The Black Death: Catastrophe or New Start?

Gilles li Muisis, Burial of Plague victims in Antiquitates Flandriae ab anno  1298 and annum 1352. Brussels, Bibliotheque Royale, MS no. 13076, fol. 24vThe Black Death: Catastrophe or New Start?

By Milli Gupta

Proceedings of the 13h Annual History of Medicine Days, edited by W.A. Whitelaw (Calgary, 2004)

Abstract: The Black Death struck Europe at the end of 1347, and raged through four centuries in multiple waves until the plague of Marseilles in 1720. Since then there have been smaller breakouts, but none as severe as the earlier ones. In Europe, the Black plague began in Crimea (along the Black Sea) in early 1347, and spread to other parts of Europe via the Mediterranean trade routes.

This paper is going to illuminate on the history of the Black Death, its transmission, pathophysiology, symptomology, various medicines proposed, how the medical theories present at that time justify the medicines/ingredients used, the disparity in what was available for the rich and poor and health initiatives that progression of the disease (examples quarantine, preventative health and public health measures).

Even though the Black Death is associated with a lot of negative, there were a lot of good things that came from it retrospectively. It affected widespread changes in many areas, like medicine (education and clinical practice), the study of epidemiology, public health, economy, the church, and social customs. There were a lot of social and economic changes happening prior to the plague (e.g., public authorities were ordering the cleaning of the town ditches and streets as early as 1309), so the occurrence of the plague accelerated the forces already at work. Only a few can be discussed in detail within this paper.

The Black Death shattered decaying institutions and strengthened new tendencies. These changes exhibit the extent to which this disease altered the manner in which society would govern itself. One could almost say that the Black Dead began a new era in medieval life.

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