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Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down Essay, Research Paper

Bubonic Plague

I buried with my own hands five of my children in a single grave. No bells. No tears.

This is the end of the world. (Deaux, 1969) These are the words of Italian author Agniol di

Tura, but they reflect the emotions of an entire nation in the 1300 s. It was at that time that

Europe was struck by the hardest blow that a plague would ever swing. The Bubonic Plague hit

Europe with a ferocity that could never have been predicted.

Spread of the Plague Through Europe

The spread of the Bubonic Plague in the fourteenth century happened quickly as a result

of poor living conditions, trade routes and ignorance of the disease. The first reported case of the

plague was in 543 when it hit Constantinople. (Hecker, 1992) This was a minor outbreak and

there were others similar to it, but since no one knew where it came from and so few were dying

from it, no one took the time to find out. But then in 1334, an epidemic struck the northeastern

Chinese province of Hopei that people couldn t ignore. It killed up to 90% of the population-

around 5,000,000 people. (Armstrong, 1981) This caught people s attention, but by then it was

too late.

Sadly, some of the events that aided the rapid spread of the Plague could have been

avoided. In 1347, in the southern Ukraine near the Black Sea, the native people began dying of a

mysterious disease. They suffered from headaches, weakness, and many staggered when they

tried to walk. But most obviously, each carried a common trademark of the plague- they all

began to develop large swellings of the lymph nodes in the groin and underarm areas. Fear and

anger at the disease gave way to accusation. The natives of the area pointed the blame for their

curse at the Italian traders who traveled in and out of their ports. Convinced that they were the

reason for their suffering, the natives attacked the ports. After a week of fighting, the natives

found their soldiers dying of the disease. Hoping to infect the Italians, the natives used catapults

that where normally reserved for large boulders or dead animals to throw dead or dying bodies of

those infected with the plague over the barrier. They succeeded. When the traders fled to Sicily,

they carried the plague with them. (Strayer, 1972)

The plague first arrived in Messina, Sicily in October 1347, but it would not stop there.

Aware of the rate at which the plague would spread, the Sicilian officials tried to contain the

disease by forcing the twelve men on board who were left alive to stay on the ship. But black

rats, which carried fleas that where contaminated with the plague, managed to get off the ship and

enter the city. Within eight months, the plague had spread throughout the island and the rats

which carried the plague had boarded ships that were headed for mainland Italy and the rest of

Europe. (Strayer, 1972) Despite the efforts of city officials, the plague continued to spread. They

had ignored it too long, now it was out of their hands.

The plague spread through port cities quickly because it is transmitted by rat fleas. The

fleas, which spread the plague, would catch the bacteria from a rat who had already acquired the

disease. The bacteria would then completely fills the stomach of the flea, making it so the flea

could no longer digest any blood. It would then be so hungry that it would sucks blood into its

already full stomach, forcing it to regurgitate, thus spreading the bacteria. (Walker, 1992) A

disease that is spread by rats would probably not pose a big problem to most places in the 21st

century, but in the 14th century there were many rats aboard most ships and few people took

notice to them, as they were such a common fixture in the unclean living habits. Because people

were so accustomed to them, these rodents carried the plague from port to port with no one

realizing that they were the accomplice to the disease which was causing the death of millions.


As a result of the masses that were dying, people would readily accept any explanation of

the cause of the plague as truth. A doctor by the name of Galen had one of the most widely

accepted theories. He said that the plague was spread by miasmas, or poisonous vapors coming

from the swamps which corrupted the air. People were urged to leave low, marshy areas or at

least stay inside their homes, covering their windows. Because people believed that foul smelling

air caused the plague, many walked around carrying bouquets of flowers to their noses, believing

that this would save them from death. (Strayer, 1972) Some thought that the plague could get

into the body through the pores in their skin. As a result of this, many people refused to bath

during the time of the plague, as they felt that washing their bodies would open the pores further,

giving the plague even more opportunity to infect them. Though many people chose to accept

these theories for their surface value and take the precautions suggested, few found solace in them

as they watched those around them die.

