Infectious and Epidemic Disease in History

Department of History
University of California, Irvine
 Instructor:    Dr. Barbara J. Becker

Lecture 3.  The Black Death (1347):  Antecedents.


Early European Epidemics
Type of Infection
Plague of Athens
  • originated in North Africa
  • recorded by eyewitness and survivor,  historian Thucydides (c. 460-400 BCE)
  • killed one-third of Athenians
  • notable victim:  Pericles (c. 495-429 BCE)
430-425 BCE
scarlet fever?
Plague of Antoninus
  • brought to Rome by soldiers returning from campaign in the East
  • recorded by physician, Galen (c. 130-200 CE)
  • notable victim:  Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE)
165-180 CE
Plague of St. Cyprian*
  • allegedly originated in Ethiopia
  • spread throughout Europe and Britain
  • recorded by bishop of Carthage, St. Cyprian (200-258 CE)
250-265 CE

*The Plague of St. Cyprian
Many of us are dying in this mortality, that is many of us are being freed from the world.  This mortality is a bane to the Jews and pagans and enemies of Christ; to the servants of God it is a salutary departure. 

As to the fact that without any discrimination in the human race the just are dying with the unjust, it is not for you to think that the destruction is a common one for both the evil and the good. 

The just are called to refreshment, the unjust are carried off to torture; protection is more quickly given to the faithful; punishment to the faithless.... 

How suitable, how necessary it is that this plague and pestilence, which seems horrible and deadly, searches out the justice of each and every one and examines the minds of the human race....

--St. Cyprian (251)

Notable Events during the "Dark" Ages (500-1000 CE)
Fall of Rome
Major eruption of Mt. Vesuvius
Major earthquake in Antioch
First Pandemic (bubonic plague)
Plague of Justinian (Constantinople) 
   allegedly originated in Egyptian city of Pelusium
   recorded by eyewitness and historian, Procopius (500-560)
   killed 40% of population in Byzantium
   killed 20-25% of European population south of the Alps

First Wave (541-544) of First Pandemic

Major earthquakes in Italy
554 and 557
Plague (second wave of first pandemic) 
   recorded by scholar and historian, Agathias (536-580)
Plague (third wave of first pandemic) 
   recorded by Gregory of Tours (539-594)

Second (557-561) and Third Wave (570-574) of First Pandemic

Plague (fourth wave of first pandemic)
   with smallpox?
Plague (fifth wave of first pandemic)
   with smallpox?
   recorded by Gregory of Tours

Fourth (580-582) and Fifth Wave (588-591) of First Pandemic

Plague in Italy and France
   most lethal since Plague of Justinian
   killed 15% of population

"Bring out your dead," from scene 2 of the film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  (Click on the image for a glimpse of what life may have been like in the plague-ridden Middle Ages.)

Decline in European Population (500-750)

Notable plague years after 600 CE:
  • 608
  • 618
  • 628
  • 640
  • 654
  • 684-86
  • 694-700
  • 718
  • 740-750
  • 762

On-going territorial conflict:

  • Germanic tribes (6th c ),
  • Muslims (7th c ), and
  • Vikings (9th c )

The "Little Optimum" (750-1250)

Relatively disease-free period marked by good climate:

  • mean temperature 1° C higher than preceding 500 years
  • mild winters and dry summers

The long series of optimal growing seasons were accompanied by an increase in population across Europe:

Population (millions)
Percent Increase
36 (12%/century)
9.5 (19%/century)
4.3 (9%/century)
4.2 (8%/century)
22 (44%/century)
13.1 (36%/century)
5.8 (12%/century)

Not only was food more plentiful, but technological improvements -- many of them introduced into Europe from the East -- began making everyday work life less time-consuming and back-breaking:
  • heavy plow able to handle rockier soil of Northern Europe
  • animal harness permitting horses to be used as draught animals
  • spinning wheel
  • horizontal loom
  • water-powered machinery
  • Gothic architecture
  • Hindu-Arabic numerals
  • blast furnace
  • right-angled crank to operate lathe, rotary grindstone
  • compass, eyeglasses, lateen sail, clockworks, firearms

