Did Plague Really Cause Black Death?
Dr Dorsey Armstrong
This film is actually a (free) 24-lecture course on the “Black Death,” a plague epidemic that recurred over approximately 300 years in medieval Europe. Given the COVID19 pandemic, the topic is of particular interest in 2020. The lecturer is Purdue Associate Professor of English and medieval literature Dr Dorsey Armstrong.
Personally I found the first nine lectures riveting. They become somewhat repetitive from lecture 10 on. I also highly recommend lecture 21, which covers the growing political-economic power experienced by the medieval peasantry (particularly women) with the loss of approximately 50% of Europe’s population to plague. Both Ciompi’s Rebellion (1378-1382) in Florence and the Peasants Revolt (1381) in England are discussed in extensive detail.
Despite my medical training, I had very little knowledge of plague prior to watching this series. I had no idea the disease first appeared in the 6th century in the Eastern Roman Empire and was considered pivotal in the ultimate fall of Rome.
I was also unaware that medieval plague appeared in three discrete forms, leading some modern scientists to speculate it may represent three distinct illnesses:
- Bubonic plague – characterized by “buboes” (severely inflamed lymph nodes). It had the lowest mortality rate (approximately 20%) and couldn’t be transmitted to other human beings unless the buboes were lanced. It could only be transmitted through flea bites of infected rats.
- Pneumonic plague – plague pneumonia, in which patients coughed up blood and easily transmitted it to other people. The mortality rate was nearly 100%.
- Septicemic plague – a hemorrhagic fever (like Ebola) resulting from Disseminated Intravascular Coagulation (DIC), a condition in which a patient’s blood can’t clot and they bleed from all their orifices and into subcutaneous tissues. Non-transmissible to other humans, it was 100% fatal.
The plague recurred in Europe 15 times, every decade or so. The last European outbreak ended in 1676. It would take 300 years for the continent to return to its pre-plague population of 150 million.
Yersinia pestis, the organism believed responsible for medieval plague, was first identified in 1896 in an epidemic occurring in India and China.
There are still periodic plague outbreaks in Asia and the Southwestern US. The disease responds well to antibiotics if recognized in time. Because it’s so rare, doctors sometimes misdiagnose it, and there are still deaths.
Anyone with a public library card can watch the course free on Kanopy. Type “Kanopy” and the name of your library into the search engine.