Black Death

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Spread of the plague in Europe between 1347 and 1351

The Black Death is one of the most devastating pandemics in world history, which claimed an estimated 25 million lives in Europe between 1346 and 1353 - a third of the population at the time. The cause is the plague caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis . The word "plague" is derived from the Latin word pestis for plague and is therefore used without direct reference to the disease plague.

As far as we know today, the pandemic first occurred in Central Asia and reached Europe via trade routes (including the Silk Road ) . The disease probably spread from the eastern Mediterranean to the rest of Europe via rat fleas , but some areas were relatively spared.

For the area of ​​what is now Germany , it is estimated that every tenth inhabitant lost his life as a result of the Black Death. Hamburg , Cologne and Bremen were among the cities in which a very high proportion of the population died. In contrast, the number of fatalities in the eastern area of ​​today's Germany was much lower.

The social impact of the Black Death went very far: the Jews were accused of having triggered the pandemic through poisoning and well poisoning . In many parts of Europe this led to pogroms against the Jews and the extermination of Jewish communities.


Since the discovery of the bacterium Yersinia pestis towards the end of the 19th century, the prevailing opinion has been that it is the pathogen responsible for the pandemic known as the Black Death . This is supported by the properties of Yersinia pestis , which include an extremely high potential for infection, the symptoms associated with the infection and the detection of Yersinia DNA in the tooth pulp or skeleton of people from the 8th and 14th centuries.

Recent research results have now confirmed this prevailing opinion. In 2010, an international research group reported that they were able to isolate several different genetic variants of Yersinia pestis from medieval graves in Europe and Asia . The researchers concluded that different gene variants of the bacterium were responsible for the black death. The spread from China via the Red Sea to Europe. In October 2011, an international group of researchers from the USA, Great Britain, Canada and Germany published in the journal Nature that it had now been possible to fully decipher the genetic makeup of the plague pathogen that raged in Europe around 1350 as the Black Death. The bacterium Yersinia pestis , isolated from skeletons in a London cemetery , has been identified as the cause of the plague epidemic in the 14th century. The researchers contradicted other experts who previously assumed that other pathogens could have been responsible for the black death. According to the scientists, the closest related plague bacterium that exists today differs in its structure only in twelve places from the form from the 14th century and is therefore very similar.

In the run-up to these findings, different triggers for this pandemic were repeatedly discussed by individual scientists: Smallpox , typhus , cholera , typhoid , anthrax and hemorrhagic fever were considered, among others . This was justified, among other things, with the fact that individual traditional characteristics did not seem to agree with the disease caused by Yersinia pestis . These included the high lethality and speed of spread. Even before the research results of 2010 and 2011, however, many things were no longer valid. A group of researchers at the University of Marseille led by Didier Raoult , head of the Clinical Microbiology Department, takes the view that the body louse ( Pediculus humanis corporis ), the plague bacteria, retains the plague bacteria in their blood for almost two weeks and excretes the pathogen with their faeces for so long been a crucial factor in the transmission. As early as 1665, the Dutch doctor Isbrand van Diemerbroeck proved that the disease could be transmitted through infected clothing. Not only rats and the fleas that they inevitably switch to humans, but also people who traveled with plague-infested clothes lice in their clothes could have infected other people in regions not previously affected by the plague in this way. The low speed of propagation in the case of a transmission from rat to rat is therefore no longer to be regarded as a limiting factor, but rather the speed of travel of people at the time. This also explains the distance of more than 3200 km (as the crow flies) from Naples to Tromsø within three years during the last great epidemic of the Middle Ages.

Another argument against Yersinia pestis was a mutation of the CCR5 gene in humans, in which 32 base pairs are absent. This mutation, called CCR5Δ32 (CCR5-Delta32), is found in around ten percent of the European population, but not in Asia or East Africa. Mathematical models for the spread of this mutation suggest that there was great selection pressure around 700 years ago, the time of the Black Death in Europe. More recent studies, however, indicate a significantly older age for the original mutation and the selection effect. A statement about the selection factor is almost impossible. This mutation could have been a genetic survival advantage over the pathogen, but it offers no protection against Yersinia pestis . Smallpox is now considered the most likely selection factor at that time .

Term "black death"

Detail from the woodcut “ Dance of Death ” ( Hans Holbein the Younger ). Holbein made it clear that death does not differentiate according to status.

The term “black death” ( mors nigra ) was not used specifically for the plague in the Middle Ages - contemporary chroniclers spoke of the “great death” ( mortalitas magna ) or the “great pestilence” ( pestis magna ). Danish and Swedish chroniclers of the 16th century used the term "black death" in the sense of "great death" in connection with the plague epidemic that raged around 1348.

Authors coming from the history of medicine in particular attribute the origin of the term "Black Death" , which has been used since the beginning of the 17th century as a term for the plague of 1348, to the necrosis around the puncture site as well as on the fingers and around the bubons ( Plague bumps) arise.

