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Episode
129

The Black Death

Feb 2, 2021
History
-
22
minutes
The Middle Ages
Health
Pandemic
European history
Christianity
Death
Medicine

It was the most deadly pandemic in human history, and was responsible for reducing the world's population by half a billion people.

Learn about the gruesome story of The Black Death, from how it started through to the devastating effects it had on Europe and the Middle East.

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Transcript

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about The Black Death, the most deadly pandemic in human history.

[00:00:31] After its arrival on European shores in 1347 it killed anywhere from 30 to 60% of the population of Europe, and it’s estimated that it was responsible for reducing the world’s population by almost half a billion people.

[00:00:51] We’ll start by talking about how The Black Death started, what happened to you if you got ill, how people tried to cure it, and what happened to society as a result of The Black Death. 

[00:01:04] We’ll also talk about how it ended, and finish by asking ourselves whether we need to be worried about The Black Death coming back to wreak a similar amount of destruction today.

[00:01:16] It is quite the story, so without further ado, let’s get cracking.

[00:01:22] Our story starts in Messina, a port city on Sicily’s northeastern coast, just opposite the mainland.

[00:01:31] In October of 1347, 12 ships pulled into the harbour. 

[00:01:36] This wasn’t anything abnormal; it was a port, and ships pulled in all the time.

[00:01:43] But these ships weren’t like all the other ships.

[00:01:47] They had returned from the Black Sea, and the crew onboard, the sailors onboard, were covered in horrible black boils, terrible black lumps on their skin, with blood and liquid coming out of them.

[00:02:03] As the ships neared the harbour, the bystanders, the people watching the arrival of the ships, could see that most of the sailors on board were dead, their bodies piled up on the ship.

[00:02:19] The sailors that were alive were welcomed ashore, so that they could get medical assistance.

[00:02:25] But within a week most had died, and residents of Messina had started to show exactly the same symptoms as the sailors who were dropping dead.

[00:02:37] This deadly disease had started to rage through Messina. 

[00:02:42] It then spread throughout Italy, France, and within a couple of years it had made its way to almost every corner of Europe.

[00:02:52] The disease is now referred to as The Black Death, or The Plague, and scientists have a pretty good idea of what it is, how it’s transmitted, and how to stop it. 

[00:03:05] But when it first emerged, nobody had any idea.

[00:03:10] Europeans had heard stories about a great plague that existed in the east, but had never experienced it in real life.

[00:03:20] Sure, there had been smaller plagues, almost since the dawn of written history, but The Black Death was the first to be not just so widespread, but also so deadly.

[00:03:34] It all started, so scientists now believe, in central Asia, and was likely carried by the Mongol army.

[00:03:43] We know, or at least believe, this through an account from an Italian notary, a man named Gabriel de’ Mussi.

[00:03:52] Between the years of 1345 and 1346 the Mongols had surrounded a trading city called Kaffa, in the Crimea. 

[00:04:02] The Mongol army had–unintentionally I should add–brought rats with them, which we now know carried the disease. 

[00:04:11] The disease had started to spread through the Mongol army, and bodies had started to pile up outside the city of Kaffa.

[00:04:21] The disease didn’t just miraculously appear in the Mongol army outside Kaffa - it’s believed to have existed in the rats that followed the army for quite some time.

[00:04:33] But given the fact that the Mongol army was almost always on the move, when someone got the disease and died, their body would just be left, so there was limited opportunity for the disease to spread.

[00:04:48] Not in Kaffa.

[00:04:50] Outside the city of Kaffa, the Mongol army was static, it was in the same place for some time, meaning that the disease was much more easily transmitted from one person to another.

[00:05:04] As the bodies piled up, the Mongol soldiers threw them over the city walls, infecting the local population and poisoning the water.

[00:05:15] The disease spread throughout the city of Kaffa, infecting everyone who came into contact with it. 

[00:05:22] It was clear that whatever it was, it was deadly, and it was spreading quickly through the population.

[00:05:31] Merchants who were in Kaffa and in the surrounding area fled for their lives. 

[00:05:37] Among these were the Italian merchants that headed back on the 12 ships to Messina, but for them, it was too late. 

[00:05:47] They returned to Sicily with The Black Death, carrying the plague, and it’s from these 12 ships that it’s believed that it spread to the rest of Europe.

[00:05:59] This isn’t to say that if these ships hadn’t landed in Messina, history would be very different. 

[00:06:06] It’s now accepted that, yes, they might have been the first, but if it wasn’t these 12 ships it would have been another 12 ships, or it would have come from somewhere else other than Kaffa. 

[00:06:19] So we shouldn’t overstate the importance of these putrid, disgusting dead bodies arriving over the walls and being probably the first recorded instance of biological warfare.

[00:06:32] In any case, this was one of the first documented instances of The Black Death, a plague that was to decimate, in fact, more than decimate if we’re talking technically, the European population over the following 50 years.

[00:06:50] After its arrival in Messina, it spread through Sicily, Genoa, Venice, and Northern Italy. 

[00:06:57] It then arrived in France, Spain, Portugal, and by June 1348, just 9 months later, it had arrived on the shores of Britain, via a sailor who arrived in Weymouth, a port in south west England.

[00:07:15] Within a few months it was everywhere in Britain, and had also spread to other northern European countries, including Germany, Poland, Norway and Sweden.

[00:07:26] At the same time as it was moving north, it was also spreading in the other direction, and large areas of the middle East and North Africa suffered greatly.

[00:07:38] By the summer of 1348 Cairo, in Egypt, was hit hard, with half of the city’s 600,000 residents dead, and bodies piled up in the river Nile.

