1902 Encyclopedia > Plague > History of the Plague

(Bubonic Plague; Black Death; etc.)
(Part 8)

History of the Plague

The first historical notice of the plague in contained in a fragment of the physician Rufus of Ephesus, who lived in the time of Trajan, preserved in the Collection of Oribasius. [Footnote 164-1] Rufus speaks of the buboes called pestilential as being specially fatal, and as being chiefly in Libya, Egypt, and Syria. He refers to the testimony of a physician Dionysius, who lived probably in the 3d century B.C. or earlier, and to Dioscorides and Posidonius, who fully described these buboes in a work on the plague which prevailed in Libya in their time. Whatever the precise date of these physician may have been, this passage shows precise date of these physicians may have been, this passage, shows the antiquity of the plague in northern Africa, which for centuries was considered as its home. The great plague referred to by Livy (1x., Epitome) an dmore fully by Orosius (Histor., iv. 11) was probably the same, though the symptoms are not recorded. It is reported to have destroyed a million of persons in Africa, but is not stated to have passed into Europe.

It is not till the 6th century, of our era, in the reign of Justinian that we find bubonic plague in Europe, as a part of the great cycle of pestilence, accompanied by extraordinary natural phenomena, which lasted fifty years, and is described with a singular misunderstanding of medical terms by Gibbon in his forty-thired chapter. The descriptions of the contemporary writers Procopius, Evagrius, and Gregory of Tours, are quite unmistakable.[Footnote 164-2] The plague of Justinian began at Pelusium in Egypt in 542 A. D. ; it spread over Egypt, and in the same or the next year passed to Constantinople, where it carried off 10,000 persons in one day, with all the symptoms of bubonic plague. It appeared in Gaul in 546, where it is described by Gregory of Tours with the same symptoms as lues inguinaria (from the frequent seat of buboes in the groin). In Italy there was a great mortality in 543, but the most notable epidemic was in 565, which so depopulated the country as to leave it an easy prey to the Lombards. In 571 it is again recorded in Liguria, and in 590 a great epidemic at Rome is connected with the pontificate of Gregory the Great. But it spread in fact over the whole Roman world, beginning in maritime towns and radiating inland. In another direction it extended from Egypt along the north coast of Africa. Whether the numerous pestilences recorded in the 7th century were the plague cannot now be said ; but it is possible the pestilences in England chronicles by Bede in the years 664, 672, 679, and 683 may have been of this disease, especially as in 690 pestis inguinaria is again recorded in Rome. For the epidemics of the succeeding centuries we must refer to more detailed works.[Footnote 164-3]

It is impossible, however, to pass over the great cycle of epidemics in the 14th century known as the Black Death. Whether in all the pestilences known by this name the disease was really the same may admit of doubt, but it is clear that in some at least it was the bubonic plague. Contemporary observes agree that the disease was introduced from the East; and one eye-witness, Gabriel de Mussis, an Italian lawyer, traced, or indeed accompanied, the march of the plague from the Crimea (whither it was said to have been introduced from Tartary) to Genoa, where with a handful of survivors of a Genoese expedition he landed probably at the end of the year 1347. He narrates how the few that had themselves escaped the pest transmitted the contagion to all they met. Other accounts, especially old Russian chronicles, place the origin of the disease still further to the east in Cathay (or China), where with a handful of survivors of a Genoese expedition he landed probably at the end of the year 1347. He narrates how the few that had themselves esc aped the pest transmitted the contagion to all they met. [Footnote 164-4] Other accounts, especially old Russia chronicles, place the origin of the disease still further to the east in Cathay (or China), where, as is confirmed to some extent by Chinese records, pestilence and destructive inundations are said to have destroyed the enormous number of thirteen millions. It appears to have p assed by way of Armenia into Asia Minor and thence to Egypt and northern Africa. Nearly the whole of Europe was gradually overrum by the pestilence. It reached Sicily in 1346, Constantinople, Greece, and parts of Italy early in 1347, and towards the end of the year Marseilles. In 1348 it attacked Spain, northern Italy and Rome, eastern Germany, many parts of France including Paris, and England; from England it is said to have been conveyed to the Scandinavian countries. In England the western counties were first invaded early in the year, and London in November. In 1349 we hear of it in the midlands; and in subsequent years, at least till 1357, it prevailed in parts of the country, or generally, especially in the towns. In 1352 Oxford lost two-thirds of her academical population. The outbreaks of 1361 and 1368, known as the second and third plagues of the reign of Edward III, were doubtless of the same disease, though by some historians not called the black death. Scotland and Ireland, though after later affected, did not escape.