The German doctor Justus Friedrich Karl Hecker took up this term again in 1832. Under the influence of the rampant cholera epidemic, his publication The Black Death in the Fourteenth Century on the pandemic 1347-1353 received great attention. It was translated into English in 1833 and reprinted several times in the following years. The terms “Black Death” or “Black Death” thus became commonplace, especially in the English and German-speaking countries, as a term for the pandemic of the 14th century.

Europe before the outbreak of the disease

Numerous factors led to the fact that the population of the initially sparsely populated Europe quadrupled from 900 to 1300. This went hand in hand with the reclamation of land, the emergence of numerous new cities and the growth of the old cities. The most developed areas of Europe were in southern England, in northern France in the valleys of the Seine and Loire , included the area around Paris and the German Rhine Valley , the northern Hanseatic cities as well as Flanders and the Netherlands and northern Italy from the Po Valley to to Rome . This core area was much more populated than the rest of Europe, and the largest cities were also located in these areas. European society before 1300 had well-equipped universities, built impressive Gothic cathedrals, and experienced an artistic and literary heyday. Between 1214 and 1296, especially in Western Europe, no major war hindered the further development of society.

While theology and philosophy played large roles in universities, little attention was paid to the natural sciences . The little chemical knowledge one possessed was used only in alchemy ; what was known about astronomy was used for astrology and divination . In particular, medical knowledge of the connections between infection and infectious diseases was poorly developed. As Norman Cantor noted, medieval society also had non-medical answers to the devastating effects of a pandemic - prayer and atonement, as well as finding scapegoats.

Crisis developments began even before the Black Death broke out. From 1290, long-term famine occurred in large parts of Europe. Studies of the development of the price of wheat in Norfolk , England suggest that there were nineteen years between 1290 and 1348 when wheat was a scarce commodity. For the French Languedoc , similar studies show twenty years of food shortages in the period from 1302 to 1348. 1315 to 1317 were famine years across northern Europe. In the years 1346 and 1347 there was hunger in southern and northern Europe. Epidemics occurred in Italian cities as early as 1339 and 1340, which led to a significant increase in mortality. The sources suggest that most of these epidemics were intestinal infections.

Outbreak of the pandemic in Asia and spread in Europe

The Justinian plague

Apparently the first and only major European plague epidemic before the outbreak of the Black Death was the Justinian plague at the time of Emperor Justinian (527-565), which is considered the largest ancient plague epidemic in Europe. It probably broke out in the Orient in 541 and spread very quickly throughout the Mediterranean region. Based on the detailed descriptions of the late antique historian Prokopios and the DNA analysis of the dead from the 6th century, research now assumes that this epidemic was actually the bubonic plague, but that it possibly occurred together with other diseases. It appeared every twelve years until around 770 and, in the opinion of some historians, had far-reaching consequences, since the decline in the population in the Middle East and the Mediterranean created a geopolitical power vacuum that contributed significantly to Islamic expansion . However, these connections are very controversial, especially since the actual consequences of the Justinian plague can hardly be estimated.

From 632 onwards, Bab al-Mandab , the 27-kilometer-wide strait and the only natural connection between the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean , was under Muslim control, which made direct contact between the Christian Mediterranean world and Asia difficult. However, the question remains unanswered as to why the plague suddenly seems to have completely disappeared from Europe for almost six centuries around 770 - 230 years after its first outbreak and 140 years after the start of Islamic expansion.

Origin in Asia

Its reappearance can probably be explained better than its disappearance: The pandemic had its origin either between 1330 and 1340 in China or in a plateau in Central Asia, which corresponds to the present-day region of Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan. There is much to be said for an outbreak in this Central Asian plateau, as the plague bacterium occurs there in wild rodent populations and there have been local, seasonal outbreaks of plague diseases there for centuries when these rodents left their burrows during the rainy season. According to a hypothesis by the author William Bernstein , the era of the Pax Mongolica following the Mongol storm in the 13th century once again allowed intensive and direct trade contacts between Europe and Asia. This lively exchange also allowed plague bacteria to be brought back to Europe. Philip Alcabes is of the opinion that the plague bacterium was transmitted from local wild rodent populations to rats that lived close to the trade caravans and thus also got to the larger commercial centers that connected the various trade routes. However, the question remains unanswered as to why the Black Death in China and India did not cause a comparable number of deaths; In the similarly densely populated India of the 14th century, for example, there was even an increase in population - instead of a massive population decline as in Europe; in much more densely populated China, more people died of famine and the wars against the Mongols than of the Black Death; there are also no historical records of a pandemic comparable to the Black Death in Europe.

