Is everything you know about the Black Death wrong?


I thoroughly endorse this post, with much relief.

Thanks for spreading it about, Maggie.

BONUS: A handy flow chart for determining if there are any plague victims in your cemetery!


“[T]he Black Death affected many cities and countries over a very long period of time…”

This is something that I always noticed in the scant coverage of The Black Death I got in school. (It remains one of those subjects I mean to get around to reading more about.) As I recall the worst of it came to an end with the Great Fire of London, but it seemed like it had been going on for a really long time before that–and that during that time other things, like wars, were also taking place, so it wasn’t affecting every part of Europe equally.

Did it wipe out a third of Europe’s population, though? Neither article says, but that claim always seemed fishy to me. There was never a specific time frame given, and, if you look at a long enough period, you can safely say that death by one cause or another wiped out one-hundred percent of the population.

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Hah! I remember that Verlander clip. Poor guy. Somehow the worst-hitting team in World Series history pummeled the supposedly best pitcher that year.

The single most overlooked aspect of the plague is the direct role it played in setting the stage for the Renaissance. By simultaneously relieving pressure on food production while leaving infrastructure intact a large number of people suddenly found that the effort required to survive was sharply reduced and freed that effort for other pursuits.

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This is hopefully something I aim to address once I’ve finished my thesis (I’m the ‘author’ the post at the link above). There are LOADS of misconceptions about the plague, especially the ‘earliest’ outbreak - the Black Death in the mid 14th century. However, the estimate of 30% is a pretty accurate one (as far as the data suggests) - but of course some areas will be significantly higher and others not at all. It’s not the Black (and White) Death, better the Grey Death in terms of drawing any generic conclusions!


Yes. But the death toll was considerably higher in some places, and considerably lower in others, and hit different European areas at different times. That’s an overall number… some towns lost 75% or more of their populations, some were completely bypassed.

I’m not in any sense an expert on Asian history but I believe the mortality in India was even higher, and Persia took it pretty hard too.


So, since it appears we have a couple of actual experts here:

Isn’t the bubonic plague always inherently both a flea-borne and an airborne disease?

My understanding has been that “pneumonic plague” is simply an additional set of symptoms which the disease takes on once it gets into the lungs and respiratory system, which then opens up a second way for it to spread from person to person. If you catch it by inhaling infected droplets, then naturally your lungs will get most heavily infected first and you’ll show that set of symptoms first.

The plague is generally said to have three forms: bubonic, pneumonic, and septaecemic, which can be either primary or secondary. If you first acquire bubonic plague and the infection progresses to your lungs, it is secondary pneumonic (usually acquired via insect). If someone were to be infected by inhaling infected droplets from this person, it is primary pneumonic (usually acquired via human).

The distinction is important because pneumonic plague is invariably fatal without treatment (e.g. in the medieval period) and if treated, it must be done in a very short window to be effective. It is for this reason that most pneumonic plague outbreaks tend to be short-lived as they both spread and then kill individuals ‘too quickly’ for the disease to progress. In a densely populated urban environment, they can last longer - but bubonic plague, because of reservoirs in rodent and animal populations, will always outlast the pneumonic plague.

Therefore secondary pneumonic exists within a bubonic outbreak that will last longer, whereas primary pneumonic will form its own outbreak that will end more quickly.


This seems like a good place to ask - if an Ebola infected person boards a plane in Guinea, are we done for?

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I always find the story of Eyam (a village in the Midlands of England) to be fascinating. When the black death came from London in 1665, the rector quarantined the whole village rather than fleeing and potentially spreading the disease to the north. Family members had to bury their own dead, church services were held in the open to avoid spreading the disease and food was brought to the border of the village by outsiders in exchange for money, which was left in a water trough filed with vinegar to disinfect the coins. By the time the plague had passed over a year later, 260 of the 350 inhabitants were dead (including the rector’s whole family, but not the rector himself).

Admirably clear.

Indeed the similarities between the [primary] pneumonic plague and Ebola Zaire just got a lot clearer in my mind.

What @aatkin said! There’s good reason to believe that the Black Death is the same microorganism as the modern Yersinia pestis that is found in the western United States. Some people (a lot of people, actually) believe that since all modern people of European lineage are the descendants of plague survivors, most of us have some resistance to it. Others believe that it’s our greater understanding of the mechanisms of infection that protects us from another devastating round of bubonic plague.

@jsroberts, I am always amused that people think coinage will carry infection. Paper bills certainly do, but silver and copper are self-disinfecting - more toxic to bacteria, viruses, and fungi than vinegar by quite a long shot.

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