The Horrors of the Black Death

Gondolas floating through the canals of Venice, Italy collecting the dead, wolves coming down from the mountainside in Spain to feed on the living were the everyday norms in Europe of this time. Ships docking into port with a sick man tied to the helm. Upon closer observation, the residents see the bubo on his neck. They throw rocks and food at the ship so it turns back. They try to save themselves from the Black Plague that has swept Europe and it is one heck of a horror story.

Dead bodies littered the streets. Carts rolled out in the morning to pick up the deceased. Children lay abandoned by their mothers and fathers. Bodies thrown in piles for burning or piled high like a deck of cards for burial. Dogs hunted down and killed as culprits of the plague. Few calamities have caused such horrific human behavior as the Black Plague of medieval times.

Many may wonder what the Black Death has to do with the genre of horror. Well, besides being one of the most horrific things to happen to mankind, many rumors emulated out from the catastrophe, including the existence of vampires. The history of the plague reads like a horror novel. It gruesome details causing you to scrunch up your face at the though of being witness to such death, destruction and mayhem.

Whether called the “Great Pestilence” or the “Great Plague”, the results of the Plague were the same: It killed and it broke the human spirit. The Black Plague is believed to have been the deadliest pandemic in human history. It is noted to have begun in central Asia and was carried into Europe in the late 1340’s via trade ships.

Worldwide deaths have been counted at 75 million. The Plague killed anywhere from 30% to 60% of the Europeans it infected and it changed the world. The Black Death, as we are aware now, is the Bubonic Plague.* It was widely caused by a bacterium named Yersinia pestis and was spread by rats and fleas.

*Please see note there are new hypothesis in regards to the plague. Nervertheless, I have chosen to present traditional history until it is conclusively proven otherwise.

In 1347 A.D., the real culprit, the oriental rat flea, made its way into Europe through the rodents that boarded the trading ships. The three types of plague identified as such are: septicemic, bubonic and pneumonic. The first two were transmitted after contact with the flea, with the latter being transmitted via airborne droplets sprayed from the lungs and mouth of an infected person. The mortality rate was anywhere from 30-75%. All three killed in a most vicious way.

In the bubonic type, symptoms included inflamed lymph nodes in and around the arms, groin and neck. Victims bore horrible headaches, nausea, fever and vomiting. The body would garnish buboes. The pneumonic and septicemic were less seen than the bubonic. The mortality rate for the pneumonic was 90-95%. It infected the lungs, causing the victim to cough up sputum until it was all completely red.

The septicemic plague was most rare and caused the victims body to turn purple due to DIC (Disseminated Intravascular Coagulation). The mortality rate was close to 100% and even today there is no treatment.

Prior to the arrival of the plague, Europe was in a cooling period with great crop failure. The Little Ice Age had begun. The Great Famine struck Northern Europe. Food shortages, crop failure and high prices spread the hunger and malnutrition. The typhoid epidemic hit and acted a precursor to what lay ahead for Europe: THE BLACK PLAGUE.

The governments were unable to handle the crisis and mayhem spread: Rumors that Jews poisoned the wells, tales of the end of the world, belief that man had sinned and needed to be punished. Jews were exterminated out of cities such as Cologne and Strasbourg. People with skin diseases were hunted and killed. Beggars, the ill, outcasts, and even man’s best friend, dog, was hunted down and killed all in the name of stopping the Black Death.

The Church began to lose power because the people were unable to believe that their creator could bestow such horrible punishments on the innocent. The Church had no answers and no cures and the monks in monasteries and the nuns who nursed those sick died along with everyone else.

The doubt of the Church and the clergy caused people to follow other religious groups, such as the flagellants. While the Church found them a fanatical and heretical sect, the people of Europe had grown desperate and they sought guidance.

The Flagellants would enter the villages, singing vigorously, attracting people into the center of town square. The Jews of the villages would go into hiding because the movement was completely anti-Semitic. Word had gotten around how they exterminated hundreds and thousands in the areas they visited.

The Flagellants’ dramatic white outfits, garnished with a cross on the back and front of their robes would gain the people’s attention. They entered towns preaching words of salvation. They offered answers and reprise from the horrors of life. After gaining the town’s attention, the Flagellants would violently fall to the ground, each representing a sin of man, such as adultery. Murderers would lie on their backs, adulterers on their stomachs. Each of them held a sin for punishment. Each man destined to take on the punishment to stop the plague.

As they chanted, they began collective flagellation. Their weapons were decorated with spikes and needles. Above their heads rose the weapons and down into their flesh it landed. Their white robes bloodied with every new chant, with every thrust of their weapon.

Lacerations poured blood and after the erotic ceremony was over, the people would touch the Flagellants wounds, sop up their blood on handkerchiefs to rub onto themselves, and others would smear it on their faces, looking for God’s salvation.

Although they were banned by the Church in 1262, the German wing made it appearance in almost every major disaster. They preached that priests were no longer needed for salvation. Their message spread. They continued killing Jews and anyone who got in their way. In 1349, Pope Clement VI announced for their dispersal and arrest. Local rulers could now arrest and execute the fanatics.

After the plague was over, there were Flagellant-free zones and Sicily threatened to kill any that stepped onto their land. Eventually, a younger generation took over and they were fueled by even more hatred and crime. Eventually, their numbers died out.

The plague brought to light the worst of all human behaviors. Besides that, it caused rampant misunderstandings and blatant ignorance on the people’s part. Rumors of vampires spread quickly and many blamed them for spreading the plague.

Common folks believed that those that died of the plague would somehow return to spread the disease. A movement to locate the graves of vampires took hold and many legends claim they used horses to walk over the graves of the dead to locate the vampires. If a horse would not walk over a particular burial site, the grave was opened and the body exhumed.

Once the body was exhumed, it was mutilated so the vampire could not rise up. Corpses were buried face-down, many believing they were unable to rise back from that position. Wooden stakes were planted into the ground above the grave, so when the vampire would come to life, he would be instantly killed.

Boulders were placed over the graves to keep the body in the ground. It was believed that a vampire could not lift the heavy rock to escape. Many were upset when they exhumed the body of a suspected vampire to find that their hair and nails were still growing. Since, there was no understanding of body decomposition during that era, the folks simply thought the vampire was preparing to come back to life.

Possibly, many of today’s superstition that surrounds vampires originated with the Black Death. People started using herbs to keep the plague away. Doctors would roam the streets, trying to cure the ill, dressed in an outfit that held herbs at the beak of a face mask. Since bad smells were thought to thwart the plague, this was then applied to keeping vampires away. Wolfsbane and garlic became favorites in keeping vampires away from the healthy.

Although the plague is a fact of history, one will find it difficult to locate anything more horrific than the pestilence that arrived that year in Europe.