The way to Europe

Spread of the Black Death in Europe from 1346 to 1353

In 1338 or 1339 the plague struck the Christian community of the Assyrian Church on Lake Issyk Kul in the Mongol Empire , today's Kyrgyzstan . In 1345 the first people fell ill in Sarai on the lower Volga and in the Crimea , both in the realm of the Golden Horde , part of the late Mongolian Empire. In 1346 the first inhabitants of Astrakhan fell ill . In the same year the disease reached the borders of what was then Europe: The Golden Horde sought to regain the Crimean peninsula and therefore besieged the port city of Kaffa, which was held by the Genoese . With the retinue of the army of the Golden Horde, the disease apparently also came outside the city walls. It is reported that the besiegers tied the plague dead on their catapults and hurled them into the city. The inhabitants of Kaffa are said to have immediately thrown these bodies into the sea. From today's perspective it is possible that the disease came to the inhabitants of Kaffa in this way, but the pathogen would also have been transmitted by rats.

With the advance of the pandemic to Kaffa, the disease found its way into the Genoese's extensive trade network , which stretched across the entire Mediterranean coast. Spread by their ships, the disease reached Constantinople , Cairo and Messina in Sicily in 1347, where a ship arrived in 1347, most of whose crew had already died of the plague. From there it spread rapidly over the next four years, first by sea and then by land across Europe. It essentially took two routes of propagation:

  • The pathogen was transported from Genoa to Marseille in ships whose crew was infected , from where the pandemic followed the Rhone to the north. After a short time it reached Languedoc and Montpellier , in August 1348 also Carcassonne and Bordeaux , Aix and Avignon , where it stayed for seven months. Avignon was the papal residence at that time and one of the most important cities in Europe. The plague reached Toulouse in March 1348 and Paris in May.
  • The second wave of propagation originated in Venice . From there, the epidemic reached Austria via the Brenner Pass . The Black Death came to Carinthia via Tyrol , then to Styria and only then reached Vienna . Vienna was the only city in which every dying person received the Last Sacrament , which suggests that Vienna succeeded better than in other cities in maintaining social order in the face of the epidemic that had broken out.

In the area of ​​what is now Germany, in Norway (see plague epidemics in Norway ), Sweden , England and Ireland , the epidemic first appeared in 1349.

In order to reduce the risk of infection, ships arriving after 1347 on which the disease was suspected were isolated for 40 days ( quarantine , from French “une quarantaine de jours” = number of 40 days). The invention of this measure is attributed to Venice. Although the quarantine imposed may have prevented the ship's crew from going ashore, it did not prevent infected rats from getting ashore along the ship's ropes and thus contributing to the spread of the disease.

Demographic and Political Impact of the Black Death

Giovanni Boccaccio is probably the most important contemporary witness of the pandemic from 1347 to 1353. He processed his experiences in his collection of novels, Decamerone . About the devastating impact of the outbreak in Florence, he wrote:

“So anyone who - especially in the morning - would have walked through the city could see innumerable corpses lying there. Then they had stretchers come or, if they were lacking, laid their dead on a bare board. It also happened that two or three were carried away on a stretcher, and not once, but many times could have been counted, where the same stretcher carried the corpses of the man and the woman or two and three brothers and the father and his child. "

Burial of bubonic plague victims in Tournai. Part of a miniature from the chronicles of Abbot Gilles Li Muisis (1272–1352), Bibliothèque royale de Belgique , MS 13076-77, f. 24v.

Historians generally assume that around 20 to 25 million people, around a third of Europe's population at the time, perished as a result of the "Black Death". The Norwegian historian Ole Benedictow, among others, assumes a higher death rate, according to which around 60% of the European population, i.e. H. around 50 of 80 million inhabitants fell victim to the "Black Death". In contrast, the medical historian Manfred Vasold estimates the number of epidemic deaths in Germany at around 10% of the population. For the Middle East, including Iraq, Iran and Syria, the death rate is assumed to be one third during the "black death" period. About 40% of the population of Egypt fell victim to the "Black Death". Numbers cited in contemporary chronicles should be treated with caution, as chroniclers overestimated the number of deaths to reflect the horror and ruthlessness of this pandemic. For example, under the impression of the hearse constantly rolling by, the contemporary chroniclers estimated the number of people who died in Avignon at up to 120,000, although Avignon had no more than 50,000 inhabitants at that time. Meanwhile, many of the historians who wrote of the plague have reliable information. Your sometimes well-founded information gives the impression that the approach of a third of the entire German population, to which the medical historian Klaus Bergdolt also admits, is not out of thin air, but at most needs to be revised upwards.

