During the 14th century, areas of Europe of Asia would be introduced to the bubonic plague known as the “Black Death.” This bubonic plague would be notorious for the number of lives it took with millions of people dying from this horrible illness.
Spread through trade routes and trading ships, the plague made its way from Asia from areas such as China, India, and Syria to Europe through trading ports. One of the first cases in Europe occurred at the port of Messina in Sicily, where civilians were met with horrific imagery of how the plague-infected people. The ships had carried sailors home with some dead on arrival and others barely alive with their bodies covered in “black boils that oozed blood and pus,” looking critically ill.
The bubonic plague is caused by a bacterium called Yersinia pestis. Rodents usually carry this bacterium and can spread it to humans through biting. Humans in the proximity of infected rodents, such as living in rural areas or traveling on trade ships, were at a higher risk of becoming infected. When infected, a person would experience pain in their lymph nodes which would swell to form a “bubo,” hence the name “bubonic plague.” After a couple of days of the infection, would a person fall ill? Due to no form of treatment or cure for the illness, many would pass away, with approximately 80% of infected people dying.
With no medication available to treat those infected, many people really had nowhere to turn when it came to treatment. Doctors and priests refused to see those infected in fear of becoming infected. People had to find alternative ways, which today are unthinkable, to find ways to treat themselves. One technique to treat the plague was through bloodletting which is when blood is taken from the areas infected. This technique would be performed through leeches or through a knife. Another treatment technique was through lancing boils to drain the pus and blood that filled the infected area. Fleeing to rural areas was also a tactic many used to stay away from large crowds. However, this tactic was not seen as effective with many animals, such as sheep, goats, and cows, in the countryside also infected with the plague.
Approximately one-third of Europe’s population was lost due to the bubonic plague. From its early beginnings in Sicily, Italy in 1347, the plague continued to spread to parts of Northern African and mainland Italy. From there in 1348, the illness made its way to Spain and France and eventually reach Austria, Hungary, Switzerland, Germany, and London in 1349.
While the plague is not as common as it was centuries ago, the World Health Organization still reports that every year there are still new cases that occur ranging from 1,000 to 3,000 cases. Thanks to modern antibiotics and modern public health practices, the death rate around plague cases have significantly decreased.