History of Plague Before 1347

"Rats appeared in their land"

A woodcut depicting Jews, wrongly accused of deliberately spreading plague, being burned to death during a religious pogrom.

Above: A woodcut depicting Jews, wrongly accused of deliberately spreading plague, being burned to death during a religious pogrom.

Introduction

Plagues were not unknown in Europe at the time of the Black Death. Their bibles spoke of plagues, and generation after generation had witnessed their own outbreaks (notable examples being in Rome in 1167 and 1230, Florence in 1244, and in Spain and southern France in 1320 and 1333).

The Dance of Death, by Hans Holbein.

Did You Know?

Wyndham Lathem, Associate Professor at Northwestern University in Chicago believes that the plague bacillus Yersinia pestis probably evolved from a relatively harmless bacteria of the gut called Yersinia pseudotuberculosis, around 5,000 to 10,000 years ago.

Although still very deadly, plagues were usually confined to one or two towns, and would last a matter of months. On this occasion, however, the disease would prove rather different, spreading across continents and taking millions to the grave. Indeed, the Black Death remains the worst single epidemic in human history.

The earliest accounts of plague come from the Bible. For example, the Septuagint version of 1 Samuel, chapter 5, describes how "rats appeared in their land [Ashdod], and death and destruction were throughout the city" and how young and old alike suffered "an outbreak of tumours in the groin" (rats carried the fleas that spread bubonic plague, a symptom of which were buboes: swelling of the lymph glands in the groin or armpits).

Another possible recorded example appears in Greece in the fifth century BC. Thucydides describes an outbreak in his History of the Peloponnesian War, recording that "pestilence of such extent and mortality was nowhere remembered".

AD 165–180 - the estimated period within which smallpox reached and spread through Western Europe.

25–30% - the estimate of the proportion of Italy's population killed by the smallpox epidemic during this period.

AD 251–260 - the period during which the Roman Empire was afflicted by the Antonine Plague (believed to have been measles).

5,000 - the number of people dying every day in Rome at the height of this epidemic, according to some contemporary reports.

AD 541 - the date of the first widespread outbreak of the plague, the First Pandemic (the Black Death was the Second Pandemic). The Plague of Justinian is believed to have started in North Africa, before spreading northwards along the trade routes out of Ethiopia and the Sudan. Entering Egypt via the port of Pelusium, the plague then spread west into Alexandria and the rest of Egypt, east into Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), Palestine, and Syria, and west into Europe.

Did You Know?

This plague is often referred to as the Plague of Justinian because it struck during the reign of the Roman Emperor Justinian (527–565).

220 years - the period over which the plague of the first pandemic regularly reoccured.

AD 767 - the approximate date that the First Pandemic ended.

Did You Know?

The Plague of Justinian reached England, where it was referred to as the Plague of Cadwallers Time.

25-50,000,000 - the estimated death toll from the first pandemic.

200,000 - the estimated number of deaths in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul in Turkey) caused by the first outbreak of the Plague of Justinian.

40% - the proportion of Constantinople's population this number represented.

15% - the proportion of the population of Southern France and Italy killed in a later outbreak (AD 599 to 600).

800 years - the approximate time between the first pandemic (the Plague of Justinian) and the second pandemic (the Black Death).


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