What Made The Black Death (The Plague) so Deadly?

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In October of 1347, 12 ships dropped anchor at a Sicilian port. Those who eagerly approached were met with a grisly sight. Almost all aboard were either dead or barely alive, their skin erupting with blackened boils that dripped blood and pus. In horror, the Sicilian authorities demanded the ships set sail, but though they left, the damage had already been done. The Black Death was now in Europe and millions would die in what is considered one of the greatest disasters in history. Let’s explore how the bubonic plague wiped out at least a third of Europe’s population, if not more, in this episode of the Infographics Show, What Made the Black Death so Deadly? Europe was hit hard by the plague, but it was not hit first. It was also not unaware of a disease that was already bringing widespread death and destruction elsewhere. Before the infested ships arrived in Sicily rumors of a frightful sickness devastating the populations of first China and then India, Egypt, Persia, and Syria had spread near and far. While no one knew what caused it or why, it seemed to follow trade routes spanning the Near and Far East. Further, when it appeared, it was by all accounts unstoppable. Those struck by the Black Death would begin to swell at the lymph nodes located in their groin area or under arm regions. The growths would soon develop into large blackish blue egg-sized lumps, or for the even less fortunate, expand to the size of apples. These would then fester and ooze various bodily fluids. Beyond this, those with the disease could develop any combination of a series of additional symptoms. These included fever, pain, chills, sweating, upset stomach, and diarrhea. Almost always, this was followed by death. According to those who observed its effects first-hand, all it appeared to take was brief physical contact with the clothing of someone who was sick to pass the disease on to another. Though, some doctors claimed that it was the spirit leaving the body of the deceased that infected others as it passed by. Obviously, at this point in history the real methods of disease transmission were not yet well understood. Without understanding it, most were helpless to defend against it. Few areas other than some islands cut off from the rest of Europe by the sea made it through the pandemic plague-free. The rest of the population was not so lucky. The bacterium infiltrated virtually every European city’s defenses and many who appeared perfectly healthy one day could be dead a few days later. It was uncommon though possible for someone to survive a week or two before he or she died. Compounding problems further, those with the disease would typically be asymptomatic for the first few days and so no one would be aware that they had caught it. This meant that successfully isolating them from the rest of society at this point was all but impossible. Those who tried the next best thing to protect themselves by fleeing for the country were not safe there either. The plague decimated livestock as well and countless pigs, cows, chickens, goats, and sheep who also died a brutal death. This was such a problem that it led to a shortage of wool throughout the continent. While many European areas had a death figure of around 30%, 90% of the Italian city of Florence perished. Sometimes, bodies of the deceased remained where they had died as there were not enough people still living to bury them. Thousands of French villages in addition to areas in other locations were left without a single remaining soul. The Black Death had mercilessly transformed them into ghost towns. In some instances, nature eventually took over, and areas that people once called home were re-claimed by surrounding forest. It took aerial photography following the end of World War I to rediscover these locations as places where men, women, and children once lived. Most estimates place Europe’s death total between 50 and 70 million, or around thirty-some percent, though the CDC claims it killed as much as 60% of the population, which is considerably more. World-wide estimates typically range from 155 to 200 million. The world at the time was a mere 500 million people, so nearly half of all of its’ inhabitants, or again according to some sources even more, were killed. So how was it that the Black Death was able to spread so quickly and wipe out so many, people and animals alike? Well for one, as previously mentioned, there was little in the way of scientific knowledge in the 1300s. Not only did people not understand the plague’s causes or modes of transmission, but there were also countless failures in how those in the medical field attempted to treat it. It is true that Yersina pestis, the bacterium behind the Black Death, or bubonic plague, is highly contagious. It can also be spread in many ways, though obviously contaminated spirits aren’t one of them. Many believe that in its later stages it had the ability to morph into an airborne strain that could be passed on to a new host via a simple sneeze or cough. However, all strains, airborne or those in the more initial stages that are not, are believed to have been transferred through flea or lice bites. And many animals in addition to countryside livestock serve as hosts for the bacterium and blood sucking pests. Examples are things like squirrels, rabbits, chipmunks, and mice. However, many in the scientific field have argued that by far the worst contributor to the spread of the Black Death was the urban rat and its flea. Part of the reason for this belief is that rats have been observed to develop symptoms quite similar to those in people, and in cases of the modern-day plague many people with the sickness had accompanying bites from fleas. Recent outbreaks often follow what’s known as ‘rat falls’ as well, or when the rodents die off in record amounts for whatever reason. Thus, the most prevalent theory is that the Black Death all began when rats with the plague died and their fleas then looked for more blood in another readily available source, which would at times be human. Upon being bitten by the contaminated flea this person would then be exposed to the deadly bacteria. Seemingly in support of this theory, ships during the