What Was the Black Death?
The Black Death was a plague that raged through Europe from 1347-1350. It was caused by Oriental rat fleas living on the black rats which were carried to Europe from Asia by Genoese trading ships. It is suggested that the Black Death was probably bubonic plague, that is to say the sufferers developed “buboes” or inflamed swellings. Spreading throughout the Mediterranean and Europe, the Black Death is estimated to have killed 30–60% of Europe’s total population.
About one in three Europeans died of the disease. The sudden decrease in population brought serious social problems. An acute labor shortage led to higher wages and there was a short-lived slump in trade. Many people became obsessed with the idea of death, for there were many recurrences of the plague, notably during the years 1361-3 1369-71, 1374-75, 1390 and 1400.
On the other hand, the plague speeded changes that had already begun, changes which had their roots in growing trade and the increasing use of money. It became profitable to export wool and wheat. So land gained a new importance, and many nobles, who had lost laborers and were forced to pay much higher wages to those remaining, chose to sell their estates’ land to rich merchants.
Thus arose a new class of landowners where wealth counted as much as birth. The population of Western Europe did not regain its pre-1348 level until the beginning of the 16th century. In total, the plague may have reduced the world population from an estimated 450 million down to 350–375 million in the 14th century.
The plague recurred occasionally in Europe until the 19th century. The plague created a series of religious, social, and economic upheavals, which had profound effects on the course of European history. Although there were several competing theories as to the etiology of the Black Death, analysis of DNA from victims in northern and southern Europe published in 2010 and 2011 indicates that the pathogen responsible was the Yersinia pestis bacterium, probably causing several forms of plague.