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Pandemic

When COVID broke out, the world shut down. It was frightening and unknown territory as people across the world learned to adapt. But it was certainly not the first pandemic to have occurred. In 1918, there was Spanish Influenza. And if we look even further back to the Middle Ages, there was the infamous Black Death, caused in large part by the bubonic plague. But what is a plague? And how does it differ from a pandemic? Keep reading to learn about the key differences as well as some of the most significant plagues of the Middle Ages.

Definition of Plague and Pandemic

Even though sometimes they are used interchangeably, a plague and a pandemic are two different things. Here is a definition of a plague and pandemic:

Plague:

A disease affecting humans and mammals caused by the bacterium yersinia pestis.

Pandemic:

A widespread outbreak of infectious disease that affects a large population over a wide area, such as an entire continent or the global population as a whole.

The prevalence of pandemics is associated with increased global travel and urbanization throughout human history.

Definition of Plague and Pandemic: The Differences

The differences between a plague and a pandemic include both the type of outbreak and the scale of it. A plague refers to the disease itself, and under a strict definition refers specifically to the bacteria yersinia pestis. A pandemic refers to an outbreak of any infectious disease that affects a significant proportion of a continental or global population.

Types of Plagues

There are three types of plague, defined by their symptoms and methods of infection. In some cases, more than one type - or even all three types - can occur simultaneously.

  1. Bubonic plague is spread by bites from infected fleas and causes swollen pustules to form on and around lymph nodes called buboes.

  2. Septicemic plague can also be spread by fleas or other animals but is spread through the bloodstream and infects the entire body.

  3. Pneumonic plague specifically targets the lungs and is typically spread through coughing, though it originates from infected animals.

Plague and Pandemics Woodcut of Plague Victims StudySmarterFig. 1 - Woodcut depicting plague victims, circa 1532

Examples of Major Plagues and Pandemics

Let's go over some examples of the most significant plagues in the Middle Ages.

Examples of Major Plagues and Pandemics: The Justinian Plague (541-544 CE)

Named for the Roman Emperor Justinian I who ruled at the time, the Justinian Plague was the first major pandemic of the yersinia pestis plague in human history. The plague spread throughout the empire during a time when they were hopeful to reconquer lost lands in the west, but the resulting death toll ended such hopes and contributed to the empire's continued decline.

The plague originates from rats, specifically fleas that are carried by the rats. Climate is believed to have a significant effect on rodent populations.

Plague and Pandemics Mosaic of Emperor Justinian I StudySmarterFig. 1 - mosaic depicting Emperor Justinian I (on right)

In the eastern-based Roman Empire of the 6th century, Egypt served as an important source of food and traded goods, and ships left Egyptian ports for destinations all across the empire to feed its people. It was through this network that disease was able to spread rapidly. First recorded in the fortress city of Pelusium in northern Egypt, the deadly bacteria spread via the rodent population in the empire's ports and made its way overseas to Constantinople and beyond.

The plague spread rapidly through Constantinople and shut down work and commerce, killing much of the population. A lack of grain shipments coming into the city and a lack of workers to handle shipments led to famine. Even Emperor Justinian became ill, though he survived. The Romans attempted some measures of quarantines but not in a widespread manner, as the spread of disease was not well understood. Many events of quarantine were simply the natural choice of people to not leave their homes for fear of the plague.

Examples of Major Plagues and Pandemics: The Black Death (1347 CE)

The largest pandemic of plague occurred in the mid-fourteen century. In the early 1340s, it had broken out across China, India, Persia, Syria, and Egypt. From there, ships brought it to Europe where it would prove extremely deadly in dense European cities. In October 1347, several ships docked at the port of Messina in Sicily with most of their crewmen already dead, and the surviving crewmen infected. These marked the first cases in Europe, from which the plague spread rapidly.

Spreading to other ports such as Marseilles in France and Tunis in North Africa, the plague found its way into most major European cities by mid-1348. A lack of knowledge about how the disease was transmitted and how it could be treated contributed more to its spread and deadliness. Though many fled the cities for the countryside, the spread of the plague affected mammals too and continued to be dangerous.

So many sheep died from the plague that it caused a wool shortage across Europe.

Plague and Pandemics Depiction of Plague Doctor StudySmarterFig. 3 - Depiction of a plague doctor

Without an explanation for the vast spread of the plague, many turned to religious explanations, and public displays of penance such as flagellation were performed. Ultimately, the disease infected and killed a significant portion of the population until the early 1350s, when the spread slowed sufficiently.

In the port city of Ragusa in Sicily, authorities required arriving sailors to isolate for 30 days (trentino) before they were allowed to enter. The requirement was later extended to 40 days (quarantino) which is where the modern term quarantine originates from.

Examples of Major Plagues and Pandemics: Cocoliztli and the American Plagues (1545)

Cocolitztli - the Aztec word for "pest" - was a Salmonella-based epidemic that spread through Central America beginning in 1545. The disease killed an estimated 15 million people over a wide region over the course of three years. The enteric fever caused by the disease caused severe dehydration, which was further frustrated by a natural drought affecting much of Central America. Following the Cocolitzli, the arrival of Europeans into the Americas brought new foreign bacteria with them, causing further outbreaks that devastated an already weakened population.

Though not exclusively an instance of plague (yersinia pestis), the so-called American Plagues consisted of a series of outbreaks of many European and Asian diseases that were carried over to the Americas by European explorers, settlers, and conquerors. Smallpox was among the most deadly, and in combination with other infectious outbreaks, the American Plagues killed an enormous amount of the native populations of Central and South America. The death toll incurred by the diseases contributed to the fall of the Aztec and Incan empires.