[00:07:52] It was brought to the city of Mecca by pilgrims in 1348, and had also spread throughout large parts of modern Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and of course Turkey.

[00:08:05] It was everywhere.

[00:08:07] You might be thinking, ‘well, that doesn't sound that quick, COVID-19 took a fraction of the time.’

[00:08:14] Or you might be thinking ‘hang on, there was basically no international travel 650 years ago, how did it manage to spread so fast?’

[00:08:24] The reality is that there was a lot more international travel 650 years ago than most people think there was, but it was through sailors, through merchant ships, just like the 12 ships returning to Messina from the Crimea.

[00:08:41] Europe and the middle east were actually very well connected, and these sea routes were full of merchants going all over the continent, buying goods from one place and sailing them to another to sell them for a profit.

[00:08:58] And it was the sailors, and the merchant ships that were mainly responsible for taking the disease from one place to another. 

[00:09:07] When you look at the spread, it goes from port town to port town - on land it spreads much more slowly, because people simply didn’t travel as far on land as they did by sea.

[00:09:22] In terms of the actual Black Death itself, it’s believed to have consisted of three different types of plague: The Bubonic Plague, the Pneumonic Plague, and the Septicaemic Plague.

[00:09:37] Now, this is the part where you probably don’t want to be eating your lunch, because there are going to be some slightly unpleasant descriptions of what these diseases actually did to you.

[00:09:49] All of these three diseases, the three plagues, are caused by a bacterium called the Yersinia Pestis. 

[00:09:58] It is carried by rats, and most believe it to be transferred from rat to human, and then human to human, through fleas.

[00:10:09] The rat has the bacteria that causes the plague.

[00:10:12] A flea bites the rat, sucks up the infected blood, then bites a human and passes them the disease.

[00:10:21] The first plague, the Bubonic plague, was the most common one. 

[00:10:27] Symptoms of the bubonic plague would normally include a fever, nausea, and vomiting. 

[00:10:34] You would also typically start developing horrible boils, nasty lumps in your groin, your neck, and your armpits. Some were quite small, others could grow to as large as an apple.

[00:10:52] When it first started, it affected everyone equally - men and women, young and old.

[00:10:58] Victims usually died anywhere from 2 to 7 days after the first infection, and 80% of people who got the bubonic plague died.

[00:11:11] The pneumonic plague worked in a similar way, but instead of creating these lumps, it caused problems breathing, and was even more deadly, killing between 90 and 95% of its victims.

[00:11:28] And even more deadly than both of these was the Septicaemic plague, which infected the blood, and killed almost 100% of its victims. 

[00:11:39] Luckily it was the rarest of the three, it was the least common of the three plagues.

[00:11:45] Although we now have a pretty good idea about what these different plagues were, when they first arrived doctors had absolutely no idea whatsoever - from what was causing the plague to how they could cure it, they scratched their heads but nothing worked.

[00:12:04] Indeed, given the fact that there didn’t seem to be a cure for it, and nobody could understand what was causing it, it was believed by many to be an act of God, a punishment for some great wrong that had been committed.

[00:12:21] In Europe, people looked for scapegoats, people to blame. 

[00:12:26] God was always right, and everything happened for a reason, so if there was this great plague that was sweeping the continent and killing millions, someone must be to blame for it.

[00:12:39] Was it all of society to blame, had things moved in the wrong direction and this was God’s way of showing his displeasure, of showing how unhappy he was?

[00:12:51] Or was it to punish a particular group, or groups, in society–groups that were doing wrong against God?

[00:13:01] Several groups bore the brunt of the blame, either because people thought they carried the plague, or because people thought God was unhappy with them and that was why he had sent the plague.

[00:13:15] These groups included the poor, Roma, lepers, and Jewish people.

[00:13:21] Frequently people from these groups were killed or thrown out of cities, as it was believed that doing so would reduce the spread of the plague.

[00:13:32] This kind of activity was actually perpetuated and encouraged by the nobility and the richest in society, it wasn’t some kind of bottom up movement. 

[00:13:44] Indeed, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles IV, actually pardoned people who had killed Jews.

[00:13:53] Now, evidently this is despicable, inexcusable behaviour, but one thing this tells us is that people were resorting to mad violence because they had absolutely no idea what was actually going on, and how to stop the spread.

[00:14:12] Another effect of this complete lack of knowledge, and belief that it was some great act of God was that there was a huge increase in people doing things to try to ask for forgiveness from God.

[00:14:26] This would range from even more frequent praying right through to flagellation, people whipping themselves, whipping their naked backs to punish themselves in the hope that God wouldn’t punish them by giving them the plague.

[00:14:42] And what were doctors doing throughout all of this, you might be asking?

[00:14:47] Doctors did try to cure it, but with unsophisticated and ineffective techniques such as cutting open veins to allow so-called ‘bad blood’ to come out, or even cutting the boils, the large lumps

[00:15:03] They’d also try more spiritual cures, such as burning herbs.

[00:15:08] But nothing worked.

[00:15:11] Cities were especially badly hit by the plague, firstly because of the population density, but also because they were typically pretty dirty and unsanitary places. 

[00:15:23] Animals lived together with humans, rubbish was piled up, and it was an ideal environment for the disease to spread.

[00:15:33] People fled the cities to the countryside to try to escape the disease, but many took the disease with them, infecting people in the towns and villages, as well as cows, sheep and pigs, which could all carry the disease, and then it could be passed back to humans via fleas.

