And welcome to yet another post in our Monthly Medicine series, in which we take a different disease every month and examine the gruesome details in a series of themed posts. This month, we’ve chosen the Bubonic Plague, a disease that has amassed a huge amount of historical infamy throughout the ages and still bears the reputation of perhaps one of the most infamous diseases of all time. So, without further ado, let us begin!
Perhaps one of the most infamous diseases in all of medical history, the memory and myth of the Black Death permeates to many different corners of European and Global history. From the strange garments worn by plague doctors throughout the Early Modern Period to the gruesome sores on the bodies of its victims, the Black Death spread throughout the bodies and cultures of mankind for many centuries. But why then did this disease reach such heights of infamy? Perhaps one factor is in the symptoms of the disease itself, and the scale to which they killed the global population. The World Health Organisation estimates that the Black Death caused approximately 50 million deaths in the fourteenth century as it swept through Asia, Africa, and Europe.1 The disease is caused by a bacteria known as yersinia pestis, and its symptoms include flu-like symptoms, the formation of a ‘bubo’ – a swollen lymph node – and at advanced stages open, suppurating sores.2 The seemingly unstoppable progression of the disease, and the often religious or moralistic connotations given to the suffering of victims, in many ways transmuted the experience of the disease to a potent epidemiological and sociocultural entity. It is believed by many that the disease began in China, a powerful trading region in the fourteenth century, eventually being transported by the fleas on animals being moved into Europe, across Asia, and into Africa, although there has been much speculation on this, with recent scholarship arguing it originated from the steppe region.3 The plague is most likely spread by fleas moving from animals and biting humans, infecting them with the bacteria and causing the emergence of these bubos. The speed at which the disease spread killed millions within Europe, and reappeared numerous times in the following centuries, earning notoriety as a quick and inescapable killer in many laymen’s eyes.
The culture of Europe carries many examples of this, wherein the ‘Black Death’ as it was known appears to become more than simply a disease – it is often portrayed in illustrations or woodcuts as a spectre or skeleton, often with some religious symbolism behind it.4 The crow-like masks of sixteenth- century plague doctors have survived even into contemporary popular culture as a symbol of darkness, death, or pestilence. The masks were designed to keep out bad airs, as the germ theory of disease is, in comparison, a relatively recent discovery. Before this, disease was believed to be spread by the breathing of bad air, or the touching of a fellow sufferer as a means of transmitting the disease from one person to the next. As such, these plague doctors would wear large masks with ‘beaks’ around the nose and face, in which sweet smelling ointments, herbs, or spices, which would be used to ward off the bad airs and to prevent the breathing of these ‘bad airs’.5 As shown in Fig. 2, many towns had carts to transport the dead plague victims to their graves, and in some instances it has been reported that there were not enough survivors to bury the dead – the spread of the plague was too great and its death toll too high.6
I shall round this post off by mentioning that the Bubonic Plague has far from disappeared from the global epidemiological stage. The World Health Organisation has reported that ‘in 2013 there were 783 cases reported worldwide, including 126 deaths’ and that ‘the 3 most endemic countries are Madagascar, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Peru’.7 Interest in both the plague as a disease and the plague as a cultural phenomenon continues to be the driving force behind many enquiries into the history of disease. The recent discovery of a suspected 1665 plague pit, a pit where the victims of a plague epidemic were buried, at Crossrail’s Liverpool Street sit in London garnered much attention by the media, and was recorded in a 360 degree video that is available online.8 The Black Death is still very much an actor in discussions about disease control, history, and cultural significance.
Thanks again for reading these posts, I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. We hope to see you on here again for more gruesome and gritty explorations into the history of medicine!
That’s all for now,
- World Health Organisation, Fact Sheet on the Bubonic Plague can be found over at, http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs267/en/
- WHO, Plague Factsheet
- Ole J. Benedictow, ‘The Black Death: The Greatest Catastrophe Ever’, found at http://www.historytoday.com/ole-j-benedictow/black-death-greatest-catastrophe-ever
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, History of the Plague, https://www.cdc.gov/plague/history/
- CDC, History of the Plague
- CDC, History of the Plague
- WHO, Plague Factsheet
- Andrew Dempsey, ‘SUSPECTED 1665 GREAT PLAGUE PIT UNEARTHED AT CROSSRAIL LIVERPOOL STREET SITE’, 12th August 2015, can be found at http://www.crossrail.co.uk/news/articles/suspected-1665-great-plague-pit-unearthed-at-crossrail-liverpool-street-site
Fig. 1 – M0002803 ‘Plague doctors; various costumes.’, Wellcome Library General Collections, London, taken from Aesculape, 1932, available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0
Fig. 2 – ‘L0004076 A cart with the dead.’, Lithograph By: Louis Duveau after: Moynet, Wellcome Library Iconographic Collections, London, available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0
All images used under license or under public domain copyright law.