Citizens of Tournai bury plague victims

After posting my last article I realized that I had made a horrendous error. I seem to have put the proverbial cart before the horse. I began discussing the effects of the plague on Western Europe without speaking on exactly what the Plague was. Therefore, here is the horse.

Early European traders sailed by ship from the ports of Italy and Sicily to the exotic ports of China and other Far Eastern countries. It was in these Chinese ports that the plague found its way to Europe. China had an out-break of bubonic plague in the mid-1330’s. By 1347 the plague had all but died out in China. In addition to bubonic plague, pneumonic plague had its origins in these ports. These plagues were carried by sailors on trade ships back to their country of origin or to other ports of trade.

The bubonic plague is spread and carried by the fleas that rats tend to attract. The bite of these fleas cause an allergic reaction to the victim and acts quickly in most cases. The rats had made their way onto the ships while in port by way of loaded cargo. Much of the cargo were spices and clothing. In these cargoes the rats made their foodstuffs and beds. The symptoms of the bubonic plague were quite severe and very similar to the pneumonic plague which is spread by inhalation.

These symptoms consisted of a severe and uncontrollable fever, swelling of the lymph glands or buboes (thus the name Bubonic). Additionally, soars formed that tended to ooze pus. In the case of the pneumonic form of this disease the victims often coughed up blood and were very susceptible to bleeding from the nose. It has also been noted that many of the victims bled from the mouth and rectum. The fever, though never relenting, did seem to be intermixed with chills. These symptoms did not last long because the victim tended to die within a few days. It has been documented that some died within hours and other within a few weeks. By the year 1352, it is estimated that 25 million people had been killed by these two diseases.

There are accounts of “ghost ships” in the harbors and floating on the Mediterranean Sea. The sailors falling victim to the illness and the ships merely drifting on the current. The ones that had made it to the ports and harbors were burned by the local authorities with all corpses and cargoes left onboard. The ships lost at sea will forever be a mystery. One can only imagine the monetary loss due to this affliction. The human loss is unimaginable and the number of the dead is staggering. It is estimated that by the end of the 1400’s, more than 50 million people lost theirs lives to plague. However, plague continued to ravish Europe until the mid-1600’s.

The discrepancy in the numbers come because many scholars have found in recent studies that the plague that swept across Europe was actually many illnesses. In the early and most devastating times it was mainly the bubonic and pneumonic plagues. However, over the years many deaths were attributed to these sicknesses that were actually other illnesses. Therefore, we have begun to call the affliction over the entire period as “Plague”. Plague consisted of the bubonic plague, pneumonic plague, small pox, dysentery, pneumonia, and even the common cold.

No matter what name you want to call Plague the result is the same. This result was mass death and chaos. It was labor shortages and extinction of some villages and tribes. It was worry and strife. It was loss of families and loved ones. It was loss of belief in God and more precisely the Catholic church. One and perhaps the most important result of Plague was….the Renaissance.