Historical Effects of Plagues and Pandemics

Widespread disease in the form of pandemics had significant effects on regional and world populations throughout the centuries of the Middle Ages. Major pandemics such as the Black Death killed a significant portion of their affected populations and led to significant economic impacts on the societies they affected. During the Black Death, many European economies underwent dramatic shifts due to the difficulty and danger of trading goods, and the lack of production that resulted from the deaths of many agrarian workers.

Historical Effects of Plagues and Pandemics: Increased Social Mobility

In some cases, it gave peasants more power as a result of a massive labor shortage, which put able-bodied workers in high demand among land-owning lords. Notable riots occurred in northern France in both 1358 and in 1378 in which peasants and merchants' guilds demanded better treatment from the landowning class. For this reason, lords had to compete for laborers. This resulted in a general increase in the standard of living for peasant workers who were able to stay healthy.

Historical Effects of Plagues and Pandemics: Role of Religion

Pandemics also had a profound impact on religion in the affected regions. In cases such as the Black Death in Europe, dramatic shows of piety were made in response to the disease. Ironically, flagellation of the skin had the effect of weakening the flagellants and making them more susceptible to contracting and spreading the plague. On the whole, religious faith often fell off in the wake of a plague due to the fracturing or cessation of congregations, the deaths of the clergy, and the apparent failure of prayer and piety to stop the spread of the disease.

Historical Effects of Plagues and Pandemics: Weakened Military Resistance

Lastly, in the case of the various pandemics that spread in the wake of European peoples traveling to the Americas, the high mortality rate of various plagues disrupted entire civilizations significantly and put left them in a weak position to militarily resist Spanish conquistadors and other invaders. In that way, pandemics were a major factor in the geopolitical history of Central and South America.

Pandemic - Key takeaways

  • A plague is a disease caused by the bacteria yersinia pestis. In contrast, a pandemic is an outbreak of any disease, particularly one that affects entire regions or the world.
  • There are three types of plague: bubonic, septicemic, and pneumonic. In history, however, we often see the term plague refer to outbreaks of disease that are not actually caused by the specific yersinia pestis bacteria.
  • Examples of major plagues in the Middle Ages include the Justinian Plague, the Black Death, and the Cocoliztli and American Plagues.
  • Historically, plagues have led to large population declines, economic uncertainty, increased social mobility, polarizing views on religion, and weakened military resistance.

Frequently Asked Questions about Pandemic

A pandemic is a widespread outbreak of an infectious disease affecting a large region or the global population. Plague refers to a particular bacterial outbreak, often specifically the disease spread by yersinia pestis.

An epidemic can refer to any widespread outbreak of infectious disease, whereas a pandemic refers to an epidemic that is on the scale of affecting very wide populations such as continents or the entire global.

Bubonic plague is spread by bites from infected fleas and creates swollen pustules on the lymph nodes. Septicemic plague spreads through the blood and affects the entire body. Pneumonic plague affects the lungs and is typically spread through coughing.

The longest last pandemic is called the Seventh Cholera Pandemic, which originated in Indonesia in 1961 and has continued to be widely spread to the present day, over 59 years later.

Outbreaks of the yersinia pestis plague have occured in parts of Africa, Asia, and South America as recently as the mid-1990s, though the last major pandemic of the disease spread in 1894 CE.

Final Pandemic Quiz

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Where did the Black Plague originate?

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Asia

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When did the Black Plague arrive in Europe?

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1347

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What was the cause of the Black Plague infection?

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flea bites

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How did the Black Plague spread to Europe?

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Rats carrying infected fleas traveled by ship between port cities.

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How was trade a crucial factor in the spread of the Black Plague?

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Trade networks connected Europe, Asia, and North Africa.

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How did the Black Plague spread so quickly once in Europe?

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crowded cities

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What was the defining symptom of the Black Plague?

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swollen lymph nodes that seeped blood and pus

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Was there an effective treatment for the Black Plague?

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No

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How did the feudal system suffer as a result of the Black Plague?

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There was a shortage of workers and serfs gained bargaining power.

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What were the long-term impacts of the Black Plague in Europe?

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the growth of a thriving middle class

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In what year did the Plague of Justinian reach the Roman Empire?

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541 CE

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The series of pandemics that caused widespread death in the populations of Central and South America beginning in the 1540s was called what?

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The American Plagues

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What preceded the Little Ice Age?

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The Medieval Warm Period

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When did the Little Ice Age begin?

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The 1290s

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How much did the average temperature in Europe drop during the Little Ice Age (in Celsius)?

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1.5 degrees

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Which part of Europe felt the effects of the Little Ice Age first?

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Scandanavia and the British Isles

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What is a method for tracking historical climate change used to detect the Little Ice Age?

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Measuring tree rings

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The cause of the Little Ice Age has been linked to:

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Volcanic activity

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What was one of the largest impacts of the Little Ice Age on human civilization?

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Damage to agriculture

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Which crisis in 1315 has been linked to weather and colder conditions in Europe?

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The Great Famine

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Research has connected climate change to the plague of Yersinia Pestis because:

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Climate change caused migration of rodent populations

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Which was not a societal effect of the Little Ice Age?

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The spread of anti-monarchy politics

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Which major plague afflicted Europe in 541 CE?

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The Justinian Plague

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Where was the Justinian plague first recorded?

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Pelusium, Egypt

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Cocolitzi originates from the Aztec word for:

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Pest

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What was one symptom of the Cocolitzi plague?

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Severe dehydration

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Much of the Native America population of central America was killed by European diseases such as:

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Smallpox

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A widespread infectious disease is called an epidemic. It is called a pandemic when:

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It affects the global population

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The __________ plague was the most common cause of the Black Death. 

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bubonic.

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The Black Death spread through ________ populations. 

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rat.

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