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The Black Death is the name given to one of the worst outbreaks of disease in the recorded history of the human race. Taking place in the middle of the fourteenth century, this pandemic caused the death of millions of people in Europe and Asia. Traditionally, bubonic plague was thought to be the infection that was at the core of this phenomenon. However, recent research indicates the mass deaths may have actually been due to a combination of several infections.
Many sources believe the beginning of the plague can be traced to Central Asia or China. One theory is that the plague developed in the lungs of marmots, which then transmitted the infection to rats and fleas. There is speculation that the infection was carried to Europe by way of soldiers, as well as merchants and traders who bought and sold goods from the Orient. By the 1340s, large numbers of people were infected and beginning to die. The best estimates hold the death toll at somewhere between seventy-five and one hundred million, with roughly twenty-five to fifty million deaths taking place in Europe alone.
For many years, conventional wisdom held the Black Death was the Bubonic Plague. While there is no doubt that this infection of the lymph nodes was present, many experts also believe Pneumonic Plague and Septicemic Plague were also present. These other two infections, which affect the lungs and the blood respectively, help explain some of the observations recorded in many of the records dating from the era.
Whatever the combination of infections that led to the deaths of millions of people, there is a great deal of information about the more common symptoms. Difficulty breathing, as well as a great deal of coughing took place. As the condition would worsen, sores would begin to appear on the arms and legs, then spread to the rest of the body. Pus and blood oozing from the skin were not uncommon, along with the darkening of the skin due to the occurrence of hemorrhaging. Gangrene would also develop in the extremities. As the infection continued, fevers, chills, vomiting, nausea and other debilitating signs would appear, and remain until the individual died, often within seven days of showing the first signs.
The effects of the Black Death went far beyond the deaths that took place during the middle years of the 14th century. As people looked for some reason for the mass loss of life, many assumed it was a sign of displeasure on the part of God. This led some in the Christian community to determine that taking action against those where were not in the Church was necessary to appease God and stop the plague. There are also theories that the long range Black Death effects included a number of culture chancing events, such as the development of new methods of planting and cultivation, as well as the major shift in Christianity known as the Protestant Reformation.
Today, Black Death history is undergoing reevaluation. Advances in medicine have made it possible to learn more about the specific symptoms and causes of the mass deaths. Contemporary archaeological methods is making it possible to understand the time and culture of 14the century Europe with greater accuracy. As researchers learn more about this pivotal event in human history, there is a good chance that the understanding of the plague and its effects will continue to expand.
To see the lasting effect of the Black Death in Europe, one just has to go to almost any city larger than 100 thousand people. Many cities of this size, if they are old enough, have a plague statue- most that I've seen are grey stone with accents of gold, showing angels or other biblical figures, crosses, and Latin script. They are usually very impressive; the statue in Vienna is perhaps the most enormous I've seen.
While most people who live in these cities barely give them a second thought, the can be really fascinating if you're seeing them for the first time.
The time of the medieval black death has had many other small and weird effects on society. One example I can think of is that many children's songs relate to it, most famously "ring around the rosie". This song talks about a rose-like rash, the symptom of some plagues; the act of using flowers to cover the smell of the disease; the ashes of the bodies; and the falling down at the end.
Some people don't believe this, disputing the symptoms as not being like the Bubonic plague or the song as not being old enough. To me, though, it fits just enough to be pretty creepy.