Final Middle Ages Blog: The Black Death and Plague Doctors

Image Credit: Live Science


During the years 1346 to 1353 a viral pandemic known as the Black Death killed approximately thirty to sixty percent of the European population. As of the modern era, the Black Death has been described as one of the most devastating pandemics in world history. In an article taken from the internet Ole J. Benedictow writes:

The Black Death was an epidemic of bubonic plague, a disease caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis that circulates among wild rodents where they live in great numbers and density. Such an area is called a ‘plague focus’ or a ‘plague reservoir’. Plague among humans arises when rodents in human habitation, normally black rats, become infected.

There were a large number of rodents inhabiting residential areas, which resulted in the fast contamination of humans. Since these rodents were carrying the bacterium and were living in residential areas, (which Benedictow refers to as “Plague Reservoirs”), it was an easy transmission of bacteria between rodents and humans. Within these plague reservoirs, there was often a large number of rodents of which all were contaminated by this bacterium, and with humans also being present in their homes the bacterium was easily transferable.

Within the same proximity, many rodents preferred to inhabit cellars of family homes which is a good indication of how this illness was transferred. The contamination of food is a major reason in the transferring of this illness to human beings from rodents. Although food was contaminated by the rodents, another major factor was people were also victims of bites from fleas which had previously inhabited the bodies of rodents that were afflicted by the plague. For instance, these rat fleas would attack humans after no longer inhabiting rodents. After a few days, the fleas would have experienced a period of fasting and then attack humans which also played a major role in the spread of the plague which was later rendered the Black Death. Benedictow writes:

The infection takes three–five days to incubate in people before they fall ill, and another three–five days before, in 80 per cent of the cases, the victims die.

Something that is quite traumatizing about the Black Death is that people were initially unaware that they had contracted the sickness. With that being said, the process was not immediately visible, when considering symptoms of the illness. As Benedictow mentions, symptoms were not quite visible until three to five days after victims had been infected. Therefore, the affliction of the virus would have been sudden and resulted in the victims immediately displaying symptoms affiliated with the plague.

Further Reading:

Symptoms of the Black Death:

As previously mentioned, victims would experience symptoms of the plague after about three to five days from initial infection; and these symptoms would be sudden. An online medical article referring to the Black Death states:

Septicemic plague (Black Death or black plague) symptoms and signs include fever, weakness, abdominal pain, chills, and shock. Tissue bleeding and death may cause the dying tissues to appear black.

Although from initial observation of this description of symptoms, this appears to be similar to the common flu. However, the aforementioned illness proves to be much more devastating because of the transmission from rat fleas carrying the bacterium. These symptoms are something which presents similarities to the common flue based on description. However, the Black Plague ultimately killed about thirty to sixty percent of European population from 1346 to 1353. With that being said, by making some sort of attempt to minimize this outbreak and attempt to maintain some control over this spread of this virus, (although this was depicted as futile), there was the creation of Plague Doctors in Europe to work on the front line of treating the sick.

Further Reading:

Plague Doctors:

In order to make an attempt at minimizing the effects, and perhaps try to diminish the spread of this illness came the inception of the plague doctors throughout Europe. The plague doctors specialized in treating victims of the Black Death, no matter their social class. An online article determines:

To stop the pandemic was born the plague doctor, who were doctors specializing in care for those infected by this disease. These doctors were hired by the villages, and they took care of citizens of all social classes, rich and poor. When there were not enough doctors, people from other professions were hired to assist the infected. Given the risk of this task, was very difficult to find people prepared to do the work, many of them died and others fled. They cared for the sick, got rid of the corpses, did autopsies, and they had a listing on the public register of deaths caused by the plague.

In order for any amount of the European population to survive this pandemic, it was vital for society to work together. Plague doctors were hired by villages, and treated those who had been afflicted by the disease. Keeping that in mind, social class was not an issue. Plague doctors were willing to treat all members of society equally because an individual’s social status did not matter in such crucial circumstances. The most significant aspect of these circumstances was that each victim of the disease was to be treated equally, since a major focus was the survival of an overall population; not just those of whom held a high status in society.

Despite the fact plague doctors and even others hired possessed a vast knowledge of medicine, in the majority of cases those conducting medical practices either died or fled from duty.Those given the responsibility of assessing those afflicted by the disease or even performing autopsies of those who had already died, were aware of the great risk involved in this job. Furthermore, evaluating the sick and the deceased corresponds with exposure to the disease, such that transmission of the virus was easily achieved. For that reason, many of the plague doctors, despite their valiant efforts in treating the sick, also died as a result of contamination from the bacterium which was killing at least half of Europe at the time.

The treatment for the Black Death was largely ineffective, such that the article states:

To treat the sick they did bloodletting, leeches and toads were used every day, but this was not effective. The most famous plague doctor was Nostradamus, who gave advice such as removing infected corpses, get some fresh air, drink clean water, drink a juice made with rose hips, and do not bleed the patient. Nostradamus was a reference to stop the Black Death pandemic.

Despite efforts to diminish the spread of the Black Plague, acts such as simply getting fresh air, drinking clean water, and such did not change the outcome of this viral outbreak. This was not the first time the world had experienced any sort of pandemic. However, each time treatment was provided, plague doctors experienced failure. Moreover, it did not take a significant amount of time for society to accept its fate and realize that during this time period, (1346 to 1353) attempts to eliminate this virus continued to result in failure. Evidently, many plague doctors and others whom accepted the role of medical practitioner, despite working mundane jobs otherwise, died as a result of treating the victims of the Black Death. With the idea that it was a realistic possibility to die from treating those who had been infected by the disease, there was also a large number of plague doctors that fled from their duties in order to attempt escaping their fate.

Rather than facing death over a two to three week period following the evaluation of plague victims, plague doctors simply fled the area as a means of escaping their potential fate. Despite the fact that these plague doctors trying to escape death from the Black Plague, based on logical evaluations, one must consider that at least thirty to sixty percent of Europeans died between 1346 and 1353 due to this disease. Thus, much like previously stated it is logical to render means of escape from the Black Death as futile as any attempt to cure the disease.

Further Reading:

(c) The Modernist Son

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