The devastation of the Black Death is more tangible than in numbers: the chronicler of Siena , Agnolo di Tura , complained that no one could bury the dead and that he had to bury his five children himself. Shortly before his own epidemic death, John Clyn , the last surviving monk of an Irish monastery in Kilkenny , wrote down the hope that at least one person would survive this epidemic who could continue the epidemic chronicle he had begun. The Italian chronicler Giovanni Villani was so suddenly killed by the disease that his chronicle breaks off with an incomplete sentence. In Venice 20 out of 24 doctors died, in Hamburg 16 out of 21 councilors were among the dead. In London all the guild masters of tailors and hatters succumbed to the plague. And shortly after the Archbishop of Canterbury's epidemic death, his designated successor also died, as did the next candidate shortly thereafter. In France, a third of the royal notaries and a third of the papal cardinals gathered in Avignon perished.

The "Black Death" did not rage evenly in Europe, but left a few areas almost untouched. Large parts of Poland and Belgium as well as Prague were largely spared by him, while in others he struck so hard that entire areas were largely depopulated. In Poland, this is thanks to the forward-looking border closure of Kasimir , as well as the relatively rural structure and little cross-border trade. While four fifths of the citizens died in Florence , it was only about 15% in Milan , probably thanks to the very determined measures of the city tour to wall up the doors and ground floor windows of houses with sick people. As a result, the sick person could only infect the house residents, but not others. Franconia was spared the "great plague" and southern Germany as a whole remained largely unaffected by the disease. Hamburg and Bremen, on the other hand, were hit hard by the pandemic, as was Cologne, for example . All in all, Vasold considers the impact on the population in Germany to be considerably less than in Italy and France. The historian Philip Daileader also assumes that there are considerable geographical differences in the demographic effects:

“The trend of recent research is pointing to a figure more like 45-50% of the European population dying during a four-year period. There is a fair amount of geographic variation. In Mediterranean Europe, areas such as Italy, the south of France and Spain, where plague ran for about four years consecutively, it was probably closer to 75-80% of the population. In Germany and England ... it was probably closer to 20%. "

“The trend in recent research suggests that closer to 45-50% of the European population died in a period of four years. There are considerable geographical differences. In the Mediterranean regions of Europe, areas like Italy, southern France and Spain, where the plague raged for four years, around 75–80% of the population likely died. In Germany and England ... the death rate was probably closer to 20%. "

- Philip Daileader : The Late Middle Ages

As a result of the pandemic, it took several centuries for Europe to regain its old population density. David Herlihy points out that the number of people living in Europe did not decrease any further until the first decades of the 15th century, stagnated at a very low level for fifty years and did not gradually increase again until 1460.

Doctors reaction

Plague hood, 17th century: To protect against the plague, doctors wore a leather robe with a cover and a mask. In the beak-like appendage were herbs or vinegar sponges to "filter" the air.

The doctors of that time resorted to the medical knowledge of the ancient doctor Hippocrates and his successor Galen for the treatment and prevention of this enigmatic disease , according to whose teachings this infection was a mismixing of the four humors of blood, phlegm, yellow and black bile - the principle the infection, on the other hand, was unknown to galenic medicine. An animal-to-human infection was completely unimaginable. Instead, based on the miasm theory , it was assumed that foul-smelling winds carried the disease from Asia to Europe or that it was caused by vapors from the interior of the earth.

For the medical treatment of bubonic plague, special, sometimes widespread advice on medicinal and dietary measures to be carried out by laypeople as well as on the use of bloodletting and wet cupping was created around 1350 .

Obscure advice made the rounds. For example, the windows should only be opened to the north, sleep during the day and hard work should encourage the outbreak of an epidemic and should therefore be avoided. Dangerous were the humid climate and south wind, the air over stagnant water of all kinds. The disease was attracted by the beauty of young girls, it was said. In fact, more men than women died, more young than old.

The Medical Faculty of Paris, from Philip VI. Commissioned in October 1348 with an investigation into the cause of the disease, came to the conclusion in their epidemiological report containing various epidemiological aspects and therapeutic possibilities that the epidemic had been triggered by an unfavorable triad of Saturn , Jupiter and Mars that occurred on March 20, 1345 . The Umbrian doctor Gentile da Foligno saw this as the origin of the breath of plague , contagion (an epidemic or pandemic epidemic transmitted through the air). The explanatory approach was considered to be the most scientific across Europe and was translated into many European national languages, and in particular the catalog of measures for epidemic prevention of the Paris Plague Report found widespread use beyond France soon after 1349. Together with the dietary-curative recommendations and recipes from the sense of the highest masters of Paris ( "sense of hogistin Meyster of Paris" ) was the wife of Plauen bailiff directed, called "(plague) letter to the wife of Plauen" spread between Austria and Flanders. It recommends immediate bloodletting if plague bumps (bubons) occur (depending on the occurrence of the plague bumps in eight different places). A common remedy for the plague used by doctors was the burning of aromatic substances. Pope Clement VI spent the time of the outbreak in Avignon between two large fires that burned in his rooms and were supposed to protect him from infection.

