The plague reappeared in Europe several times during the Middle Ages, causing the deaths of millions of people. No one was safe. Many believed it was God’s punishment for people’s wickedness.
- In 1347, 12 Genoese ships arrived in the trading port of Messina in Sicily. The people of the city were horrified to find that most of the sailors aboard the ship were dead. Those who were still alive were very sick. Blood and pus oozed from their bodies and they soon died too.
- The port master ordered the ships out of the port, but it was too late. The disease soon spread throughout Europe causing the worst pandemic in the history of the world.
- Over the next five years, over 20 million people died in Europe – almost one-third of the population.
- The Black Death, or plague, had already swept through Asia and the Mideast. It was caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis. These bacteria lived in rats, but didn’t make them sick. When fleas bit the rats, they took in the bacteria along with the rats’ blood.
- When the fleas bit humans, the humans became infected with the disease, which could also be spread through the air.
- For most people, the first symptom of the plague was large swellings in the throat or armpits. These swellings could be the size of apples. Fever, pain, and coughing followed. In some cases, the lungs turned to liquid, causing death. In other people, their blood stopped clotting and they bled to death.
- Someone who was perfectly healthy in the morning could be dead by nightfall.
- People were terrified of the disease. Many fled to the country, taking the disease with them. Sheep, cows, and pigs got sick too.
- Germ theory was unknown and people didn’t understand how the disease spread. Doctors used unsafe treatments, such as bloodletting, as a cure. Nothing worked.
- Pandemic: a quickly spreading disease that affects large parts of the world
- Germ theory: the idea that disease can be caused my microscopic organisms — germs
Questions and Answers
Question: Is the plague still around today?
Answer: The bacteria that causes the plague is still around, but the disease is easily treatable with antibiotics. It is very uncommon for someone to die of the plague now.
Visit DK Find Out to see pictures of life during the Black Death.