, is believed to have started in Southeast Asia and was brought back to China and Russia when the Mongols attempted an invasion Southeast Asia. The Mongols catapulted the bodies of their plague victims over the walls of Kaffa, a Crimean port colonized by the Genoese, during a siege. It's there that some Genoese traders picked up the disease. Their ships, laden with oriental treasures, reached Messina, Sicily, in October 1347. A few days had gone by before it was realized that the inhabitants of the ship, those who weren't already dead, carried a deadly disease. The plague had already infected the city. The ships were forced to leave and in seeking harbor, carried the black death to other ports including Corsica, Sardinia, Barcelona and Valencia. And the deadliest occurrence in the history of mankind - a germ called Yersinia pestis, carried by rodents, a disease known by the names the Pestilence, the Mortality, the Black Death, the Bubonic Plague - began it's course.

Between 1447 and 1451, 25,000,000 people, a third of the population, died in Europe. Florence lost 75% of it's population, Venice lost 60%, Avignon lost 50%. Urban areas and closed communities such as prisons and monasteries were hit the hardest. But small villages were by no means immune and 100's of villages just ceased to exist. The effects of the plague were devastating.

Now the question is how did this affect the world and how did it's legacy help usher in the Renaissance.

The Black Death greatly reduced the population. Families were left without heirs; homes and properties were left vacant; and most importantly there was a desperate labor shortage leaving the fields fallow, services unattended and construction at a standstill. The feudal system was labor intensive and the labor was cheap. Suddenly laborers had the power. Guilds and unions helped solidify the power. People realized better working conditions and better living conditions. The cities were hardest hit by the plague, but conversely, they were also the quickest to recover. As the standard of living elevated and as the wealth was spread over fewer people, merchants and artisans prospered and a new middle-class emerged. The wealth that had been horded by the feudal lords found it's way into the city along with much of the influence.

Besides the economic effects, there were social effects. The Holy Roman Catholic Church (then operating out of Avignon, in southern France) could only stand by helplessly as the plagued ravaged the world. Many people lost faith in the Church or, at the least, became painfully aware of it's limitations. The feeling of nothing-to-lose, which the plagued inspired, loosened the inhibitions of many people and, along with other factors, made them more receptive to ideas such as humanism which separates the worldly from the spiritual perspectives.

A graphic eyewitness description of death by the plague:
Also found here

This first account is from Messina, and it described the arrival and initial progress of the disease. At the beginning of October, in the year of the incarnation of the Son of God 1347, twelve Genoese galleys . . . entered the harbor of Messina. In their bones they bore so virulent a disease that anyone who only spoke to them was seized by a mortal illness and in no manner could evade death. The infection spread to everyone who had any contact with the diseased. Those infected felt themselves penetrated by a pain throughout their whole bodies and, so to say, undermined. Then there developed on the thighs or upper arms a boil about the size of a lentil which the people called "burn boil". This infected the whole body, and penetrated it so that the patient violently vomited blood. This vomiting of blood continued without intermission for three days, there being no means of healing it, and then the patient expired. Not only all those who had speech with them died, but also those who had touched or used any of their things. When the inhabitants of Messina discovered that this sudden death emanated from the Genoese ships they hurriedly ordered them out of the harbor and town. But the evil remained and caused a fearful outbreak of death. Soon men hated each other so much that if a son was attacked by the disease his father would not tend him. If, in spite of all, he dared to approach him, he was immediately infected and was bound to die within three days. Nor was this all; all those dwelling in the same house with him, even the cats and other domestic animals, followed him in death. As the number of deaths increased in Messina many desired to confess their sins to the priests and to draw up their last will and testament. But ecclesiastics, lawyers and notaries refused to enter the houses of the diseased. Soon the corpses were lying forsaken in the houses. No ecclesiastic, no son, no father and no relation dared to enter, but they hired servants with high wages to bury the dead. The houses of the deceased remained open with all their valuables, gold and jewels. . . . When the catastrophe had reached its climax the Messinians resolved to emigrate. One portion of them settled in the vineyards and fields, but a larger portion sought refuge in the town of Catania. The disease clung to the fugitives and accompanied them everywhere where they turned in search of help. Many of the fleeing fell down by the roadside and dragged themselves into the fields and bushes to expire. Those who reached Catania breathed their last in the hospitals there. The terrified citizens would not permit the burying of fugitives from Messina within the town, and so they were all thrown into deep trenches outside the walls. Thus the people of Messina dispersed over the whole island of Sicily and with them the disease, so that innumerable people died. The town of Catania lost all its inhabitants, and ultimately sank into complete oblivion. Here not only the "burn blisters" appeared, but there developed gland boils on the groin, the thighs, the arms, or on the neck. At first these were of the size of a hazel nut, and developed accompanied by violent shivering fits, which soon rendered those attacked so weak that they could not stand up, but were forced to lie in their beds consumed by violent fever. Soon the boils grew to the size of a walnut, then to that of a hen's egg or a goose's egg, and they were exceedingly painful, and irritated the body, causing the sufferer to vomit blood. The sickness lasted three days, and on the fourth, at the latest, the patient succumbed. As soon as anyone in Catania was seized with a headache and shivering, he knew that he was bound to pass away within the specified time. . . . When the plague had attained its height in Catania, the patriarch endowed all ecclesiastics, even the youngest, with all priestly powers for the absolution of sin which he himself possessed as bishop and patriarch. But the pestilence raged from October 1347 to April 1348. The patriarch himself was one of the last to be carried off. He died fulfilling his duty. At the same time, Duke Giovanni, who had carefully avoided every infected house and every patient, died.


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