Plague: How it began!

The Italian town of Genoa was one of the busiest ports in Europe. Ships sailed from Genoa to trade all over the Mediterranean and into the Black Sea. Some goods were even shipped around the coast of Spain and France to England. Merchants traded many goods from Asia such as spices, precious metals and silk. They didn’t know, however, that the plague had broken out in Asia and was fast spreading westwards.

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      Crews carrying goods back to Italy from Caffa took the plague with them. On some of the ships, every single member of the crew died at sea. When it became known that sailors on Genoese ships were suffering from the plague, Italian ports refused to allow them to enter. So they sailed to the southern coast of France instead.

        Plague in Europe

        In December 1347, the plague broke out in Marseilles. From there it spread rapidly all over France. Because people had no idea how the plague was carried, there was nothing to stop it spreading. Rich and poor alike fell victim to it. In some places, rich people were able to escape the plague for a while, by moving away from an infected area. But eventually there was nowhere left to run to: every city, town and village was affected.

        Wherever the Black Death took hold, at least one person in four died in dreadful pain. Sometimes all the people in a village or a town were killed by the plague.

          Plague in England

          With the war continuing between France and England it was only a matter of time before the same disaster hit England. The chronicler Geoffrey the Baker described its progress:

          “At first it carried off almost all the inhabitants of the seaports in Dorset, and then those living inland, and from there it raged so dreadfully through Dorset and Somerset as far a Bristol. The men of Gloucester refused to allow people from Bristol into their region, as they all thought that the breath of those who lived amongst people who died of plague was infectious.

          But at last it attacked Gloucester, then Oxford and London, and finally the whole of England with such violence that scarcely one in ten of either sex was left alive. As there were not enough graveyards, fields were set aside for the burial of the dead.”

          William Dene, a monk of Rochester, described the effect of the plague on one household:

          “The Bishop of Rochester didn’t keep many servants or retainers. Yet he lost four priests, five gentlemen, ten serving men, seven young clerks, and six pages, so that not a soul remained to serve him in any post…

          During the epidemic, many chaplains and paid clerics would serve only if they were paid excessive salaries … priests hurried off to places where they could get more money than in their own benefices … There was also so great a shortage of labourers and workmen of every kind in those days that more than a third of the land over the whole kingdom lay uncultivated.”

          Three Types of Plague

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          Type 1 – Bubonic Plague

          The most common form. This disease is characterised by an extremely high fever, chills, and ultimately delirium and death. The bacilli collect in the lymph nodes, particularly those in the armpits and groin. The nodes swell and become extremely painful. These swellings are called buboes, hence the name bubonic plague. Death from bubonic plague usually comes within a week.

          Type 2 – Septicemic Plague

          When an individual suffers an overwhelming invasion of plague bacilli, the germs may go directly into the bloodstream. Such an infection is known as septicemic plague. This form of plague kills more quickly, commonly within three days. There are even stories of a person going to bed healthy and being dead of plague the following morning. The victim may die before the swellings and other characteristic signs of plague appear. In some cases purplish or blackish spots appear on the victim’s skin. This symptom may account for the name Black Plague often used to describe the disease.

          Type 3 – Pneumonic Plague

          In this case the bacilli invade the lungs, which are called pneumons in Greek. Pneumonic plague can appear as a complication of bubonic plague, just as pneumonia can sometimes be a complication of influenza or even a common cold. Pneumonic plague can also be the original infection. Death from this form of plague comes with a few days.

          More Information

          Not everyone who contracted the plague died, but the chances of recovery in the fourteenth century was slight. Sometimes the buboes would burst and drain, and then the victim may have recovered. Medical authorities estimate that ninety percent of untreated cases of plague resulted in death. With modern medical treatment, particularly antibiotics, the mortality rate can be reduced to five percent.

          fleaUsually in a plague epidemic, all three different forms of the infection are present.

          Bubonic plague is spread by the bite of a flea that has previously bitten an infected rat. In this form of plague, there are not enough plague bacilli in the bloodstream of a human victim to cause infection in another human being.

          In the septicemic form of plague, however, there is a high concentration of bacilli in the bloodstream. Some medical authorities believe that in this form the disease may be carried from one human victim to another by Pulex irritans, a flea that uses man as its primary host. Human fleas were common pests in medieval Europe.

          Plague bacilli can also enter the bloodstream of a person who handles an infected rat or human through a break in the skin. This method of infection, however, is rare.

          Pneumonic plague is the only form of plague which can be spread easily from one human being to another. During the disease the victim commonly coughs up blood and mucus. The tiny droplets of mucus coughed or sneezed into the air contain plague bacilli. These bacilli are breathed in by others. Once in the lungs of a new victim, the bacilli multiply and produce another case of pneumonic plague.