Facts, tidbits and scary stories of the Black Plague

Posted on March 25, 2020

Nowadays, during the haunting of the Coronavirus COVID-19, the great spook running amok throughout the world, we’re constantly being assaulted by reminders of old archaic pandemics. We are being assailed by history – like trying to get a drink of water from a firehouse – and overwhelmed by the idea that the sky is falling. Well, one of those scary stories is the black plague and it seems to the number one scary story being shoved into the spotlight these days. 

The Black Plague under the scope

In the Middle Ages, the Black Death, or “pestilencia”, as modern-day virologist call it, was the worst natural catastrophe in recorded history. It was known during its reign of terror as: “magna mortalitas” (great mortality).

It destroyed a higher proportion of the population than any other single known event

“The living were scarcely sufficient to bury the dead”. 

It was, unlike Coronavirus, a parasitic plague. A small bacterium Yersinia pestis, would infect fleas and cause septic built up in their gut. When the flea attacked a new host, a person, instead of sucking up blood, it would vomit this rot into the open wound; passing along the bacterium and condemning the host.

For an in-depth look over at the science of the Black Death and its timeline check out this great article.

Facts about the Black Plague

Spread of the Black Plague

Black Death, one of the outbreaks of the plague, has been described as the greatest catastrophe ever. 

  • The Black Death, the outbreak that hit Eurasia between 1346-1351, originated in the steppe region of Asia. In what is now called a plague reservoir that stretches from the north-western shores of the Caspian Sea into southern Russia.
  • The area, where the plague originated – or was in hibernation – was under the rule of a Mongol Khanate that had recently converted to Islam. They were waging a religious war with Christians in their territory. Trade and relationships with other religions were no longer tolerated. 
  • For years, the Mongols had dealt with the plague. They had lived with it to the point that a section of their populace had developed a certain amount of immunity towards it. 
  • The epidemic that would later lead to the outbreak, and what history would call THE BLACK DEATH, started in 1346. The Mongols attacked the walled city of Kaffa – today Feodosiya –  the last trading station in their region. The fortress was manned by Italians and Genovese. The siege lasted from Autumn to Spring of the next years and due to the ramparts and defenses, the Mongols were unable to conquer the city. Desperate to get back at their enemies, the Mongol army started rounding up their pestilence dead – all the soldiers, peasants and unfortunates that had been killed and infected by the plague. For a month, they grabbed these corpse and flung them on catapults over the walls of Kaffa. It rained rotted body parts and sickness. The city was carpet-bombed, the Mongols employing a very primitive form of Biological Warfare. 
  • When Spring finally arrived, the Italians manage to slip unnoticed onboard ships and sail away. But it was too late, the besiegers had poisoned most of mankind… The Black Death had hitched a ride on dozens of trading vessels. 
  • On those ships, the fleas proliferated, gorging themselves on flesh and forging a symbiotic relationship with one of the most resilient and widespread mammals in the world, the black rat.
  • Each time the ships would make harbor, the rats would spread the disease. 

Constantinople and the Silk Road

Clothes infected by the Black Death being burnt in medieval Europe, circa 1340. The Black Death was thought to have been an outbreak of the bubonic plague, which killed up to half the population of Europe. An illustration from the ‘Romance of Alexander’ in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
  • The contagious power of the Black Death hit an all-time high when the merchants and tradesmen from these ships branched out. The territorial spread of the plague was fast. It appeared in a flash over vast distances. Ships traveled at an average speed of 40km a day, hitting various harbors and coastal towns. In a fortnight one ship could traverse over 600km, By land, over the Silk Road and trading routes, the plague traveled much slower – 2km a day – but was nonetheless making headway and reaching places like the Alps and the northerly parts of Europe. 
  • In May 1347, the Italian ships from Kaffa hit one of the ancient epicenters of the world, Constantinople. Named after the Roman emperor that had converted his kingdom to Christianity, Constantinople – now Istanbul – was the jewel of the world. It was the most advance, populated and riches city on planet Earth. Imagine New York, Chicago, Honk Kong, Tokyo, Miami, Panama all rolled into one. To this day, even, Istanbul still is one of the most populated, technologically fit and riches cities in the world. Once the Black Death hit this hub, sweet spot, it spread violently and voraciously. It hit Africa, Europe, Turkey, the Middle East, the Mediterranean like wildfire.
  • By July, the epidemic had broken loose. By September it was everywhere.

The Mortality Rate

The Black Death was a historical turning point. It overshadowed the horrors of World War II, the Civil War and killed more people than Stalin and Hitler combined. 

In less than 5 years, the black plague had decimated the Eurasia populace by 60%. Outskirts town fared better on account of their isolation, but coastal cities and great metropolises were rendered to pieces. Statistically, 6 out of 10 of your loved ones would have died a horrible death during this turmoil. 

More than 200 million people perished. And that mind-boggling number is but a drop in the bucket when you add the Black Plague’s other outbreaks – like the London Plague and The San Francisco Epidemic. Also, that staggering figure is most likely a placeholder, given that there wasn’t a generalized census in place in most regions… In reality, it would most likely have been double that number.

