The Great Mortality

Part One: Facing Death

Guide's Note: This feature was originally posted in March of 1998, and was updated in November of 2006.

Many subjects have drawn my interest in medieval history, but plague was never one of them. I much preferred exploring the truth about dramatic battles, romantic literature, finely-clad ladies watching their knights in shining armor at the tourney, and the pervasive influence of the Church. I knew little about the Black Death, but I did know that many people died and suffered horribly, and, never in a mood for such depressing facts, it became a topic I avoided like...

well...

But not long ago when an attack of the flu blind-sided me for several days, my thoughts turned, weakly, to what it must have been like to be ill in the middle ages. Immediately the harshest illness of all sprang to mind, and I found myself turning to the work of that eminent historian, Barbara Tuchman, to find out more. I quickly discovered I was not ready for such unstinting descriptions of the evil symptoms and put A Distant Mirror aside, suddenly quite glad it was only the flu I suffered and that I was suffering it in the twentieth century.

When my mind was once again sharp (or as sharp as it gets, at any rate) and my stomach once again strong, I tackled the subject afresh. Because the one concept my fuzzy brain had managed to grasp was that I could never arrive at a true understanding of life in fourteenth-century Europe without exploring that horrific plague.

Why study the Black Death?

Quite simply, because it was a pivotal episode in human history. No single event in all of medieval Europe was as horrifying or as devastating. Every individual was touched by it in some frightful manner; those who did not suffer from the disease themselves fled from it in terror as their loved ones died.

The numbers alone were significant in political and economic terms -- but what impact such a tragedy could have on the human psyche interested me most. This last is a question that is perhaps impossible to answer, but it is certainly worth exploring, even if it does take us out of the realm of history and into the land of speculation.

The Black Death, which was at first called the Great Mortality or simply the Pestilence, originated in Asia in the early 1340s. It probably began in China, and from there it spread to India, Egypt, and all of Asia Minor. By 1346 word reached Europe of a horrible plague, with deaths estimated to be over 23 million.

But to Europe, Asia was a different world, and contagion was not clearly understood. It was a dreadful shock when the plague came to Italy in October of 1347. Following trade routes, particularly via ship, it took a staggering death toll in the Italian peninsula and swept through Europe, reaching England in the summer of 1348. It did not reach Russia until 1351, although by mid-1350 it had done its worst in the rest of the continent.

Adding to the misery was an unsettling mystery: the people of the middle ages had no way of knowing what caused the disease.

They only knew it killed horribly, that it spread with frightening speed, and that no one, neither royalty nor peasant, rich merchant nor lowly servant, was immune.

See Death Defined to learn more about the disease, but please note: this section contains graphic descriptions of the symptoms of Plague.

Continue to Page Two: Death by Numbers

It is exceedingly difficult to arrive at a definitive conclusion concerning the number of people who died of the plague. Contemporary chronicles tended to exaggerate, and while the survivors saw dead bodies overflowing the cemeteries and cluttering the streets, it's not hard to understand why. The most conservative modern estimate is 20% throughout Europe, with some countries losing as much as 40% of the population.

Writers of the time claimed a third of the continent, an estimated 20 million souls, died in a mere handful of years. Once deemed a wild exaggeration, this is now considered a fairly accurate number.

As centers of trade, cities were hard hit, but once a small village encountered the plague the results could be just as devastating. Losses of 40% were common and even minor, and there were even a few cases where the death toll was so high that the pitiful number of survivors were forced to abandon the village altogether. In enclosed communities like monasteries and convents, when one individual contracted the plague it wasn't long before everyone did. And in almost every case, none survived.

The following statistics can give you some idea of the extent of the devastation:

  • The plague is estimated to have killed 25 million people in China and India before reaching Europe.
     
  • When the plague was at its worst, Pisa and Vienna lost 500 people a day.
     
  • At the peak of the epidemic, Paris lost 800 people a day, and by the end of its long run with the disease (which lasted there until 1349), half its population of 100,000 people had died.
     
  • Avignon, where the papacy was located for most of the 14th century, also suffered losses of 50%. Losses were even greater among the clergy, and one third of the cardinals died.
     
  • Venice, Hamburg and Bremen lost at least 60% of their populations.
     
  • Florence lost a third of its population in the first six months, and from 45% to 75% of its population in the first year.
     
  • Milan lost relatively few people, due in part to the drastic measures Archbishop Visconti took in walling up the first few houses where plague victims lived, dead or alive.
     
  • Southern Aquitaine and Bohemia also lost very few people, thanks to their isolation from the busier trading routes.

The numbers alone speak volumes: The Black Death was a harrowing event the likes of which has not truly been seen since. But there was much more to the plague than numbers. Please visit Part Two of the Great Mortality: Living with Death.

Sources and Suggested Reading

The Black Death
by Philip Ziegler


by John Kelly


by Robert S. Gottfried


by Marjorie Rowling


by Barbara Tuchman

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