[00:15:54] The disease went almost everywhere, wiping out entire families and communities.

[00:16:00] Of course, the effect of 30% of the population being wiped out was considerable.

[00:16:08] Firstly, if people think that they are very likely to die soon, they act in a different way. 

[00:16:15] Instances of theft and criminality increased, people started committing more crime.

[00:16:22] There are also records of women in England adopting more revealing types of clothes, clothes that showed off more parts of their body, which would have been considered immodest years before. 

[00:16:36] Presumably in both of these cases people were thinking, well, if I’m going to die soon, I may as well take some risks and do things I’m not normally allowed to do…

[00:16:48] From an artistic and cultural point of view, European art became very morbid, understandably, as death was so present in everyone’s lives.

[00:17:00] And on an economic level, with fewer workers to do things like work the fields and produce food, prices skyrocketed, they increased dramatically.

[00:17:12] Cities emptied, and entire families were destroyed.

[00:17:16] With such a huge hit to the population, many economies almost ground to a halt, and it took years for them to recover. 

[00:17:27] But, somewhat miraculously, within around 4 years of The Black Death first arriving in Europe, the deaths had started to slow, and people were not dying in nearly as high numbers as they had previously. 

[00:17:43] The plague was still around, it hadn’t completely disappeared, but there were several developments that we now believe helped stop its spread, some of which might be quite familiar to us today.

[00:17:57] Firstly, there were improvements in personal hygiene. If you are cleaner, if there are fewer fleas around, and fewer places for the plague to exist, then it spreads more slowly.

[00:18:11] Secondly, as people realised that the disease was contagious, people arriving in cities were forced to quarantine. Indeed, the word quarantine, as you may know, comes from the Italian quarantina, referring to the 40 day period that a sailor would have to ‘quarantine’ before being allowed to come ashore.

[00:18:35] Thirdly, with just far fewer bodies to exist on, there was less opportunity for the plague to spread

[00:18:43] Especially cities were incredibly cramped, small rooms were packed with people, and if these people died, and there were people spread out in the countryside, well that meant fewer bodies, fewer homes for the disease.

[00:19:00] And related to this was the practice of cremating, of burning bodies after a victim died. 

[00:19:07] Previously, bodies had been piled up and buried, which evidently led to huge, infectious piles of bodies. 

[00:19:17] When people started to cremate the dead, these dangerous piles of infectious bodies were no longer an issue.

[00:19:25] So, at different times in different countries across Europe and the middle east, but starting in around 1351, the numbers of people dying slowed, and the worst of the plague was over. 

[00:19:40] There were continued outbreaks of the plague for the next couple of centuries, and indeed The Black Death, or at least the Bubonic plague has never really completely gone away.

[00:19:54] Every year there are between one and two thousand cases of what's called human plague being reported, in countries such as Zambia, Madagascar, India, Algeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

[00:20:09] In July 2020 you may have seen a slightly sensationalist headline about a case of a man in a city in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia who caught The Bubonic Plague, and later a teenager dying from the plague in the same city.

[00:20:27] But, unlike in 1347 we now have an excellent idea about what The Black Death is, how to stop it from spreading, and how to cure it. 

[00:20:39] So whenever there is an outbreak, and to stress, these outbreaks have always tended to be very small, the health authorities do a pretty good job at stopping it before it can get out of hand.

[00:20:53] If one is to look for any positive consequences of The Black Death, historians point to an increased sense of European unity, and a sense of shared human experience that brought people closer together. 

[00:21:08] We have all gone through this together, it has affected young and old, men and women, rich and poor. 

[00:21:16] One can only hope that more recent events, although they are thankfully significantly less deadly, might have a similar effect.

[00:21:26] OK then, that is it for today's episode on The Black Death, the most deadly pandemic in human history.

[00:21:35] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new, and if you were eating your breakfast, I hope that it didn’t put you off too much.

[00:21:45] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:21:48] You can head right in to our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:21:57] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:22:03] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.


[END OF EPISODE]


Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a memberUpgrade to Learner membership
Already a member? Login

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about The Black Death, the most deadly pandemic in human history.

[00:00:31] After its arrival on European shores in 1347 it killed anywhere from 30 to 60% of the population of Europe, and it’s estimated that it was responsible for reducing the world’s population by almost half a billion people.

[00:00:51] We’ll start by talking about how The Black Death started, what happened to you if you got ill, how people tried to cure it, and what happened to society as a result of The Black Death. 

[00:01:04] We’ll also talk about how it ended, and finish by asking ourselves whether we need to be worried about The Black Death coming back to wreak a similar amount of destruction today.

[00:01:16] It is quite the story, so without further ado, let’s get cracking.

[00:01:22] Our story starts in Messina, a port city on Sicily’s northeastern coast, just opposite the mainland.

[00:01:31] In October of 1347, 12 ships pulled into the harbour. 

[00:01:36] This wasn’t anything abnormal; it was a port, and ships pulled in all the time.

[00:01:43] But these ships weren’t like all the other ships.

[00:01:47] They had returned from the Black Sea, and the crew onboard, the sailors onboard, were covered in horrible black boils, terrible black lumps on their skin, with blood and liquid coming out of them.

[00:02:03] As the ships neared the harbour, the bystanders, the people watching the arrival of the ships, could see that most of the sailors on board were dead, their bodies piled up on the ship.

[00:02:19] The sailors that were alive were welcomed ashore, so that they could get medical assistance.

[00:02:25] But within a week most had died, and residents of Messina had started to show exactly the same symptoms as the sailors who were dropping dead.

