The Bubonic Plague: History, Facts & Symptoms

Instructor: Patricia Chappine

Patricia has a Ph.D. in Progress, History and Culture as well as a master's degree in Holocaust and genocide studies. She has taught heritage of the western world and U.S. history.

In this lesson, we will discuss the origins and effects of the bubonic plague of the 14th century. Learn about the lasting impacts of one of the most devastating events in European history.


The bubonic plague has been considered one of the most devastating events to hit Europe in history. The first epidemic of the plague occurred in the Roman Empire around 542 A.D. The second and most severe outbreak struck Europe in 1340. Although estimates on the actual death toll are disputed, many historians believe that approximately one-third of the population of Europe died during this outbreak. The bubonic plague (also called the Black Death or simply the plague) originated in China and was transmitted to Europe through trade routes. The cause of infection was the bacteria Yersinia pestis, which was carried by fleas on rats which infested trade ships. A person who contracted this illness would generally die within four days. Symptoms included: swollen lymph glands (called buboes), fever, coughing, body pain, and skin decay which caused dark patches on the skin (which accounted for the name the Black Death).

Contributing Factors

Before the plague of the 14th century, Europe experienced a 'Little Ice Age.' During this time, small but noticeable changes in weather patterns occurred. Significantly, a small drop in overall temperatures caused a shortened growing season, resulting in the Great Famine of 1315 - 1317. Serious food shortages led to starvation throughout Europe. The resulting malnutrition of the population caused a lack of resistance to infection.


Reactions to the Plague

The devastation of the plague caused people to search for answers. Many turned to the Catholic Church for guidance. The general stance of Catholic leaders was that the plague was a punishment from God. This theory led to the formation of a group called the flagellants, who would physically punish themselves with whips to win God's forgiveness and end the plague. As they traveled from town to town, they caused hysteria and only helped to spread the plague further. In some cases, the impending threat of death caused people to abandon social rules and throw themselves into excessive alcohol use or sexual encounters. Giovanni Boccaccio, a 14th Century Italian writer, recounted, 'Men and women without number…, caring for nobody but themselves, abandoned the city, their houses and estates, their own flesh and blood even, and their effects, in search of a country place.'

Explanations for the plague varied. Some believed that the alignment of the planets had caused the disaster. Others believed that society had somehow incurred the anger of God. None were sure how the plague spread from person to person, striking some and leaving others untouched. A common theory was that one only needed to breathe the contaminated air near a plague victim to become ill. In response to this idea, people used flowers and herbs to ward off the smell. The plague doctors of the 17th and 18th centuries had special clothes based on these assumptions. These men were hired by cities and towns to help people afflicted by the plague. Often not well trained, these doctors would usually contract the plague themselves. Their outfits included a long bird-like mask with flowers or herbs in the beak to purify the air, long cloaks and sticks to avoid directly touching the patient, and glass eye openings.


Many people blamed others for the devastation of the plague. Accusations of Jews poisoning well water and causing sickness resulted in pogroms, or organized massacres against Jewish communities. In German cities, more than 60 large Jewish towns were destroyed in 1351. Since death could occur at any moment, people began to see life as cheap and passing. Some abandoned the rules of society and turned to violence. European society developed a preoccupation with death in art, music, and poetry. Meanwhile, the consequences of the population decline lead to a labor shortage and economic depression. A decline in the peasant population after the plague accelerated the process of converting labor services into a money economy.

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