5.3 The Black Plague

illustration of a plague doctor
Plague Doctor.

The most fatal pandemic in recorded human history was the Black Plague, which began in 14th century Europe, lasting from 1346-1353 (Columbia Public Health, 2021). The plague bacteria, Yersinia pestis – a type of zoonotic bacterium – is transmitted to humans through bites of infected fleas (Mayo Clinic Staff, 2021; WHO, 2000). Plague is divided into three main types – bubonic, septicemic, and pneumonic – depending on which part of the body is affected (Mayo Clinic Staff, 2021). The Black Death is believed to have been a Bubonic plague (although some scientists disagree – see Duncan & Scott, 2005). It originated in central Asia from fleas that lived on black rats and was transmitted to humans via infected rodent flea bites. The theory is that the plague later spread through the human population via human fleas and head lice (Brooke, 2020, WHO, 2000). The inclusion of the term “Black” in the name of the pandemic is tied to one of its telltale visible physical symptoms, large swollen lumps in the groin and armpits referred to as buboes that turned the skin black prior to bursting (Shipman, 2014). The plague resulted in the deaths of an estimated 75-200 million people, approximately 30-50% of Europe’s population (Boundless, n.d.; Shipman, 2014). The aftermath of the plague created a series of religious, social, and economic upheavals, which had profound effects on the course of European history (Boundless, n.d.; Shipman, 2014).

Click the link below to learn more about the Black Death:

How Medieval Writers Struggled to Make Sense of the Black Death

The Black Death

The following video covers the history of the “Black Death,” which spread rapidly across Medieval Europe and killed millions of people.


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On Death and Dying Copyright © 2022 by Jacqueline Lewis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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