[00:02:37] This deadly disease had started to rage through Messina. 

[00:02:42] It then spread throughout Italy, France, and within a couple of years it had made its way to almost every corner of Europe.

[00:02:52] The disease is now referred to as The Black Death, or The Plague, and scientists have a pretty good idea of what it is, how it’s transmitted, and how to stop it. 

[00:03:05] But when it first emerged, nobody had any idea.

[00:03:10] Europeans had heard stories about a great plague that existed in the east, but had never experienced it in real life.

[00:03:20] Sure, there had been smaller plagues, almost since the dawn of written history, but The Black Death was the first to be not just so widespread, but also so deadly.

[00:03:34] It all started, so scientists now believe, in central Asia, and was likely carried by the Mongol army.

[00:03:43] We know, or at least believe, this through an account from an Italian notary, a man named Gabriel de’ Mussi.

[00:03:52] Between the years of 1345 and 1346 the Mongols had surrounded a trading city called Kaffa, in the Crimea. 

[00:04:02] The Mongol army had–unintentionally I should add–brought rats with them, which we now know carried the disease. 

[00:04:11] The disease had started to spread through the Mongol army, and bodies had started to pile up outside the city of Kaffa.

[00:04:21] The disease didn’t just miraculously appear in the Mongol army outside Kaffa - it’s believed to have existed in the rats that followed the army for quite some time.

[00:04:33] But given the fact that the Mongol army was almost always on the move, when someone got the disease and died, their body would just be left, so there was limited opportunity for the disease to spread.

[00:04:48] Not in Kaffa.

[00:04:50] Outside the city of Kaffa, the Mongol army was static, it was in the same place for some time, meaning that the disease was much more easily transmitted from one person to another.

[00:05:04] As the bodies piled up, the Mongol soldiers threw them over the city walls, infecting the local population and poisoning the water.

[00:05:15] The disease spread throughout the city of Kaffa, infecting everyone who came into contact with it. 

[00:05:22] It was clear that whatever it was, it was deadly, and it was spreading quickly through the population.

[00:05:31] Merchants who were in Kaffa and in the surrounding area fled for their lives. 

[00:05:37] Among these were the Italian merchants that headed back on the 12 ships to Messina, but for them, it was too late. 

[00:05:47] They returned to Sicily with The Black Death, carrying the plague, and it’s from these 12 ships that it’s believed that it spread to the rest of Europe.

[00:05:59] This isn’t to say that if these ships hadn’t landed in Messina, history would be very different. 

[00:06:06] It’s now accepted that, yes, they might have been the first, but if it wasn’t these 12 ships it would have been another 12 ships, or it would have come from somewhere else other than Kaffa. 

[00:06:19] So we shouldn’t overstate the importance of these putrid, disgusting dead bodies arriving over the walls and being probably the first recorded instance of biological warfare.

[00:06:32] In any case, this was one of the first documented instances of The Black Death, a plague that was to decimate, in fact, more than decimate if we’re talking technically, the European population over the following 50 years.

[00:06:50] After its arrival in Messina, it spread through Sicily, Genoa, Venice, and Northern Italy. 

[00:06:57] It then arrived in France, Spain, Portugal, and by June 1348, just 9 months later, it had arrived on the shores of Britain, via a sailor who arrived in Weymouth, a port in south west England.

[00:07:15] Within a few months it was everywhere in Britain, and had also spread to other northern European countries, including Germany, Poland, Norway and Sweden.

[00:07:26] At the same time as it was moving north, it was also spreading in the other direction, and large areas of the middle East and North Africa suffered greatly.

[00:07:38] By the summer of 1348 Cairo, in Egypt, was hit hard, with half of the city’s 600,000 residents dead, and bodies piled up in the river Nile.

[00:07:52] It was brought to the city of Mecca by pilgrims in 1348, and had also spread throughout large parts of modern Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and of course Turkey.

[00:08:05] It was everywhere.

[00:08:07] You might be thinking, ‘well, that doesn't sound that quick, COVID-19 took a fraction of the time.’

[00:08:14] Or you might be thinking ‘hang on, there was basically no international travel 650 years ago, how did it manage to spread so fast?’

[00:08:24] The reality is that there was a lot more international travel 650 years ago than most people think there was, but it was through sailors, through merchant ships, just like the 12 ships returning to Messina from the Crimea.

[00:08:41] Europe and the middle east were actually very well connected, and these sea routes were full of merchants going all over the continent, buying goods from one place and sailing them to another to sell them for a profit.

[00:08:58] And it was the sailors, and the merchant ships that were mainly responsible for taking the disease from one place to another. 

[00:09:07] When you look at the spread, it goes from port town to port town - on land it spreads much more slowly, because people simply didn’t travel as far on land as they did by sea.

[00:09:22] In terms of the actual Black Death itself, it’s believed to have consisted of three different types of plague: The Bubonic Plague, the Pneumonic Plague, and the Septicaemic Plague.

[00:09:37] Now, this is the part where you probably don’t want to be eating your lunch, because there are going to be some slightly unpleasant descriptions of what these diseases actually did to you.

[00:09:49] All of these three diseases, the three plagues, are caused by a bacterium called the Yersinia Pestis. 

[00:09:58] It is carried by rats, and most believe it to be transferred from rat to human, and then human to human, through fleas.

[00:10:09] The rat has the bacteria that causes the plague.

[00:10:12] A flea bites the rat, sucks up the infected blood, then bites a human and passes them the disease.

[00:10:21] The first plague, the Bubonic plague, was the most common one. 

