Black Death and its implication on history

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2012

8 Pages, Grade: 1


Black Death and its Implication on our History

The medieval times are synonymous with knighthood, castles, and the plague. The Black Death as it became known wiped out whole townships and landscapes. The figures of those who became victim to the sickness vary and are highly localized. Some towns lost 80% to 90% of their population, while others mourned over 30%, some towns and cities remained untouched by the disease while others literary died out or were completely abandoned. Generally, the statistics name one third to a half of Europe’s population as the death toll[1]. Today, few realize that the cause of the mass exodus not only appeared before the Middle Ages, but also that it was a prevalent disease in Europe and Asia.[2] The common understanding is that the pestilence first arrived in 1348 in Messina, Sicily on a ship which came originally from an Asian harbor using the established trading routes[3]. The dead and infected sailors then passed on the sickness through contact with the susceptible inhabitants, and rats leaving the ship spread the disease further by hosting the carrier of the virus, the flea.

The ‘Plague’ remains an elusive disease. Swiss-born Dr. Yersin went in 1894 to Hong-Kong, at the time a British colony, to treat victims of the bubonic plague. There he was able to isolate the pathogen[4] that causes the bubonic plague which is named in his honor: Yersinia pestis [5]. Dr. Simond, a French researcher, was first sent to Bombay in 1897, and in 1898, to Karachi, today’s Pakistan. Hinduism was practiced throughout Pakistan which[6] was very much divided into the system of the caste. The caste system binds individuals through birth to a certain level of society. The levels in society were also descriptive of the professions of the assigned group members. The bubonic plague flourished in the caste of the rat catchers. The researcher cut open the enormously swollen lymph knots of the deceased which as he discovered were filled with some kind of puss as had Dr. Yersin earlier. Under the microscope he could determine the thick puss was entirely made out of the virus Y. pestis. He soon discovered that the deceased persons all had fleabites. Dr. Simond concluded in a rudimentary medical experiment that fleas of rats must be carriers. For that, he caught a healthy rat and an obviously infected rat. He then caged the animals above each other; the inflected one underneath died shortly thereafter; the healthy one didn’t exhibit any signs of disease until a few days after the death of the first rat. After exhibiting signs of the plague, this rat also died. He combined consequently that the fleas of the first rat had left the host after its demise and migrated over to the healthy rat and subsequently infected this animal, too. Dr. Simond’s final analysis led him to determine that the fleas of rats carrying the virus must have transferred the pestilence virus through their bites[7]. Although these fleas specifically feed on rats, fleas can cross over to other hosts in time of deprivation of a preferred host. Dr. Simond devised the extermination of the rats as a preventive measure against the deadly infection[8].[9]

With that, the world finally was able to put an old mystery to rest. Dr. Simond’s results are to this day generally accepted, although in most recent decades, scholars have been questioning the overall application of the Y. pestis as the cause of the Black Death. Several issues cannot be explained by the discovery of Y. pestis. First, the carrier’s host, the black rat (lat.: Rattus rattus) was native to India and by the time of the first devastating epidemic, the rat had not made it into western and northern Europe, although here also entire landscapes were left uninhabited by human population. Second, the lack of other victims in the animal kingdom, animals which were most likely to get in contact with the rats before humans did[10], at times did and then again did not experience a mass exodus along with the human population. Third, the recorded symptoms of the bubonic plague in India were not congruent with those described in medical transcripts of the Middle Ages; the duration of the disease was longer than that of one to four day until death after infection, as well as the physical appearance of the patience did only remotely remind of the ravaging malady. Fourth, the plague did not spread with fury through town and cities in Asia, as a matter of fact, it confined itself in a relative narrow geographical area in comparison, although travel through an improved road system and the railroads was faster than in the Middle Ages, but the virus on the contrary did spread even slower.[11]


[1] “Statistics drawn up at the instigation of Pope Clement VI state the number of deaths for the whole world at 42,836, 486”. (Nohl pg 17)

[2] Other continents do not have any data available to conclude the occurrence of the Black Death with certainty.

[3] Writings suggest that the plague ravaged China in 1333. (Nohl pgs 17, 18)

[4] It is still in medical discussion if the pathogen is a virus or a bacterium which causes the infection.

[5] (Ed.: Kiple pg 60)

[6] This country did not become a major Muslim oriented country until 1947, but this is another excursion into world history.

[7] (McNeill pg 139, 140)

[8] This approach was taken in 1900 until 1909 in San Francisco as the U.S. Health Department declared a ‘War on rats’.

[9] (

[10] Such as barn animals

[11] (

Excerpt out of 8 pages


Black Death and its implication on history
University of Alaska Anchorage
Medieval Period
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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411 KB
bubonic plague, medieval, black death, Europe, plague, disease, Yersinia pestis, rats, fleas
Quote paper
Claudia Cease (Author), 2012, Black Death and its implication on history, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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