Consider the Black Death

What were its causes and why did it spread so quickly throughout Western Europe? Where was it most virulent? What were the results of the Black Death and how important do you think disease is in changing the course of history?

Black Death refers to a bubonic and pneumonic plague believed to have come from rats and which spread throughout Western Europe during the 14th century resulting to the death of millions, drastically decreasing the overall population of Europe, and changing the economic and cultural landscape of the region. It came in periodic epidemics from 1300s to the 1700s in the various places where it struck. The plague is said to have originated in Central Asia when the Mongol army, in an attempt to take siege of the Caffa in the Crimea during the early 1300s, catapulted plague-infested corpses into the city. The fleeing traders carried the disease with them to Sicily. From Italy, it immediately spread into peopled towns and cities around neighboring France, Spain, Portugal, England, and other parts of Europe.

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It caused the total disappearance of villages as about one-third of the entire population of Europe died in the epidemic which ensued. It was most virulent in England where it claimed about half of its population. It spread quickly because doctors did not have enough knowledge then on how to cure the disease and any purpose of finding a cure was defeated by the fact that the plague claimed its victim within a week. Poor hygiene and sanitation practices among the crowded European cities also contributed to the outbreak.

Aside from the dramatic decrease in Europe’s population, the Black Death stopped on-going wars and caused a slump in trade. It decreased available labor in the farmlands. It even affected the Catholic Church as people turned to superstition to explain the cause of the plague when their faith could not do anything to cure it. There was mass slaughter and burning of Jews who were accused of spreading the plague. A good effect of the epidemic, however, is that the shortage of workers resulted to better remuneration for the peasants as farm owners tried to outdo each other in luring the peasantry to work for them. These resulted to social mobility which would eventually lessen the power of the nobility and clergy in succeeding centuries.

The Black Death experience illustrates how disease could change the history of humankind especially if it affects multitudes of populations around the world. With the advanced technology in the field of medicine today however, and the presence of international organizations like the World Health Organization, it has become easier to contain epidemics before they could become as widespread as the Black Death experience.

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