In the long term, the Black Death caused people to gradually break away from galenic medicine. Pope Clement himself advocated dissection of the disease victims in order to discover the cause of the disease. The direct examination of the human body through anatomical studies was continued with greater intensity than before the pandemic, thus taking the first step towards modern medicine and empirical science. It took almost 200 years for the doctor Girolamo Fracastoro (1483–1533) to deal more systematically with the principle of contagion ("touch") , on which the contagion theory ("contagionism") , which had long competed with the miasma theory , was based.

Pandemic and Medieval Society

Immediate response to the Black Death challenge

The contemporary witness Boccaccio has impressively described in his work Decamerone how many residents of Florence no longer fulfilled their social obligations after the outbreak of the pandemic:

“We want to remain silent about the fact that one citizen avoided the other, that almost no neighbor cared for the other and that relatives did not see themselves at all or only rarely and then only from a distance. The terrible visitation had caused such confusion in the hearts of men and women that one brother left another, uncle left nephew, sister left brother, and often wife left husband; yes, what seems even stranger and almost unbelievable: father and mother were afraid to look after their children and to look after them - as if they weren't theirs (...) Many died who, if they had been looked after, probably died would have recovered. But because of the lack of proper care necessary for the sick person and because of the power of the plague, the number of those who died day and night was so great that it gave a shudder to hear about it, let alone witness it. "

Many of the people who viewed the Black Death as God's punishment found solace in religion at that time. Religious movements arose spontaneously in the wake of or in anticipation of the plague - many of which challenged the church's monopoly on spiritual guidance. Prayer services and processions marked everyday life. Flagellants marched through the cities in " flagellant trains". The "plague saint" St. Rochus was intensely venerated, pilgrimages increased. In many places churches and other monuments such as so-called plague columns testify to the fear of the people and their desire for redemption from the epidemic.

Different people tried to savor every minute of their lives, and dance and music tried to escape the Black Death. The Italian chronicler Matteo Villani wrote:

“People, realizing that they were few and had become rich through inheritance and transmission of earthly things, and forgetting the past as if it had never been, did it more rampant and pathetic than ever before. They surrendered to idleness, and their disruption led them to the sin of gluttony, to feasts, to inns, to delicious food and to gambling. They threw themselves into the arms of lust without hesitation. "

A functioning economy could no longer be sustained under the impression of a pandemic. Workers died, fled and no longer performed their duties. To many it seemed pointless to cultivate the fields when death would soon overtake them.

Jewish pogroms at the time of the Black Death

Ecclesiastical and secular power was rapidly losing authority in the face of the helplessness with which it faced the pandemic. The poet Boccaccio noted in his Decameron :

“In such misery and sorrow in the city, the venerable prestige of divine and human laws was almost sunk and destroyed; for their servants and executors, like the rest of the inhabitants, were all sick or dead or had kept so few assistants that they could no longer carry out official acts. That's why everyone could do whatever they wanted. "

Those people who belonged to the cultural fringes of medieval societies suffered most from the loss of authority of secular and ecclesiastical power. In the course of the pandemic, for example, there were severe pogroms against the Jews , which could no longer be stopped by the spiritual and secular rulers and which meant that after 1353 only a few Jews lived in Germany and the Netherlands.

Plague pogroms

Execution of Jews, around 1350, Chronicle by Gilles Li Muisis, fol. 12v Bibliothèque royale de Belgique

The pogroms broke out because the angry people believed they were responsible for the catastrophe in the Jews. A Wroclaw doctor named Dr. In view of the (plague) epidemic, Heinrich Rybbinus stated that people, in their perplexity, had fallen into burning Jews and warring one another. The first attacks against Jews began in Toulon on Palm Sunday 1348: shortly after the first plague deaths there, parts of the city's population attacked the Jewish quarter and killed 40 people. A few days later there were also attacks in Avignon, Grasse and other cities in Provence and then in Catalonia. The rumor that certain groups of people trickled poison into wells and springs circulated very often in times of need and was accused , for example, of lepers in 1321 after the Shepherds' Crusade . Very soon after the first deaths from the plague, this was also accused of the Jewish fellow citizens: In Savoy , Jewish accused had pleaded guilty of such offenses under the torture. Her confession quickly spread throughout Europe and was the basis for a wave of attacks in Switzerland and Germany - especially in Alsace and along the Rhine. On January 9, 1349, part of the Jewish population in Basel was murdered - the Basel city councils had previously banned the worst agitators from the city, but under the pressure of the city population had to lift this ban again and instead expel the Jews. Some of the displaced were arrested and burned in a house built especially for them on an island in the Rhine. In Strasbourg , the city government also tried to protect the local Jews, but was removed from office with the votes of the guilds. The new Strasbourg city government tolerated the subsequent massacre , which in February 1349 - at a time when the Black Death had not yet reached the city - killed 900 of the 1,884 Jews living in Strasbourg. In March 1349, four hundred members of the Jewish community in Worms burned themselves to death in their homes to avoid forced baptism ; in July 1349 the Jewish community of Frankfurt committed suicide in this way. In Mainz, Jews used self-defense and killed 200 attacking city citizens. Even the Jewish community living in Mainz - at that time the largest in Europe - ultimately committed suicide by setting fire to their own houses. The pogroms continued until the end of 1349. The last ones took place in Antwerp and Brussels . For cities like Freiburg im Breisgau , Cologne , Augsburg , Nuremberg , Königsberg and Regensburg , it is assumed that even before the local outbreak of the epidemic, flagellants incited parts of the population to murder the Jewish population as well poisoners. The more recent research assumes, however, that shifting the blame onto the flagellants is mostly to be seen as a “convenient justification attempt” ( Haverkamp ) of 14th century historiography for the murders. In addition to the search for a scapegoat and an intolerance of the church towards those of different faiths, which has increased since the 12th century, greed was also an essential motive for the murder of Jewish fellow citizens. The importance of the Jews as moneylenders was no longer as great as in the 12th and 13th centuries, but apparently a large part of the population saw the murder of the Jews as an opportunity to get rid of their creditors. The mayor of Augsburg, Heinrich Portner, was heavily indebted to Jewish moneylenders and readily let the murder of the Jews happen.

