The Black Plague – A Medieval Monster!

And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.


Pick up a newspaper, google or simply watch the nightly news and you would have to have been hiding under a rock not to have heard of  the terrible disease ravaging parts of Africa’s Western region. Certainly it has everyone talking and it is okay to be concerned. Staying informed is not panicking. There is no shame in fearing this deadly menace. But what if you lived in a time when no such warnings were available, where ‘word of mouth’ from a traveller – the very person who may be carrying it with him – was your only way of knowing something bad was happening to the outside world? That is … until it reached your village.

The plague of the mid-14th century known as the ‘Black Death’ crossed Asia (thought to have been carried along the Silk Road) and spread to the west via sea trading routes in the Mediterranean, reaching Sicily in October 1347 on Genoese galleys. More infected ships arrived from Caffa to reach Genoa and Venice in January, 1348. Towards the end of January, the deadly disease arrived in Marseille aboard merchant ships. From there it spread throughout France and England.



Many physicians were not equipped with the knowledge to understand how the disease was spreading and the speed with which it took the population still ranks as one of the most virulent episodes today. I recently saw a list of the top 5 ‘world killer’ diseases and the black plague or pestilence of 1347 was only topped by smallpox. But given the statistics for smallpox were taken from since before BC, the damage wrought by the plague in its comparable short reign could mean La Peste would rank as the most noxious and deadly, its victims totalling a staggering 25 million. (Figures vary)


The medieval medical community were not altogether in agreement of its origins either. In the early 1300’s Pope Boniface VIII issued a papal bull (an order) that prohibited the dissection of human corpses so advancement in the medical field ground to a halt.


The faculty at the University of Paris blamed the plague on astrological events, namely the conjunction of Saturn, Jupiter and Mars on March 20, 1345 at 1pm. Another theory was that it was caused by ‘corruption of the atmosphere.’ This, at least, prompted many to consider the air they breathed. Pope Clement VI at Avignon is accredited to have burned large fires day and night to purify the air surrounding him. And, of course, the theory which carried the most conviction in such religious times was simply that God was punishing a corrupt society. Many carved crosses into their doors to beg forgiveness for their sins but, as house upon house fell to the disease, these crosses were to become a sign of infected premises instead.


Physicians wore ‘plague masks’ which were filled with incense to purify the air they breathed


So how did the Black Plague arrive on European soil?  In an era where England’s economy was said to be ‘riding high on the backs of sheep,’ it is ironic that this new and powerful enemy should arrive riding on the backs of rats – literally!

All ships were menaced by rats in medieval times and rats carried fleas, and the fleas carried bacteria called ‘Yersinia pestis’ which could be transmitted in their bite.  This is a coccobacillus  (meaning shaped between spherical and rod -shaped) bacterium which infects humans and animals and it takes three forms – pneumonic, septicemic, and bubonic.



This tiny organism was responsible for wiping out two-thirds of Europe’s population, devastating entire villages, from 1347 – 1353.  One can understand the kind of hysteria that would bring. Imagine if it were to happen where you live today?


 One particular fervent group to emerge at this time were called flagellants ** – religious radicals who believed scourging themselves with whips until bloody was purifying and that by offering themselves as a sacrifice to God, it would keep the plague at bay. Villages tolerated these displays until it was recognised that the flagellants themselves, roving from town to town, sometimes brought the disease with them.


 untitled(4)  Belles_heures_jean_duc_de_berry_flagellants


Inhabitants became suspicious of any travellers, be it a wandering minstrel or a lone knight on horseback. Doors were closed where once charity would have been offered.

So what were the symptoms of this terrible disease? I have mentioned that there were three forms this plague could take – Bubonic, Pneumonic and Septicemic.

Septicemic Plague

The Septicemic plague is the rarest of the three varieties. It is where the Bubonic plague infects the blood. It results in bleeding under the skin due to blood clotting problems; bleeding from the nose, mouth or rectum. It would not be hard to believe that in medieval times, they did not know of this fine distinction in this strain but would have considered it part of the bubonic plague. However, if the victim reached this stage, then most probably died.

