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How society faced the Black Death in the Middle Ages

As we seem to be nearing the end of our pandemic pain thanks to the creation of new vaccines, it's interesting to look at how society in the Middle Ages emerged from the ravages of the Black Death.

The Black Death was a bubonic plague that spread across Africa, Asia and Europe in the 14th century, killing somewhere between 30% and 60% of the population. 

It was first spotted in the Crimea and then carried across the world by flea infested rats on merchant ships, before mutating into a pneumonic plague spread by humans when it came on land. 

Symptoms were horrible and included fever, aching joints and vomiting, plus swollen black buboes on the groin, neck and armpits. Most victims died within a week of being infected. 

Some of the treatments were as gory as the symptoms. Doctors tried bloodletting, rubbing concoctions of herbs or animals (sometimes dead, sometimes alive) on the boils, drinking poisons in an attempt to cleanse the body, sitting by fires to sweat out the fever, making pastes out of human waste and even bathing in urine.  

Many believed the illness was God's punishment for their sins, so they would whip themselves for forgiveness. 

For the wealthy, the solution was to flee the towns and cities for their country homes, with the result that the plaque was spread even further.

While quarantine and social distancing would have helped then as it does today, people's religious beliefs meant that levels of church attendance hardly changed, and monasteries were particularly hard hit as groups of monks stayed together to care for each other. 

Over time some cities recognised that quarantine could work and merchant ships were required to sit in isolation for 30 days before their crews disembarked. This policy was extended to 40 days and became the law of quarantino

Some cities went further and established pesthouses where victims of the plague could be isolated, and to stop the spread people started washing money and cleansing letters and documents. As quarantine, isolation and cleaner living became the norm the Black Death gradually retreated, although the plague would come back many times over the centuries ahead. 

The impact of the Black Death went further than the huge number of deaths seen across the world. Survivors viewed life in a totally new way. 

Workers refused to accept the poor wages imposed by the rich and demanded better working conditions. Their subsequent revolts would lead to the collapse of the feudal system. 

Women took over the roles of fathers, husband and brothers who had not survived the pandemic, and saw a change to their status across society.

And many in the UK were furious at the Catholic church for allowing God to punish the people in this way, paving the way for a rejection of the Catholic faith and the emergence of the Lollards, a precursor to the Protestants who would go one to dominate religious life in England. 

Through the disasters it brought, the Black Death had signalled the end of the Middle Ages and the start of the modern era. 


Picture credit: The Black Death, from Pierart dou Tielt (fl. 1340-1360), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons 
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