This period saw the emergence of new forms of social and political organization:

  • Old structure--
    • walled towns
      • cathedral, administrative buildings
      • roughly 50 households (~300 inhabitants)
    • most people live and work in countryside as part of manorial system
  • New structure--
    • rise of estate farming with tenant farmers
    • migration of population from rural areas to cities and towns
      • towns become densely-populated settlements of 10-20,000 inhabitants

As cities become overpopulated, settlements developed outside city walls

All these changes gave rise to the growth of market and industry-based economy.

"Little Ice Age" (1300-1850)
Beginning around 1250, the world's climate began to cool, resulting in:

  • colder, longer winters
  • cooler summers
  • increased glaciation
  • high rainfall

Too much cold and rain--

  • caused series of disastrous harvests throughout Europe
    • crippled cultivation of cereals and grapes in north
    • washed away topsoil
    • killed seedlings
    • gave advantage to weeds
  • hindered the production of salt by evaporation
    • made meat preservation difficult
  • created ice floes
    • blocked northern sea traffic

Famine years--1272, 1277, 1283, 1292, and 1311

Accounts of the Great Famine of 1315-1317
from Flanders:
...on account of the torrential rains and because the fruits of the earth were harvested in difficult conditions and destroyed in many places, there was a dearth of wheat and of salt ... the human bodies started growing weaker and disabilities developed....

So many people died every day ... that the air seemed to be putrefied ... miserable beggars died ... in great numbers in the streets, on dunghills....

--Abbot of St. Martin of Tournai
from England:
In the year of our Lord 1315, apart from the other hardships with which England was afflicted, hunger grew in the land....  Meat and eggs began to run out, capons and fowl could hardly be found, animals died of pest, swine could not be fed because of the excessive price of fodder.

A quarter [8 bushels] of wheat or beans or peas sold for twenty shillings [four times the cost in 1313], barley for a mark, oats for ten shillings.  A quarter of salt was commonly sold for thirty-five shillings, which in former times was quite unheard of.  The land was so oppressed with want that when the king came to St. Albans ... it was hardly possible to find bread on sale to supply his immediate household....

...The dearth began in the month of May and lasted until [September].  The summer rains were so heavy that grain could not ripen.  It could hardly be gathered and used to bake bread ... unless it was first put in vessels to dry....

Bread did not have its usual nourishing power and strength because the grain was not nourished by the warmth of summer sunshine.  Hence those who ate it, even in large quantities, were hungry again after a little while.  There can be no doubt that the poor wasted away when even the rich were constantly hungry....

Four pennies worth of coarse bread was not enough to feed a common man for one day.  The usual kinds of meat, suitable for eating, were too scarce; horse meat was precious; plump dogs were stolen. And, according to many reports, men and women in many places secretly ate their own children....

--Johannes de Trokelowe
from Italy:
The famine was felt not only in Florence but throughout Tuscany and Italy.  And so terrible was it that the Perugians, the Sienese, the Lucchese, the Pistolese and many other townsmen drove from their territory all their beggars because they could not support them....  The agitation of the [Florentines] at the market of San Michele was so great that it was necessary to protect officials by means of guards fitted out with an axe and block to punish rioters on the spot with the loss of their hands and their feet.
--Giovanni Villani
from France:
We saw a large number of both sexes, not only from nearby places but from as much as five leagues away, barefooted and maybe even, except for women, in a completely nude state, together with their priests coming in procession at the Church of the Holy Martyrs, their bones bulging out, devoutly carrying bodies of saints and other relics to be adorned, hoping to get relief.
--Guillaume de Nages

The Hundred Years War (1337-1453) and other civil disorders in Europe caused destruction of crops, of houses, and of life in general.

Go to:
  • The Pardoner's Tale, from The Canterbury Tales (c. 1390) by Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1340 - 1400)
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