The Black Death

The Black Death : Bubonic Plague

In late 1347, the Black Death killed approximately 30 to 45 percent of the European population (although some people put this rate even higher at around 60 percent). No one knew what caused the plague so people in the Middle Ages tried a number of methods to combat the disease but they didn’t help. The only thing people could do was to simply run away from any place that was infected.

What Is It?

The Black Death is a bacterial disease. This simply means it is caused by bacteria. The official name of the bacteria is Yersina pestis. It was named after the French scientist, Alexandre Yersin, who discovered this germ. This bacteria actually causes three different types of plague: bubonic plague, pneumonic plague, and septicemic plague.

Bubonic Plague: This was the most common form of the plague and got its name from the swollen areas (called buboes) that develop when a person is infected. These buboes appear in the groin, armpit, and neck. They can be the size of a golf ball or as big as an apple. The bubonic plague would typically kill its victim within a week but some people were able to recover from the disease (although not very many).


A flea that was infected with the disease would bite a person .Around six days after being bitten, a black blister would appear around the bite. Shortly after this, the buboes would appear followed by purple blotches on the skin. These blotches were caused by bleeding under the skin of the infected person. Bubonic plague killed around 50 to 60 percent of people who have been infected.

Pneumonic plague: This plague was much more deadly than bubonic plague but didn’t happen as often. It entered a victim’s lungs and caused pneumonia. The infected person would come down with a fever and begin coughing up blood. This coughing would help pass the disease on to other people. About 95 to 100 percent of people infected with pulmonary plague would die within three days.

Septicemic Plague: Septicemic plague occurs when the bacteria enters the victim’s bloodstream. The victim will develop a rash and die within the day. Septicemic plague was always fatal but was very rare. The victim died so quickly that there wasn’t time for the disease to be passed on to another person.

How Was It Spread?

The bacteria that causes the plague lives in the stomachs of fleas. These fleas are responsible for the spread of the disease. The fleas live on rats which were numerous throughout the Middle Ages. For some reason (people don’t really know why) the bacteria builds up in the flea’s stomach. As a result, there is so much bacteria, that the flea “throws up” while feeding. Unfortunately, what the flea is feeding on is a person. The flea bites a person and begins drinking the person’s blood. At the same time, the flea throws up and the bacteria enters the blood of the person the flea is biting resulting in the person being infected with the plague.

When Did It Start and Where Did It Come From?

The plague first arrived in Europe in 1347 and came from the steppes area of Central Asia. The disease had been in the area for a while but did not cause a big problem because the people who lived in the area were the Mongols. The Mongols lived closely with their horses and fleas don’t like the smell of horses so they did not cause a big problem.

Later trade and trading ports in Central Asia were created to help develop trade. The trading posts were areas where rats could gather. The rats brought the infected fleas with them. Any area that had a lot of rats was in danger of having the plague as well.

The plague probably made it into Europe as the result of an attack on the trading port of Kaffa by the Mongols. As the Mongols laid siege to the city, the army was destroyed by the plague. The Mongol leader, Yannibeg, wanted the people who lived in Kaffa to get the plague as well so he used a catapult to throw infected bodies over the city walls and into the city.


The people who lived in the city tried to stop the plague by quickly throwing the dead bodies into the sea, but the plague quickly spread through the city. In fact, these dead bodies were not responsible for the spread of the plague. A dead body isn’t going to breath on anyone and the infected fleas that carry the plague would have almost immediately left the dead body for a living person.

A more likely answer for the spread of the plague into Kaffa is, once again, rats. Rats probably made their way into the city and carried the infected fleas with them. The plague took hold in the city and when the people fled the city in their ships, they took the plague with them. When these ships docked at the town of Messina, most of the crew were infected or already dead. The city government quickly had the ships towed out of the harbour but it was too late. The plague had arrived and began its spread throughout Europe.

Was There A Cure?

During the Middle Ages, there was no cure for the Black Death although a number of things were tried. In fact, doctors had no idea how the disease was spread. To combat the disease, doctors (when they were willing to actually see patients infected with the plague) would use bloodletting and boil lancing. Bloodletting simply means a doctor would cut a person and let some blood drain out. Boil lancing occurred when a doctors would cut open the swollen areas of a person (the buboes) and let them drain.

In addition, people would use burning herbs and bath in vinegar to fight the disease. Another method people would use was to simply run away. People would leave the area as soon as any plague cases were reported (and sometimes even before cases were reported).

Many people believed that the plague was visited upon them by God to punish society for being sinful. To atone for these sins, some people would beat themselves with leather straps or pieces of metal in an effort to lift God’s curse.

When Did It End?

This outbreak of the plague ended in the early 1350s (around 1353) although there were a number of outbreaks of the plague over the centuries. In fact, even today, there are plague outbreaks. In 2003, more than 2,100 cases of the plague were reported as well as 180 deaths. In 2006, an outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo resulted in the death of at least fifty people. In recent years, cases of the plague have been reported in China, India, Vietnam, and Mongolia as well as in the United States.