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Year 8 History: Medieval Europe: The Black death

Daily life in the medieval world


The disastrous mortal disease known as the Black Death spread across Europe in the years 1346-53. The frightening name, however, only came several centuries after its visitation (and was probably a mistranslation of the Latin word ‘atra’ meaning both ‘terrible’ and ‘black)’. Chronicles and letters from the time describe the terror wrought by the illness. In Florence, the great Renaissance poet Petrarch was sure that they would not be believed: ‘O happy posterity, who will not experience such abysmal woe and will look upon our testimony as a fable.’ A Florentine chronicler relates that,

"All the citizens did little else except to carry dead bodies to be buried [...] At every church they dug deep pits down to the water-table; and thus those who were poor who died during the night were bundled up quickly and thrown into the pit. In the morning when a large number of bodies were found in the pit, they took some earth and shovelled it down on top of them; and later others were placed on top of them and then another layer of earth, just as one makes lasagne with layers of pasta and cheese." more....

Take from Benedictow, Ole. "The Black Death: The Greatest Catastrophe Ever". History Today 55.3 (2005): n. pag. Print.


The symptoms of the Black Death were terrible and swift:

  • Painful swellings (buboes) of the lymph nodes
  • These swellings, or buboes, would appear in the armpits, legs, neck, or groin
  • A bubo was at first a red color. The bubo then turned a dark purple color, or black

Other symptoms of the Black Death included:

  • a very high fever
  • delirium
  • the victim begins to vomit
  • muscular pains
  • bleeding in the lungs
  • mental disorientation
  • The plague also produced in the victim an intense desire to sleep, which, if yielded to, quickly proved fatal
  • A victim would die quickly - victims only lived between 2 -4 days after contracting the deadly disease.

 Plague warning poster.  This is an image of a plague doctor.


It all started with the flea... or did it?

Medical historians have identified the cause of the Black Death as plague, an infectious disease caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis.Plague bacteria infect rodents, such as rats, ground squirrels, and prairie dogs. The bites of fleas transmit the germs from rodent to rodent and from rodents to human beings or pets.

However evidence produced by forensic scientists and archeologists in 2014 from human remains in the north of the City of London suggests that fleas could not actually have been responsible for an infection that spread so fast – it had to be airborne. Once the disease reached the lungs of the malnourished, it was then spread to the wider population through sneezes and coughs. more...

Taken from Byrne, J. P. (2016). Black Death. In World Book Advanced. <> accessed 30 May 2016


Different Strains

The Plague

  • The bubonic plague was a painful disease, with black buboes, or swellings, in the groin and armpits, which lasted up to a week. There was some chance of surviving if the buboes burst. The amount of the population who died, often referred to as the 'mortality rate', was 50%.
  • A variant of the disease was pneumonic plague, which attacked the lungs. Victims died quickly, in one or two days. The mortality rate in this case was 90%.
  • Another variant was septicaemic plague, which infected the blood. Again victims died quickly and the mortality rate was 100%. more....


Spread of the disease


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Effects of the Plague on Europe

People abandoned their friends and family, fled cities, and shut themselves off from the world. Funeral rites became perfunctory or stopped altogether, and work ceased being done.  more...

The long term effects of the Black Death were devastating and far reaching. Agriculture, religion, economics and even social class were affected. Contemporary accounts shed light on how medieval Britain was irreversibly changed. more.....

Death toll

Due to poor or non-existent record-keeping, it has been difficult for historians and scientists to determine the true number of people that died of the Black Death. In Europe alone, it is likely that from 1347-1352, the plague killed at least twenty million people, or one-third of Europe’s population. more...


Ring a ring a rosie

a pocketfull of posies

a tissue a tissue

we all fall down

This nursery rhyme used by children today dates back to the London Plague of 1665. The “ring of roses” describes the red buboes around the neck of an infected person (swollen lymph nodes);  “posies” refers to the herbs or flowers that people carried in their pockets to breathe hoping it would protect them from the disease; “at-choo” refers to a sneeze which was the sign of coming illness. “All fall down” describes the suddenness of death from what is today called “Black Death” or Bubonic Plague.

There is some debate on whether or not this nursery rhyme refers to the Black Death.