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Bubonic Plague

by Nate Kang December 2020

For a stretch of about five years beginning in the late 1340s, a destructive outbreak of

bubonic plague that would ominously go down in history as the “Black Death” completely ravaged h​uman civilization throughout Europe and the Middle East. Resulting in a horrific loss of life— it is estimated that it killed over one out of every three people in affected regions— the Black Death constituted the single deadliest pandemic in human history. Originating from rats and fleas carrying the disease, the plague was a horrifyingly swift and nasty killer. Intriguingly, because of how deadly and widespread it was, the Black Death transcended all human notions of nation, race, and ​religion​— it was a scourge to both Christian Europe and the Islamic East alike. Though different from one another in some aspects, the most ​essential s​imilarity between the two religions’ reactions revolves around how both attempted to account for the plague through a religious lens, with many Christians and Muslims alike convinced it was punishment from God. Overall, when compared side-by-side, it is interesting to note how the Christian and Muslim worlds actually responded to the Black Death in largely the same way. It seems that the devastation brought by the plague acted as a sort of unifying ‘common ground’ between two vastly different ‘rival’ cultures because both suffered through the same ordeal.

By the time the epidemic was abating in 1351, between 25% and 50% of Europe’s population had died. The epidemic is believed to have started in China and made its way west across Asia to the Black Sea. One theory is that it entered Europe when a group of Tartars used catapults to hurl the dead bodies of infected soldiers over the walls of a Genoian trading outpost that was under siege. Because people had no defense against the disease and no understanding of how it spread, it brought panic as well as illness and death. Lepers, as well as Jews and other ethnic and religious minorities, were accused of spreading the plague and thousands of people were executed. We now know that the disease was spread by infected fleas that attached themselves to rats and human. The most striking symptom of the plague was dark swellings or “buboes” in the lymph glands on a victim’s neck, armpits and groin. They ranged in size from an egg to an apple. Once the swelling appeared, an infected person was usually dead within a week. Another even more virulent form attacked the respiratory system and was spread by breathing the exhaled air of a victim. Once a person was infected, their life expectancy was one or two days. One of the most striking descriptions of the plague is in the introduction to The Decameron. The book was written by Giovanni Boccaccio of Florence. It tells the story of seven men and three women who flee to a villa outside the city where they are able to survive.

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