The Black Death: Horseman of the Apocalypse in the Fourteenth Century
Western Civ

Research Report
Web Resources


In the fourteenth century, Europe suffered numerous catastrophes that would go down in history as "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse"; a reference to the book of Revelation in which four great ordeals which Earth had to endure in its final days before judgement. The Black Death stands out as the most dramatic and lifestyle changing event during this century. This was a widespread epidemic of the Bubonic Plague that passed from Asia and through Europe in the mid fourteenth century. The first signs of the Black Plague in Europe were present around the fall of 1347. In the span of three years, the Black Death killed one third of all the people in Europe. This traumatic population change coming into the Late Middle Ages caused great changes in European culture and lifestyle.

Historical Background

The Black Death was one of many catastrophes to occur following an increase in population during the High Middle Ages (1000-1300). The population of Europe grew from 38 million to 74 million in this time. Prior to the onset of the fourteenth century turmoil, Europe seemed to be in a state of growth in both agriculture and structure in society. Cities began to rise with artisans, farmers, and other crafts people specializing in their own field of work. The daily life contact between European people in the cities and surrounding villages facilitated the spread of this disease, as people did not possess sufficient medical knowledge to prevent the spread of the disease with any great success. The conditions in the cities also set the stage for disease. Waste accumulated in the streets for lack of sewer systems. Houses were crowded next to each other. One could not use the rivers for drinking water due to pollution. With all of these conditions arising from the High Middle Ages, it was only a matter of time before the population was curbed by disaster. The Black Death marks the barrier between the High Middle Ages and the Late Middle Ages, and the difference in Europe before and after the Black Death is clear.

Research Report

The origins of the Black Death can be traced back to the Gobi Desert of Mongolia in the 1320s. The cause of this sudden eruption of the plague is not exactly known. From the desert, it spread out in all directions. Of most importance was the spread eastward to China. China suffered an emergence of bubonic plague during the early 1330s. During the expansion of trade during the Early and High Middle ages, trade routes with China were strengthened and ventured greatly. European traders, particularly those from the Italian city states, traveled the Black Sea region regularly. Surviving documents show that one group of traders from Genoa arrived in Sicily In October of 1347, fresh from a voyage to China. This was most likely the introduction of the plague to European lands. Along with the Chinese goods on board, the traders carried the bacterium yersinia pestis in the rats on board as well as in some of the sailors themselves. The Black Death had arrived in Europe.

From Sicily, the plague spread at an alarming rate. The speed at which it spread and killed, as well as the horror which accompanied the diseased, caused a panic in the Italian population. Families were forced to abandon members who were sick. Lawyers refused to form wills for the dying. Entire monasteries were wiped out when they attempted to care for the dying, which caused great fear in charitable organizations. Other European countries looked toward Italians as being the cause of the plague, and there were many incidences of healthy Italian travelers and traders being exiled from villages or even killed out of fear of the plague spreading outside Italy. These measures proved futile, and the plague spread farther and farther north. Wherever trade routes existed, normally the plague would follow, radiating out from Italy. The Plague reached France shortly after Italy. Marseilles felt the effects in January of 1348 and Paris was infected in summer of the same year. England felt the effects in September of 1348. 1348 Europe suffered the most. By the end of 1348, Germany, France, England, Italy, and the low countries had all felt the plague. Norway was infected in 1349, and Eastern European countries began to fall victim during the early 1350s. Russia felt the effects later in 1351. By the end of this circular path around Europe, one third of all people in the infected areas had perished.

