Gruesome details of the Black Death


Hi, 7E! You must wonder whether I’ve caught the bubonic plague myself, I’ve seen you so rarely lately. Today I have been bludgeoned (if that’s not too strong a word) into going to an in-service. That’s a day where teachers all sit around for hours talking about the future of education and other gruesome topics. I would much prefer to be in the classroom with you, telling you all the even more gruesome details of the Black Death. Since I’m absent, you’ll have to read about them below. I promise to be back tomorrow and not to accept any more forceful invitations to go to these conferences. Sigh.

Australia recently had a bit of a scare with the swine flu, but it has been much less dangerous than the Black Death in Europe in 1348. Mind you, we have been affected by serious flu viruses in the past. We have even had an outbreak of the Black Death, but this is not a virus; it is spread by bacteria. In 1900, 303 people in Sydney caught this disease and 103 died. By this stage in history people knew what caused the disease (unlike in 1348, when absurd and false theories abounded). A bounty was put on rats – sixpence a rat according to one Melbourne report. Poor and unemployed men became professional rat catchers. Here is a picture of them at work:

Professional rat catchers, Sydney 1900 © State of New South Wales through the State Records Authority of NSW'


This picture is copyright to the State of NSW and is kindly provided by the State Records Authority of NSW, who allow free dissemination of knowledge. I love public authorities with that kind of attitude. That pile in the middle is dead rats. Ewwwww….

Go to this link to view other fascinating and gruesome pictures, including closeups of rat heaps, quarantine areas being demolished, etc:

LINK: Pictures of the Bubonic Plague in Sydney (Make sure you click on the little pictures on the left in order to see the squalor in its full splendor.)

And marvellous Melbourne (or Smellbourne as one wag of the period called it) also suffered from a case of the disease; read about this mild case in Collingwood. The man who had the plague had a bubo and bacteriological examination established the nature of the affliction beyond doubt:

LINK: Case of the bubonic plague in Collingwood in 1900


Clipart of rat kindly provided by

Anyway, back to the Black Death. One-third of the people of Europe died from this disease – and that was only counting the first time it struck them. In 1348 it struck a population without any immunity at all, a little like smallpox striking the native populations of South America and Australia. The situation in medieval Europe made people particularly vulnerable to such a disease:

Sanitation was very bad. People didn’t know about bacteria and as you walked along streets you had to step over faeces. Cities stank. Rats and fleas were commonplace. Peasants expected to have fleas, for instance.

There was a great deal of poverty, malnutrition and poor health in a large percentage of the population. When the Black Death came it attacked a weakened population.The rate of mortality in untreated cases is reportedly around 40–60%. Presumably a healthy, well-fed person would have a better chance of survival than a poor, malnourished peasant – and Europe’s population was largely made up of poor, malnourished peasants.

Watch httpdesktoppubaboutcom free Watch pic kindly provided by

According to a book from our school library, “The Death” by Amanda Braxton-Smith, some historians believe, based on evidence from digs in Ireland, that the average lifespan in the Middle Ages could have been about 25 years. This evidence suggests over half the women were dead by the age of 35 and one-third of the population had died before the age of 14. Of course, this may not be true of Europe as a whole but it gives an insight into medieval life (and death).

To read about the mortality rate of the plague, go to the link below. You should be aware that just to complicate matters there were three kinds of plague, and the prognosis (likely medical outcome) for each was different.

LINK: Details of the plague’s mortality rate (with extra information about rats, fleas and so forth)

Medical knowledge, at least amongst Christians, was woeful. While Islamic physicians were quite scientific in their methods, Christian doctors were ignorant of anatomy and other vital information. The Church was partly to blame. It controlled what doctors learned and it didn’t allow dissection of bodies. This meant that in one French medical school, for instance, there was only one practical anatomy lesson in two years. An abdomen was opened and looked at; that was it. The prescriptions of doctors at the time of the plague were dangerous rather than therapeutic. (Read the examples further down.)

Another problem was that the Church viewed disease as a punishment for sin. Some people believed that if you had leprosy it had been brought on by too much lust. In such an environment of blame and ignorance, you can imagine that careful scientific examination and rigorous observation of symptoms would be uncommon.

If doctors were ignorant, then the rest of the population, mostly illiterate, was even more so. It was a very superstitious period and wild rumours and prejudices rapidly took hold. This meant that instead of doing useful things like quarantining people, cleaning up filthy areas and burning plague-infested areas (all done by the Sydney administration in 1900), medieval people often reacted by blaming the innocent.

800px-FrenchJews1 Wikimedia Commons from 1901-6 Jewish Encyclopedia***************

From Wikipedia Commons, originally from the Jewish Encyclopedia, 1901–1906, and now in the Public Domain; picture titled, “French Jews of the Middle Ages”

The Jews were one group who were accused of poisoning wells and infecting people with plague. They were massacred, tortured and even burned alive. It was horrific. Some writers believe it was the worst persecution of the Jews before the Nazis in the 20th century showed atrocious cruelty on an even greater scale and with all the technology of the modern world behind them.

Black_Death pd pic from wikimedia commons

“Woe is me of the shilling in the arm-pit; it is seething, terrible, wherever it may come, a head that gives pain and causes a loud cry, a burden carried under the arms, a painful angry knob…” – Jeuan Gethin (died 1349) – quoted in “The Death” by Amanda Braxton-Smith.

Picture in Public Domain from Wikimedia Commons. Check the buboes. The man in the background may be holding a bunch of herbs, which were erroneously thought to help ward off disease by filling the air or at least the person’s breathing space with healthy odours.

