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The Black Plague

The Black Plague

“People who one day had been full of happiness on the next were found dead. Victims had little black boils scattered over their whole body. Of these people very few, indeed hardly any, recovered life and health.” - Henry Knighton, Henry Knighton’s Chronicle, 13961

If the Black Plague sounds terrifying to you, it should. The Black Plague killed millions rapidly and came with symptoms that would give anyone nightmares. It spread from Asia to Europe, leaving lasting impacts in its wake. But what was the Black Plague and how did it manage to spread so quickly? Let’s answer these questions and then we’ll look at the change it prompted in Europe.

The Black Plague Definition

The Black Plague, also known as the Black Death, was a bubonic plague pandemic that broke out across Asia, Europe, and North Africa in the 1330s. It originated in Asia and reached European shores in 1347 when ships filled with ill and recently deceased sailors arrived in Sicily. The Black Plague quickly spread to other Italian port cities, and soon, the entirety of Europe. It decimated populations wherever it went and estimates show that as many as one in three Europeans died as a result of the Black Plague.

The Black Plague Drawing of a saint visiting plague victims StudySmarterFig. 1 - Drawing of a saint visiting plague victims2

The Black Plague Time Period

The Black Plague occurred in what we know today as the Middle Ages, after the control of the Roman Empire, but before the Renaissance had taken hold of Europe. Exact dates are tricky when we look at history this old, but we know that the Black Plague originated in Asia in the mid-1330s and arrived in Europe in 1347. Once in Europe, the Black Plague remained at endemic levels until it dissipated in the early 1350s.

The Black Plague Causes

We know now that the actual cause of the Black Plague infection was a bacterium called Yersinia pestis. The bacteria spread from human to human through flea bites and could also cause secondary forms of infection (the septicaemic plague and the pneumonic plague) through the air. Of course, this still doesn’t answer the question of how bacteria originating in Asia made it all the way to Europe.

The fleas that housed the deadly bacteria often found their own homes on rats. And some of these rats found themselves on ships traversing between continents.

The Black Plague Map of Late Medieval trade routes StudySmarterFig. 2 - Map of Late Medieval trade routes

The Black Plague Causes: New Trade Networks

Advances in banking and transportation (e.g. better boats and roads) allowed for the expansion of new trade networks and streamlined versions of old trade networks. Additionally, the Silk Road that had been in use since Roman times was under Mongol control. This meant that Asia and Europe were interacting more than ever before. It also meant that the Black Plague was able to spread from continent to continent with ease.

The Silk Road

a combination of trade routes that connected Asia and Europe. Of course, more than just silk passed through. It transported various goods as well as intangible things such as ideas and religions.

The Black Plague Causes: The Spread in Europe

European cities were often overpopulated which meant the Black Plague was able to spread from person to person with ease. Additionally, conditions in these overpopulated cities were less than sanitary. Garbage and human waste lined the streets and rats (with their infected fleas) ran rampant.

Doctors of the time were ill-equipped to deal with the outbreak. Plague doctors did not have the benefit of modern-day medical knowledge, including the importance of sanitation.

The Black Plague Depiction of a plague doctor StudySmarterFig. 3 - Depiction of a plague doctor

The Black Plague Causes: Summary

Primary CauseSecondary CausesTertiary Causes
  • the bacteria Yersinia pestis in fleas that lived on rats
  • flea bites
  • respiratory droplets (less common)
  • new trade relations between Asia and Europe
  • rats traveling on ships along trade networks
  • crowded and unsanitary conditions in cities
  • lack of medical knowledge

The Black Plague Symptoms

Symptoms depended on the type of plague but the bubonic plague was the most prevalent. It came with many typical symptoms of illness including:

  • fever
  • chills
  • vomiting
  • body aches
  • fatigue

But that was certainly not all. The most horrific and characteristic symptom was the "buboes" or lumps located on the groin, armpit, and neck. They were extremely large (think egg size) and seeped blood and pus. The populace at the time had no way to know that these lumps were swollen lymph nodes.

Did you know? Plague doctors had no effective treatment for the Black Plague but that didn't stop them from trying. Some ways to treat the Black Plague included bathing in urine, drinking the pus of the swollen lymph nodes, and ingesting snakeskin.

The Black Plague Impacts

The Black Plague certainly had major effects on the population that experienced the pandemic, but it also led to lasting impacts experienced by later generations.

Short-Term Black Plague Impacts

The most apparent short-term impact of the Black Plague was the huge loss in population. For a time, all work stopped and trade routes ran dry. Europeans were living in fear of their neighbor.

The Flagellant Movement

Members of the Flagellant Movement believed the Black Plague was sent by God as retribution for human sin. Various groups popped up in Europe and they would travel from town to town atoning for their sins by whipping themselves.

Opposite of their intention, the Flagellant Movement actually had a negative effect on European communities. Their travel aided the spread of the Black Plague. Additionally, their attacks on Jewish communities contributed to a dangerous trend in Europe of persecuting marginalized groups for causing the Black Plague.

The Black Plague lost its strength in the early 1350s. The extreme population loss, however, caused a labor shortage that almost led to a collapse of social structures in Europe. Feudal lords were in desperate need of workers. This gave serfs bargaining power and they were able to demand wages for the first time. They could then spend these wages in town, enriching a newly forming middle class that included merchants and artisans.

Feudal System

a social hierarchy that went all the way from the king to the peasants. Feudal lords, bestowed with the power of the king, enlisted serfs to work on their land without pay in return for protection. Feudal lords would also collect payments and taxes from merchants who wished to sell their goods in town

Long-Term Black Plague Impacts

It would take over a century for the population of Europe to return to its post-pandemic levels and the feudal system remained shaken. The middle class continued to grow and thrive as trade expanded even further and the pool of workers with buying power grew. The impacts of the Black Plague effectively sped up the path of social and economic development in Europe.

Historiography of the Black Plague

Although the dominant historical opinion is that Yersinia pestis caused the Black Plague, not all historians agree. For example, historian Samuel Cohn argues that Yersinia pestis couldn't have been the cause because of the Black Plague's uncharacteristically rapid spread and the discrepancy in symptoms compared to the modern-day bubonic plague. But then what caused the black plague? There is no general agreement but one theory posed by historian Graham Twigg suggests it could have been anthrax poisoning.

The Black Plague - Key takeaways

  • The Black Plague was an outbreak of the bubonic plague that ravaged Asia, Europe, and North Africa.
  • It spread from continent to continent because of expanded trade networks.
  • The Black Plague spread quickly in Europe, once it arrived in port cities, because of unsanitary and crowded conditions.
  • In Europe, the Black Plague almost caused a complete breakdown of the feudal system because of huge population losses and a lack of workers.
  • The Black Plague sped up social and economic developments in Europe.


  1. Henry Knighton, Henry Knighton's Chronicle (1396)
  2. Fig. 1 - Saint visiting the plague victims (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A_Carthusian_Saint_Visiting_the_Plague_Stricken_MET_80.3.544.jpg) by Andrea Sacchi (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrea_Sacchi) is licensed by CC0 1.0 (https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/deed.en)

Frequently Asked Questions about The Black Plague

The Black Plague was a bubonic plague pandemic.

The Black Plague lasted for approximately 20 years, from the 1330s to the 1350s.

The Black Plague started in Asia in the 1330s and arrived in Europe in 1347.

The bacteria Yersinia pestis caused the Black PlagueIt spread through infected fleas that traveled via rats from port to port.

Final The Black Plague Quiz


Where did the Black Plague originate?

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When did the Black Plague arrive in Europe?

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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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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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