Interpretations of the Black Death

Naming the plague

Medieval writers called the plague 'the pestilence'. The first person to call it the 'Black Death' was a British historian, Elizabeth Penrose, in 1823.

The Black Death hit an already weakened Europe, where population had outgrown the food supply. After the Medieval Warm Period (late 12th century) the drop in average temperatures had reduced the harvests.

Was the Black Death a disaster?

Few historians considered the impact of the Black Death until F A Gasquet, a Catholic monk. In 1893, he described it as a catastrophe which destroyed the Church and caused the Reformation.

In 1966, one historian claimed that it was one of the three greatest catastrophes in the history of the world. Other historians suggested that the Black Death destroyed the feudal system and caused the Peasants' Revolt.

Other historians questioned this. The social historian G G Coulton (1929) suggested that the Black Death made people wealthier, because it reduced the number of people sharing the wealth.

The Marxist historians claimed that the social changes of the 14th century were caused by general climate and economic factors, and that the Black Death speeded the changes up, but did not cause them.

Was the Black Death the bubonic plague?

Although most historians believe that the Black Death was the bubonic plague, some historians disagree. The descriptions by the Medieval chroniclers are not clear, and often include details – eg the death of animals – which do not fit the modern bubonic plague.

In 1984, Graham Twigg suggested that the bubonic plague, carried by rats, could not have spread quickly enough, and proposed that the Black Death was a form of anthrax. Other historians have suggested that it was a kind of Ebola-virus, or a now-extinct plague germ.

In 1986, the astronomer Fred Hoyle suggested that the Black Death was a virus which came in dust from outer space.

In 2010, however, DNA studies of the mass graves of victims seemed to prove that the virus was a strain of the Bubonic Plague.

What do you think?

What is your interpretation of the Black Death? How disastrous was it compared to other world catastrophes? And were the doctors at the time of the Black Death 'failures'?

Where next?

You may wish to measure the impact of the huge loss of human life in the Black Death against the slave trade, the First World War, and the Holocaust.

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