[00:10:27] Symptoms of the bubonic plague would normally include a fever, nausea, and vomiting. 

[00:10:34] You would also typically start developing horrible boils, nasty lumps in your groin, your neck, and your armpits. Some were quite small, others could grow to as large as an apple.

[00:10:52] When it first started, it affected everyone equally - men and women, young and old.

[00:10:58] Victims usually died anywhere from 2 to 7 days after the first infection, and 80% of people who got the bubonic plague died.

[00:11:11] The pneumonic plague worked in a similar way, but instead of creating these lumps, it caused problems breathing, and was even more deadly, killing between 90 and 95% of its victims.

[00:11:28] And even more deadly than both of these was the Septicaemic plague, which infected the blood, and killed almost 100% of its victims. 

[00:11:39] Luckily it was the rarest of the three, it was the least common of the three plagues.

[00:11:45] Although we now have a pretty good idea about what these different plagues were, when they first arrived doctors had absolutely no idea whatsoever - from what was causing the plague to how they could cure it, they scratched their heads but nothing worked.

[00:12:04] Indeed, given the fact that there didn’t seem to be a cure for it, and nobody could understand what was causing it, it was believed by many to be an act of God, a punishment for some great wrong that had been committed.

[00:12:21] In Europe, people looked for scapegoats, people to blame. 

[00:12:26] God was always right, and everything happened for a reason, so if there was this great plague that was sweeping the continent and killing millions, someone must be to blame for it.

[00:12:39] Was it all of society to blame, had things moved in the wrong direction and this was God’s way of showing his displeasure, of showing how unhappy he was?

[00:12:51] Or was it to punish a particular group, or groups, in society–groups that were doing wrong against God?

[00:13:01] Several groups bore the brunt of the blame, either because people thought they carried the plague, or because people thought God was unhappy with them and that was why he had sent the plague.

[00:13:15] These groups included the poor, Roma, lepers, and Jewish people.

[00:13:21] Frequently people from these groups were killed or thrown out of cities, as it was believed that doing so would reduce the spread of the plague.

[00:13:32] This kind of activity was actually perpetuated and encouraged by the nobility and the richest in society, it wasn’t some kind of bottom up movement. 

[00:13:44] Indeed, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles IV, actually pardoned people who had killed Jews.

[00:13:53] Now, evidently this is despicable, inexcusable behaviour, but one thing this tells us is that people were resorting to mad violence because they had absolutely no idea what was actually going on, and how to stop the spread.

[00:14:12] Another effect of this complete lack of knowledge, and belief that it was some great act of God was that there was a huge increase in people doing things to try to ask for forgiveness from God.

[00:14:26] This would range from even more frequent praying right through to flagellation, people whipping themselves, whipping their naked backs to punish themselves in the hope that God wouldn’t punish them by giving them the plague.

[00:14:42] And what were doctors doing throughout all of this, you might be asking?

[00:14:47] Doctors did try to cure it, but with unsophisticated and ineffective techniques such as cutting open veins to allow so-called ‘bad blood’ to come out, or even cutting the boils, the large lumps

[00:15:03] They’d also try more spiritual cures, such as burning herbs.

[00:15:08] But nothing worked.

[00:15:11] Cities were especially badly hit by the plague, firstly because of the population density, but also because they were typically pretty dirty and unsanitary places. 

[00:15:23] Animals lived together with humans, rubbish was piled up, and it was an ideal environment for the disease to spread.

[00:15:33] People fled the cities to the countryside to try to escape the disease, but many took the disease with them, infecting people in the towns and villages, as well as cows, sheep and pigs, which could all carry the disease, and then it could be passed back to humans via fleas.

[00:15:54] The disease went almost everywhere, wiping out entire families and communities.

[00:16:00] Of course, the effect of 30% of the population being wiped out was considerable.

[00:16:08] Firstly, if people think that they are very likely to die soon, they act in a different way. 

[00:16:15] Instances of theft and criminality increased, people started committing more crime.

[00:16:22] There are also records of women in England adopting more revealing types of clothes, clothes that showed off more parts of their body, which would have been considered immodest years before. 

[00:16:36] Presumably in both of these cases people were thinking, well, if I’m going to die soon, I may as well take some risks and do things I’m not normally allowed to do…

[00:16:48] From an artistic and cultural point of view, European art became very morbid, understandably, as death was so present in everyone’s lives.

[00:17:00] And on an economic level, with fewer workers to do things like work the fields and produce food, prices skyrocketed, they increased dramatically.

[00:17:12] Cities emptied, and entire families were destroyed.

[00:17:16] With such a huge hit to the population, many economies almost ground to a halt, and it took years for them to recover. 

[00:17:27] But, somewhat miraculously, within around 4 years of The Black Death first arriving in Europe, the deaths had started to slow, and people were not dying in nearly as high numbers as they had previously. 

[00:17:43] The plague was still around, it hadn’t completely disappeared, but there were several developments that we now believe helped stop its spread, some of which might be quite familiar to us today.

[00:17:57] Firstly, there were improvements in personal hygiene. If you are cleaner, if there are fewer fleas around, and fewer places for the plague to exist, then it spreads more slowly.

[00:18:11] Secondly, as people realised that the disease was contagious, people arriving in cities were forced to quarantine. Indeed, the word quarantine, as you may know, comes from the Italian quarantina, referring to the 40 day period that a sailor would have to ‘quarantine’ before being allowed to come ashore.

[00:18:35] Thirdly, with just far fewer bodies to exist on, there was less opportunity for the plague to spread

[00:18:43] Especially cities were incredibly cramped, small rooms were packed with people, and if these people died, and there were people spread out in the countryside, well that meant fewer bodies, fewer homes for the disease.