Some people felt that the plague had come as a form of punishment from God. A group

of individuals known as the flagellants insisted that it was the sins of man that had compelled God

to punish them. Flagellants could be identified by the scourge that they carried with them. This

was a wooden stick with three or four leather pieces attached, each with an inch long spike of iron

at the end. The flagellants would meet in the center of a town and urge others to join them in

their rituals. Each member would strip from the waist up and then would begin to whip himself

with his scourge. They did this as a form of penance and believed that God would forgive them

and keep the plague from them as long as they showed their remorse. This ritual would occur at

least once a day for three days before the group would move on to the next village where they

would being again, hopefully increasing their numbers ( Biel, 1989). Some who were searching

for answers joined the flagellants, but they soon found that they faced the same destiny as the rest.


The plague had many trademark symptoms, but at first the victim could appear to have a

number of diseased. The first symptoms of the plague include headache, nausea, chill, vomiting,

and aching joints. (Strayer, 1972) These traits are also common to other diseases, but in a plague

infected city, anyone who possessed these traits was considered doomed.

However, soon after contracting the disease, the symptoms would become more obvious.

Within a day or two, the swellings appeared. They were hard, painful, burning lumps on the neck,

under the arm, and also the inner thighs. Soon they turned black, split open, and began to ooze

puss and blood. These swellings, called buboes, gave the disease its name and may have grown to

the size of an orange. (Garrett, 1994) The swellings appeared because once a person became

infected, the bacillus, Yersina pestis, made its way into the lymph nodes. There, it would infect

and destroy cells of the immune system, and in the process, it would also activate a chain of

chemical reactions in which the body would attempt to expel the invaders through pustules and

boils that emerge on the skin. (Garrett, 1994) Once the bobues appeared, the victim would begin

to bleed internally. Blood vessels would break, leaving the blood underneath the skin to run free.

Once dried, the blood would turn black and leave black splotches on the victim s skin. Thus

giving the disease it s most popular nickname, Black Death. In most severe cases, death would

usually occur within two days after the bobues had appeared. This, often times, was not soon

enough for the victim.


The Bubonic Plague had a great effect on families, the church, and also the mentality of

society during the middle ages. The death of an estimated 1/3 of the civilized world in the

mid-14th century (Armstrong, 1981) was sure to change every aspect of life for the people living

at that time.

During the plague, there was a general decline in morality, which eventually led to the

church losing most of it s authority. In part, people didn t listen to the church because they didn t

want to hear laws that they knew wouldn t be carried out. But the main reason was that many

lost faith after watching their friends and family die such horrible deaths. The lost faith of the

people can be seen through their art. In many works, instead of heavenly beings calling the dead

to heaven, death was represented as an elderly woman in a black cloak and wild, snake-like hair..

and a scythe to collect her victims. (Strayer, 1983) The rules of the church itself also changed

during the plague. Rome announced an emergency relaxation of canonical law, permitting the

dying to confess aloud to God or to any person who would listen, even a woman . (Deaux,

1969) This was announced because officials of the church were dying off at the same rate as the

rest of the community and people were dying without the Sacrament of Penance.

In the time of the plague, not only was religion tosses aside, but also morality as a whole.

Italian author, Boccaccia, wrote about the mortality of the society in the 14th century.

With so much affliction and misery, all reverence for the laws, both

of God and of man, fell apart and dissolved, because the ministers

and executed of the laws were either dead of ill like everyone else,

or were left with so few officials that they were unable to do their

duties; as a result, everyone was free to do whatever they pleased.

(Biel, 1989)

Many people felt that death was inevitable and therefore decided to spend however many

days they may have left alive the way that would most please them. Many found comfort in going

from tavern from tavern, drinking and much as they wished and listening to and talking only about

pleasant things. Others threw endless parties in their homes and welcomes all who would come.