Reaction of secular and ecclesiastical power

There was no shortage of people who would draw attention to the injustice of these murders. Already on July 4, 1348, Pope Clement VI , who lived in Avignon, turned . in a bull against the persecution of Jews. The papal bull was only active in Avignon and otherwise did relatively little to protect the Jews. Therefore, on September 26, 1348, a second papal bull with the title Quamvis perfidiam followed . The accusation that the Jews were spreading the plague by poisoning wells he described as “unimaginable”, since it raged in areas of the world where no Jews lived and where they lived they themselves would be victims of the plague. He urged the clergy to place the Jews under their protection. Clement VI. - who himself collected Hebrew manuscripts - also prohibited the killing or looting of Jews without trial. He threatened the persecutors with excommunication . He declared the Geißler gangs , who had particularly distinguished themselves in the Jewish pogroms, to be heretics. The measures taken by Queen Joan I of Naples , which in May 1348 halved the tax burden of the Jews living in her Provencal territory, in order to take account of the looting , remained similarly ineffective . In June of the same year, their officials were expelled from the Provencal cities, which illustrates the vulnerability of the Jews due to the progressive loss of authority of the rulers. Just like Pope Clement were Peter IV of Aragon , Albrecht II of Austria and Casimir III. decided protector of their Jewish inhabitants by Poland . Even if they were unable to completely prevent acts of violence, such massacres as in Brussels and Basel did not materialize. Casimir III also offered the Jews to settle in his territory. There was an emigration mainly of German Jews to Poland, which lasted until the 16th century. Casimir III saw the settlement of Jewish citizens. the possibility to increase the size of the population decimated by the Mongol raids and thus to develop one's country economically.

On the other hand, there was no lack of secular rulers who took advantage of the so-called plague pogroms. The Roman-German King Charles IV was at least guilty of complicity: In order to pay off his debts, Karl pledged the royal Jewish shelf , including to Frankfurt am Main . It was even regulated what should happen to the property of Jews if “the Jews were to be killed there next” (Frankfurt documents of June 23, 25, 27 and 28, 1349, referring to Nuremberg, Rothenburg ob der Tauber and Frankfurt am Main). Although he was able to effectively protect the Jews in his domain, this event raises many questions about Karl's character, especially since Karl otherwise always endeavored to convey the image of a just Christian ruler. The toleration of the murders also violated the legal understanding of the time, since the Jews were under the direct protection of the king and made payments for it. The Margrave of Meißen went even further , who at the beginning of 1349 called on the townspeople of Meißen to attack Jews and assured them that such attacks would not be followed by sanctions.

Long-term effects of the black death

Depiction of the scourge trains, around 1350, Chronicle by Gilles Li Muisis, fol. 16v Bibliothèque royale de Belgique, Brussels

In the long term, the epidemic caused and accelerated a profound change in Europe's medieval society.

As David Herlihy shows, the generations after 1348 could not simply maintain the social and cultural patterns of the 13th century. The massive population slump resulted in a restructuring of society, which had a long-term positive effect. Herlihy described the pandemic as "the hour of the new men": The depopulation gave a larger percentage of the population access to farms and rewarding jobs. Border soils that had become unprofitable were abandoned, which in some regions led to villages being abandoned or no longer being repopulated (so-called desolations ), and the forests , which were cut down in the high Middle Ages as part of the country's development, spread again. The guilds now also admitted members who had previously been refused admission. While the agricultural lease market collapsed, urban wages rose significantly. This enabled a greater number of people to afford a higher standard of living than ever before; however, there was sometimes also a food shortage because many fields were no longer cultivated, e.g. B. in England, where wages for farm workers rose sharply. Although the nobles enforced the Statute of Laborers in parliament in 1349 , which limited wages for field labor, the farm workers were also paid in kind. The wage conflicts ultimately led to the great peasant uprising of 1381, the Peasants' Revolt , as a result of which England became the first country in Europe to abolish serfdom . As a result, free farmers were replaced by tenants, and less labor-intensive sheep farming replaced arable farming.

