Life during the Plague
“... in many places in Siena great pits were dug and piled deep with the multitude of dead ...And there were also those who were so sparsely covered with earth that the dogs dragged them forth and devoured many bodies throughout the city.”
This is how Tuscan chronicler, Agnolo di Tura “the Fat” (his words, not ours) describes the scene in his hometown of Siena, Italy when the Black Plague came knocking on Europe's door in February 1348. The Plague was a voracious killer, striking down 30-40% of a town's population just a few months. From 1347-1350 people died with sores on their bodies or bloody vomit staining their clothing.
The local church graveyards were filling up so fast that people were given a hasty burial in a mass grave. Like cheese on lasagna, each layer of bodies stacked up into the pit was filled to the top. The Black Plague changed the way medieval Europeans did death. Customarily, towns people would follow the funeral procession through town. The bigger your procession the more important you were. The whole time church bells would be ringing— again the more bells, the more your importance. Imagine this scene playing out in a town like Florence where over 2,000 people were dying a day. Things go so out of hand that many European towns banned the ringing of church bells and outlawed mourning clothes from being worn in public.
Now back to those corpses. The smell from the corpses was said to be unbearable. At night dogs and pigs would roam through the graveyards, and like di Tura describes, would pull the corpses from their thin sheet of earth. With so many people dying, you can imagine how hard it was to fill positions where you had to handle the bodies of a plague victim. Gravediggers were the Black Death version of lottery winners because anyone crazy enough to do this work could ask for pretty much any sum of money. In Italy, a group of men known as the Becchini (but every medieval town had their own version) decided to take advantage of the obscene pay despite the obvious job hazard. After all, most of them had probably watched their friends and family die and decided to throw caution to the wind and live like there’s no tomorrow, which for most of these folks there probably wasn’t. Unlike those do-gooders who spent their last days praying and fasting, the Becchini did the exact opposite. They partied and drank away their money. They visited prostitutes, they gambled, and some of them even formed street gangs and began committing B&E’s. Many plague chroniclers wrote about bands of thieves who would break into people’s homes and demand money in exchange for not slitting their throats.
Fear broke down the social order of medieval Europe. There are many stories of family and friends abandoning the sick and dying. In his chronicle di Tura tells us about how some healthy relatives would be quilted into staying with the sick only until they fell asleep. Then they would sneak away never to be heard from again. The victim would be left alone to die calling out to strangers and neighbors on the street for help only to be ignored. Their bodies would be collected after someone recognized the unmistakable smell of decay. But don’t get the wrong impression here. The Black Death didn’t cause Medieval Europe to turn into the Fifth Circle of Hell. Just close to it.
Bubonic Plague was recognizable by the lumps called buboes that developed in the neck and groin of victims.
Septicemic (blood) Plague was recognizable by the clotted blood that congealed under the finger nails and skin.
Medieval Plague Cures
You know it as the Black Death but to the medieval Europeans what was killing them was called the Great Mortality. Because of their proximity to the Muslim Arab states of the Middle East, the cities of Genoa and Venice are some of the largest, wealthiest, and most beautiful in Europe. They are also the get the honor of becoming the first to experience the horror of the Black Death.
In October 1347, an unknown merchant ship sailed into the Italian port of Messina, Sicily. The ship is being rowed by oarsmen sick from a mysterious disease. The bodies of the crew lay scattered where they had fallen. Some were beginning to decompose. The ship was ordered to be quarantined (no one was to leave). The city leaders believe that they have prevented their city from becoming the next plague victim but, the plague had already scurried down the ropes in the form of black rats. It would only be a matter of days until other townspeople would themselves show symptoms.
The symptoms would start off innocently enough, coughing and sneezing. Within days of being bitten by an infected flea victims would begin to experience symptoms like high fever, nausea, fatigue, and muscle cramps. People might even make the mistake of thinking that they had come down with nothing more serious than a bad case of the flu. Within ten days you would most likely be dead; although, some people did recover.
