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    The Horror of the Black Death in the Middle Ages

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    The Black Death, which was at first called the great Mortality originated in Asia in the early 1340’s. It probably began in China, and from there it spread to India, Egypt, and all of Asia Minor. By 1346 word reached Europe of a horrible plague, with deaths estimated to be over 23 million. But to Europe, Asia was a different world. So it came as dreadful shock when the plague came to Italy in October of 1347. Following trade routes, particularly via ship, it took a staggering death toll in the Italian peninsula and swept through Europe, reaching England in the summer of 1348. It did not reach Russia until 1351, although by mid-1350 it had done its worst in the rest of the continent.

    Adding to the misery was an unsettling mystery; that the people of the Middle Ages had no way of knowing what caused the disease. They only knew it killed and that it spread with frightening speed, and that no one including royalty, peasant, rich merchant or lowly servant was immune.

    It moved in such a fury that even in previously healthy household servants who took care of the ill died of the same illness. Almost none of the ill survived past the fourth day. Neither physicians nor medicines were effective. Whether because these illnesses were previously unknown or because physicians had not previously studied them, there seemed to be no cure. There was such a fear that no one seemed to know what to do. When it took a hold of a household it often happened that no one survived. And it was not just that men, women, and children died, but the animals died as well. The animals (such as dogs, cats, chickens, oxen, donkeys, sheep) showed the same symptoms and died of the same disease.

    Almost none or very few people who showed the following symptoms survived: a swelling in the groin, where the thigh meets the trunk; or a small swelling under the armpit; sudden fever; spitting blood and salvia (and no one who spit blood ever survived). It was such a frightful thing that when it got into a home, no one wanted to remain in the home. People because they were frightened would abandon there home and would flee to another’s. Which in turn would cause the disease to spread more rapidly.

    At most every church, they would dig deep trenches, down to the waterline, wide and deep depending on how large the parish was. And those who were responsible for the dead carried them on their backs in the night and threw them into the ditch, or else they paid a high price to those who would do it for them. The next morning, if there were many bodies in the trench, they covered them over with dirt. And then more bodies were put on top of them, with a little more dirt over those; they put layer on layer just like one puts layers of cheese in lasagna.

    Why study the Black Death? Quite simply, because there was no single event in all of medieval Europe that was as horrifying or as devastating. Every individual was touched by it in some frightful manner; those who did not suffer from the disease themselves fled from it in terror as their loved ones died. The coming of the Black Death, when in just two years perhaps one third to one half of Europe’s population was destroyed, makes a mark in Medieval and Renaissance European History. Because of the disease it dampened economic and demographic growth in most parts of Europe until the late seventeenth century.

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    The Horror of the Black Death in the Middle Ages. (2022, Dec 15). Retrieved from https://artscolumbia.org/the-horror-of-the-black-death-in-the-middle-ages/

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