Causes of the Black Death

Today, we know that there were many causes of the Black Death:

Dissection Lesson At The Faculty Of Medicine In Montpellier, from 'La Grande Chirurgie' by Guy De Chauliac (1363)

Causes of the Black Death

Poor medical knowledge. Medieval doctors did not understand disease, and had limited ability to prevent or cure it. So, when the plague came, doctors were powerless to stop it.

Medieval European medicine was very different from our modern concept of medicine. There was no knowledge of germs, and only relatively basic tools to diagnose and treat illness. Much of medicine was, at best, based on ancient Roman and Greek ideas of the 'humours'. The ideal was to balance specific fluids known as 'black bile', 'yellow bile', blood and phlegm (the fluids made by your ear, nose and throat). To be in a bad or good humour was evidence of how healthy you were! Other doctors would release "evil spirits" by trepanning (drilling a hole in your head to release them). In this context it is not surprising that the causes listed below emerged.

Medieval doctors were not certain what caused the plague, but believed it could be the result of:

  • the movements of the planets
  • a punishment from God
  • bad smells and corrupt air
  • enemies who had poisoned the wells
  • staring at a victim
  • wearing pointed shoes
  • strangers to villages too were blamed

What do you think?

We would consider Medieval society as superstitious. Think about the ideas above:

  • Do they suggest a Medieval view of the world that is based on facts, or belief and guesswork?
  • Was this view the result of ignorance or rather a science owing more to spirituality and belief, than one using evidence?
  • Do any or even none of the causes of the Black Death seem realistic to you?