The Black Death in the 14th Century

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Survivors and Consequences of the Black Death

There are some attempts to explain why the bubonic plague broke out but many of them do not give a very clear picture or the reason why. The disease emerged from Asia, in the Chinese Gobu desert. The disease was spread by fleas infesting rats. The disease was more pronounced in England where it arrived in 1347. It was brought here by the trade ship Genoese. By the time the ship reached the shore at Messina, Sicily, many of those who were infected had already died. Attempts were made to take the ship out of the harbor but the effort east out of time. The region was already infected with pestilence. The diseases spread very fast to other areas. The lines of spread were those followed by caravans for trade. Italy and England were all infected in a very short period of time. In five years, over 25 million people had already died of the disease.

The Cause

The causative agent of the disease was the bacterium of the Yersinia species, Yersinia pestis to be precise. This bacterium species changes rapidly and dynamically in the host (Byrne 2004, 23). It’s believed that this species had evolved over several thousand years from the natural Yersinia Pseudotunerculosis bacterium that lives in the gut of the rats (Duncan & Scott 2005, 315). With time, the new variant had acquired the ability to live in the blood of mammals instead of the gut (intestines). This ability though came with devastating results as the bacterium was able to cause fatal swelling, coughs and hemorrhage (Cohn 2002, p. 45). Essentially, there is no direct contact with humans when the bacteria are in their natural states as they are hosted by fleas and live in the blood of the black rats (Byrne 2004, p. 23). However, when the host rats die, the fleas look for better alternatives for survival. This way, they even attack humans


The infected person suffered the following symptoms; fever, diarrhea, large swellings usually referred to as buboes, the swelling came at sites of the bites from the fleas like at the groin area, armpits or the neck (Byrne 2004, p. 23). The boils on the body are black due to blood clots hence the adoption of the name black death. The disease soon became airborne and can spread from one person to the next through the air. The disease killed victims in a very short span of time, 3 to 6 days. This was so alarming to the inhabitants (Cohn 2002, p. 45). A joke was made about it that a victim would enjoy lunch with friends and dinner in paradise with great grandfathers.

The Impact of Bubonic

The history of Europe in this context has been divided into periods pertaining to the time before, during and after the bubonic plague. The reasons for this are that the population decline was so massive (Cohn 2002, p. 45). The declines of the population were a big blow to the societal organization and operation, agriculture, family and administration was reorganized. Second, another writer’s believed that overpopulation had to be checked and nature had a way of doing this. It would be through famine, epidemic and other natural means. Europe was very populated because its agriculture was doing very well and it could feed its people without any hardship (Hunt 2009, p. 48).

A greater part of Europe was already destroyed by 1351. The number of deaths was estimated to be at least one-third of the entire population. The plaque was not discriminatory and it attacked people of all sorts and in different workstations. Both the poor and the rich faced the problems and died of the disease. Even Queen Navarre was affected, archbishops and the king’s daughter perished during the plague (Cohn 2002, p. 47). The people of Eyam who were exposed and did not suffer the plaque definitely changed the way they perceived humanity and the behavior of human beings. This was a new twist in their psychological growth.

Society took a new shape and the societal organization was somehow skewed. Older and Greedy people married very young survivors just to benefit from the inheritances left by family. Some peasants took over the wealth of their dead masters including total possession of everything left (Hunt 2009, p. 48). Many products were available cheaply but the demand was very low as many people had perished. This led to a reduction of prices to a great extend. Survivors could afford very luxury products. Due to the fact that people feared each other because of the plaques, People avoided so much socialization to stay away from the disease. Furthermore, few people were left behind and they cared more about seeking to accumulate wealth and stay away from the disease. This lead to the development of individualism as people only minded their own business (Hunt 2009, p. 48). This was more to live life to the fullest alone. Even the church and God almost lost meaning. People wondered why God had not saved the land yet the teachings f the clergy was always that they were God’s chosen and God was on their side. So where was he when they were suffering? Since traditionally, the clergy were thought to be the link between, God and the people, individuals started questioning this and in fact, it perceived that even though this did not instigate reformation, it hastened its emergence(Herlihy, & Cohn 2007, p. 123).

Black Death had a great change on the relationships that existed between the rich and the servants. Manor lords lost their workers and at this point, the manorial system ended. The labor force was reduced and as a result, the cost skyrocketed. The freed peasants demand very high salaries. Living standards went up (Slack 1999, p. 463). The peasants could afford to rent land (Huppert 1999, p. 56). A notable change was also in the aspect of language. French was the official language that had been initiated during the Norman Conquest. However, after the plaque, many officials who were fluent in English died including the teachers. The language changed to English which was then spoken by the commoners. The use of French was lost from that moment (Shrewsbury 2005, p. 73).

Also, affect was the field of medicine and the study of science in general. Medieval medicine was unable to deal with the outbreak of bubonic plague. The then doctors and scientists were provoked to study other means of fighting the disease and better ways of exploring the way a human body operated. By that time, medicine study was based on the works of Galen and hypocrites (Huppert 1999, p. 56). New advances enabled the practitioner to figure out the loopholes in old methods and a new study method was invented. This was a direct dissection of the real human bodies (cadavers). Before then, the church had completely forbidden such acts of mutilating dead bodies claiming that the souls would not go to heaven if that was done. By 1380, anatomy studies were more accurate (Herlihy, & Cohn 2007, p. 123).