mid-1300s were commonly infested with the furry rodents who thrived in their dark. moist environment. And following the death ships’ arrival in Sicily the plague continued to spread further following a trade route pattern, as it had previously in Asia, to other port locations throughout Europe and as far down as North Africa. However, more recently there have been some proposed tweaks to this rat-based theory. As we just mentioned, the Black Death, after all, is not the only outbreak of the plague in the world’s history. There have been outbreaks before as well as after, and those that took place more recently followed a different pattern entirely. Europe’s black death spread much faster, and as far as historical records are concerned there was no mention of a mass rat die-off in the days or months preceding it. Now, some scientists suggest that it was human fleas and lice that were the true culprits behind Europe’s version of the disease. In this case fleas would bite infected people and then move on to others, one by one, who happened to be in the nearby vicinity. They describe the underlying mathematical model that a rat-flea spread follows is quite different from a human-flea or lice one. And, when information was plugged into simulations the human-flea model more closely matched data from seven of nine plague-hit European cities. Those with this newest evidence admit that the causes of the plague are surrounded by ongoing controversy. However, whether the fleas were of the human or rat variety, it is blood sucking pests of one kind or another that likely passed it on successfully and so very quickly. It also turns out that the Black Death may not have been causing mass devastation all by itself. When victims bodies were exhumed from mass graves in England anthrax spores were also discovered along with them. If anthrax was occurring at the same time as the plague this would definitely have made things much worse. Anthrax cannot only be passed by coming into contact with sweat, saliva, or tears but also by mere skin contact. In other words, at the time of the Black Death pandemic, people could have come down with a life-threatening disease of one kind or another in pretty much every conceivable way. It is possible anthrax and other diseases made people extra susceptible to the plague due to already compromised immunity. Also, it is possible that the body count of those claimed by the Black Death included victims that actually died from anthrax or other diseases. Beyond its quick transfer from host to host and the contributions of additional disease, the way the Black Death was treated failed to help and may have actually helped kill victims or spread it further unintentionally. For example, at least initially, medical practitioners would do such things as perform bloodletting on patients with the plague. This is where they cut into veins or arteries in the necks or arms of those who were sick, so that their blood flowed freely. This procedure was nothing new and, in fact, dated back as far as to the times of ancient Egypt and Greece. Historical figures believed that to be healthy the body needed the right balance of blood, phlegm, and bile. Bloodletting was believed to correct a possible imbalance of too much blood which is what caused the person to get sick. Unfortunately, the procedure appeared to be as ineffective for the victims of the plague as it was for Charles II or George Washington centuries later. While Washington awoke with a sore throat and King Charles suffered a seizure, following bloodletting treatment both died shortly thereafter. Boil-lancing was another technique used as a form of treatment which was just how it sounds. Someone would essentially lance, or stick a pointy object, into the boils to drain them of their gooey contents. If this wasn’t done, they would only continue to grow larger and, in time. poison their host due to the mass build-up of dead blood and pus. Then again, popping them could also cause death due to toxic shock. Beyond the patient likely dying, the boils contained highly contagious matter and possibly spread the disease yet further. Other methods such as the burning of various herbs or immersing the sick in vinegar or rosewater were also, unsurprisingly, ineffective. In time, after failure upon failure and in an attempt at self-preservation, many doctors simply stopped accepting patients. Even priests began refusing to perform last rites out of danger for their own safety. Where man failed nature did little to help either. Not only did people have little idea of how to handle the plague, but they were genetically prone to succumbing to it. Studies of the remains of the European population at the time determined that only 0.2% had a gene that offered them any form of immunity. The other 99.8% had none. Since so many of those who were susceptible to the plague died from it, they did not pass their genes on further to the following generations. Many of those who did have the gene lived on to procreate. This is why Caucasian Americans now have a 15% chance of having some resistance to the disease. This is pretty good news considering the modern form of the plague is still around today. One encounter via the 12 so-called death ships would go on to wipe out men, women, and children to such an extent that it would change the tide of history. What do you think, was it passed on by human or rat fleas? Let us know in the comments! Also, be sure to check out our other video called Could the Black Death (The Plague) Happen Again?! Thanks for watching, and, as always, don’t forget to like, share, and subscribe. See you next time!
Channel: The Infographics Show
Views: 2,357,009
Rating: 4.909802 out of 5
Keywords: The Black Death, Black Death, Plague, bacteria, sickness, illness, history, animated history, bubonic, bubonic plague, black, rats, europe, middle ages, midieval, pandemic, black plague, black death (disaster), the plague, plague doctor, bubonic plague (disease or medical condition), pneumonic plague, animation, animated, world history, the plague doctor, simple history, disease, medieval, it's history
Id: m5q-PIN3KSE
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Length: 10min 58sec (658 seconds)
Published: Thu May 02 2019
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