The Black Death – How the Black Death received its name
The Black Death was so named due to its physical manifestation and its affect on society. The total number of deaths attributable to this devastating pandemic was 75 million people. The Black Death was characterized by painful swelling in the lymph nodes known as buboes so it was generally considered to be an outbreak of the bubonic plague. It was caused by the organism,Yersinia pestis which was carried about from the bodies of black rats by fleas. Victims of the disease were covered with dark blotches due to damage to the underlying skin and tissue. This medical phenomenon known as acral necrosis or subdural hemorrhages gave rise to the term black death.
The term black also referred to glum or dreadful due to the devastating effect this disease had on society. History records the Black Death as having begun in the fourteenth century in southern Russian near the Crimea. From here, the disease spread along Far Eastern routes towards Western Europe to the Middle East. The disease progressed along the path of commerce and travel; trading ships arrived at ports with entire crews dead of the disease. Pre-existing conditions of war and famine only exacerbated the spread of the disease during this era. Farming and trade patterns were disrupted by war, and adverse weather conditions added to the diminishing supply of grains -- wheat, barley, and oats. Populations already weakened by malnutrition were more susceptible to the disease. The loss of laborers, due to famine and sickness, negatively affected economy which led to poverty and crime.
The Black Death – Manifestations of the epidemic
The Black Death had three manifestations -- bubonic plague, pneumonic plague, and septicaemic plague. The bubonic plague had a thirty to seventy-five percent mortality rate. This manifestation of the disease was characterized by the characteristic swelling of lymph nodes (buboes) along the neck, armpits, and groin. These symptoms were accompanied by fever, chills, joint and headaches, malaise, and nausea.
The pneumonic plague was the second most common form of the disease; this manifestation was transmitted from person to person, an airborne infection. The symptoms included blood-tinged sputum which became increasingly more free-flowing as the disease progressed. This form of the disease had a ninety to ninety-five percent mortality rate.
The Black Death had a third manifestation know as septicaemic plague. This form of the disease had an almost one hundred percent mortality rate. Septicaemic plague was characterized by deep, purple discolorations of the skin and extremely high fevers. This form of the disease was quite rare.
Survivors of the disease had horror stories to tell of life and environment during the plague years. The air was full of the horrific smell of sick, dead and rotting bodies. Quarantines were set up on land to keep infected people out of the city. Quarantine is a word derived from the Italian word for forty; forty being the number of days thought necessary for a virulent disease to run its course. Facilities were set up to allow travelers to wait until the forty days were complete; however, black rats and fleas could not be kept out by these methods so disease continued to be spread.
The Black Death – Moral, Political, and Societal Issues
The Black Death is believed by most historians to have wiped out approximately one-third of the European population. This depopulation had a variety of effects. The European peasant class benefited on the one hand; they were in greater demand due to shortage of labor and there were large areas of unattended fertile land which became available to them. Landlords offered incentives to the peasants combining freedom and increased wages; many historians hold that these were the first stirrings of capitalism. Governments, ill prepared for the scope of the tragedy instituted measures such as price controls and prohibition of certain food items. This was largely ineffective.
The influence of the Church was greatly diminished during this period. Many became disillusioned with the Church for its inability to halt the relentless progression of the disease. Faith in God was sorely tested. . . ”Why did God not answer and turn the disease back?” Many monasteries suffered high mortality due to the fact that disease victims sought help from the clergy, thus passing the disease to them. As a result, the dead clergy were replaced overtime with new church leaders – but these lacked the experience and dedication of those who had passed on. Persecutions against “minority groups” Jews, foreigners in general, and lepers arose; they were blamed for having “caused” the plague.
Biblically, plague has always been seen as a means of divine punishment by God. The classic example of this is the Ten Plagues brought against the Egyptians when Pharaoh refuses to release God’s people, Israel. The Bible does not prophesy the Black Death, so it is difficult to characterize it as a scourge from God. It is sufficient if the plague provoked men to think of their priorities and their own mortality to the extent that they might seek God.
“Some became fools through their rebellious ways and suffered affliction because of their iniquities. They loathed all food and drew near the gates of death. Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress. He sent forth his word and healed them; he rescued them from the grave. Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for men” (Psalm 107:17-21).