During the fourteenth century, Europe faced one of the worst tragedies of its time. A mysterious plague claimed millions of lives, cutting Europe’s population into half of what it was. Historians today call this catastrophe the Black Death. Many people know little about the Black Death but to understand its significant role in history, one must know its early origins, rapid spread, painful symptoms, and devastating effects.
The Black Death started its rage in the year 1347, but it is hard to know exactly where and how it originated (Dunn 12). Even today, there are differing theories on how the plague became so violent. However, the history leading up to the outbreak of plague gives clues about the Black Death’s origin. First of all, the plague of the fourteenth century might not have been altogether something new (Zahler 28). Even in the biblical times, plague could have already been present. The Bible speaks of instances where people suffered boils on their bodies. In Exodus, God sends a plague of boils to the Egyptians to punish the stubborn Pharaoh for keeping the Israelites in bondage. Some evidence was even found of this plague in ancient Egypt. An archaeologist found an Egyptian medical text of 1500 B.C. called the Ebers Papyrus, describing a disease with symptoms of boils, which modern scientists think to be plague (Zahler 28). Later on in the Old Testament, the first book of Samuel also gives mention of a plague that the Philistines had where boils covered their bodies (Zahler 28). These boils mentioned were likely identical to buboes, one of the apparent symptoms of the Black Death.
Moving on in history, in the year 541 A.D., the first recorded plague pandemic occurred (Zahler 29). During this time, the Byzantine Empire, which was ruled by Justinian I, included parts of northern Africa, Greece, Italy, Spain, and much of the Middle East (Zahler 29). The port city Constantinople, with a population of half a million, was the capital of this empire (Zahler 29). Justinian commanded grain from Egypt to be imported to feed the population of Constantinople, but along with the grain came black rats and their fleas, which were infected with plague believed by historians to have originated in Egypt or Ethiopia (Zahler 29). In 541, the plague arrived in Constantinople and started its killing, spreading its reach to as far north as Denmark (Zahler 30). At the height of the outbreak, over five thousand people died per day (Zahler 30). Procopius, a historian of the time, wrote about the outbreak:
During that time it seemed no easy thing to see any man in the streets of Byzantium [Constantinople], but all who had the good fortune to be in health were sitting in their houses, either attending the sick or mourning the dead. And if one did succeed in meeting a man going out, he was carrying one of the dead. (Zahler 30)
The plague got so bad that in Constantinople, people would wear nametags when they went out so if they suddenly died, their bodies would...