The Impact of the Black Death
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Peschke, Zachary (2007) "The Impact of the Black Death," ESSAI: Vol. 5, Article 32. Available at: http://dc.cod.edu/essai/vol5/iss1/32
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Peschke: The Impact of the Black Death
The Impact of the Black Death
by Zachary Peschke
t the beginning of the 14th century, Europe was in the midst of a revitalization. The agricultural revolution had made food more plentiful than before. More land was being cultivated and life was more optimistic than it had been for centuries. Despite a famine from 1315-1317 and the onset of the Hundred Year’s War, the 14th century continued to be a time of growth in Europe. This growth came to an end in 1347 though, with the emergence of the Black Death. According to Norman Cantor, “The Black Death of 1348-49 was the greatest biomedical disaster in European and possibly world history” (Cantor 6). The Black Death decimated the population of Europe, halted the advancement of science and intellectual endeavors, as well as ushered in a new age of pessimism and morbidness. Europe would not recover from this blow until many centuries later.
The Black Death was a pandemic that affected not only Western Europe, but also the Middle East and Asia during 1347-1351. In Europe alone, it wiped out at least one third of the population, or 20 million people (Cantor 7). The disease behind the pandemic is most commonly explained as the bubonic plague. The bubonic plague is caused by a bacterium from a flea. It is commonly accepted that the fleas attached themselves to black rats, which traveled from Asia to Europe thereby spreading the plague. While this is the most commonly accepted theory behind the Black Death, it is not without flaws, and there are several other theories of what caused the Black Death. The author brings up the possibility that the Black Death was not caused by the bubonic plague alone. Cantor believes a form of cattle disease was involved in addition to the plague, probably anthrax (Cantor 14). Anthrax would account for the equal spread of the Black Death in summer and winter months. The major case for anthrax is the spread of the Black Death in Iceland. It was not until the 1600’s that rats came to Iceland, which would make the spread of the bubonic plague almost impossible without the carriers of the disease (16). More and more this theory of several diseases attributing to the Black Death has caught on. Whether it is finding anthrax spores in the mass graves of plague victims or the recent proof that cattle disease can be transmitted to humans, evidence appears to be indicating that the Black Death was more than just the bubonic plague (15).
The modern understanding of the Black Death is a far cry from what those living through it believed. Most people saw the disease as retribution for sin and immoral behavior (Cantor 120). Doctors attempting to find an explanation other than spiritual turned to a different theory. They “...assumed that it was spread through the air-as a miasma-from person to person” (21). When rational or religious explanations failed, some turned to serpents and snakes as the cause of the spreading of the disease. These animals were exotic to the Europeans and have always been commonly associated with pestilence, as can be seen in the Bible (173). Other theories from this time ranged from astrological alignment to physiological imbalance (119-20). Another explanation that gained popularity was that Jewish people had poisoned the wells and caused the widespread...
Cited: Cantor, Norman. In the Wake of the Plague. New York: Harper Perennial, 2001.
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