Plague is an infectious disease that is caused by a bacteria usually found in small animals or fleas, but can be transferred to humans and larger animals. There are three different strains of the bacteria, which can be transmitted by being bitten, having direct contact with someone who is infected or by inhaling the bacteria. If the condition is left untreated there is a 30-60% mortality rate. Modern antibiotics can effectively treat plague, and in most cases the victim survives. This was not the case during the 14th century, however, when The Black Death killed approximately 1/3 of the European population within five years.
The deadly disease was brought to Europe on 12 Genoese trading ships that arrived in Sicily’s, Messina Port, in October 1347. The majority of the sailors onboard were either dead or gravely ill and delirious with pain. Their bodies were covered in black boils that oozed pus and blood, giving the outbreak its name. Even though news of this great pestilence that was plaguing other countries had already reached Europe, nothing could prepare its citizens for the horror and devastation that would occur in the next five years.
Black Death reports claimed that those affected with the disease would first experience the appearance of mysterious boils, under their arms or on their groin. These could become as large as apples, and oozed pus and blood constantly. Other symptoms included fever, chills, vomiting, diarrhoea, bleeding from all orifices on the body. In most cases infection inevitably led to death. The disease was extremely contagious and worked quickly. Many victims would go to sleep healthy and be dead by the following morning. The hygiene standards in the 14th century were atrocious and scientists now understand that this outbreak of plague was spread mainly by rats and their fleas.
Physicians used cruel, unsanitary methods to treat the plague, such as bloodletting and boil lancing. The fear of becoming infected became overwhelming, and those that were healthy did everything they could to avoid the sick. Many family members deserted their loved ones, priests refused to administer last rites and doctors would not attempt to treat the sick. Many people fled to the countryside with the hope of outrunning The Black Death. The disease was just as prevalent in the rural areas, however, affecting not just humans, but animals as well.
Religious fanatics believed that The Black Death was sent as a punishment from God for their sins, giving rise to groups of flagellants that would travel throughout the country whipping themselves and encouraging repentance. There was a widespread belief that the only way to be saved was to purge communities of their sinners or heretics, and earn God’s forgiveness. This resulted in many people killing those whose actions were deemed unacceptable. The effects of The Black Plague lasted for about five years and ended up killing millions of people, both in Europe and other foreign countries.