In just three short years between 1347 and 1350, one in every four people in Europe died in one of the worst natural disasters in history: the Black Plague. By 1352, it would wipe out a third of Europe's population, or 25 million people, and would continue to spread death off and on for the next 300 years.
Also known as the Black Death, this plague started in China, where infected rats passed the disease to fleas that quickly spread it to humans. With utter swiftness, it killed the majority of victims it touched, usually within mere hours. What might have seemed at first like an epidemic quickly took on pandemic proportions.
The Black Plague was so named because of large black boils that would form at the site of glands, but it actually includes three different types of plague: bubonic, pneumonic, and septicemic.
Bubonic plague was the most common, spread by fleas and rodents. Lymph nodes would swell in the armpits, neck, and groin, to the size of an egg or apple, and they would turn black from subdermal bleeding. Flu-like symptoms included nausea, vomiting, headaches, aching, and high fever, but people often died with no other symptoms but swollen glands. The mortality rate for bubonic plague was as high as 75% and victims died within about 72 hours.
Pneumonic plague was even deadlier, with a mortality rate of 90 to 95%. It attacked the lungs, filling them with fluid and causing victims to spit up mucous and blood. Highly communicable, someone only had to be in the vicinity of an infected person to inhale the bacterium from the air. Pneumonic plague killed its victims within 48 hours.
The deadliest form of Black Plague, however, was septicemic plague, and even today there is no cure. This form attacked the blood. Mortality rates were close to 100% and people often died the same day that their symptoms began. The telltale signs were high fever coupled with a discoloration of the skin to deep purple, caused by disseminated intravascular coagulation, or coagulation of blood in the veins.
The plague is believed to have traveled from Asia to a Crimean port on the Black Sea by way of a Genoese trading ship returning from Asia. The Italian merchants paid tribute to the Tartars or Mongols that lived in the area in order to maintain the port. Once illness broke out at the port, tens of thousands of Tartars died while the local Genoese population stay holed up in the walled city of Caffa nearby.
Whether for revenge or other reasons, the Tartars attacked Caffa, catapulting the bodies of dead plague victims over the walls. As the Genoese fell ill, they attempted to flee the disease by sailing to their homeland of Italy. As the ship made port, many of those aboard were already dead or dying. The plague quickly spread through all of Europe via trade routes and caravans, cutting a swath of death from south to north passing through France, England, Germany, Denmark, and eventually into the entire populated world.
One of the most devastating aspects of the Black Plague was fear of helping the sick. Even touching the clothing of someone who was ill could be fatal. Families deserted their own fathers, mothers, and even children, and abandoned plague victims lay dying in droves in the streets. Families who stayed with loved ones often paid the price, forced by townspeople to be sealed up in their houses, healthy and sick alike, amounting to a death sentence for all. Many eyewitness accounts tell of hundreds of people dying each day, buried in mass graves. Corpses and the stench of death were everywhere, and people believed the very smell might spread the disease and took to walking with handkerchiefs full of herbs or oils held to the nose. In winter, when fleas were dormant, the plague would let up, but in spring it would resume spreading, claiming lives once again.
The Black Plague endured in some capacity for well into the 1600s. The child's nursery rhyme Ring Around The Rosie is often cited as referring to the disease, although this is thought to be an urban legend, as the earliest record of it appearing in print wasn't until 1881.
The first line was thought to describe an early symptom of a ringed rash or skin discoloration. The second, the flowers or herbs people would keep handy to ward off the stench of death. The third was said to refer to the sound of sneezing, an initial symptom of getting sick, and the last line a reference to falling down dead.