Black death essay questions

Bolton, B. Ormrod and P. Cohn, Samuel K. Green, M.

Black Death Essay Ideas, Topics and Samples

Waley and Denley, Later Medieval Europe , A new article looks at the transmission of the disease: was the culprit the human louse instead of the rat flea? Cipolla, Carlo M. Cohn, Samuel Kline Jr. Cohn, Samuel Kline, Jr.

David Routt, University of Richmond

Gordon and P. Marshall eds, The place of the dead: death and remembrance in late medieval and early modern Europe Cambridge, , Cambridge, Epstein, S. Goldthwaite, Richard A. In this paper, we examine the Black Death specifically, the first and second outbreaks of fourteenth-century plague, c.


How did they die, where and when? We evaluate how historical and bioarchaeological sources are uniquely informative about these questions and highlight the limitations that are associated with each type of data. The combination of the two bodies of evidence, when possible, can provide insights that are not possible when each is analyzed in isolation. The fourteenth-century Black Death was one of the most important epidemics in human history, as it caused or accelerated important demographic, economic, political, and social changes throughout the Old World.

This epidemic was devastating not only because of its extremely high mortality levels, but also because the deaths it caused were concentrated within a brief period. In the four years that the Black Death was at its height in Europe between and , the epidemic killed 30 to 60 percent of the population, amounting to tens of millions of people.

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This essay argues that a full understanding of the epidemiology of this devastating plague—that is, its levels of mortality; the distribution of deaths by age, sex, wealth, and location; and the susceptibility of victims to disease—can only be attained by bringing together archaeological and documentary evidence. We focus on the people who succumbed to the Black Death in medieval England and make a deliberate effort to compare and contrast not only what the different types of documentary and material evidence say, but also the analytic questions and methodological approaches that different disciplines have adopted to discuss plague during the fourteenth century, particularly the first — and second — waves of the Black Death.

According to this view, the First Pandemic was the Plague of Justinian, which began in the sixth century C. The Third Pandemic began in China in the late eighteenth century, spread from there throughout much of the world, and ended by the mid-twentieth century. Scholarly disagreement about whether the Black Death was the same bubonic plague of the Third Pandemic or some other disease has raged for some time, but the recent discovery of Y. The documentary sources employed by historians to analyze the Black Death have been known for some time. They include chronicles, which offer direct statements from contemporaries about the symptoms, pace, and mortality rates of the plague, as well as appointments of parish priests, wills, and especially manorial records, which reflect the experience of the rural majority.

In the last twenty-five years, a new source of material evidence has become available. Bioarchaeology investigates human skeletal remains excavated from archaeological sites to determine the ages at which people died, as well as their sex, health, diet, migration, experience of interpersonal violence, and other behaviors.

The bioarchaeological analysis of skeletal remains is vital for a complete understanding of life in the past because it can yield data often missing from historical documents and can be employed to test assumptions and inferences based on documentary evidence. Most of what we know about the symptoms of the Black Death comes from medieval chroniclers, many of them eyewitnesses, and from plague treatises written years and often decades after the first outbreak of plague. Their descriptions are broadly similar, pointing to fever, headache, lethargy, dark patches or small black pustules on the skin, and buboes or swollen lymph glands in the armpit, groin, or neck.

Other symptoms included nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, and the coughing up of blood. Other victims had little black pustules scattered over the skin of the whole body. Scientists have identified several clinical forms of plague in humans: bubonic, septicemic, pneumonic, gastrointestinal, and pharyngeal. Its main symptoms are exactly those described by medieval sources: headache, chills, nausea, and fever followed by hard and increasingly painful swellings near lymph nodes in the neck behind the ears, armpits, and groin. Several medieval accounts recognized the distinct symptoms of pneumonic plague, which included respiratory distress such as shortage of breath and coughing up of blood or sputum, as well as a quick death.

What Made The Black Death (The Plague) so Deadly?

Medieval documentary sources also offer information on the spread, seasonality, and duration of the disease. Chroniclers identified the first English victims during the summer of in port towns, emphasizing its arrival on ships from the Continent, though they disagree on the exact dates sometime between late June and late September and which ports it struck first Bristol, Southampton, or Melcombe. Despite their drawbacks, these sources can provide considerable data on when and exactly where the Black Death raged, phenomena that have largely been inaccessible to bioarchaeologists and archaeologists, though recent work that counts pottery fragment as a proxy for human demographic trends represents a promising approach.

It took over one hundred years for bubonic plague to spread from Yunnan Province in southwest China to Hong Kong in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This contrast raises questions about how plague was transmitted in the medieval period. Until recently, most scientists have assumed that medieval plague was transmitted in the same fashion as modern bubonic plague, which is a zoonosis, a disease among animals spread by an insect vector.

This dependence on animals for transmission has been used to explain why modern bubonic plague spread so slowly, but ignores the potential effect of human transportation of infected animals on how quickly and widely the disease spread. It also assumes that plague is primarily spread by rats, an assumption undermined by the biased nature of the investigations of early twentieth-century plague in India that have influenced studies since, and more recent evidence that over animals can serve as hosts for plague.

Historians have expended enormous effort estimating the mortality rates of the Black Death in — English historians have, in fact, probably done more to advance data collection of these rates than scholars elsewhere because of the variety and quality of documentary material that survives for England, particularly for peasants, who comprised over 80 percent of the total population. One method involves counting the number of heriots or death-duties paid by peasants on a manor during a specified period, and comparing the number with the total manorial tenants liable to heriot, an exercise that has produced death rates for many different settlements across England Table 1.

On the manors of Glastonbury Abbey, landless men who represented the poorest sector of village society called garciones and over the age of 12 had to make an annual payment called chevagium , or head tax , which allows mortality rates to be calculated by subtracting the total for the plague year from the total for the previous year Table 1.

The mortality rates derived from these different methods show variations ranging from 20 to percent Table 1 , but the overall average mortality of adult males in the countryside was about 50 percent. Because landless males had a generally higher mortality rate of 56—57 percent according to the drop in annual payments made by the poor garciones on Glastonbury Abbey estates distributed over four counties , and because mortality rates from heriots exclude women, children, and landless men, there have also been attempts to push this overall figure above 60 percent to account for the many poorer peasants and women left out of the heriot and tithing-penny figures.

Questions about why the Black Death of — was so deadly remain unanswered by both historians and scientists, although there is some hope that bioarchaeology and paleomicrobiology may provide solutions one day. Comparison of Y. If molecular studies of Black Death remains do not reveal any features of the pathogen or pathogens that can fully explain the epidemiology of the epidemic, we must look carefully at the characteristics of the human populations that first encountered these pathogens in to understand the behavior of the fourteenth-century disease.

The Black Death

Recent research suggests that health in general declined before the Black Death emerged in the fourteenth century, which might have contributed to the extraordinarily high mortality of the epidemic. These studies have not yet included skeletal samples from late thirteenth century through the mid-fourteenth century, so it remains to be seen whether these declines in health were sustained right before the Black Death. These data not only improve our understanding of how the Black Death shaped demographic, economic, political, and social conditions of post-plague medieval populations, but they can also clarify our understanding of the dynamics of emerging infectious diseases today, particularly how the human context can shape the epidemiology and evolution of these diseases.

Contemporary documents tell us precious little about who was infected by the Black Death, although most medieval chroniclers claimed that the Black Death of — was indiscriminate in attacking those of all conditions, age, and sex. Until recently, neither historians nor bioarchaeologists could offer firm evidence that the Black Death of — hit one sex harder than the other, though some medieval chroniclers of later plagues, such as that of —, believe the plague killed more men.

Mortmain payments differed from heriots in taxing not the landholding of a tenant, but individuals, including women and young adults who were not yet heads of households. The study found an overall average sex ratio for mortality of in the period —, but 94 in plague years and 89 during the Black Death.

Further tests on these data suggest that women were disproportionately affected by plague because they biologically had less resistance to the disease than men, rather than because of their differential exposure given their greater numbers in towns or the time they spent at home as caregivers. Even less certainty surrounds the extent to which the Black Death was more virulent in urban than rural areas.


One leading historian of plague maintains that rural regions suffered greater mortality than towns, but most historians argue the reverse based on solid data showing high mortality in pre-modern towns and their reliance on migration to maintain and grow their populations. The urban evidence tends to be indirect and peculiar to individual towns. A careful study of wills in medieval London, for example, shows that the mortality rate in was seventeen times higher than in other years, which translates into a mortality rate of about 51 percent if we accept the average of a 3 percent annual mortality rate calculated for early modern populations.

Finally, even more debatable is whether age made any difference to susceptibility to plague. Chroniclers occasionally declared that plague targeted the young or old or those in the prime of life, but age was rarely mentioned in accounts of the first wave of the plague in — Bioarchaeology can provide especially useful insights into selective plague mortality because it is possible to determine the sex, age, and general health of skeletal remains, even though it cannot establish whether an individual died from plague without using molecular methods, most of which are expensive and destructive.

A good deal of this work is statistical and involves the application of methodologies designed to compensate for the limitations of bioarchaeological data. As with historical documents, not every person who lived in the past is included in the observable bioarchaeological record. Certain individuals might be excluded from the samples analyzed because they were buried in unexcavated areas or because their bones were badly preserved, a particular problem for the smaller and thinner bones of infants, who are very often under-enumerated in skeletal samples.

Partial excavation of a site, which is a common result of time and financial constraints, can produce biased skeletal samples if burial locations within the cemetery were influenced by factors like age, sex, socioeconomic standing, or disease status.

Compounding the problems with age estimation is the standard use of mean age-at-death or life tables to infer mortality patterns, both of which implicitly assume the population under consideration was stationary: that is, closed to migration, with zero population growth, and unchanging age-specific mortality and fertility rates. Human bones often contain specific signs such as lesions, pitting, thickening, and cracks that reflect exposure to physiological stress in general or particular health problems, such as malnutrition, tuberculosis, previously broken bones, and other conditions.

These health problems can shed light on selective mortality in terms of what might have made certain individuals more susceptible to death from plague. This type of analysis cannot be taken too far, however, because not all of the genetic, physiological, social, and environmental variations affecting frailty that is, susceptibility to disease and death leave discernable signs on the skeleton. Lesions could actually point to relatively good health because they reflect the ability of individuals to survive the associated stressor long enough for the lesions to form.

Similarly, the absence of a lesion might suggest relatively poor health if individuals without them were so frail that they quickly succumbed to stressors and died before lesions had a chance to form. Many of the published bioarchaeological analyses of the fourteenth-century plague have been done using skeletons buried in the East Smithfield cemetery in London. The results indicate that elderly adults faced higher risks of death compared to younger adults during the Black Death, as occurs under normal mortality conditions.

In summary, the combined evidence from the historical and bioarchaeological sources indicates that wealth, status, health and perhaps age affected risks of death during the Black Death. The elderly, those who were impoverished, and those who had suffered relatively poor health faced higher risks of death during the epidemic than their younger, wealthier, and healthier peers.

Neither source of information for England has yielded substantial evidence that one sex fared better than the other, although recent work on the southern Netherlands offers strong evidence that plague more negatively affected women than men.