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Health Crises throughout History (January 2022): Black Death

Black Death

The world has experienced three pandemics caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis: the Justinianic Plague (541–c. 750); the Black Death, which erupted in 1346 and recurred for centuries; and the Third Pandemic, which originated in Hong Kong in 1894. This section focuses on the Black Death or Second Pandemic. 

The most extensive and significant work on the initial outbreak and spread of the Black Death (1346-1353) is Ole Benedictow’s The Complete History of the Black Death. Benedictow’s book makes two key interventions: he traces the origins of the Black Death to the Golden Horde in 1346 (as opposed to China in the 1330s) and argues for the initial outbreak as significantly more widespread and catastrophic than commonly understood, suggesting fatality rates of up to 60 percent rather than the more typically argued 30 percent. The book examines the disease itself; its origins; its outbreak and spread in Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe; its mortality rates; and its historical impact. It provides a necessary synthesis of existing plague scholarship covering the mid-fourteenth century. 

Scholars have long argued about the impact of the plague, particularly on labor markets. Mark Bailey’s After the Black Death: Economy, Society, and the Law in Fourteenth-Century England offers a new explanation of the decline of serfdom and the improvement of labor conditions for peasants in late-fourteenth-century England by focusing on government reactions to the crises of the fourteenth century (not just plague, but also climate change) and the subsequent adaptations of English society. 

Although scholarship on the Black Death has long been a Eurocentric field, there are several key works that focus on the global picture. Michael Dols’s The Black Death in the Middle East (originally published in 1977 but reprinted in 2019) examines the outbreak of plague in the medieval Middle East, focusing on Egypt and Syria. He argues that the plague hit this region as badly, if not worse, than in Europe, and explores similarities and differences between Middle Eastern/Islamic and European understandings and experiences of the Black Death. Nükhet Varlik’s Plague and Empire in the Early Modern Mediterranean World examines plague in the Ottoman Empire from 1347–1600, arguing that historians must take account of plague in the Ottoman World, as conquest, trade, and communication were vectors that spread plague around various network nodes in the Mediterranean world. She also argues that the Ottomans were prompted by this pandemic to create new technologies that helped the empire to develop, key to understanding the impact of plague and the development of the Ottoman Empire. Finally, for a more holistic examination of the global impact of the Black Death, the key work is Pandemic Disease in the Medieval World: Rethinking the Black Death, edited by Monica Green. This collection makes three key arguments. First, the geographic scope of the Second Pandemic must be expanded beyond Western and Central Europe to at least include the Middle East, North Africa, and East Asia, and possibly South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Second, the chronology must be expanded in both directions, making a different argument from Benedictow for the possible emergence of the plague in the Tibetan plains in the mid-13th century, and pointing to its persistence into the early 18th century in western Europe and the 19th century in eastern Europe, North Africa, and the Ottoman Empire. Finally, multidisciplinary scholarship must bring together scientists, social scientists, and humanists. This key volume provides a wide array of articles in service of these three arguments, significantly broadening the scholarship of the Black Death. 

The final areas of scholarship in studying the Black Death focus not on its initial outbreak or spread, but on its recurrence and management in early modern Europe. As the Black Death reemerged, European states developed public health strategies, medical treatments, and coping strategies to survive. John Henderson’s Florence under Siege: Surviving Plague in an Early Modern City argues that the official government response to the difficult 1630 outbreak was a surprisingly humane policy that demonstrated meaningful compassion for the poor. Kristy Bowers’s Plague and Public Health in Early Modern Seville looks at public health policies in the 16th century, which she argues were based on critical evaluations of the situation and an attempt to balance public health needs with economic and social stability. Although the Spanish situation looks quite different from the better-studied Italian public health measures, she argues that it was both logical and well considered. 

In Plague Hospitals: Public Health for the City in Early Modern Venice, Jane Crawshaw explores the intersection of public health and medical history. She argues that Venice’s public health decisions in the 16th century were not a reaction to worsening pandemics, but rather a demonstration of increased state power. She also provides a detailed study of plague hospitals and Venice’s famous Lazaretti, or quarantine islands. Samuel Cohn’s Cultures of Plague: Medical Thinking at the End of the Renaissance also considers the intersection of medicine and public health, but from a different angle, arguing that the plague of 1575–78 was a turning point in the medical understanding of the plague because it was the first time that doctors significantly engaged with public health policies. This, he argues, foreshadows a more modern epidemiological approach, as doctors began to keep better demographic records of symptoms and deaths, helping to inform public policy.

Although historians have long argued, with good reason, that the Black Death was a seismic event in European history that caused mass deaths, societal breakdowns, and collective trauma, Ruth MacKay’s Life in a Time of Pestilence: The Great Castilian Plague of 1596–1601 offers a corrective to that interpretation. Although, as she acknowledges, plague was certainly terrifying and disruptive, it actually did not throw all aspects of life into disarray. In fact, people continued to uphold their responsibilities to family, friend, neighbor, state, and God, demonstrating the remarkable human capacity for resilience.

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