The Black Death: The Great Mortality of 1348-1350

March 19, 2008 – The Black Death: The Great Mortality of 1348-1350 (John Aberth). My scholarly friend, John Aberth, provides what he calls "a brief history with documents" of the plague that swept through Europe in the mid-14th Century. The seven chapters cover topics ranging from the origins of the plague to its influence on the art world. In each chapter, Aberth provides an overview of the topic then supports it with excerpts from contemporary writings.

The first three chapters cover geography (where did the plague start and how far did it spread), the symptoms of the plague and how it spread from person to person, and how the medical community responded. The fourth chapter concerns the impact of the Black Death on the medieval society and economy, while the fifth chapter covers how the major religions (Catholicism and Islam) responded to the plague. Chapter Six concerns the religious hysteria brought about by the plague. Chapter Seven examines the influence of the Black Death on the artwork of the 14th and 15th centuries.

To summarize, the Black Death seems to have originated somewhere in Asia, possibly China, Mongolia or maybe even India. It spread into Europe and northern Africa, carried by fleas that infested the clothing and other goods that traders brought from place to place. Aberth argues that the Black Death was most likely what we today refer to as the plague. He then asserts that, based on the symptoms described in contemporary writings, it was likely that all three forms of plague (bubonic, pneumonic and septicemic) swept through Asia and Europe, though most cases were probably bubonic or pneumonic.

Contemporary writings, i.e. the supporting documents, make it seem as though pretty much anyone who contracted the Black Death was doomed to die. This is not surprising considering the views of the medieval medical community. They seemed to realize that the plague originated in Asia, but they generally viewed it as a punishment from God or blamed its rise on some terrible alignment of planets or maybe an earthquake. As for treatments, they tried blood-letting (which was best done when the moon was in a certain position) and all manner of concoctions, none of which seemed to be very effective. To their credit, however, they kept trying and many doctors themselves died from the plague. In short, the medieval medics seemed to be of the belief that only God could provide any relief.

As for the societal and economic impact, based on the supporting documents, which included a lengthy excerpt from the introduction to The Decameron, people responded to the plague in different ways. Some tried to flee to plague-free environs and did their best to stay healthy. Others partied like it was 1499, figuring they might as well live it up while they were still alive. Those people who were still alive had the problem of dealing with all the sick and the dead. Mass graves came into fashion. The workers who dug those graves - in fact, anyone involved with the business of tending to the dead and dying - demanded higher wages for their services. Once the plague subsided (1451 or so), several communities passed laws that reset wages to pre-plague levels.

The response of the religious communities to the Black Death was interesting. According to Aberth, death rolls reveal that many priests died from the plague, indicating that many of them did their best to minister to the sick and dying. Yet, the situation was such that many of these priests demanded higher fees for their services in much the same fashion as the grave diggers mentioned above. Leaders of the Catholic Church eventually decreed that this practice must stop, but they did grant what amounted to a salary advance in exchange.

The Catholic Church also found itself contending with other effects of the plague, namely attacks on Jews and the appearance of the flagellants. The flagellants were Catholic radicals who, over a period of 18 months or so, travelled from town to town, picking up converts (at least temporary ones) along the way. They were something of a spectacle, namely because they carried thorny whips and did their painful penance in public. They also contradicted some of the direct teachings of the church. For this reason, the Pope and at least one king quashed the movement by threatening the towns with punishment if the flagellants were not expelled. Based on the supporting documents, the flagellants seem to have been concentrated on the continent, specifically France and Germany.

As for the attacks on the Jews, these so-called pogroms came about because of the belief by some Christians that Jews spread the plague by poisoning the water supply. As a result, some Jews were rounded up, tortured until they confessed, and then executed, often by being burned at the stake. Again, the Pope ultimately had to step in and issue an order protecting the Jews.

The Black Death also touched the Muslim world. The tenets of Islam prompted people to gather together to pray to Allah for an end to the plague. However, Aberth's selection of documents includes one from a Muslim scholar and physician who realized that the plague was spread by person-to-person contact. His belief put him in a tough position. He was scheduled to go on trial for heresy in the 1370s but was lynched in prison before the trial began.

I read this book after reading another of Aberth's works, A Knight at the Movies. That book examines the portrayal of medieval history on film and includes an interesting chapter on the Black Death. However, reading this particular work took about six weeks, much longer than I expected for a book that totals just 180 pages. I'm not sure why it went so slowly. Generally, the overviews written by Aberth are interesting. But, the supporting documents are uneven in their length and in the number associated with each chapter. I would have liked more of John and less of the documents.

Another issue may be that, in this modern day and age, the theories and treatments expressed in the supporting documents seem ridiculous. However, many of the documents were written by the leading medical men of their day. Who's to say that, years from now, our descendents won't look back and say something like, "THAT'S how they tried to treat AIDS???"