Scary Stories and Weird Facts about The Black Plague

  • The Black Plague and bubonic diseases have been the scourge of mankind since its inception. They have been responsible for various apocalyptic events and mass extinction scenarios. One is the aforementioned Black Death pandemic that tragically hit Europe in the 14th century. Another, and far more insidious is the Neolithic Decline, from 6 thousand years ago. During that period, the population simply plummeted. One day there were people, the next there were mass graves. Scientist believes, as of 2019, the Black Plague was the culprit. 
  • The Black Plague still exists in the modern world. A recent plague outbreak occurred in 1994 in a remote region of India. 
  • The word Quarantine comes from this era. Ships would dock and voluntarily shutdown in bays, outside of harbors of 40 days or in Italian: CUARENTA.
  • The portmanteau, or name, Black Death was never used during the initial outbreak. It is derived from a power written by Simon de Covinus, in which the disease was called “atra mors.”
  • There were so many deaths and bodies that people started constructing houses and chapels out of the bleached bones of the victims. One of the most famous of these churches, that still stands today, is said to be haunted by all the dead from that period. It stands in Kutna Hora – Sedlec Ossuary – in the Czech Republic.

  • Plague Cross – which is a loose term – started appearing all over Eurasia during and after the plague. They were markers or structures, most in the town square, made to pinpoint an infected house and later used to commemorate the dead.
Miracle cross under which the Pope prays during outbreaks. Courtesy of http://romananglican.blogspot.com/
  • Each time there is an outbreak of this kind, like the Spanish Flu or Coronavirus COVID-19, the Pope prays every day under a Plague Cross. A special one brought from The church of San Marcello al Corso. The cross is said to have vanquished the 1522 outbreak of the plague in Rome. During 16 days monks marched with the cross through a nonstop procession and beat back the plague. It is a holy relic said to perform miracles.
  • Plague doctors became the only actual medical practitioners willing to help out plague victims.
  • The first victim of the Plague died, way before the epidemic began in 1339 in the area around Lake Issyk Kul in Russia. His grave markers says: 

“In the year of the hare (1339). This is the grave of Kutluk. He died of the plague with his wife, Magnu-Kelka.”

More Scary Stories and Weird Facts about The Black Plague

  • The Plague, along with climate change, but an end to all European colonies on the coast of Greenland.
  • The general idea of doctors, during Medieval Times, was the plague was a punishment from God for the sins of the people.
  • One of the consequences of the plague is that it ramped up racisms towards Gypsies and Jews. Jews were accused of not only facilitating the plague’s rampant spread but of manufacturing. After the plague, the persecution of Jews became something quite common and more Jews died during those years, from violent acts, then during the Black Death. After being tortured, some Jews confessed that they were poisoning wells and other water sources, creating the plague. As a result, Jews were expelled or killed by the thousands. As a result of the forced confessions, the entire Jewish population of Strassburg, in Germany was given the choice to convert to Christianity or be burned on rows of stakes. About 2,000 were killed.
  • Bad air, on account of all the dead bodies – which were piled outside of walls mainly because no-one could bury them without being exposed – became a major issue during the Black Death. In many senses, Eu de Cologne and Perfumes became proliferous during this era on account of the plague. 
  • Ghosts Ships were something common. People and merchants would stumble onto vessels, adrift in the sea, only to discover that everyone had perished. 
  • The treatments for the black plague during medieval times were: not to bathed “God doesn’t like us to bathed,” showering yourself with urine and dung, sleeping with a dead sheep, adding aromatic herbs to beverages, avoiding bad thought, staying happy, avoiding lechery and a few more.
  • Music, before the plague was widespread in Europe, afterward it took the region over 150 years to get its musical glee back up. Many forms of music became extinct during this epoch.
  • There are three types of plague – Y. Pestis. The first named after the buboes and inflamed lymph nodes it creates. It has a mortality rate of 30-75%. The second type of pneumonic, a mutated version of the Black Plague that was prevalent during the Black Death. The bacterium enters the lungs and you start to vomit blood. The fatality rate is 90-96%. The final form, which has no cure to this day, is septicemic. A mortality rate of 100%. You turn gangrenous and die within a couple of days.
  • The Black Death affected animals as well. Sheep death was so high that it led to what became popularly known as “European Wool Shortage.”
  • The Black Death robbed the churches of part of their mystique and power. When the devastation took place, and they were at a loss on how to help people out, humanity shunned away from religion and started to dedicate its existence to science. 
  • Folks whose great great great great great ad infinitum forefathers suffered the plague, and survived the diseases, have a greater immunity system. How great? To the point that they might have a genetic supergene that makes them immune to HIV.

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Sources:

http://romananglican.blogspot.com/2015/09/the-miracle-of-crucifix-of-san-marcello.html

https://www.historytoday.com/archive/black-death-greatest-catastrophe-ever

http://hosted.lib.uiowa.edu/histmed/plague/plaguetimeline.html

https://www.britannica.com/event/Black-Death

https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/yellowbook/2020/travel-related-infectious-diseases/plague-bubonic-pneumonic-septicemic

https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Nicolas_Rascovan/publication/329456734_Emergence_and_Spread_of_Basal_Lineages_of_Yersinia_pestis_during_the_Neolithic_Decline/links/5c0a48f8299bf139c744d296/Emergence-and-Spread-of-Basal-Lineages-of-Yersinia-pestis-during-the-Neolithic-Decline.pdf