The Black Death

The name given to the bubonic and pneumonic infections that swept unchecked across Europe from 1347 to 1351. Its origins were evidently in central Asia, where headstones dating from 1338/39 in Nestorian graveyards in Kirgiz commemorate plague victims. From there the outbreak evidently spread to India, China, and Europe. Reaching Italy in late 1347, it went through the peninsula and into Switzerland, Germany, and parts of eastern Europe, before going on to France, Spain, and England. London was reached by the spring of 1349. During the following year plague had got to Scotland, Scandinavia, and the Baltic countries. In parts of western Europe, fatalities numbered thirty to forty percent of the urban population. Medical knowledge was hopelessly inadequate in the face of this greatest disaster in European history, which had widespread and ruinous effects on economic, political, and social life. Prices increased, incomes shrank, the peasants demanded lower rents, and with lords impoverished and entire manors abandoned, the breakdown of the manorial system was hastened. Popular religion responded with renewed piety and preoccupation with death. In some places Jews were blamed for poisoning the wells, and many of them were murdered. The population of Siena was so reduced that the enlargement of the city's cathedral was abandoned. Many of the best people who had not fled from their posts to uninfected areas (local officials, physicians, priests, scholars) died in the public interest, so that the following generation had a surfeit of the incompetent. The Dominican Order suffered such casualties that it was forced to admit semiliterate postulants who probably made no small contribution to the superstitious and heretical accretions that grew up in communities previously noted for the quality of their scholarship.