The Black Death – a Dark Memory in Europe

The Black Death – a Dark Memory in Europe

The Black Death was brought to Europe in 1347 in the Sicilian port of Messina, by 12 Genoese trading ships that came from a journey through the Black Sea. When arriving at the docks, most of the sailors were already dead, and the remaining were seriously ill. The strangest thing was that they were covered in strange black boils which oozed pus and blood. These boils gave the illness its name: The Black Death. The ships were ordered out of the harbor, but the infection managed to spread quickly and for the next five years, about 20 million people were killed.

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Doctor during the time of the Black Death, Photo Source:

Rumors were already spreading about a strange deadly pestilence spreading across the Near and Far East. But they weren’t prepared for the outrage to come. The poet Giovanni Boccaccio described how the malady affected “men and women alike”. He was describing in detail the shape, size and look of the horrific plague boils that seeped blood and puss. The Black Death was very contagious as well. It was said that only by coming in contact with an infected person’s clothing could give you the sickness. And, it could kill someone very quickly: a perfectly healthy person could go to sleep at night and never wake up again.

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Victims of the Black Death; Photo Source:

The pest was brought by fleas and rats, which were most at home on ships of all kinds. By traveling from port to port, the disease spread very quickly. After reaching Messina, the illness soon reached Marseilles in France and Tunis in North Africa. After that, it arrived to Rome and Florence and, by the middle of 1348, it also arrived in Paris, London. Bordeaux and Lyon.

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Photo Source:

Medieval civilizations were terrified by the quick spread of the pest and nobody new exactly how it was transmitted. Some stated that a healthy person standing near the sick could be infected by the escaped spirit of the one that had already died. Simple practices were used in the attempt to treat it, suh as bloodletting or boil-lancing or superstitious practices such as bathing in rosewater or vinegar, or burning aromatic herbs.

In a desperate attempt to escape the pest, priests refused to administer last rites, doctors refused to see patients and people were fleeing to the countryside, abandoning their sick or dying loved ones. But even there, they were killed by the Black Death, along with their animals. Because of many sheep dying, one consequence of the Black Death was a grave wool shortage throughout Europe.

The Black Death as God’s Punishment

Like every unexplained biological outrage, the pest was thought to be a punishment for sins against God. Thus, it was believed that the only way to escape was by winning God’s forgiveness. Communities of heretics and troublemakers were purged. Thousands of Jews were massacred between 1349 and 1349, and thousands more managed to flee to other regions.

In desperate attempts to please God, people were lashing out at neighbors, fretting about the conditions of their souls, or even joining processions of flagellants. These flagellants engaged in public displays of punishment and traveled from town to town to comfort people who felt powerless. This movement managed to worry the Pope, whose authority was diminished. In consequence, the movement disintegrated in the face of papal resistance.

The Black Death was never truly abolished. It appears every few generations ever since, but modern sanitation and medicine manage to keep it under control, limiting its spread to only a few cases per year throughout the whole world.


Remi Koene
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