[00:19:00] And related to this was the practice of cremating, of burning bodies after a victim died. 

[00:19:07] Previously, bodies had been piled up and buried, which evidently led to huge, infectious piles of bodies. 

[00:19:17] When people started to cremate the dead, these dangerous piles of infectious bodies were no longer an issue.

[00:19:25] So, at different times in different countries across Europe and the middle east, but starting in around 1351, the numbers of people dying slowed, and the worst of the plague was over. 

[00:19:40] There were continued outbreaks of the plague for the next couple of centuries, and indeed The Black Death, or at least the Bubonic plague has never really completely gone away.

[00:19:54] Every year there are between one and two thousand cases of what's called human plague being reported, in countries such as Zambia, Madagascar, India, Algeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

[00:20:09] In July 2020 you may have seen a slightly sensationalist headline about a case of a man in a city in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia who caught The Bubonic Plague, and later a teenager dying from the plague in the same city.

[00:20:27] But, unlike in 1347 we now have an excellent idea about what The Black Death is, how to stop it from spreading, and how to cure it. 

[00:20:39] So whenever there is an outbreak, and to stress, these outbreaks have always tended to be very small, the health authorities do a pretty good job at stopping it before it can get out of hand.

[00:20:53] If one is to look for any positive consequences of The Black Death, historians point to an increased sense of European unity, and a sense of shared human experience that brought people closer together. 

[00:21:08] We have all gone through this together, it has affected young and old, men and women, rich and poor. 

[00:21:16] One can only hope that more recent events, although they are thankfully significantly less deadly, might have a similar effect.

[00:21:26] OK then, that is it for today's episode on The Black Death, the most deadly pandemic in human history.

[00:21:35] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new, and if you were eating your breakfast, I hope that it didn’t put you off too much.

[00:21:45] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:21:48] You can head right in to our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:21:57] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:22:03] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.


[END OF EPISODE]


[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about The Black Death, the most deadly pandemic in human history.

[00:00:31] After its arrival on European shores in 1347 it killed anywhere from 30 to 60% of the population of Europe, and it’s estimated that it was responsible for reducing the world’s population by almost half a billion people.

[00:00:51] We’ll start by talking about how The Black Death started, what happened to you if you got ill, how people tried to cure it, and what happened to society as a result of The Black Death. 

[00:01:04] We’ll also talk about how it ended, and finish by asking ourselves whether we need to be worried about The Black Death coming back to wreak a similar amount of destruction today.

[00:01:16] It is quite the story, so without further ado, let’s get cracking.

[00:01:22] Our story starts in Messina, a port city on Sicily’s northeastern coast, just opposite the mainland.

[00:01:31] In October of 1347, 12 ships pulled into the harbour. 

[00:01:36] This wasn’t anything abnormal; it was a port, and ships pulled in all the time.

[00:01:43] But these ships weren’t like all the other ships.

[00:01:47] They had returned from the Black Sea, and the crew onboard, the sailors onboard, were covered in horrible black boils, terrible black lumps on their skin, with blood and liquid coming out of them.

[00:02:03] As the ships neared the harbour, the bystanders, the people watching the arrival of the ships, could see that most of the sailors on board were dead, their bodies piled up on the ship.

[00:02:19] The sailors that were alive were welcomed ashore, so that they could get medical assistance.

[00:02:25] But within a week most had died, and residents of Messina had started to show exactly the same symptoms as the sailors who were dropping dead.

[00:02:37] This deadly disease had started to rage through Messina. 

[00:02:42] It then spread throughout Italy, France, and within a couple of years it had made its way to almost every corner of Europe.

[00:02:52] The disease is now referred to as The Black Death, or The Plague, and scientists have a pretty good idea of what it is, how it’s transmitted, and how to stop it. 

[00:03:05] But when it first emerged, nobody had any idea.

[00:03:10] Europeans had heard stories about a great plague that existed in the east, but had never experienced it in real life.

[00:03:20] Sure, there had been smaller plagues, almost since the dawn of written history, but The Black Death was the first to be not just so widespread, but also so deadly.

[00:03:34] It all started, so scientists now believe, in central Asia, and was likely carried by the Mongol army.

[00:03:43] We know, or at least believe, this through an account from an Italian notary, a man named Gabriel de’ Mussi.

[00:03:52] Between the years of 1345 and 1346 the Mongols had surrounded a trading city called Kaffa, in the Crimea. 

[00:04:02] The Mongol army had–unintentionally I should add–brought rats with them, which we now know carried the disease. 

[00:04:11] The disease had started to spread through the Mongol army, and bodies had started to pile up outside the city of Kaffa.

[00:04:21] The disease didn’t just miraculously appear in the Mongol army outside Kaffa - it’s believed to have existed in the rats that followed the army for quite some time.

[00:04:33] But given the fact that the Mongol army was almost always on the move, when someone got the disease and died, their body would just be left, so there was limited opportunity for the disease to spread.

[00:04:48] Not in Kaffa.

[00:04:50] Outside the city of Kaffa, the Mongol army was static, it was in the same place for some time, meaning that the disease was much more easily transmitted from one person to another.

[00:05:04] As the bodies piled up, the Mongol soldiers threw them over the city walls, infecting the local population and poisoning the water.

[00:05:15] The disease spread throughout the city of Kaffa, infecting everyone who came into contact with it. 

[00:05:22] It was clear that whatever it was, it was deadly, and it was spreading quickly through the population.

