The BLACK DEATH, also known as the bubonic plague, is a contagious, often fatal epidemic disease caused by the bacterium, Yersinia pestis, transmitted from person to person or by the bite of fleas from an infected host, especially a rat, and characterized by chills, fever, vomiting, diarrhea, and the formation of buboes.





The Black Death first appeared in London in 1348, brought there by the fleas living on rats which came ashore from ships arriving from Asia. Already this terrible epidemic had killed millions people before reaching the European continent where the initial outbreak occurred in and around Italy. The disease struck and killed people with terrible speed. In October, 1347 an eyewitness account claimed:

"Realizing what a deadly disaster had come to them, Italians were driven from their city. But the disease remained, and soon death was everywhere. Fathers abandoned their sick sons. Lawyers refused to come and make out wills for the dying. Friars and nuns were left to care for the sick, and monasteries and convents were soon deserted, as they were stricken, too. Bodies were left in empty houses, and there was no one to give them a Christian burial."

By the following August, the plague had spread as far north as England, where people called it "The Black Death" because of the black spots it produced on the skin. A terrible killer was loose across Europe, and Medieval medicine had nothing to stop it. In the winter, the disease seemed to disappear, but only because fleas--which were a major connection in spreading the disease, --are dormant at this time. Each spring, the plague attacked again, killing new victims. After five years 25 million people were dead--one-third of Europe's people.




The "Black Death" was caused by the bacillus which was primarily an internal parasite of wild rodents, such as rats, mice and squirrels. It is carried to man by fleas deserting dying or dead animals in search of nourishment. It may enter the bloodstream directly as the flea bites the human or indirectly through contact between the fleas' excrement, and scratches or lesions on the the skin. (The Deadly Cycle)

When the bacteria invade the lymph nodes, the nodes swell and are called Buboes. Blood vessels break and cause internal bleeding. The dried blood under the skin turns black, hence the name "Black Death". (Gross Pictures) Symptoms include high fevers and aching limbs and vomiting of blood. The swellings continue to expand until they eventually burst, with death following soon after. The whole process from fever and aches to final expiration, is 3-4 days. The swiftness of the disease, the terrible pain, the grotesque appearance of the victims, all served to make the plague especially terrifying.

Another form of the disease was labeled as pneumonic plague so named because it was spread by infected droplets of the bacteria being inhaled from a sneeze of a stricken person.




Little could be done to cure diseases because no one really knew what caused them. Some people blamed the stars when they became ill. Some thought gluttony or drunkeness was the cause. Some blamed England's cold, damp climate. During the widespread outbreaks of the disease such as the plague, Jews were accused of poisoning wells. It was not until the invention of the microscope in the next century that scientists could see what caused the disease and how it was spread. Doctors and city officials knew the plague was highly contagious, but had no idea how it was spread. They knew the bodies of the dead should be avoided, that their houses should be shut up, (or quarantined) and that garbage should be burned. Their orders were mostly ignored. Elizabethan government was "insufficiently organized to carry out with success an strict set of unpopular orders...the authorities were forced to sit with folded hands until the plague had run its course."

Additional measures taken by the city government were requiring the flushing of water into the streets after 8:00 P.M., shutting down theaters (1592-1594), and requiring the burning of any or all clothing belonging to the dead person. Hygiene, infection, and disease were a great mystery to all during the Elizabethan era, and the treatments were much the same as when the epidemics appeared in the Middle Ages...ineffective.


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