The two strains the medieval world did differentiate upon were Bubonic and Pneumonic.


Bubonic Plague

The Bubonic plague had an incubation period of 2-6 days. The first sign was generally fever and headaches, then swelling of the lymph nodes which resulted in buboes, a large infected lump in the groin or armpit. If a bubo could be lanced and the poison completely removed, it was hoped the victim might be saved. *** (Although most died, some did recover.) Other symptoms were delirium and in some cases, lenticulae – the black dots festering the skin.

 untitled   images(7)


Death varied and I have read accounts which state death could occur from just hours to days but certainly by two weeks, your fate was sealed. A recent study is still researching what made the ‘black plague’ travel so quickly throughout the continent and a current line of thought is that there were two organisms working together at that time, one making it fast and possibly airborne (unemployed rats need not apply!)

Pneumonic Plague

The Pneumonic plague differed in that the victim suffered not only fever but chills, coughing, and chest pain. In other words, it nestled in the lungs. The symptoms of the bubonic strain may not even be present (buboes etc) but the chance of recovery was thought to be less with the pneumonic form and most died within 3 days.  * See last month’s blog on medieval children’s games – Ring around the Rosie.

Can you just imagine, for a moment, what life must have been like in a small village which had been struck with plague? Every day more dying, more bodies requiring burial, no one to work the fields, no markets, no food. If you didn’t fall sick with the disease or starve to death, you must have surely gone mad with fear!

 Black-Plague-Painting        Black Death at Tourinai 1349

 Mass graves for the many bodies – cemeteries were overflowing.

In fact, the idea that there was no one left to do any work prompted an action by King Edward III in 1351, called ‘The Statute of Labourers.’  This was a law designed to stabilise the labour force by prohibiting the increase in their wages. The spread of plague caused a dramatic decrease in the supply of labour. This gave labourers who survived the plague (and throughout its course) the bargaining power and as such, they commanded higher wages. The increase in labour led to inflation in the economy. In an attempt to control this, Edward III issued the Ordinance of Labourers in 1349 and Parliament reinforced it with the ‘Statute of Labourers.’ It also prevented the workers from leaving their villages and homes in search of better conditions. ****

By 1350 the last of the dead had been buried and although the disease had a catastrophic affect on the population, the military situation of the Hundred Years War did not change significantly. There were no French or English armies in the field when the plague struck and though numbers were reduced, the advantages and disadvantages were the same on both sides. While the armies that would clash over the next century were smaller, their sizes were relative to one another. The elements of the formula which had allowed England to achieve the upper hand – namely better leadership, better access to resources, better tactics, remained. In France the inept Philip VI was replaced by the even more inept John the Good (Jean le Bon) continuing the Valois tradition of the inability to learn from the failures at Crécy and Calais.




By the next outbreak of plague in 1361, England’s war (which was in truce at the time) revolved around trying to collect the French King’s ransom. The long term effect of the plague was to hasten social change in France and make a central government possible. The feudal system loosened a little, allowing a more democratic (by the standard of the times) system to develop.

So, too, did the Church change. While the ‘ways of God’ were always mysterious, a disaster of this magnitude only provoked questions. If this wanton act of God with no discernable purpose could not be explained, then minds opened to debate that God’s goodness was no longer absolute. The church lost its prestige and the institution had to restock its ranks as many priests had perished offering prayers to the diseased victims. Hasty ordinations to fill the gaps resulted in clerics who were incompetent, uneducated and even immoral.



(Lancing a bubo)

Though the Black Death killed off two-thirds of the medieval world, when it was over, it gave birth to a new way of thinking, new strategies and opportunities for the inventive. Even so, it’s a ‘hell of a way’ to move forward!

NB. It took 150 years for Europe’s population to recover.


Cathy T


In Lions and Lilies third book, The Gilded Crown  (available 2015) some of our characters have the misfortune of visiting a village just as the gates are closing. They were soon to learn why.