Some medieval ideas for dealing with the plague were:

Durer's Praying Hands by an unknown studentPeople should seclude themselves from others and stay away from the infected air. This wasn’t a bad idea, but it would have been difficult to put into practice. You can’t stay home for ever.

Durer's Praying Hands by an unknown studentPeople should burn scented woods to purify the bad air and fill their homes with pleasant-smelling plants and flowers.

Durer's Praying Hands by an unknown studentTranquility! Try to keep a tranquil mind while the world around you is ending.

Durer's Praying Hands by an unknown studentOpen and cauterize the buboes (burn them with a hot iron or caustic agent) and apply some substance to draw out the poison. One recipe for such a substance was a plaster made from gum resin, roots of white lilies and dried human excrement. Yurghh…

Durer's Praying Hands by an unknown studentTake soothing potions. Some of the recipes don’t sound very soothing though! Here was one: take an ounce (28 grams) of gold, 11 ounces of quicksilver, dissolve and let the quicksilver escape; add 47 ounces of water and drink. Somehow I doubt that many people would have had the wealth or resources to make this potion – which is just as well.

Book-animation-10 animated clipart netAnimated book kindly provided by


1. Go to the site below to discover what the three types of plague were. Make notes on each one: transmission, symptoms, prognosis (progress and likely outcome of illness), etc.

2. How did people react to the coming of the plague? Answer this quesiton by reading this famous document from the prologue to the great book, The Decameron, written by Giovanni Boccaccio at the time of the Black Death:

3. Leave a comment: what do you think you would do if your city were suddenly besieged by a killer disease? Would you party (because tomorrow you could die), would you hole up in your house, would you go and live in the country or would you meditate twice a day whilst thinking pure thoughts? I’m sure you have many ideas that are not amongst my suggestions! Write a comment about what you might do.

Frenetic typing student pic below kindly provided by

Computer-animation-9 animatedclipartnet4. Take the Diabolical Black Death Quiz, which is accurate and informative, at this site:

The tiny picture of Duerer’s “Praying Hands” that I have used as a bullet in the list of “remedies” above was drawn by a student of mine about 12 years ago. I am ashamed to say I cannot remember for sure which student it was, but I suspect it was a talented boy called Morgan. If so, I hope he does not object to the use of his beautiful drawing, which I photocopied at the time because I was so impressed. It was an appropriate “bullet” to use because prayer seemed the only recourse for people with the plague – and that, sadly, didn’t help either.

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12 Replies to “Gruesome details of the Black Death”

  1. If my city was overcome by a killer plague I would do all I could to help others and stay alive. There would prpbably be alot of BAD BAD stuff happening but I would try to help protect my family, friends and toher poeple. ^.^
    Hopefully that won’t happen!

  2. hi(:
    well, if melbourne was overcome by a plague like the black death, i would probably go out and party, or like skydive, or do something ive always been scared to do/couldnt afford to do, because what have you got to lose? i wouldnt cut off contact with the world just cause of some stupid plague. and anyway, im not really scared of death, as long as it doesnt hurt!

  3. If our city was overcome by a plague, then i would probably do something that i’ve never done before and something daring, or like, waste all my money to buy something cool! But then again, i wouldn’t want anyone else to catch it so i’d relax or stay at home a lot, and look after my family and friends 🙂

  4. hmm if our city was overcome by a plague i think i would do something that i would never do and party! i would also try to look after my family and friends that my have the flag. i think i would just have fun 😀

  5. If I knew i was going to die I would have as much fun as I could without infecting other people. I would stay in my house and talk to people on msn and facebook.

  6. i would…stay locked up in my house the whole time until it was totally cured. hehehe, i can just imagine that, lol 😛

  7. i would stay at home most of the day and write a diary to keep record of how bad it was and going out once a day to get supplies. I would also visit my friends and relatives to see how they were doing and if they were well. If it got to bad i would go to the country or go to Perth to live with my grandparents. WOW! Thats alot to do!:Dlol

  8. Hii Ms. Green (:

    If my city was infected by the plague, I would try to stay very clean, try to help as many people as I can, and if I was allowed, I would temporarily move to the countryside, where not many people live and hence there are less people to get infected from and to interact with.

  9. Well, i’d be kinda worried and confused, doubti t would happen. But me and my family would either, retreat to a safer place away from the rest of civilization, or stay locked up in our house until it is safe to leave…In the mean time i’d talk to steven on msn and do random quizzes to see who i will marry on facebook.

  10. mmhm, If i was already infected by the plague I would just do something I’ve always wanted to do or go somewhere i havent been to. ehehe, a crazy shopping spree would be cool. If i wasn’t infected, I would just stay homee and go on FACEBOOK 😀

  11. Well depending on how others reacted beacause if everybody was partying theni woul go out partyintoo beacuse there would be no use in trying to contain my self if everyone was just going mad. I would like most people do something i haden’t dared to do. Mabye even if it was illegal o.o Like under age sky diving o.0>>>> oh yea and help others 😀

  12. This is actually really old, but since I’m learning about the Black Death in history, I decided to read this from a very old website. However, I would not be able to do anything if I was infected with the Black Death. I would die anyway, and there would be no use for me to spread the disease by interacting with others. I would also like to disagree with a few of your students who are saying to ”help others”. In my history class, I was taught that the Black Death could also be caught by breathing in the way of a person who was infected. There is no use of interacting with people, if all you are going to do is infect them and cause them more distress.
    If anybody wants to contact me, message me on hangouts: or just email me.

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