Essay, Research Paper: Black Death


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Cantor states that, No one - peasant or aristocrat - was safe from the disease
[bubonic plague], and once it was contracted, a horrible and painful death was
almost a certainty. The dead and the dying lay in the streets abandoned by
frightened friends and relatives (482). This certainly paints an accurate and
horrifying picture of the fourteenth century during the plague. The bubonic
plague, also known as the Black Death or The Plague, (Hindley 103) was one of
the major scourges of the Middle Ages. It killed indiscriminately without
remorse or thought of consequences. Because the plague was so widespread,
theories about causes, blame and a variety of supposed cures abounded. Most of
these were without basis or fact and relied on myths and rumors. Theories for
the causes and blames came from ignorance and hate, two horrible things married
by fear. Some of the cures were not much better than the plague itself. The
plague was transmitted to humans by fleas from infected rats that nested in
people's roofs (Matthew 154). Fourteenth century man had no concept of how the
disease was spread or how it could be stopped. The plague was transmitted to
western Europe from China along trade routes (Matthew 154). Once the plague had
reached the coast of Europe, it was soon transmitted to the countryside through
the commercial trade networks (Matthew 154). The first cases of the plague
occurred in a European colony called Genoa (Blum, Cameron and Barnes 38). It was
"besieged in 1347" by mongols, who flung plague riddled bodies over
the walls of Genoa. This was considered "an early form of biological
warfare" (Blum, Cameron and Barnes 38). According to Matthews,
"Experts could do nothing to cure or explain the plague" (154). The
people of this period had no idea what they were dealing with. Even if they had
known what caused the plague, their medical technology was almost nonexistent,
so they could not have invented a cure (Matthew 154). Though the doctors of the
time were unable to cure the disease, or even explain it, they did observe its
symptoms and try to supply theories of the plague's cause (Matthew 154-5).
People were aware that if you came in contact with the sick or their belongings
(clothing, bedding, etc...) you would soon be afflicted with the disease (Herlihy
353). Medieval man also knew that animals could catch the disease from a
person's material possessions (Herlihy 353) but they never realized they could
catch the plague from animals. There were three main theories about why the
plague had stricken an area. The first is a "corrupted atmosphere" or
bad air, the second was the alignment of the planets, and the third the wrath of
God (Ziegler 3). Some people said there were clouds that carried the plague
(Ziegler 3-4). Others believed that it was a cloud made from steam that had
risen from dead fish (Ziegler 4). Some believed that the placement of the
planets was the cause of the plague (Ziegler 25). The medical department at the
University of Paris told Phillip VI in a report in 1348, that the alignment of
Saturn, Jupiter and Mars on March 20, 1345 was the cause of the plague (Ziegler
25). A popular theory was that the plague was the wrath of God. This was
supposedly brought on by sins (Bartel 62). Some sins were worse than others such
as "lust, pride, whoredom" (Bartel 62). There were also other
theories. The Scottish people thought that the English were being punished for
the terrible things they had done to the Scots in the past. So the Scots invaded
England while it was weak, "laughing at their enemies", until they,
too, fell prey to the disease (Ziegler 159). The Jewish people were also blamed
for the spread of the disease. Thousands of Jews were murdered as scapegoats
(Ziegler 80). Many supposed cures arose in response to the plague. Some believed
that if they lived moderately, consumed the most delicate foods and wines, and
abstained from sex, that their resistance to the plague would be higher (Herlihy
354). There were others that believed the exact opposite. They believed in
"heavy drinking", and lots of "cheer" and
"singing" (Herlihy 354) to keep them safe. Still others chose to live
their lives at an even keel, not too moderate, not too heavy (Herlihy 354). In
Rowlings' Everyday Life of Medieval travellers, she states that "Flight
became increasingly one of the commonest means adopted to escape from this
dreaded disease" (118). People also believed that if you burned fires, with
"stinkpots" filled with various herbs and other natural ingredients,
that it would "correct the infectious air" (Bartel 53). Perfumes made
from roots and oils was another popular cure that individuals used to clean the
air (Bartel 54). According to Bartel, an internal cure was to "take garlic
with, butter, a clove, two or three, according as it shall agree with their
bodies" (54). Some doctors believed that "pure water mixed with a
great deal of salt was a cure (Bartel 55). Royalty got into the cure game with
"the King's Majesty's Excellent Receipt for the Plague" and "a
drink for the plague prepared by Lord Bacon, and approved by Queen
Elizabeth" (Bartel 55). There were others called flagellants that walked
the roads whipping themselves to ward off the plague (Wright 153). The reality
according to Herlihy was that, "In the cure of these illnesses, neither the
advice of a doctor nor the power of any medicine appeared to help and to do any
good" (353). The Black Death killed about a third of Europe's population.
The reign of terror lasted for twenty years in the fourteenth century (Cantor
477). This horrible disease killed young and old, rich and poor. The plague knew
no boundaries. Today we might think that the beliefs of the fourteenth century
were barbaric and archaic, but it has only been in the last one hundred years
that scientists and doctors have discovered the cause of the bubonic plague.
Believing that the plague was caused by bad air, the planets positions or the
Jews or that it could be cured with fire or herbs seemed logical to fourteenth
century man although it may seem foolish to modern man.

BibliographyBartel, Roland, ed. London in Plague and Fire. BostonD.C. Heath and Company,
1957. Blum, Jerome, Cameron, Rondo, and Barnes, Thomas G. The European World A
History. BostonLittle, Brown and Company, 1970. Cantor, Norman. The Civilization
of the Middle Ages. New York HarperCollins Publishers, 1993. Herlihy, David, ed.
Medieval Culture and Society. New York Walker and Company, 1968. Hindley,
Geoffrey. The Medieval Establishment. New YorkG.P. Putnam's Sons, 1970. Matthew,
Donald. Atlas of Medieval Europe. New YorkFacts on File, Inc., 1983. Rowling,
Marjorie. Everyday Life of Medieval Travellers. LondonB.T. Batsford LTD, 1971.
Wright, Esmond, ed. The Medieval and Renaissance World. Secaucus, NJChartwell
Books Inc., 1979. Ziegler, Phillip. The Black Death. Wolfeboro Falls, N.H.Alan
Sutton Publishing, 1991.
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