**  FLAGELLANTS  (exerpt from The Gilded Crown)

Stealthily the group made its way down the hill, the sound of the tolling bell ominous.

‘God’s bones! What is that smell?’ Gabriel stuffed his cloak to his nostrils.

Armand’s voice was muffled by his forearm. ‘There is only one substance I know of that burns with such an odour. Pray to God it’s not that.’ They reached the bottom of the hill and, passing through a gap in a thickly-wooded hedge, found the villagers congregated on the bank of the river, pressed together like cattle but as quiet as church mice. Upon a rickety stand was a priest, his sleeves falling back over his wiry arms as he called to his brethren.

Behind the thickness of their veils and cloaks Cécile and her companions gasped in unison at the horror in front of them. Close to the waters edge was a lighted pyre, the roaring flames reaching up to the sky, the heat forcing the crowd to step back now and again. The wind blew and a cloud of billowing smoke compelled the priest to quit his dais. A gap in the flame allowed a glimpse beneath to where a blackened body slumped against a pole. All the while garish creatures danced around the fiery pit screeching, their robes stripped to their waists as they repeatedly flailed themselves bloody with multi-stranded whips. The air reeked of blood and charred flesh.

Cécile fell to her knees and wretched bile.

‘Flagellants,’ snorted Armand, frowning as he sheathed his sword and helped Cécile to her feet.

‘What?’ gasped Margot, tightening her hold on the bundle beneath her cloak. Jean Petit squirmed.

Armand and Gabriel swapped glances.

What?’ demanded Margot. ‘What do you know? For the love of God tell us!’

‘Flagellants,’ repeated Gabriel, also sheathing his sword. ‘There are no routiers here,’ he said, his tone flat. ‘They would not dare come.’


**** STATUTE OF LABOURERS   (exerpt from The Gilded Crown)

Armand peered over the rim of his cup. ‘We met with our blacksmith friend again. His name is Reynaud de Tosny and he was a most helpful fellow.’ Armand leaned in and lowered his voice. ‘It seems the governing body of this town have laid an indenture upon their craftsmen, citing the ‘statute of labourers’ law that King Edward passed in London after the last plague.’ At her blank look, he explained. ‘Put simply, it prevents the craftsmen and labourers from raising their prices due to dwindling numbers of workers during this crisis, but moreover they are bound to the town.’

‘They cannot leave by free will?’ gasped Margot.

‘No one can leave!’ retaliated Cécile. ‘Is this not the problem we have?’


*** LANCING A BUBO   (exerpt from The Gilded Crown)

‘The time has come.’ Reynaud stepped into the cottage carrying a fistful of linen ties which Cécile eyed suspiciously. ‘We must bleed him but first some poppy syrup.’

‘What are you going to do with those?’

‘Tie him down. He will have the strength of Hercules when the blade touches his skin.’

‘You do not mean to use leeches?’ She wiped her eyes upon her sleeve.

Reynaud pulled out a stool and sat. ‘Do you remember what I told you in the cellar before the others left?’

Cécile nodded. ‘When the time comes, I must be strong.’

‘He will scream as though I am disembowelling him and you will beg for me to stop but needs must. It has to be done. Now, be brave and help me tie down his limbs.’

Reynaud tied ***’s (Identity withheld) good arm to the pallet at his side, secured his legs and ankles and wound a length around his middle. He stretched out the infected limb and strapped it to a board, in turn, anchoring it to the bed head. Then the blacksmith unrolled a set of chirurgeon’s instruments. There were several types of pincers, two of which had rounded tong-ends covered with miniscule teeth, some hooked scalpels, one in the shape of a fleur-de-lis, knives with sharp, curved blades at both ends in varied sizes and one misericord.

   Cécile shuddered at the sight of the tiny dagger. It was the implement used when there was no hope left.

Mock cover The Gilded Crown - thumbnail

COMING  IN 2015! 


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