The significant increase in labor costs ensured that manual labor became increasingly mechanized. This made the late Middle Ages a time of impressive technical advances. David Herlihy cites printing as an example : as long as scribes' wages were low, copying books by hand was a satisfactory method of reproduction . With the rise in wages, extensive technical experiments began, which ultimately led to the invention of printing with movable type by Johannes Gutenberg .

The church - used as an inheritance by numerous epidemic victims - emerged richer but less popular from the time of the "Black Death". She had neither found a satisfactory answer to the question of why God had placed such a test on mankind, nor had she provided spiritual assistance when people needed it most. The flagellant movement had tested the authority of the Church. Even after this movement subsided, many sought God in mystical sects and reform movements, which ultimately caused the Catholic unity of faith to fall apart.

In particular, the Austrian cultural historian Egon Friedell , in his work Cultural History of the Modern Era, took the view that the epidemic of 1348/49 caused the crisis of the medieval view of the world and of man and shaken existing beliefs. He sees a direct, causal connection between the catastrophe of the "Black Death" and the Renaissance .

Return of the disease in the following years

The first major pandemic wave, which went down in history as the "Black Death", ended in 1353. It flared up again and again in individual regions of Europe in the following years, as the epidemic became endemic : it searched for the next three centuries in local and regional epidemics European territory at almost regular intervals, for example in 1400 as the second worst epidemic of the late Middle Ages and the early modern times. Although the number of deaths in this second major pandemic wave was not that high, it was mainly children and young people who died. Other large plague epidemics in Europe were the Great Plague of London in 1665/1666, in which around 100,000 people died in southern England (70,000 of them in London alone) or the Great Plague from 1708 to 1714 in Northern and Eastern Europe with around one million deaths. The third plague pandemic began in China at the end of the 19th century .

Black death in art and literature

Most of the works of art that deal with the effects of the Black Death were created after the pandemic years 1347 to 1353. They are therefore dealt with in the article History of the Plague . An exception is Il Decamerone by Giovanni Boccaccio , which according to today's knowledge was written between 1350 and 1353. The setting is a country house in the hills of Florence , two miles from what was then the city center of Florence. Seven girls and three young men fled to this country house from the Black Death, which struck Florence in the spring and summer of 1348. The book's introduction is one of the most detailed medieval sources on the impact of the Black Death in a city.

The Black Death also became an important topic in the art of the late Middle Ages. Artists like the Lübeck painter and carver Bernt Notke impressively presented the event in the form of the dance of death , which was also incorporated into the music. The Black Death also found in the Peasants' War panorama of Werner Tübke use. He was symbolized there by a large open coffin with the terminally ill in the scene “The Plague Sufferers”.

See also


Works cited

  • Boccaccio: Il Decamerone . A German translation of the introduction, from which the above quotations come, can be found at .
  • Matteo Villani: Cronica di Matteo Villani. Volume 1, Chapter 4.