(Armstrong, 1981) These parties were easy to find because everyone behaved as if they were

going to die soon, so they cared nothing about themselves nor their belongings. As a result,

people lost all sense of responsibility as they felt that all of their belongings and eventually their

lives, as well as the lives of those they cared about, would be taken away from them.

Despair filled the people with the loss of so many that they loved and many of them went

into a state of denial. Such was the distress that an order was passes that would not allow public

announcements of death because the sick could hear them, and the healthy took fright as well as

the sick. (Garret, 1994) In fact, in Florence, it was prohibited to even publish the number of the

dead for fear that the living would lose hope. (Biel, 1989) Even with these precautions, the death

of millions could not be hidden from those that survived it. The smell of the dead fill the air and

there were few people who could not help but give up.

Most people failed to see value in anything but their life. People were so convinced that

they would soon be faced with death, that possessions ment nothing to them. Many times, fear of

the plague would be much greater than the desire for possessions and the houses of the dead, or

sometimes those who were only very sick, would be burned to the ground to prevent the spread

of the disease. (Garret, 1994) Boccaccia said that such was the number of houses full of goods

that had no owner, that it was amazing. Then the heirs to this wealth began to turn up. And

someone who had previously had nothing suddenly found himself rich. (Biel, 1989) Many

houses were left vacant after the owners died because people thought that everything inside was

contaminated with the plague. People felt that their health was of much more importance than

anything that someone could posses.

As a result of the great fear that people had of the plague, many families fell apart.

Boccaccia talk about this in the introduction to his book, The Decameron:

The ordeal had so withered the hearts of men and women that

brother abandoned brother, and the uncle abandoned his nephew

and the sister her brother and many times, wives abandoned their

husbands, and, what is even more incredible and cruel, mother and

fathers abandoned their children and would refuse to visit them.

(Biel, 1989)

The situations that Boccaccia spoke of were not uncommon. Writer Francisco Patriarch

said that may people died of hunger, for when somebody took ill to his bed, the other

occupants in panic told him: I m going for the doctor ; and quietly locked the door

from the outside and didn t come back. (Deaux, 1969) The priorities of everyone

became rearranged as they all feared for their lives. People cared nothing of other

people, they just wanted to live and they did what they had to do to keep their lives.

One Italian writer said that things had reached such a point, that people cared no more

for the death of other people than they did for the death of a goat. (Armstrong, 1981)


With all the advances that the world has made in the past seven centuries, it is

unthinkable that such a disaster could take place again. Rarely in the US do you find a

place where rat and man live so harmoniously with one another. But other parts of the

world are not so fortunate. The most recent outbreak of Bubonic Plague was in India

and it didn t happen a few hundred years ago. It happened in 1994. The problem with

solved with a $30 million loan from the World Bank which they used to relocated 52

villages which the government saw as problem areas . Researchers think that the

outbreak was caused by an earthquake that stirred up the bacilli which can lay dormant

in the soil for two or three decades, but they say that the conditions of the village

favored invasion. Relatively few people died in this recent outbreak thanks to what one

village leaders calls beautiful antibiotics . With five days of oral antibiotic therapy using

a cheap, readily available drug called tetracycline, bubonic plague is 100% curable

(Garret, 1994). Thanks to medical science, the mess in India was cleared up with very

few deaths and the world can be thankful that they will never have to experience life as

millions in the 14th century did.


Armstrong, K (1981). The coming of the plague to Italy. New York: Weber


Biel, T (1989). The black death. San Diego: Lucent Books.

Deaux, G. (1969). The black death. New York: Weybright and Talley

Ellis, E. & Esler, A. (1997). World history. Upper Saddle River: Prentic-Hall, Inc.

Garrett, L. (1994). Anatomy of a plague. New York: Webb Publishing.

Hecker, J. (1992). Black death ravages Europe. Babington: Bureau of Electronic

Publishing, Inc.

Strayer, J. (1972). Dictionary of the middle ages. New York: Charles Scribner and


Walker, J. (1992). Famine, drought, and plagues. New York: Glaucestu Press.

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