Discover How Bubonic Plague (Black Death) Ended and the World Went Back to Normal - The Comprehensive Minds

Discover How Bubonic Plague (Black Death) Ended and the World Went Back to Normal

How Bubonic Plague (Black Death) Ended and the World Went Back to Normal
Credit: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

The Black Death surged unstoppably throughout Eurasia for years, killing people in painful, excruciating ways within days of infection. Almost no one who caught it stood a chance. By the time it was done, about a third of the world’s population lay dead. So how did this deadly widespread contagion finally end? 

Europe in 1347: famines, tuberculosis, smallpox, beheadings, STDs…old age seemed like the least common way for anyone to die at the time. Even giving birth gave you good odds of ending up in a grave. 

In this time of generally widespread disease and danger, no one could have imagined that a plague that would outdo all the other plagues thus far was about to make its horrific entrance. Of course, Europeans had heard of the “GreatPestilence” that was spreading through the Middle East and Asia. However, in a situation that thankfully would never be repeated again, they just kept going on about their business hoping the problem would fix itself before really affecting them. 

And yet one day, undeterred by state lines, the bubonic plague made its European debut. 12 ships from the Black Sea docked in the sunny Sicilian port of Messina, and people working on the docks went to greet the sailors and get the cargo. That’s when they noticed something odd. 

Most of the sailors were dead, and the few who remained alive were covered in disgusting black boils hemorrhaging blood and pus. No one knew exactly what was going on, but getting the ships and boil-covered sailors as far away from Messina as possible seemed like a good call. To where they didn’t really care. Sicilian authorities told the “death ships” to leave the port. Unfortunately, it was already too late. 

Not only was the bubonic plague one of the most virulent, contagious diseases known to man, and thus had probably already spread to some dockworkers in the brief contact they had with the sailors; the flea-ridden rats that had originally infected the sailors had already abandoned ship. 

Scurrying their way right into the cobblestone streets of Messina. From Messina, the plague spread through Italy, up into France, Germany, and even London within the year. Even in a time of such slow, arduous travel, the Black Death tore its way through the continent with unimaginable force and speed. Between 1346 and 1353, the Black Death killed a higher proportion of the world population than any other singular event in history. 

It killed 25 million people in Europe in a period of four years, and over this climax of its spread, is estimated to have destroyed 75 million lives worldwide. Keep in mind, this was during a time when the entire global population was estimated to be around 380 million. Some estimates even put the Plague’s total death toll higher, at around 200 million, and global population estimates higher as well.

Bubonic Plague (Black Death)
Credit: Wikicommons

However, even the minimum death count is horrifying to comprehend. It took 200 years for the world to rebuild its population to pre-plague levels. We assume part of the reason for the lengthy repopulating process was that seeing boil-covered humans and death all around you for years is bound to have an effect on your sex drive. But for the world population to bounce back that meant...the Black Plague had to end. So how did it? Did it just run its course? Or did people start getting better at stopping the spread and fighting it? 

The answer is actually nuanced, as most scientific and medical issues are, despite what your self-diagnosis via WebMD may tell you. Many experts have an explanation they favor most, but they also agree that the Black Plague ended as a result of a combination of factors. First of all, the extreme deadliness of theBlack Plague proved to be part of its eventual undoing. 

The disease killed so many people so quickly, that at some point, it ran out of victims. When the bubonic plague struck a person, they quickly fell grievously ill. Symptoms included fevers of 100 to 106 degrees Fahrenheit (38 to 41 degrees Celsius), nausea, vomiting, severe joint pain, and headaches. 

The most unique symptoms of the plague were the “buboes'' that gave it its name: large egg-shaped boils that oozed pus and blood. Charming. People who fell ill usually became confined to their homes and died within three to eight days. Over 80% of all those infected, died. Thus the odds once you caught the disease were….not great. This is why highly deadly pathogens have a way of wiping themselves out. 

A disease that kills so many so fast eventually reduces its own chances of spreading, and therefore, surviving. At some point, there were literally just not many people left to kill, and not that dense a population to work through. Especially when people wised up to the fact that staying away from the sick would help them survive. 

The second reason the plague ended was that people started trying to prevent its transmission. Doctors initially had no good advice to give the population. This was a previously unknown disease, and also, most doctors at the time thought leeches helped depression. Unless Gwyneth Paltrow is your medical professional, we generally expect better medical advice and treatment these days. 

For an example of doctors’ opinions about the disease during that era, one plague doctor stated his belief that “instantaneous death occurs when the aerial spirit escaping from the eyes of the sick man strikes the healthy person standing near and looking at the sick”. He wasn’t exactly wrong about the ease of transmission, and the fact that the bubonic plague could be spread via the air. But his reasoning as to how and why was...suspect. 

