|The Rose Files
True Scary Stories from Life
| The Plague!
~ Rose Titus ~
“Go back to Pharaoh,” the Lord commanded Moses, “and tell him… the Power of God will send a
deadly plague to destroy your cattle, horses, donkeys, camels, flocks, and herds… The Lord announced
that the Plague would begin the very next day, and it did.” From Exodus, the Old Testament.
Plagues have been a scourge upon civilization since ancient times, as anyone who has read history
will know. And perhaps the most well known plague was the Black Death, also known as Bubonic Plague,
for this era of horrible history is infamous for its death toll upon humanity.
So, dear readers… let’s find out more about the Black Death, also known as the Bubonic Plague!
The Black Death – so called because it would often cause a victim’s skin to have black spots – was
the most devastating plague in history. This tragedy happened in the 1340’s, and it was the cause of so
much death and destruction and misery, many people at that time believed it was the literal end of the
First, what caused the Plague?
Yersinia pestis, a bacterium discovered by the scientist Alexandre Yersin, was basically the cause of
the Plague. How did the Plague spread to humans? The bacterium would inhabit fleas, and the fleas
would live on the backs of rodents, and the rodents would invade villages, cities, towns, and homes where
unsuspecting people lived.
Today, the Plague can be defeated with antibiotics if given soon enough, but back in the bad old days,
people were totally helpless to stop it.
Let’s examine some of what may have brought the Plague on…
Medieval people lived in filthy conditions. In the streets of cities and villages, if an animal died, people
would just leave it to rot. The diseased and putrid carcasses of oxen, donkeys, and other creatures were
left to be picked over by little street urchins and starving peasants. The surgeon-barber (back then a
barber was also a surgeon!) would toss blood out into the streets also. The local town butcher would toss
out his gory refuse in a similar way. According to John Kelly, in his book, “The Great Mortality,” there were
“piles of hearts, livers, and intestines” accumulating around the butcher’s shop, of course attracting
disease carrying rats. Kelly also mentions the “greatest urban polluter” – the chamber pot! Not having
modern plumbing, medieval citizens would just toss their “stuff” out the window every day. It must have
been really unpleasant to walk or even breathe on those streets.
People themselves were in fact covered in their own dirt and filth during those times. Even though the
ancient Greeks and Romans took baths regularly, somehow medieval people just couldn’t figure this
cleanliness thing out. Most medieval people just never took a bath very often – some went their whole
entire lives without taking a bath!
The general state of horrid filthiness was like a neon sign inviting filthy rats and disease-ridden fleas to
come visit and stay a while.
Many outbreaks of the Plague began in coastal cities, where ships delivering merchandise would dock
and the infected rats would travel onboard the ships, bringing disease everywhere in the world the ships
went. Outbreaks started in Italy, North Africa, Spain, England, Scandinavia, Poland, Russia…
The Bubonic Plague affects the lymphatic system. The name comes from the Latin word bubo, which
means “swollen lymph node.” It can also then lead to septicaemic plague and pneumonic plague. It can
cause skin tissue to begin to die. There are also fevers, chills, and stomach pain. With pneumonic plague
victims have chest pain and trouble breathing.
Many people believed it was all a punishment from God. They built new churches, and some people
became “flagellants” – they believed that punishing themselves would stop the Plague. It didn’t work.
Some believed it was caused by the stars above and the movement of planets, and some people
simply believed the Plague was caused by “bad air.”
It is another unfortunate fact that medieval people were highly superstitious and many believed that the
Plague was caused by witches. And so what did they do? They killed vast numbers of cats, as cats are
associated with witches. This possibly made the situation worse, because cats kill rodents. If they had
been nicer to kitty, then the rat population would have been kept down. But the superstitious people
destroyed what was possibly their only defense against the Plague.
Besides blaming witches, people also put the blame on ethnic minorities and people with different
religious beliefs – the outsiders in medieval society. Many innocent people were burned at the stake.
This didn’t stop the plague either.
A familiar sight back then was the “plague doctor.” The plague doctor often wore a long robe that
covered his entire body, gloves, and a mask that had a birdlike beak. The “beak” was stuffed with herbs
believed to protect the doctor from the “bad air” that supposedly caused the Plague. This unusual clothing
was the “hazmat suit” of its day, and these doctors wore this strange outfit to protect themselves from
contact with their patients. They also carried a cane to examine patients without touching them.
Medieval doctors tried many cures – one involved strapping a live chicken to the patient, hoping the
disease would go out of the person and into the chicken. Nope, didn’t work. They tried powders and
potions and mixtures to cure the plague, none of it worked.
Historians believe that this Plague killed about 50 million people. There were so many deaths, it was
impossible to give people normal, decent burials. They dug “plague pits” for mass burials. Bodies were
just piled on top of each other.
People would go through villages with a horse drawn cart and call out, “Bring out your dead!” No,
Monty Python did not invent that – it was real.
In modern times, we know that diseases are caused by bacteria and viruses – not by witches, cats, an
angry God, or the supernatural. Yersinia pestis is still with us today, and it still does re-appear
occasionally, but fortunately it can be conquered with modern medicine.
Hopefully modern science will continue to defeat the many diseases that are a scourge on our society.
We now know what medieval people did not know – that cleanliness can save lives. Let’s all hope our
readers will be able to stay safe and well.
If you would like to learn more about the Plague, then check out these fascinating resources:
1. Abee, Holly, “Cats and the Black Plague,” Owlcation.com, February 4, 2010
2. Kelly, John, “The Great Mortality – An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating
Plague of All Time,” Harper Collins, 2005
3. Ferguson, Jonathan, “Beaky Blinders – In Search of the Plague Doctor,” Fortean Times, June
4. Krasner, Barbara, ”Bubonic Plague,” Raintree, 2019
5. Throp, Clair, “Deadly History – The Horror of the Bubonic Plague,” Capstone, 2018