[00:05:31] Merchants who were in Kaffa and in the surrounding area fled for their lives. 

[00:05:37] Among these were the Italian merchants that headed back on the 12 ships to Messina, but for them, it was too late. 

[00:05:47] They returned to Sicily with The Black Death, carrying the plague, and it’s from these 12 ships that it’s believed that it spread to the rest of Europe.

[00:05:59] This isn’t to say that if these ships hadn’t landed in Messina, history would be very different. 

[00:06:06] It’s now accepted that, yes, they might have been the first, but if it wasn’t these 12 ships it would have been another 12 ships, or it would have come from somewhere else other than Kaffa. 

[00:06:19] So we shouldn’t overstate the importance of these putrid, disgusting dead bodies arriving over the walls and being probably the first recorded instance of biological warfare.

[00:06:32] In any case, this was one of the first documented instances of The Black Death, a plague that was to decimate, in fact, more than decimate if we’re talking technically, the European population over the following 50 years.

[00:06:50] After its arrival in Messina, it spread through Sicily, Genoa, Venice, and Northern Italy. 

[00:06:57] It then arrived in France, Spain, Portugal, and by June 1348, just 9 months later, it had arrived on the shores of Britain, via a sailor who arrived in Weymouth, a port in south west England.

[00:07:15] Within a few months it was everywhere in Britain, and had also spread to other northern European countries, including Germany, Poland, Norway and Sweden.

[00:07:26] At the same time as it was moving north, it was also spreading in the other direction, and large areas of the middle East and North Africa suffered greatly.

[00:07:38] By the summer of 1348 Cairo, in Egypt, was hit hard, with half of the city’s 600,000 residents dead, and bodies piled up in the river Nile.

[00:07:52] It was brought to the city of Mecca by pilgrims in 1348, and had also spread throughout large parts of modern Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and of course Turkey.

[00:08:05] It was everywhere.

[00:08:07] You might be thinking, ‘well, that doesn't sound that quick, COVID-19 took a fraction of the time.’

[00:08:14] Or you might be thinking ‘hang on, there was basically no international travel 650 years ago, how did it manage to spread so fast?’

[00:08:24] The reality is that there was a lot more international travel 650 years ago than most people think there was, but it was through sailors, through merchant ships, just like the 12 ships returning to Messina from the Crimea.

[00:08:41] Europe and the middle east were actually very well connected, and these sea routes were full of merchants going all over the continent, buying goods from one place and sailing them to another to sell them for a profit.

[00:08:58] And it was the sailors, and the merchant ships that were mainly responsible for taking the disease from one place to another. 

[00:09:07] When you look at the spread, it goes from port town to port town - on land it spreads much more slowly, because people simply didn’t travel as far on land as they did by sea.

[00:09:22] In terms of the actual Black Death itself, it’s believed to have consisted of three different types of plague: The Bubonic Plague, the Pneumonic Plague, and the Septicaemic Plague.

[00:09:37] Now, this is the part where you probably don’t want to be eating your lunch, because there are going to be some slightly unpleasant descriptions of what these diseases actually did to you.

[00:09:49] All of these three diseases, the three plagues, are caused by a bacterium called the Yersinia Pestis. 

[00:09:58] It is carried by rats, and most believe it to be transferred from rat to human, and then human to human, through fleas.

[00:10:09] The rat has the bacteria that causes the plague.

[00:10:12] A flea bites the rat, sucks up the infected blood, then bites a human and passes them the disease.

[00:10:21] The first plague, the Bubonic plague, was the most common one. 

[00:10:27] Symptoms of the bubonic plague would normally include a fever, nausea, and vomiting. 

[00:10:34] You would also typically start developing horrible boils, nasty lumps in your groin, your neck, and your armpits. Some were quite small, others could grow to as large as an apple.

[00:10:52] When it first started, it affected everyone equally - men and women, young and old.

[00:10:58] Victims usually died anywhere from 2 to 7 days after the first infection, and 80% of people who got the bubonic plague died.

[00:11:11] The pneumonic plague worked in a similar way, but instead of creating these lumps, it caused problems breathing, and was even more deadly, killing between 90 and 95% of its victims.

[00:11:28] And even more deadly than both of these was the Septicaemic plague, which infected the blood, and killed almost 100% of its victims. 

[00:11:39] Luckily it was the rarest of the three, it was the least common of the three plagues.

[00:11:45] Although we now have a pretty good idea about what these different plagues were, when they first arrived doctors had absolutely no idea whatsoever - from what was causing the plague to how they could cure it, they scratched their heads but nothing worked.

[00:12:04] Indeed, given the fact that there didn’t seem to be a cure for it, and nobody could understand what was causing it, it was believed by many to be an act of God, a punishment for some great wrong that had been committed.

[00:12:21] In Europe, people looked for scapegoats, people to blame. 

[00:12:26] God was always right, and everything happened for a reason, so if there was this great plague that was sweeping the continent and killing millions, someone must be to blame for it.

[00:12:39] Was it all of society to blame, had things moved in the wrong direction and this was God’s way of showing his displeasure, of showing how unhappy he was?

[00:12:51] Or was it to punish a particular group, or groups, in society–groups that were doing wrong against God?

[00:13:01] Several groups bore the brunt of the blame, either because people thought they carried the plague, or because people thought God was unhappy with them and that was why he had sent the plague.

[00:13:15] These groups included the poor, Roma, lepers, and Jewish people.

[00:13:21] Frequently people from these groups were killed or thrown out of cities, as it was believed that doing so would reduce the spread of the plague.

