Black Death. Plague. The words bring to mind catastrophes and epidemics of Biblical proportions.
In an age without vaccines the consequences of any pandemic were far worse
than almost anything that confronts us today. But polio and tuberculosis
were frightening enough, and there is still no actual cure for HIV-AIDS.
The Black Death was the bubonic plague that swept its way across Europe
during the fourteenth century, leaving from 30 to 50 percent of the population
(at least 200 million people over the course of many decades) dead in its
wake. The illumination shown here depicts infected monks.
The arrival of the plague in western Europe occurred in October 1347,
when Genoese ships en route from the Crimea region docked at Messina. The
disease, caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, was transmitted with fleas
(Xenopsylla cheopis) infesting black rats (but also certain other animals).
Humans were usually infected when bitten by these fleas. Bubonic plague
is fatal (though there is now a cure) and leads to an infection of the lymph
nodes, which become swollen (bubo is Latin for "bump").
Here's what actually happens. The bacteria grow inside the flea, causing
conditions which block the insect's stomach and induce extreme hunger. The
flea starts to feed on a host, and in this way the disease spreads.
Boccaccio, Plutarch and Chaucer all mention the Black Death in their
literary works. The disease made short life spans even shorter.
Radically depleting the population in a short time, the plague greatly
changed life in western Europe. In countries where serfs were tied to the
land (the feudal system), it created an economy in which farmers became
independent, able to earn more for their labour. This was less evident in
Sicily, where fourteenth-century feudalism did not always entail serfdom
per se. In eastern Europe kings and feudal lords eventually reasserted their
power over the peasants. But the plague itself did not discriminate based
on social rank.
Such mass suffering did not result in better sanitary conditions --though,
contrary to popular belief, people of the Middle Ages did bathe (if rarely)
and wash their hands. As lice infections were not unusual, even among the
highborn and clergy, the fleas often went unnoticed.
Though it arrived first in Sicily, the plague does not seem to have been
any worse here than in France or England. In the event, it spread rapidly,
reaching northern Europe within two years. Its effects are long forgotten,
but the historical legacy of the Black Death remains.
About the Author: Palermo native Vincenzo Salerno has written biographies of several famous Sicilians, including Frederick II and Giuseppe di Lampedusa.