A Student's Guide to the Bubonic Plague


The Middle Ages were the years between the fall of the Roman Empire and the start of the Renaissance, around 476 to 1453 AD. While there were a number of important events that occurred in this time period, such as the development of gunpowder, increased dependence on city living, and general reform in regards to political, cultural, and religious spheres, the introduction of the Bubonic Plague is also extremely important. High school students who are interested in learning more about the plague should study its origins, the disease itself, public opinions, and the role it played in affecting Europe’s population, economy, culture, art, and political scenes. In addition, consultation with a professor of history or infectious disease expert may be an effective way for high school students who are interested in this historic period of time to gain more information about the plague. Finally, reading books or magazines, studying maps, and reviewing other historical artifacts from that time can be a good way for high school students to increase their knowledge about the Bubonic Plague. 

Origins of the Bubonic Plague

According to many experts, the Bubonic Plague is believed to have started in the Gobi desert in the early 14th century. Though the bacteria often blamed for the development of the plague had been around for years prior to this outbreak, it had been relatively dormant, likely due to relatively cool climate changes. As the bacterium associated with the plague was activated, it spread rapidly throughout the world. While there is no question that it was exceptionally deadly in Europe, it affected other parts of the world, as well. In fact, some experts suggest that as much as 25% of the population of China was killed by the plague in the 14th century.

On its way to Europe, the plague is believed to have traveled through Caucasus, Crimea, and Cairo. By 1347, the Black Plague was identified in Sicily, where it then spread to the rest of Italy, France, England, Germany, and even part of Norway. The route followed by the Black Plague is typically associated with those used by traveling merchants during this period of time, and in fact mirrors medieval trade almost perfectly. Though some individuals attempted to prevent traveling merchants from entering their city gates, this was usually impossible.

About the Disease

So what was the Bubonic Plague exactly? According to medical experts, the Bubonic—or Black—Plague stemmed from an organism that was most likely carried by rodents. Fleas, which were common in both cities and rural areas at the time, would bite afflicted rats, and then regurgitate the blood from the rat onto available human hosts—eventually causing the death of all three creatures. While there were a number of symptoms associated with the Black Plague, the most common include a high fever, aching limbs, and the vomiting of blood. In addition, some individuals who were afflicted with the plague virus were likely to exhibit swelling of the lymph nodes, which were accompanied by a blackish color. In most cases, individuals who developed the Black Plague were dead within three days of contracting the illness.

With today’s ability to provide quick and effective medical care, the outbreak of a plague such as the one known as the “Black Death” would be quite rare. In addition to the poor health treatments available at this time—such as the use of burned incense and church bells—high rates of malnutrition and other physical illness contributes to the high rates of death during the time of the plague. In addition, some experts believe that there may have been more than one strain of plague occurring, which would have been especially difficult to treat. In all likelihood, the two types of plagues affected individuals during this time period included septicaemic and pneumonic varieties.

Opinions About the Bubonic Plague

The development of the Bubonic Plague was met with significant amounts of debate about its causes. Surprisingly, the church did not believe it to be an act of god, but rather a physical disease. In contrast, other churchmen believed that the plague was due to planetary interaction, which lead to the release of poisonous vapors from the earth. Finally, a reliance on avoiding the disease was supported by many cities and public officials during this frightening period in time.

Medical Measures

People who are afraid of something find their own ways to cope when no proven treatment is provided. Many who were afraid of contracting the plague devised their own ways of preventing and curing the disease. Because many associated the scent of the dead with the plague, it made sense to them that using scents to ward off the plague would be effective. People would dip fabric into scented oils and hold them or tie the over their faces when they would leave their homes. Many towns thought they could use sound to ward off the plague as well. Church bells were rung and cannons were fired.

The Effects of the Bubonic Plague

As mentioned above, one of the most serious effects of the plague was the significant loss of life that accompanied it. According to some estimates, as much as one-third of the total population of Europe was killed by the epidemic. Doctors, clergy members, and other individuals who had significant amounts of interaction with the general public were especially hit by the virus. Unfortunately, some of these groups did not rebound in population for several decades.

The Bubonic Plague also resulted in significant economic and cultural turmoil. While there were a number of industries hit hard by the epidemic, the field of agriculture and construction were especially afflicted. Similarly, universities and colleges closed, churches were often devoid of holy men, and professional guilds vanished overnight. Finally, the death of many community political leaders led to significant amounts of change in the years following the plague, as new councilmen and local politicians were assigned and elected.

The Bubonic Plague was a worldwide event that played a significant role in changing the face of Europe, and the world at large. While there were minor outbreaks of plague in the years following the initial virus outbreak, none of them could compare in severity or loss of life. Though the plague occurred many centuries ago, the bacteria which led to its development still exists today. In fact, a small number of people are still afflicted each year which this dangerous disease.