[00:13:32] This kind of activity was actually perpetuated and encouraged by the nobility and the richest in society, it wasn’t some kind of bottom up movement. 

[00:13:44] Indeed, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles IV, actually pardoned people who had killed Jews.

[00:13:53] Now, evidently this is despicable, inexcusable behaviour, but one thing this tells us is that people were resorting to mad violence because they had absolutely no idea what was actually going on, and how to stop the spread.

[00:14:12] Another effect of this complete lack of knowledge, and belief that it was some great act of God was that there was a huge increase in people doing things to try to ask for forgiveness from God.

[00:14:26] This would range from even more frequent praying right through to flagellation, people whipping themselves, whipping their naked backs to punish themselves in the hope that God wouldn’t punish them by giving them the plague.

[00:14:42] And what were doctors doing throughout all of this, you might be asking?

[00:14:47] Doctors did try to cure it, but with unsophisticated and ineffective techniques such as cutting open veins to allow so-called ‘bad blood’ to come out, or even cutting the boils, the large lumps

[00:15:03] They’d also try more spiritual cures, such as burning herbs.

[00:15:08] But nothing worked.

[00:15:11] Cities were especially badly hit by the plague, firstly because of the population density, but also because they were typically pretty dirty and unsanitary places. 

[00:15:23] Animals lived together with humans, rubbish was piled up, and it was an ideal environment for the disease to spread.

[00:15:33] People fled the cities to the countryside to try to escape the disease, but many took the disease with them, infecting people in the towns and villages, as well as cows, sheep and pigs, which could all carry the disease, and then it could be passed back to humans via fleas.

[00:15:54] The disease went almost everywhere, wiping out entire families and communities.

[00:16:00] Of course, the effect of 30% of the population being wiped out was considerable.

[00:16:08] Firstly, if people think that they are very likely to die soon, they act in a different way. 

[00:16:15] Instances of theft and criminality increased, people started committing more crime.

[00:16:22] There are also records of women in England adopting more revealing types of clothes, clothes that showed off more parts of their body, which would have been considered immodest years before. 

[00:16:36] Presumably in both of these cases people were thinking, well, if I’m going to die soon, I may as well take some risks and do things I’m not normally allowed to do…

[00:16:48] From an artistic and cultural point of view, European art became very morbid, understandably, as death was so present in everyone’s lives.

[00:17:00] And on an economic level, with fewer workers to do things like work the fields and produce food, prices skyrocketed, they increased dramatically.

[00:17:12] Cities emptied, and entire families were destroyed.

[00:17:16] With such a huge hit to the population, many economies almost ground to a halt, and it took years for them to recover. 

[00:17:27] But, somewhat miraculously, within around 4 years of The Black Death first arriving in Europe, the deaths had started to slow, and people were not dying in nearly as high numbers as they had previously. 

[00:17:43] The plague was still around, it hadn’t completely disappeared, but there were several developments that we now believe helped stop its spread, some of which might be quite familiar to us today.

[00:17:57] Firstly, there were improvements in personal hygiene. If you are cleaner, if there are fewer fleas around, and fewer places for the plague to exist, then it spreads more slowly.

[00:18:11] Secondly, as people realised that the disease was contagious, people arriving in cities were forced to quarantine. Indeed, the word quarantine, as you may know, comes from the Italian quarantina, referring to the 40 day period that a sailor would have to ‘quarantine’ before being allowed to come ashore.

[00:18:35] Thirdly, with just far fewer bodies to exist on, there was less opportunity for the plague to spread

[00:18:43] Especially cities were incredibly cramped, small rooms were packed with people, and if these people died, and there were people spread out in the countryside, well that meant fewer bodies, fewer homes for the disease.

[00:19:00] And related to this was the practice of cremating, of burning bodies after a victim died. 

[00:19:07] Previously, bodies had been piled up and buried, which evidently led to huge, infectious piles of bodies. 

[00:19:17] When people started to cremate the dead, these dangerous piles of infectious bodies were no longer an issue.

[00:19:25] So, at different times in different countries across Europe and the middle east, but starting in around 1351, the numbers of people dying slowed, and the worst of the plague was over. 

[00:19:40] There were continued outbreaks of the plague for the next couple of centuries, and indeed The Black Death, or at least the Bubonic plague has never really completely gone away.

[00:19:54] Every year there are between one and two thousand cases of what's called human plague being reported, in countries such as Zambia, Madagascar, India, Algeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

[00:20:09] In July 2020 you may have seen a slightly sensationalist headline about a case of a man in a city in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia who caught The Bubonic Plague, and later a teenager dying from the plague in the same city.

[00:20:27] But, unlike in 1347 we now have an excellent idea about what The Black Death is, how to stop it from spreading, and how to cure it. 

[00:20:39] So whenever there is an outbreak, and to stress, these outbreaks have always tended to be very small, the health authorities do a pretty good job at stopping it before it can get out of hand.

[00:20:53] If one is to look for any positive consequences of The Black Death, historians point to an increased sense of European unity, and a sense of shared human experience that brought people closer together. 

[00:21:08] We have all gone through this together, it has affected young and old, men and women, rich and poor. 

[00:21:16] One can only hope that more recent events, although they are thankfully significantly less deadly, might have a similar effect.

[00:21:26] OK then, that is it for today's episode on The Black Death, the most deadly pandemic in human history.

[00:21:35] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new, and if you were eating your breakfast, I hope that it didn’t put you off too much.

[00:21:45] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:21:48] You can head right in to our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:21:57] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:22:03] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.


[END OF EPISODE]