The English culture of today was born during this time. This is because, by then, individualism increased a great deal as identified in earlier paragraphs. Stratification of the society then began (Huppert 1999, p. 56). There was strong emergence of the middle class and then the emergence of the new and modern ways of worship. The outcomes were so devastating but the survivors greatly shaped the new nation that is referred to as England today.

Social Economical and Spiritual Consequence on Survivors

After the bubonic deaths, religion was on the verge of changing. It had played a big role in assisting people to die in grace and arranging proper burials. With very many people dying, mass graves were used and since the disease was very infectious, those to bury were also scared and these services were very hard to provide (Huppert 1999, p. 56).

Fearing infection, people isolated themselves and social chaos set in. there was depression and individual anxiety. That type of relation posed fear to one’s life and those of the loved ones and developed into panic or rage in some people. There were bizarre acts that emerged. Flagellants came up with weird acts of whipping themselves and marched from town to the next and claimed that was a punishment from God (Shrewsbury 2005, p. 73). Some took issues with immigrants and other minorities and they were perceived to be practicing witchcraft.

Personified death came to be very common. It was also better for a person to die and getaway rather than have to live and watch one suffer. Dealing with the work of caring for the sick was very tough. Personified death was like the dance of death or the skull and crossed bones (Shrewsbury 2005, p. 73). Also used at that moment in time was the art of dying. Depiction of the sign of death like a corpse, skeleton and hooded images were so prevalent during the plaque and this was a sign that the society was disorganized.

Was Survival a Genetic Factor?

Many survivors especially from Eyam have told very perplexing stories. There are some people who got in contact with the infected people hence the bacteria but never suffered the disease themselves. For instance, Hancock Elizabeth buried her husband all her children six them. All this happened in one week but she never got the disease herself (Shrewsbury 2005, p. 73). There was also a village gravedigger and he handled hundreds of bodies that had died from the plaque but he never suffered the illness himself. Does it mean these people were immune to the plaque? According to Dr. O’Brien Stephen, survival was a genetic factor (Mecsas et al 2004, p. 606). According to his studies, there are some gens that had undergone mutation among the survivors in Eyam. The CCR5 gene had a delta 32 mutation. These mutations in HIV prevented the virus from entering the human cell. In the same manner, Obrien believed that this fact also applied to the Yersinia pestis. To determine this hypothesis, the descendants of the survivors were studied. O’Brien took samples of DNA of the people believed to be the real descendant of the Eyam survivors.

It’s a fact that for these organisms to cause disease there must be a way of getting into the cell. The Yersinia bacterium used the same means. It had to hijack white blood cells that were set to attack it. The bacterium would then be taken to the lymph node in the white blood cells, where the bacteria would burst out and then invade the immune system from the core (Slack 1999, p. 463). It is probable that delta 32 mutation on CC5, must have prevented this entry. A population that survived the plaque was isolated to verify the finding(Mecsas et al 2004, 606). The entire residents were exposed meaning that there could be several life-saving factors that any of the survivors had. After isolating the DNA from the direct descendants, it was discovered that they had delta 32 at a rate of 14%. This was statistically significant considering it had been 350 years after the plaque. O’Brien also investigated other populations for more refining results. Native Africans did not have that mutation at all. Indians and other populations outside Europe had zero rates(Mecsas et al 2004, p. 606).


When Black Death hit Europe in the 14th century, it caused a lot of problems on the continent. Almost everybody if not all were affected in some manner if they lived in an area infected. The impact could have been social, economic or mental. The disease was so horrible but still, there were survivors despite the infectious nature the disease had. There is evidence to show that survival was genetic factors and not a spiritual issue as many people were then suggesting.

References List

  1. Byrne, Joseph Patrick. 2004. The Black Death, London, Greenwood Publishing Group
  2. Cohn, Samuel Kline. 2002. The Black Death Transformed: Disease and Culture in Early Renaissance Europe. Arnold, London. ISBN 0340706473
  3. Duncan, Christopher & Scott, Susan. 2005. What Causes the Black Death, Postgrad Med J Vol 8, issues 955 pp 315-320
  4. Herlihy, David and Cohn, Samuel. 2007. The Black Death and the Transformation of the West, Cambridge, MA, HARVARD University Press
  5. Hunt, Lynn. 2009. The Making of the West – Peoples and Cultures. Bedford/ St Martin’s, Boston/ New York
  6. Huppert, George. 1999. after the Black Death: A Social History of Early Modern Europe, Bloomington: Indiana University Press
  7. Mecsas, Joan., Franklin, Greg., Kuziel, William., Brubaker, Robert., Falkow, Stanley and Mosie, et al. 2004. CCR5 mutation and plague protection. Nature2004; 427:606
  8. Shrewsbury, Joseph. 2005. A History of Bubonic Plague in the British Isles, Cambridge University Press.
  9. Slack, Paul. (1999). The Black Death Past and Present. 2. Some Historical Problems, Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, Vol. 83, Vol.4 pp 462-463

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