However, despite the horrific state of medicine at the time, people eventually realized that the more they came into contact with others, the more likely they would be to catch this deadly new disease. So people started escaping the big, dense cities of Europe and going to the countryside. However, the plague, carried by fleas on rats and livestock, followed them out there as well. So more stringent measures were taken. 

Storeowners closed up shops and stayed home. Priests wouldn’t administer last rites. Doctors refused to see patients; given our previous statements, this was probably for the best. And cremation became extremely popular in order to both minimize the existence of plague-carrying bodies and also save space as corpses quickly filled up mass graves. 

Bubonic Plague (Black Death)_1
Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Tragically, people were even forced to leave their sick and suffering family members behind to have a shot at escaping the plague. Thomas Mockaitis, a history professor at DePaulUniversity, explains that “people had no real understanding of how to fight it other than trying to avoid sick people”. That’s why in Italy, where the disease had first infected Europe, they decided to start a new practice. 

In the Venetian-controlled port city of Ragusa, incoming sailors were kept on their ships in isolation for 30 days. Eventually, the isolation period increased to 40 days, which in Italian was called “quarantino”. This led to the origin of our current word that we’ve become way too depressingly familiar with: “quarantine”. The practice worked, as incoming cases, of bubonic plague were greatly reduced. 

Even with quarantine procedures, however, what was to be done about the fleas and rats transmitting the disease? These two animals still carried the bacteria, known as Yersinia pestis, that spread the plague. Well, most European cities decided that greatly improving their sanitation procedures would help in this regard - as it does in most regards, actually. 

It turns out the cleaner a place is, the fewer fleas and rats tend to congregate there, as most students discover after freshman year in their college dorms. People also strived to improve their personal hygiene, which helped keep even more fleas at bay. Again, we’re unsure why this wasn’t a thing before, but apparently, people learning to wash their hair more than once a month was the tiniest of silver linings to the horrific mass death of the plague. 

So the deadliness of the plague itself, combined with quarantine procedures and better sanitation, helped curb the spread of the Black Death. What was the final factor that put a stop to it? 

In 2010, researchers collected DNA from mass graves of Black Plague victims and found that the DNA of the bacteria was vastly different from the current form of the plague. It was a far deadlier strain of the disease. As we said before, highly fatal pathogens must eventually find a way to be less deadly, in order to keep their own reproduction going. 

So the evolution of bacterial DNA helped lessen the deadliness of the bacteria, but that’s not the only way DNA transformation helped stop the plague. It turns out, human DNA mutations also helped it lose momentum. Apparently, a certain DNA mutation that has been shown to help protect against HIV in humans today first appeared in a widespread way in the population in the 1300s. The most likely reason? “A widespread fatal epidemic”. 

The disease didn’t cause the mutation; it simply disproportionately affected those without it, leading more of those with the mutation to pass down their genes. A combination of all these factors stopped the plague in its tracks. Unfortunately, people at the time also tried to end the Black Death in several ill-advised and horrifying ways. 

Many believed the plague was, in fact, God punishing the population for their sins. Therefore, they would have to demonstrate repentance and devotion to God in order to escape this curse. For some reason, some believed the best way to do this was to hunt down and kill anyone they deemed sinful or heretic. 

God punishing the population for their sins
Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When these people asked themselves “what would Jesus do”, their answer apparently was massacring large groups of people, especially Jewish populations. Demonstrating that they clearly missed the entire point of their religion. 

Other less terrifying but equally ineffective remedies involved doctors telling plague patients to bathe in rosewater or vinegar to help cleanse the disease out. This worked about as well as anyone would expect, which is to say, not at all. Turns out rosewater does little to stop bacteria with an 80% kill rate. 

Though the Black Death peaked in the years of 1346 and 1353, it by no means went away after that. Smaller outbreaks would resurge for hundreds of years, with the last notable one being the Great Plague of London in 1665. 

Some believe the Great Fire of London in 1666 helped put a stop to the disease’s spread, as it burned many of the rats and fleas carrying it, but most historians and medical experts dispute that story. 

However, this last big iteration of the disease did inspire the well-known childrens’ nursery rhyme “ring-a-ring of roses”. Londoners thought holding a posy of flowers up to their nose would help protect them from the plague. This explains the lyrics “a pocket full of posies”. “A tissue, a tissue, we all fall down” refers to people falling ill and needing tissues...and then dropping dead. The original lyrics, in fact, were, “we all fall down dead”. In case you needed further proof that the original versions of children's stories and rhymes were all deranged. 

Today, the bacteria that caused the BlackDeath still exists, but it is now treatable with antibiotics. About 7 cases of bubonic plague are reported in the US every year, and around 1,000 to 3,000 worldwide, mostly on the African continent. Meaning you have a higher chance of dying by a lightning strike than the plague these days. And now that we know how the Black Death ended and never have to worry about a pandemic tearing through the world again.

Plague 101

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