The Black Death

What was the black death?

The black death is also known as the Bubonic plague or black plague. It struck Europe in the mid-fourteenth century (mid-1300s). The black death was extremely contagious, but at the time people didn’t know how diseases spread, so they couldn’t figure out how to stop it. The black death was a very deadly disease and almost nobody who got sick from it survived. This made people even more afraid of it.

How did it get to Europe?

At the time of the black death, Italy was the center of trade in the western world. Because Italy is located in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea and is at the crossroads of three continents (Europe, Asia, and Africa) they made a lot of money off of trade. Unfortunately, trade also brought the plague to Italy, and then to Europe.


The plague came to Italy from Asia. For a long time people thought the plague was carried by rats that lived on trading ships. In reality, the plague was carried and transmitted by fleas that lived on the rats

Once the plague arrived in Italy, it traveled into the rest of Europe in a matter of weeks.

How did doctors attempt to treat it?

Doctors did what they could to treat the black death, but they didn’t have the knowledge we have today. Doctors often wore long, pointy masks filled with herbs because they believed these would prevent them from catching the plague while treating their patients.

For treatment, doctors rubbed herbs, onion, and even chopped up snakes on the boils that the black death caused. Herbs were often used to purify the air in houses where plague patients lived. To treat the fevers that the plague caused, doctors had patients sit close to fires or open sewers believing that would cause the fevers to break. Sick patients were told to drink vinegar and even to eat certain minerals, some of which (like mercury and arsenic) we now know to actually be toxic.

What effect did it have on Europe?

Nobody was safe from the plague and rich and poor alike suffered tremendously. Between a third and a half of the population of Europe died from the black death. Because the plague was worse in cities, where people lived close together, many people tried to flee the cities to the countryside. This caused major social upheaval.

Some people even believed that the plague was a punishment from God. This caused some to attack non-Christians, especially Jews, and blame them for the black death happening.