In the days before the microscope people had no clue about the existing of bacterium, and so were left to their own imaginations to explain what was causing these horrific deaths. People who seemed healthy yesterday, now fell sick with blood blistering under their skin and nails, lumps forming under their armpits and groin, and finally dead the next. What these people can’t possibly know is that a deadly strain of bacteria has been injected into their blood stream by the bite of a flea. Like everything that comes in contact with Yersinia Pestis, the flea is dying.
The bacteria have blocked its stomach making the flea insane with hunger. The flea continues to bite more and more victims in an attempt to eat but all that happens is that blood continues to back up until finally it vomits a mouthful (I hope you’re not reading this before lunch) of Yersinia Pestis into its next host. Typically, fleas prefer the blood of rodents, cats, or dogs but as they begin to die off the flea decides that it can’t be too picky and makes the leap to humans.
This illness was so terrifying because medieval people couldn't figure out what had caused it. Everyone understood (wrongly) that the plague was carried through the air by bad vapors called miasmas. The best educated people in Europe believed that noxious fumes rising from the swamps and lowlands caused sickness. The recent years of heavy rains have created a lot of extra swampland so it is only natural to assume that this is what has caused the latest outbreak of the plague. Carried on the winds the miasmas cause people to get sick just from talking to one another.
To protect themselves medieval people fled to higher ground or carried around pouches of herbs to protect them from the smell. Pocket full of posies anyone? Medieval doctors tried every trick in the book in their attempt to find a cure for the plague. Medieval doctors believed that illnesses were caused by an imbalance of four liquids (called humours) that they believed made up the human body. To bring the humours back into balance— and thus get rid of the sickness, all sorts of weird remedies would be concocted. The number one “go to” for medieval doctors was by far bleeding. Small cuts or leeches would be placed on the victim’s body to drain away an excess of blood. Plague sufferers were also warned from eating overly smelly foods like meats and cheeses believing that bad air was the cause of the disease. Signs were hung around towns instructing people not to bathe, eat pork, or exercise because it was thought that such things weakened the heart. Another popular cure all was rotten treacle (sugar syrup). Well like Mary Poppins said “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down”.
Unfortunately, this medieval version of cough syrup had to be served after ten years of rotting away on some dusty shelf, which did nothing to improve either the taste or the effectiveness. Other popular remedies included a good old fashioned bath— in human urine. If a bath wasn’t strong enough why not try a glass of the stuff every morning. But if the herbs, bleeding, and urine didn’t help there was one more trick up their sleeve. The buboes would be lanced and a poultice of tree sap, flowers (see, it’s not so bad) would be mixed together with fresh animal manure. In what was probably the worst remedy yet— actually, there’s one more even worse than this— the poultice would be smeared on the wound and wrapped up until the buboe went away (or more likely, the patient died from a nasty infection).
The weirdest cure (you’ve already read the others so this is saying a lot) goes to the Vicary Method— named for Thomas Vicary the English doctor who invented it. This odd medieval cure went something like this. Shave a live chicken’s butt and place the chicken (butt side down) to your infected buboe. Wash chicken daily and repeat. You knew the cure worked if the chicken died of the illness and you didn’t because the logic was that the disease drained away from the human victim into the chicken. Well, you can imagine how effective this cure was in fighting the plague. But it does give us a good idea of just how desperate medieval folk had become. Thomas Vicar even got his own honorary lecture which is held every year at the Royal College of Surgeons in England.
But the medieval doctors were wrong. They had guessed correctly that the plague was now airborne, but it wasn’t miasmas or bad smell doing the dirty work. The bubonic plague had made a transformation into something even deadlier— the pneumonic plague. The bubonic plague works by attacking the spleen and lymph nodes, hence those ugly buboes. Half of those who caught this infection lived. But sometimes the bacteria find its way into the lungs where it becomes an airborne infection. Now, the plague can be spread just by breathing on one another and this is the true cause of all of the panic and chaos that gripped Europe from 1347-1352. The third and final version of the plague was much rarer but was especially disgusting. If a plague victim was particularly unlucky the bacteria might find its way into the blood stream. Once that happened, septicemic plague occurs. This version causes the blood to clot underneath the skin which gives victims black blotches and those hideous sores around the toes and fingers. Literally your body begins to rot from the inside out. This form of the plague is not only the most disgusting it is also the most lethal. If untreated the death rate from septicemic plague is close to 100%.
