As you can imagine, in the 1300s there was no understanding of how these plagues occurred. No one knew how disease spread. The healers of the time were lost, and there was nothing the government could do, they were helpless. So people turned to astrology, earthquakes and other wild theories. Although their thinking might seem a bit dull from our technological vantage point, if you were cold, starving hungry and half of your family had died, you might well start thinking in tangents.
One facet of human nature that reared its ugly head was that of persecution. Any outsider group could suddenly find themselves blamed for the plague at the drop of a hat. The Jews, as ever, got a rough time of it and were blamed for the plague in many towns. Many said the Jews had poisoned the wells and in the towns of Mainz and Cologne the entire Jewish population was obliterated. Others who got the blame included friars, foreigners, beggars, pilgrims, lepers, Roma and even people who suffered from acne and psoriasis.
No one was safe.
The death toll is difficult to know precisely, records weren’t kept very neatly back then, especially in poorer areas and countries. If you lived in isolated communities you had a better shot at survival, in a town you were doomed, probably 50/50. In countries like France and Spain where the plague ran for four consecutive years, it may have killed off as much as 75-80% of the population.
This flourish of the plague was by no means the end of this strain either. It recurred across Europe up until the 17th Century, killing as it travelled. Between 1346 and 1671 there was a plague outbreak every year somewhere in Europe. Where did Yersinia pestis go? Well, it never really went away. Around 100 people a year are still killed by the bug. Thankfully our modern doctors have a vaccine, but it doesn’t work immediately so wouldn’t help in an epidemic. So we’re not out of the woods yet…
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