Guest Author - Deborah Watson-Novacek
WHAT WAS THE BLACK DEATH?
The Black Death is also commonly known as the plague. The plague had three distinctly different forms:
Bubonic plague was the most common form of the disease. This type of plague affects the lymph system, and its name came from the large "buboes," or swollen lumps, that would appear on the neck, groin, and armpits of the victim. The size of the buboes ranged from the size of a hen's egg to the size of a man's fist.
Spread by infected fleas that attached themselves to rats and thereby spread easily throughout heavily populated areas, this form of the disease was painful, but survivable by some. The average life expectancy of an infected host, however, was usually up to a week after the appearance of the buboes.
The pneumonic plague was much more dangerous than the bubonic plague. This variation of the disease affected the host's respiratory system and was an airborne disease. You could catch pneumonic plague simply being in the room with an infected person. This form also killed more quickly, with the average life span being only one or two days after infection. Most victims of the time died from respiratory failure and shock within 36 hours.
The septicemic plague was the deadliest of the three types of plague, with the mortality rate running between 99 - 100%. Fortunately, this was also the rarest of the plague derivations. Septicemic plague occurred when the plague bacteria multiplied heavily in the blood, causing bacteremia and severe sepsis. Even in modern times, treatment of the disease with antibiotics within the first 24 hours reduces the mortality rate to 4 - 15%. Without treatment, those infected can die within 12 - 24 hours of their first contact with the deadly bacteria.
HOW MANY PEOPLE DIED FROM THE BLACK DEATH?
The Black Death began its rampage in the Far East (primarily China and Mongolia) and spread to Italy, carried by the fleas who made their homes on the rats on merchant ships, in the spring of 1348 AD. The epidemic then spread across Europe between the years of 1349 and 1351. Early historians estimated that some one-quarter to one-third of Europe's population died during this period, but more current estimates actually put the total death toll much higher at 45% - 50%.
Of course, the death toll varied from area to area. It is estimated that in Mediterranean Europe and Italy, the South of France and Spain the deaths, over the four year period that the plague ran rampant, probably ran as high as 75% - 80% of the population. Today's historians and scientists estimate that the nightmare 'Black Death' killed anywhere between 75 - 200 million people during this time.
HOW DID THE BLACK DEATH AFFECT THE RENAISSANCE?
Those lucky enough to survive the plague soon found themselves better off both financially and socially. The wealth of the cities was now spread amongst fewer people by virtue of inheritance and, in some cases, looting. Additionally, the reduction in population resulted in more food availability per person, more available land and lowered land prices. As more land came available for pasturing animals there was increase in the consumption of both meat and dairy products and an increase in the amount of these products available for sale and export.
The pandemic hit the bastion of the Christian church especially hard. Not only were the clergy unable, in the eyes of their congregants, to gain God's favor and thereby end the plague, but the monasteries were almost completely depleted because their service to the poor and sick during that time resulted in a huge loss of life amongst those in religious communities. At the end of the plague time, the Church suffered such a shortage of clergy that they began allowing almost any man to become ordained. This led the people at large to hold the Church in lesser esteem than they had previously.
And finally, increased wealth per capita allowed many who had previously existed in the peasant class to climb the social ladder and begin to populate a much larger middle class who could afford to spend some of their greater wealth patronizing the arts. The city of Florence, which is estimated to have lost at least half of its population in the first year of the pandemic, became very fertile ground for this type of social development.