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Planet Earth's Worst Nightmare: How the Black Death Ravaged Humanity

A lack of medical knowledge, or even basic scientific awareness, helped spread the plague. The people of the Middle Ages certainly did not believe or even conceive of microscopic organisms capable of causing disease in human beings. As a result the entire epidemiological chain, from Yersinia pestis to Oriental rat fleas to rats and finally to humans, was incomprehensible. Humans instead blamed other sources, including miasma (bad air), foreigners, minority groups such as Jews and gypsies, and society’s general wickedness being punished by God.

The plague profoundly altered society. Society buckled as people at all levels, from nobles to peasants, died in large numbers. Renters died and were not replaced, weakening the power of the landed gentry. Peasant revolts took place in England, France, Belgium and Italy. Entire villages were wiped out. In many places, the plague killed healthy adults in largely agrarian communities, creating a shortage of food. People in plague-stricken zones avoided others, weakening the socioeconomic fabric of villages and communities.

Ironically, the plague did have some benefit. Plague survivors enjoyed a higher standard of living, due to a sudden overabundance of land and goods. Rigid societies became more flexible as deaths at the top encouraged upward mobility. A attitude of questioning authority and existing dogmas came into being, as a result of the church and state’s inability to contain the outbreaks. The plague is even credited for changing attitudes towards life and death, with the result that the wealthy became patrons of artists, writers and architects—the foundation of the Renaissance.

Outbreaks of the plague continued for the next three hundred years, including the Great Plague of London in 1665, which killed a quarter of the city’s population. Yet as widespread and deadly as it was, the plague never became a permanent resident of Europe. This and other factors, such as the unusual speed at which it spread and the lack of recorded rat die-offs, suggest to some scientists an Ebola-like hemorrhagic disease was actually responsible.

The Black Death was a tremendous tragedy for Europe, but it was also the impetus for societal upheaval. The Europe that emerged was traumatized but more dynamic than ever, set on a slow path of philosophical, scientific and geographic discovery that eventually spread worldwide. In a way, the survivors of the plague inoculated humanity against the future outbreaks of disease through the spread of science.

Kyle Mizokami is a defense and national-security writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in the DiplomatForeign PolicyWar is Boring and the Daily Beast. In 2009, he cofounded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch. You can follow him on Twitter: @KyleMizokami.

This first appeared several years ago.