7 Facts About The Black Death

1. The label ‘black death’ wasn’t actually used by people at the time. They referred to the plague as ‘the great mortality’ or ‘the great plague’.

2. There are three types of plague: bubonic, pneumonic, and septicaemic.

Bubonic

  • symptoms appear 1 – 7 day after exposure
  • symptoms include fever, headache, vomiting
  • swollen and painful bubos (which may break open) appear on the lymph nodes
  • spread by infected fleas from small animals (ie rats)
  • mortality rate: 90%

Pneumonic

  • symptoms appear 3 – 7 days after exposure
  • symptoms include fever, headache, shortness of breath, chest pain, coughing
  • transferred via airborne droplets from another infected person
  • mortality rate: 100%

Septicaemic

  • rarest of the three
  • death may occur before symptoms appear
  • symptoms include stomach pain, bleeding under the skin, bleeding from the nose or mouth, diarrhea, fever, vomiting, gangrene, trouble breathing
  • transferred via infected fleas
  • mortality rate: 100%

3. Between 40 and 60% of the European population died of the great mortality. Some estimates are as high as 75% and some regions were hit harder than others. It took 300 years for the population to return to pre-plague levels.

4. The survival rate was much higher amongst the upper classes, who could afford to leave crowded, infected cities and shut themselves away in the country.

5. The plague doctor costume, often used/shown when discussing the great mortality, was invented in 1619, and was NOT around during the fourteenth century outbreak.

6. Some of the immediate consequences of the great plague included a halt to the campaigns of the Hundred Years War; a shortage of field labour, resulting in a rise in wages (and, later, very angry nobles – but that’s another story!); construction of both Ely and Exeter cathedrals was temporarily halted.

7. The nursery rhyme ‘Ring a Ring of Rosies’ is probably NOT about the plague. It first appeared in print in 1881. The connection of this rhyme to the plague didn’t exist until after the Second World War, and the words the interpretation is based on do not appear in the earliest versions of the rhyme.

  • Ring a ring of rosies doesn’t refer to the rash (not really a plague symptom) but instead to a children’s dancing game that takes place around a rose bush
  • The reference to ‘falling down’ refers to a bow or curtsey

The tone changes quite a bit when the second verse is included:

Ring-a-ring o’ roses,
A pocket full of posies,
A-tishoo! A-tishoo!
We all fall down.

Cows in the meadows
Eating buttercups
A-tishoo! A-tishoo!
We all jump up.

 

And now some fun! Which of the following was NOT a cure/preventative treatment for the great mortality? Reply in the comments.

  1. swallow crushed emeralds
  2. live in an open sewer
  3. bathe in urine
  4. drink arsenic or mercury
  5. stuff a dead rat with sand and keep in the house
  6. avoid meat and cheese
  7. smear excrement on yourself

 

Resources:

A Leechbook or Collection of Medical Recipes of the Fifteenth Century, Warren R Dawson.

To the King’s Taste – Richard II’s Book of Feasts and Recipes, Lorna J Sass

Cookery – Illustrated and Household Management, Elizabeth Craig

The Canon of Medicine, Avicenna (trans by O Cameron Gruner and Mazar H Shah)

The Black Death, Philip Ziegler

In the Wake of the Plague, Norman F. Cantor

Hildegard von Bingen’s Physica: The Complete English Translation of Her Classic Work on Health and Healing, Priscilla Throop

The Black Death, Rosemary Horrox

The Measly Middle Ages (Horrible Histories), Terry Deary

Plague, Pox & Pestilence: Disease in History, Kenneth F. Kiple

The Mortecarni – Available in USA, UK, and Canada

4 comments on “7 Facts About The Black Death

  1. Running Elk says:

    I don’t believe that Hilda would have prescribed….
    …well, ANY of these… They are ALL nuts!! lol
    Drinking your own urine, though. Now THAT was a guaranteed cure… 😉

  2. I’m so disappointed about the doctor costume. I love the drama of it. Interesting post!

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