The people of Europe did not know that such a calamity was the result of a microscopic bacillus bacterium. This organism was not new to the world in the fourteenth century, it had existed for millions of years prior. Europe actually had already felt a blow from the same plague earlier in the 6th century. The emergence at this particular time has unknown causes, yet some speculate that the "mini ice age", a climatic change felt in Europe prior to the Black Death, may have served in the process. Rodents are very susceptible to infection from the bacteria, especially common rats. These rats are also host to parasitic fleas, which live off of the blood of other animals. The flea is not affected by the bacterium, yet still carries it in the blood extracted from the rat host in its digestive tract. The flea's ability to carry the disease without death makes it a perfect conduit of transfer from organism to organism. When these rats inhabit urban areas or boats in order to live off of stored food supplies, they bring the fleas with them. Fleas leave the rat, which also dies shortly from the disease, and moves on to a new host; humans.

Once the flea bites a human, infected blood from the rat is introduced to the healthy blood of the human, and the bacteria spreads. Death occurs in less than a week for humans. A high fever, aching limbs, and fatigue mark the early stages of infection. Eventually, the lymph nodes of the neck, groin, and armpit areas swell and turn black. Those black swellings on victims are what give the Black Death its name. The victim begins to vomit blood and in some instances suffer hysteria from fever and terror. Exposure to any body fluids means exposure to the bacterium, and thus spreading the disease is very easy through coughing victims. The victim dies shortly after the lymph nodes swell until bursting within the body. Within a European village, by the time the initial carrier of the disease had perished, the disease would have already taken early stages in several other individuals, making prevention extreamly difficult.

The cycles of the seasons corresponded to cycles of infection. As winter approached, colder temperatures killed fleas and caused rats to seek dormancy. This gave the false appearance of an "all clear" in areas that had been ravaged by plague the previous summer. The disease was not gone, it was simply dormant for a few months. Europe was then taken by surprise with new outbreaks in new areas as temperatures again made for a hospitable environment for flea and rat populations.

The idea that the Black Death was solely caused by the bubonic strain of plague has been questioned. The bubonic plague is actually the weakest strain of known plagues. The other two strains are the septicaemic plague, which infects the circulatory system in victims, and the pneumonic plague, which infects the respiratory system. The fact that accounts from the time indicate that the Black Death killed virtually all infected people raises doubt. The bubonic plague is not as fatal compared to the other two strains (which have mortality rates close to 100%). The consideration to make is that malnutrition plays a major role in the furthering of the consequences of infection. Those groups most ravaged by the Black Death had already suffered from famine earlier in the fourteenth century as storms and drought caused crop failures. These malnourished peasants fell victim with little resistance from their weak immune systems.

Most first hand written accounts that are present today read like this one from the site of the first plague cases in Italy, Messina: "Here not only the "burn blisters" appeared, but there developed gland boils on the groin, the thighs, the arms, or on the neck. At first these were of the size of a hazel nut, and developed accompanied by violent shivering fits, which soon rendered those attacked so weak that they could not stand up, but were forced to lie in their beds consumed by violent fever. Soon the boils grew to the size of a walnut, then to that of a hen's egg or a goose's egg, and they were exceedingly painful, and irritated the body, causing the sufferer to vomit blood. The sickness lasted three days, and on the fourth, at the latest, the patient succumbed". The Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio wrote graphically about the Black Death in The Decameron. He describes how "More wretched still were the circumstances of the common people and , for a great part, of the middle class, for, confined to their homes either by hope of safety or by poverty, and restricted to their own sections, they fell sick daily by thousands. There, devoid of help, or care, they dies almost without redemption. A great many breathed their last in the public streets, day and night; a large number perished in their homes, and it was only by the stench of their decaying bodies that they proclaimed their death to their neighbors. Everywhere the city was teeming with corpses. "