  • Hans-Peter Becht: Medical implications of historical plague research using the example of the "Black Death" of 1347/51. In: Bernhard Kirchgässner, Jürgen Sydow (Hrsg.): City and health care. (= City in History. Volume 9) Sigmaringen 1982, pp. 78–94.
  • Ole J. Benedictow: The Black Death 1346-1353. The Complete History. The Boydell Press, Woodbridge 2004, ISBN 0-85115-943-5 (English).
  • Klaus Bergdolt : The black death in Europe. CH Beck, Munich 1994; 3rd edition ibid 2011, ISBN 978-3-406-62365-3 .
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  • Heinz Jürgen Bergmann: “So I won the one man mark”. The plague tract of Jakob Engelins von Ulm. (= Studies on medieval plague literature. Volume 2). Medical dissertation Bonn 1972. Commissioned by the publishing house Königshausen & Neumann, Würzburg. See also Heinz Jürgen Bergmann: New finds on Jakob Engelin's plague tract of Ulm. In: Sudhoff's archive. Volume 62, 1978, pp. 282-293.
  • Neithard Bulst : The Black Death. Demographic, economic and cultural-historical aspects of the plague catastrophe from 1347–1352: Balance of recent research. In: Saeculum. Volume 30. 1979, ISSN  0080-5319 , pp. 45-67.
  • Norman F. Cantor: In the Wake of the Plague - The Black Death and the World it made. London 1997, ISBN 0-7434-3035-2 (English).
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  • Gerhard Fouquet, Gabriel Zeilinger: Disasters in the late Middle Ages. WBG (Scientific Book Society), Darmstadt 2011, ISBN 978-3-534-24699-1 , pp. 103-125.
  • Egon Friedell : Cultural History of the Modern Age. The crisis of the European soul from the black plague to the First World War. Beck, Munich 1996, ISBN 3-406-40988-1 .
  • Robert Gottfried: The Black Death. Natural and human disaster in medieval Europe. Hale, London 1983, ISBN 0-7090-1299-3 (English).
  • František Graus : Plague - Geissler - Murder of Jews. The 14th century as a time of crisis. Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, Göttingen 1987, ISBN 3-525-35622-6 .
  • Bernhard Dietrich Haage: The rhyming plague regime of the Codex Sangallensis 1164 and his clan. Metamorphoses of a plague poem. (= Studies on medieval plague literature. Part 5) Horst Wellm Verlag, Pattensen, now at Königshausen & Neumann, Würzburg, 1977 (= Würzburg medical-historical research. Volume 8).
  • Alfred Haverkamp : The persecution of the Jews at the time of the Black Death in the social fabric of German cities. In: Alfred Haverkamp (Ed.): On the history of the Jews in Germany in the late Middle Ages and early modern times. Hiersemann, Stuttgart 1981, ISBN 3-7772-8112-3 .
  • David Herlihy: The Black Death and the Transformation of Europe. Berlin 1997, ISBN 3-8031-3596-6 .
  • Robert Hoeniger : The Black Death in Germany. A contribution to the history of the fourteenth century. Eugen Grosser, Berlin 1882; Reprint: Sendet, Walluf near Wiesbaden 1973, ISBN 3-500-26350-X .
  • Kay Peter Jankrift: Illness and Medicine in the Middle Ages. Scientific Book Society, Darmstadt 2003, ISBN 3-534-15481-9 .
  • Stefan Leenen, Alexander Berner, Sandra Maus, Doreen Mölders: Plague! A search for clues. (= Accompanying volume for the exhibition in the LWL Museum for Archeology , September 20, 2019 - May 10, 2020). wbg Theiss, Stuttgart 2019, ISBN 978-3-8062-3996-6 .
  • William Hardy McNeill : Epidemics make history. Scourges of the peoples. frimer, Munich 1976, ISBN 3-7906-0079-2 .
  • Claudia Eberhard Metzger, Renate Ries: Misunderstood and insidious - The unbroken power of epidemics. Birkhäuser, Basel a. a. 1996, ISBN 3-7643-5399-6 .
  • William Naphy, Andrew Spicer: The Black Death. Magnus Verlag, Essen 2003, ISBN 3-88400-016-0 .
  • Norbert Ohler : Dying and Death in the Middle Ages. Patmos, Düsseldorf 2003, ISBN 3-491-69070-6 .
  • Gernoth Rath: The plague. In: Ciba magazine. Volume 73, No. 7. Wehr (Baden) 1955, pp. 2405-2436.
  • Jacques Ruffié, Jean-Charles Sournia: The epidemics in human history. Klett-Kotta, Stuttgart 1987, 1991, DTV, Munich 1993, ISBN 3-423-30066-3 .
  • Michael Schaper: The plague. Life and Death in the Middle Ages. (= GEO epoch. No. 75). Gruner + Jahr, Hamburg 2015, ISBN 978-3-652-00444-2 .
  • Sue Scott, Christopher Duncan: Return of the Black Death: The World's Greatest Serial Killer. John Wiley & Sons, Canada 2004, ISBN 0-470-09000-6 .
  • Barbara Tuchman : The distant mirror - the dramatic 14th century. Claasen, Düsseldorf 1980, ISBN 3-546-49187-4 .
  • Manfred Vasold: The spread of the black death in Germany after 1348. In: Historical magazine. Volume 277, 2003, ISSN  0018-2613 , pp. 281-308.
  • Manfred Vasold: Plague, hardship and severe plagues. Plagues and epidemics from the Middle Ages to the present day. CH Beck, Munich 1991, ISBN 3-406-35401-7 .
  • Millard Meiss : La Peinture à Florence et à Sienne après la peste noire. Hazan, 2013, ISBN 978-2-7541-0640-5 .
  • Joseph P. Byrne: Encyclopedia of the Black Death. ABC-CLIO, 2012, ISBN 978-1-59884-253-1 .

Web links

Commons : Black Death  - collection of images, videos and audio files


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  18. Philip Alcabes: Dread - How Fear And Fantasy Have Fueled Epidemics From the Black Death to Avian Flu . PublicAffairs books, 2009, ISBN 978-0-7867-4146-5 , p. 26.
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  24. ^ Kathryn Jean Lopez: Q&A with John Kelly on The Great Mortality on National Review Online . September 14, 2005. Archived from the original on February 16, 2012. Retrieved on November 8, 2016.
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