The Medical and Religious Side of the Black Plague

The Black Death

The Black plague was one of the worst pandemics the world has seen so far. It
rampaged through Europe mainly between 1348 and 1350, leaving behind it a path
of devastation and death; – one in every four people died within in the years
it occupied Europe.

The spread of the plague began to raise questions. Why did some people die within a
few days and others died almost instantly? Why did some people perish and
others recover?  These questions weren’t
answered for centuries until it was discovered that there was in fact three
forms of the Black Death and they all caused different outcomes. Those three forms
of the black plague were: Pneumonic (which attacked the respiratory system),
the Septicemic, (which attacked the blood), and the Bubonic (the most common
form, which attacked the lymph-nodes system).

Causes and Transmission

The Plague originated from China, almost wiping out their existence, before it came over
to Western Europe via the trading routes. How did the trading routes carry the
disease? Simple – rats.

It is thought that Rats were on the trading boats from China to Europe, bringing with
them infected fleas who had the bacteria Yersinia
pestis
, which is also known as the ‘plague bacteria.’  This bacterium not only causes the bubonic
form, but the septicemic and pneumonic as well.

Bubonic Plague –

Within 2-6 days of a bite from an infected flea, the victim would begin to experience the
first lot of symptoms of the Bubonic form.

Septicemic  Plague –

The Septicemic form occurred when the plague bacterium from the infected flea started
to multiply in the blood.

Pneumonic Plague –

The pneumonic form was contracted when the bacterium infect the lungs,
causing pneumonia. Itis the more serious disease of the three forms.
There are two ways the pneumonic plague is caught.

Primary pneumonic plague is caught when a person inhales infected droplets.
This type is contagious.

Secondary pneumonic plague was caught when the bubonic or septicemic plague
went untreated, and since they had no cures or proper treatments in those days,
this form was the second most common. Once the disease had spread to the lungs
it then became contagious.

 

Symptoms

Bubonic Plague –

There were three stages of symptoms victims of the Bubonic Plague would go through.

The first was the initial signs which included vomiting, muscular pain, delirium,
bleeding in the lungs, mental disorientation, fever and a ‘white-coated’
tongue.

Within a few days, stage two began with the formation of buboes; swellings of the lymph
glands that appeared on the victims neck, groins legs and armpits. They first
appeared in a red colour, later turning to a purple/black colour. Within a few
days, the victim’s body would be covered in Buboes and the buboes would often
start to drip pus and blood, releasing a horrific smell. The buboes ranged in
size; they could be as big as an apple or as small as an egg.

Soon stage three would begin and the victim would begin to bleed internally causing black
lumps to form, they would experience a stagger, slur of speech and a rapid
pulse. The plague would then also make the victim lethargic, but if they did
fall asleep, it often proved to be fatal. It was possible for the victim to
pull through, but there was more chance they would die.

Once someone was diagnosed with the Bubonic form of the Black Death, they would either
die in week or so, or pull through as it had a 30-75% death rate.

Pneumonic Plague –

The victims of the pneumonic form didn’t form buboes, but instead experienced fever,
headache and rapid form of pneumonia causing chest pain, a chesty cough and
watery or bloody sputum. Basically, no one survived when they were infected
with this form, as it had a 90-95% death rate.

Septicemic Plague –

The victims of the Septicemic plague experienced fever, chills, bleeding in organs, which
caused deep discolorations of the skin, and weakness. Once infected, the victim
lived 1 to 2 days before dying. This plague proved to almost always be fatal
with an almost 100% death rate.

Treatment

The medical knowledge in the mid 1300’s was very low. Many of the treatments for the Black
Death were based around witchcraft, and since they believed that the disease
started with the bad smells the buboes emitted, the would give patients
flowers, herb and spices to sniff. Some doctors would attach leeches to the
buboes or cut open the buboes to try and get rid of the infection. They would
then smear on a mixture of white lily roots, tree resin and dried human faeces.
Other patients would hurt themselves in an attempt to get God to take pity on
them and rid them of the disease because they thought the disease was a form of
God’s anger towards them.

When it came to treatment, doctors were so worried about catching the disease that they
would dress in long, black robes to cover all of their skin and they would wear
‘beak-like’ masks filled with nice smelling oils to keep away the smells.

 

How it affected the Catholic Church

The Black had a significant impact on the Catholic Church. Because no one could
figure out where it came from and how to get rid of it, people began to blame
God, saying that this it was punishment for their sinful nature. Because of
this belief, people would pray and pray that God would heal them or their loved
ones and once they died they began to wonder why God hadn’t healed them. They
then blamed God for their deaths and the Catholic Church for doing nothing.  As the months went by and the death rate grew,
more and more people began to doubt the Catholic Church because the people
weren’t being healed.  This didn’t go
without efforts from the church though. They rang the church bells and fired
cannon to try and ward off the disease, but it didn’t work. Before long, the
whole structure of society and morality began to drop. People left the Catholic
Church because they believed God couldn’t save them anymore. The Catholic
Church’s iron grip on society was weakened. As the number of deaths grew, the
number of people who were able to control society fell, which meant people
could pretty much get away with anything. Problems grew when many of the
priests began to die; soon there weren’t enough priests for final confessions.
This meant that the people were then allowed to confess to women.

The destruction the plague caused heavily affected the number of followers the
Church, because of how the people blamed the church for all the death.

Bibliography.

http://www.middle-ages.org.uk/black-death.htm

http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/plague.htm

http://www.medieval-life.net/black_death.htm

http://historymedren.about.com/od/theblackdeath/a/death_defined.htm

http://plague.emedtv.com/plague/types-of-plague-p2.html

http://www.allabouthistory.org/history-of-black-death.htm

http://wiki.answers.com/Q/How_did_medieval_people_think_the_black_death_could_be_cured

http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/cures_for_the_black_death.htm

Humanities Alive: Second Edition – Page 46 & 47

Pictures

Yersinia Pestis ( the Plague Bacteria )

Buboes

Diagram of how the Black Death is transmitted.

My History Diorama, showing the stages and treatments of the Black Plague

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One Comment on “The Medical and Religious Side of the Black Plague”

  1. swoonie says:

    Your post reminds us that we should be thankful for modern medicine. =)