When the plague first entered an area, mourners of the deceased still prepared coffins and conducted ceremonies for their loved ones. Within weeks, in response to desperation to control the sickness as well as sheer volume of the dead, officials had to resort to mass graves. There was not nearly enough consecrated ground for each victim to have an individual plot, and so enormous trenches were dug into which layer upon layer of dead bodies were lain. The trench was topped off with a small layer of soil, and the morbid process continued. Pope Clement VI even consecrated the entire Rhone river so that corpses could be thrown into it for lack of earth. Those in the peasant class who saw horrors such as these could not accept that a loving God could inflict such a plague upon His people, and considered it to be a punishment from an angry God. Some peasants resorted to magic spells, charms, and talismans. Some people burned incense or other herbs as they believed that they overpowering smell of the dead victims was the source of the disease. Some people even tried to "drive the disease away" with sound from church bells and canon fire. Jews were easy targets for people to blame, and numerous instances of Jew persecution and execution occured. Churchmen, and public officials considered the disease to be just that; a disease. They took measures to quarantine the infection by walling up homes that had members with disease. In Venice and Milan, ships coming in from areas in which disease had been rampant were diverted to separate islands. This action had limited success, but still prevented the disease more than in other areas which did not enforce this type of quarantine. The wealthy were able to leave infected areas and established residence afar. A rather ingenious method of prevention was taken up by pople Clement VI who sat between two large fires at his home in Avignon. Because excess heat destroys bacterium, he was taking the safest, though slightly ludicrous, measures. In the long run, the only "cure" for this epidemic was time, and it seemed, the shortage of new hosts for the disease.

When the Black Death had finally passed out of Western Europe in 1350, the populations of different regions had been reduced greatly. Some villages of Germany were completely wiped out, while other areas of Germany remained virtually untouched. Italy had been hit the hardest by the plague because of the dense population of merchants and active lifestyle within the city states. For example, the city state of Florence was reduced by 1/3 in population within the first six months of infection. By the end, as much as 75% of the population had perished, which left the economy in shambles. Widespread death was not limited to the lower classes. In Avignon, 1/3 of the cardinals were dead. Overall, 25 million people died in just under five years between 1347 and 1352. It is important to realize that the plague had not entirely vanished, only the primary epidemic. Recurrences of bubonic plague occurred every so often and had a traumatic effect on population even then. The plague did not entire vanish as we know it until the late fifteenth century, which allowed for populations to finally begin to rise to the heights that they were at before the Horseman of Death came to Europe.

Historical Significance

The Black Death brought about great change in attitude, culture, and general lifestyle in Europe. A group of individuals known as the Flagellants traveled from town to town beating themselves and inflicting any other punishment that they believed would help atone for the wrongs that they believed had brought about God's wrath. This group was condemned by Pope Clement VI in 1349 and was crushed soon after. The general morbid attitude of the people following the disaster was shown in Tomb engravings. Instead of the traditional engravings of the enclosed being dressed in armor or fine outfits, now carved images of decaying bodies were present. Paintings of the later fourteenth century also demonstrate morbid obsessions of those who had endured the time of the plague. One of the greatest effects of the Black Death was in the realm of laboring classes. The shortage of labor to work land for landowners created opportunity for those living in areas afar as subsistence farmers. They moved to farming communities and along with already present farming peasants, were able to win better working conditions through negotiating and rebelling against landowners. This set Western Europe along the path of diverging classes. The main theme that one can derive from the Black Death is that mortality is ever present, and humanity is fragile, attitudes that are ever present in Western Nations.


Marks, Geoffrey J. The Medieval Plague; the Black Death of the Middle Ages. Doubleday, New York 1971.
Oleksy, Walter G.The Black Plague New Yoirk, F. Watts 1982.
Dunn, John M.Life During the Black Death Lucent books inc. 2000.
Rowling, Marjorie. Life in Medieval Times Perigee, New York 1979.
Tuchman, Barbara W. A Distant Mirror; the Calamitous 14th Century Random House, New York, 1978

Web Resources

The Boise State University Black Death Page. Covers all aspects.
An elaborate page with a narrative type explanation of the Bubonic plague
Forham University traces the plague and how it relates to the Jews in the 14th Century.
A page which relates the famines and plagues of the 14th Century
A page by Brigham Young University with extensive information and accounts