see it clearly
Learn more

Bubonic Plague in the Middle Ages

The bubonic plague in the Middle Ages was one of the most devastating outbreaks in human history. Also called the black plague or the black death, the bubonic plague resulted in the deaths of approximately 30-60 percent of those living in Europe during the 14th century.

Bubonic Plague in the Middle Ages

Plagues, like the bubonic plague, are caused an infectious agent. The bubonic plague in particular is caused by something called Yersinia pestisis. Yersinia pestisis is a bacterium, so the bubonic plague was technically a type of bacterial infection. The bubonic plague was also considered to be a zoonotic disease because it was usually spread by rodents and fleas.

In Europe during the Middle Ages, rodents and fleas were commonplace, especially among trade routes, where it is believed the plague spread. Proper sanitary conditions were difficult or impossible. Peasants had little means of washing themselves or keeping their homes clean and even lords and royalty did not have easy access to things like indoor plumbing to wash their hands.

The pathology of infectious diseases and how they are spread was also foreign to people in the Middle Ages. This meant it would have been difficult or impossible for the people of the time to realize it was likely the mice or fleas that were spreading the plague. Further, if they were aware of the cause of the problem, there would have been little they could do to correct the unsanitary conditions.

In fact, most people in the Middle Ages believed the disease was spread through ether and that it was possible to stop the spread of the disease by carrying a posy flower for their scent.

With large groups of people living in close quarters, unsanitary conditions, and a highly infectious and dangerous disease, the bubonic plague in the Middle Ages spelled disaster for people of that time.

What Did the Bubonic Plague Do?

The bubonic plague is an infection of the lymphatic system. Typical symptoms included extreme swelling of the lymph nodes in the area of the groin, neck, or armpits. A person suffering from the bubonic plague might feel tired, have the chills, experience a very high fever, have seizures, and have pain in the lymph areas- among other things.

Bubonic plague generally progresses into additional illnesses as well after it afflicts the person. The bacteria spreads rapidly when injected into a human host and can cause the lymph nodes to hemorrhage and swell. It also causes death relatively quickly.

Some believe the children's nursery rhyme "Ring Around the Rosy" is actually a reference to some early symptoms of the Bubonic plague, in which a red rashy ring appeared; however, others state there is no link between the song and the plague, so this is not a definitively accepted fact.

The Disaster of the Bubonic Plague

In the Middle Ages, people were simply not equipped to treat the bubonic plague. An estimated 1/3 of the population was killed by the bacterial infection. The deaths were so widespread historians indicate the dead were often either buried within mass graves or simply abandoned on streets.

The Long Term Impact of the Bubonic Plaque

It goes without saying that the sheer number of deaths from bubonic plague in the Middle Ages was a tragedy of epic proportions. However, there may have been unintended positive consequences as a result of the devastating loss.

With so many people perishing in Europe during the black death or bubonic plague, there were fewer workers available to perform needed jobs. Because of the laws of supply and demand, fewer workers naturally resulted in higher wages being paid. These increased wages for workers, some historians believe, helped advance the European economic development as a result of the bubonic plague.