Boils or "buboes" gave the Bubonic Plague its name.
The pandemic or global epidemic known as the Black Death had repercussions that changed history and still affects the world today.
The bubonic form of the disease, caused by fleas that bit plague-infected rates then transferred the disease by biting humans then regurgitating the bacterium into the wound.
Called Pasteurella pestis in honor of the great microbe hunter, Louis Pasteur, the bacterium caused more casualties than the Holocaust or any other modern plague.
Bubonic plague is derived from “buboes,” black lesions the size of an orange that appeared in the groin and on the neck.
The bacterium caused a relatively benign form of the disease because the bacterium’s vector, brown rats, lived in barns and sewers away from people. The black rat, which like dogs which lived indoors with their human hosts, also spread the disease.
The more virulent strain, pneumonic plague, spread by human to human contact, removing rats and fleas from the equation and causing more devastation. Within years of the Black Death’s appearance in 1347, anywhere from 25 to 50 percent of Europeans died – an estimated 24 million.
Victims often fell dead soon after they were bitten by a flea or a neighbor coughed, sneezed or spewed sputum on the victim. Families abandoned dying kin, who were often bricked in without food or water in a failed attempt to contain the disease.
Although no one at the time deduced the cause of the disease, one seemingly ridiculous preventive measure turned out to have scientific if unrecognized proof. Doctors brave enough to remain on the job wore sealskin coats and hoods with “beaks” containing perfumed herbs and spices, thought to keep out the miasmas, Italian for “evil air,” ??? that allegedly caused the plague.
The demographic shift dealt feudalism a fatal blow, hastened the end of serfdom. Indentured laborers who were bound to the land for centuries bought the property of bankrupt lords they had once served as laborers or had paid with money or by barter.
A powerful middle class emerged, another contributing factor to the end of feudalism and its semi-independent nobility. They were replaced by princes who ruled nation states. The transition occurred first in England and later in continental Europe, where a rigid caste-system prevailed for centuries.
England’s sturdy, educated serfs turned tenant farmers then landowners i contributed to the later might of the British empire, on which the sun never set and colonized or dominated one quarter of the globe.
Contemporary accounts of the Black Death by the 14th century Italian poets Petrarch and Boccaccio don’t convey the horror of the times.
Petrarch accurately predicted that later generations would accuse him of exaggerating the devastation. But the primitive statistics that showed a rate of casualties as high as 50 percent proved the poet right.
By 1350, Europe and much of the rest of the world resembled one vast ghost town. Some villages lost all their inhabitants. The living may have envied the dead and awaited a similar, painful release from a village with a population of one or two, if any.
While an omnipotent nation state might not seem beneficial, other results of the Black Death advanced civilization dramatically and created the modern world.
Due to depopulation, labor shortages helped liberate serfs, who now moved around freely instead of being bound to the land as their forefathers had been for centuries, since ancient Rome if not earlier, although the latifundia or vast landed estates of wealthy Romans were tilled by slaves, not serfs.
Lack of supply created demand, allowing roaming ex-serfs to seek out landlords who paid the highest wages.
The decline of landlords and local lords led to centralized authority in the person of near absolute monarchs, no longer fearful of powerful so-called vassals who might usurp the throne or worse.
The nation state also gave rise to anything but benevolent despots, the name given to autocrats by philosophes of the 18th century Enlightenment. Philosophers’ flattery may have been in pursuit of royal patronage.
Voltaire corresponded with one benevolent despot, Catherine the Great, and was the palace guest of another “great,” Frederick of Prussia, until they had a falling out over pacifism, which the philosopher advocated, and his bellicose host rejected by seizing a chunk of Austria from the Empress Maria Theresa.
The French encyclopedist Diderot declined Catherine’s invitation to adorn her court in St. Petersburg, but they enjoyed a lengthy correspondence.
Centralization of power in one prince and sate had other drawbacks. Decentralization had allowed the emergence of independent thought, although it was usually suppressed.
But once dissident thoughts were released, they proved resistant to the prophylaxis of censorship. A strong central government could but often failed to stifle religious and political dissent.
The failure to suppress everything from scientific advances to theological debate involving Protestantism and other so-called heresies continues to benefit education and medicine.
Before the Renaissance or rebirth of the ancient world’s knowledge, scientific inquiry could have lethal consequences. Galileo spent the last years of his life under house arrest for disproving heliocentrism, the Biblical belief that the sun revolved around the earth.
An innocent abstraction, heliocentrism not only contradicted the Bible but threatened the Church and secular rulers whose autocratic rule was supported by Rome until princes became too independent.
Scientific theory like Galileo’s geocentric vision of the solar system could be revolutionary in political and theological terms and was often a burning offense.
If Galileo hadn’t recanted, he would have been burned at the stake despite his long-term friendship with the pope, whose real anger toward his friend originated with the name he coined for the pontiff, Simplicius, Latin for simpleton.
The theologian and scholar John Wycliffe also reportedly lived out his final days under house arrest, although some historians believe that is anti-Catholic propaganda because accounts of his genteel imprisonment didn’t appear until 80 years after his death in 1384.
Another theologian was not so lucky. Despite the protection of the Holy Roman Emperor’s brother, Sigismund, regent of Bohemia, who later changed his mind after religious advisors told him a promise made to a heretic wasn’t binding, Jan Hus was imprisoned and burned at that stake in 1415.
An indicator of how Europe had evolved from decentralized feudal enclaves to powerful nation states comes from a statement attributed to Louis XIV:
“C’est moi, l’etat.” (“I am the state.”)
Two centuries later, his great grandson, the 16th Louis, would prove that the reign of malevolent despot had gone as he ascended the guillotine in 1793.
A vigorous microbe had toppled feudalism and replaced it with a forerunner of the world's system of government.
Cartwright, Fredrick F. and Michael D. Biddiss. Disease and History. Dorset Press, 1972.
Manchester, William. A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance: Portrait of an Age. Little, Brown & Company, 1992.
McCall, Andrew. The Medieval Underworld. Barnes & Noble, 1979.
Causes Frank Sanello Supports
ACLU, ASPCA, Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders