Rats and Fleas Helped Spread the Disease

Claudia Tegtman, Staff Writer

The Black Death caused a panic throughout Europe and Asia when 12 ships arrived from the Black Sea to the Sicilian port of Messina in the year of 1347. Although many people rumored a plague to be in their midst, it wasn’t any actual concern until it was gruesomely discovered that almost every single person on the ships was either sick or dead. This plague proved to be very effective in its job as over the next five years, it is estimated that 20 to 25 million people perished. During this time no one really understood how they kept getting each other sick, but what they believed and how they reacted to those beliefs would be vastly different to how we would’ve handled the situation.

Plague doctors were very important during this dark time, and although the theory of germs didn’t come into existence yet, they had their ways of making people believe that they understood what to do. Since many doctors believed the problem was with the foul smelling air, the famous beak mask came into use to “filter” out evil scents. Two circular glass pieces were implemented into the mask so that they could see, and aromatic herbs and flowers were stuffed into the beak to help with the filtration. How they helped “cure” the plague is another story though, as the methods they used were rather crude and dangerous. Methods such as bloodletting and boil-lancing were two dangerous methods, although other ways included but was not limited to burning herbs, rubbing chopped up snake or onions on the boils, or better yet rubbing a dead pigeon on the body. Many people were led to believe that this plague was sent upon them by God for sins such as greed because they didn’t understand it.

Although it’s interesting to hear what people thought about the plague whilst it was going on, it’s helpful to know what it actually is and how it works. A good indicator that someone was infected could be shown through large bumps on the body that leaked blood and pus which were named “plague-boils”. Other symptoms such as chills, vomiting, pain in the body, and fever didn’t last long as the victim usually died within hours or days after the initial infection. The symptoms were caused by a bacillus by the name of Yersina pestis, and if successfully located within the lungs has an almost 100% mortality rate. The coughing and sneezing that resulted afterwards only helped spread the disease to a point where just the touching of clothing was enough to get someone sick.

The bacillus infecting people in the first place is all thanks to it being able to travel pneumatically and by infected flea and rat bites, which could affect livestock as well as people. This actually resulted in a massive wool shortage as well, as many people tried to flee to somewhere safer and less sickly, only to find it was like that almost everywhere they could go. It was impossible to completely stomp the plague out, so it sprung back up every few generations, although it would be hard for wealthier areas that could afford antibiotics to have a chance of getting it. It was more likely to catch in small, crowded, poor city areas. The massive amount of people dying during the Black Death period ended early on in the 1350s thanks to colder weather killing of many plague carrying fleas (especially in London, where it also spread).

The Black Death was a horrifying time, as many people thought it was the end of the world. Without the modern medicine that we have now, people had to take drastic measures and have something they believe in, which helped many keep sane. After this devastating blow, many families were completely wiped out and the economy was left much less grand. It’s important to know important events in history so that if something like it happens again in the future, it would help people be at least a little more prepared.