Europe after the Plague
When the plague got tough the rich and powerful got going. As plague swept through Europe in 1347-1351, Europe’s noble families took the first carriage out of town and hid out in their remote country estates until the whole thing blew over. The plan worked. By isolating themselves from the general population, Europe’s aristocracy died at much lower numbers than the rest of the populace. The same thing was true in places like Venice which chose to shut down travel to and from the city until the coast was clear. In cities and villages throughout Europe people understood that quarantining the sick was the only thing that actually seemed to work to contain the pandemic. Many towns even went so far as to order that healthy family members by boarded up inside the homes of their sick relatives just as a precautionary measure. By 1351, the Black Plague had worked itself out leaving on average one-third of the population rotting in the ground.
Ever the optimistic folks that we are, we would like focus on a major benefit that the Black Death had on Europe. Like we said, the wealthy had a better chance of escaping the plague than the average peasant. But this had the unintended consequence of creating a massive labor shortage. The peasants who once tilled the fields, baked the bread, repaired the roads, swept the streets, and cleaned the homes of the rich were few and far between. Europe’s once high and mighty families found themselves practically begging peasants to come and work for them. Well, it all comes to economics my friend. Supply and Demand.
For the first time peasants knew that they had an advantage that they could wield against the nobility. Many began demanding higher wages and better working conditions. In other words, they were demanding an end to the old feudal obligations where the poor lived a slave-like existence. And what could their lord do? If they refused to their demands, the peasants would simply walk off the job and go find another desperate noble to work for. Think of it like how unions strike for better contracts today. Same concept.
Well, the nobility were used to pushing around the peasant class and were not going to take this act of rebellion lying down. In England the kings (first Edward III and then his grandson Richard II) decided to do something about the situation. Beginning in 1351, Edward III passed a series of laws meant to put the peasants back in their place. The Statute of Laborers basically said that peasants had to return to working for their old Lords at their former wages…face harsh punishment. But if ol’ Eddie thought that passing a law was going to return things to back to the “good old days” he obviously didn’t understand the new economic changes that were taking place.
Many peasants simply ignored the law or when they were forced to return to their former Lord’s they would simply move far away at the first chance they could get. And of course, undermining the king’s laws were the aristocrats themselves who would knowingly hire illegal peasants because everyone was desperate for a hired hand. Good help can be so hard to find!
In 1377, Edward’s grandson Richard II was facing the same peasant problems. He attempted to deal with it by passing harsh new poll taxes but rather than pay the taxes they simply moved to a new location. The new tax laws were unfair as they didn’t tax everyone the same. Peasants in one county might pay higher taxes than those in another. On May 8, 1381 the peasants of Essex revolted and refused to pay the tax. The revolt quickly spread to other counties and soon all of England’s peasants were in open revolt against the king.
The peasant revolt failed. After all what can a bunch of peasants with pitchforks do against the might of professional soldiers? But the rebels struck fear into the hearts of the nobility. At one point the rebels managed to storm the Tower of London and murder a few of the king’s tax officials.
The Peasant Revolt failed to overthrow feudalism overnight. Throughout Europe (England wasn’t the only one with a peasant problem) it would gradually die out. England was the quickest to abolish feudalism when by the 1500s the peasants had been turned into poor tenant farmers. Not much different, but hey, it’s a start. It would take a violent revolution in France (1789) and Russia (1917) before European feudalism was brought to an end. But for now, the peasant revolt forced the nobility to rethink the way it treated its poorest class. As a whole, peasants gained more rights and better pay (depending on where you lived) thanks to a failed revolution and the Black Plague that made it happen.
Graves of Plague Victims unearthed in London
Our # 1 favorite strange cure involves holding a chicken under the armpit of an infected person because it was thought to draw out the poison.
The Dance of Death
Long after the plague corpses had been buried the Black Death kept on haunting Europe's imagination. Macabre Art like the "Dance of Death" here, became popular in the 15th and 16th century. Like a grisly car accident that you can't help slowing down for, Europeans were fixated by the horrific events of the 14th Century that killed so many thousands of people.
Medieval Painting of the peasant army advancing on the castle.