The nature of this pestilence has been a matter of much controversy, and some have doubted its being truly the plague. But when the symptoms are fully described they seem to justify this conclusion, one character only being though to make a distinction between this and Oriental plague, viz., the special implication of the lungs as shown by spitting of blood and other symptoms. Guy de Chaulic notes this feature in the earlier epidemic at Avignon, not in the later. Moreover, as this complication was marked feature in certain epidemics of plague in India, the hypothesis has been framed by Hirsch that a special variety of plague, pestis Indica, still found in India, is that which overran the world in the 14th century. But the same symptoms (haemoptysis) have been seen, though less notably, in the plague epidemics, even in the lastest, that in Russia, in 1878-79 and, moreover, according to the latest accounts, are not a special feature of Indian plague. According to Surgeon-General Francis (Trans. Epidem. Soc., vol v. p. 398) "haemorrhage is not an ordinary accompaniment" of Indian plague, though when seen it is the form of haemoptysis. It seems, therefore, impossible to make a special variety of Indian plague, or to refer the black death of any such special form. Gabriel de Mussis describes it even in the East, before its arrival in Europe, as bubonic disease.

The mortality of the black death was, as is well known, enormous. It is estimated in various parts of Europe at two-thirds or three-fourths of the population in the first pestilence, in England even higher, but some countries were much less severely affected. Hecker calculates that one-fourth of the population of Europe, or 25 millions of persons, died in the whole of the epidemics. It is hardly necessary to dwell upon the social results of this terrible mortality. In England great part of the country remained untilled, and the deficiency of labourers was such as to cause a sudden rise of wages, which, in spite of attempts to check it by legislation, is thought to have effected the final emancipation of the labouring class. On the other hand a great transfer of property to the church took place, with what results is well known.

In the 15th century the plague recurred frequently in nearly all parts of Europe. In the first quarter it was very destructive in Italy, in Spain (especially Barcelona and Seville), in Germany, and in England, where London was severely visited in 1400 and 1406, and again in 1428. In 1427 80,000 persons died in Dantzic [Danzig] and the neighbourhood. In 1438–39 the plague was the Germany, and its occurrence at Basel was described by Aenas Sylvius, afterwards Pope Pius II. In 1448–50 Italy (Kircher), Germany (Lersch, from old chronicles), France, and Spain were ravaged by a plague supposed to have arisen in Asia, scarcely less destructive than the black death. England was probably seldom quite free from plague, but the next great outbreak is recorded in 1472 and following years. In 1466 40,000 persons died of plague in Paris; in 1477–85 the cities of northern Italy were devastated, and in 1485 Brussels. In the fifteenth year of Henry VII (1499–1500) a severe plague in London caused the king of retire to Calais.

The 16th century was not more free from plague than the 15th. Simultaneously with a terrible pestilence which is reported to have nearly depopulated China, plague prevailed over Germany, Holland, Italy, and Spain in the first decade of the century, and revived at various times in the first half. In 1529 there was plague in Edinburgh; in London in 1537-39, and again 1547-48 ; and also in the north of England, though probably not absent before. Some of the epidemics of this period in Italy and Germany are known by the accounts of eminent physicians, as Vochs, Fracastor, Mercurialis, Borgarucci, Ingrassia, Massaria, Amici, &c.,[Footnote 164-5] whose writings are important because the question of contagion first began to be raised, and also plague had to be distinguished from typhus fever, which began in this century to appear in Europe.

The epidemic of 1563-64 in London and England was every severe, a thousand dying weekly in London. In Paris about this time plague was an everyday occurrence, of which some were less afraid than of a headache (Borgarucci). In 1570 200,000 persons died in Moscow and the neighbourhood, in 1572 50,000 at Lyons; in 1568 and 1574 plague was at Edinburgh, and in 1570 at Newcastle. When, however, in 1575 a new wave of plague passed over Europe, its origin was referred to Constantinople, whence it was said to have spread by sea to Malta, Sicily, and Italy, and by land through the Austrian territories to Germany. Others contended that the disease originated locally; and, indeed, considering previous history, no importation of plague would seem necessary to explain its presence in Europe. Italy suffered severely (Venice, in 1576, lost 70,000); the north of Europe not less, though later; London in 1580-82. In 1585 Breslau witnessed the most destructive plague known in its history. The great plague of 1592 in London seems to have been a part of the same epidemic, which was hardly extinguished by the end of the century, and is noted in London again in 1599. On the whole, this century shows a decrease of plague in Europe.

In the first half of the 17th century plague was still prevalent in Europe, though considerably less so than in the Middle Ages. In the second half a still greater decline is observable, and by the third quarter the disease had disappeared or was disappearing from a great part of western Europe. The epidemics in England will be most conveniently considered in one series. From this time onwards we have the guidance of the "Bills of Mortality" issued in London, which, though drawn up on the evidence of ignorant persons, are doubtless roughly true. The accession of James I in 1603 was marked by a very destructive plague which killed 38,000 in London. In this and subsequent years the disease was widely diffused in Englamd -- for instance, Oxford, Derbyshire, Newcastle. It prevailed at the same time in Holland, and had done so some years (1603) one million persons are said to have died of plague in Egypt. This plague is said to have lasted eight years in London. At all events in 1609 we have the second great plague year, with a mortality of 11,785. After this there is a remission till about 1620, when plague again began to spread in northern Europe, especially Germany and Holland, which was at that time ravaged by war. In 1625 (the year of the siege of Breda in Holland) is the third great London plague with 35,417 deaths, -- though the year 1624 was remarkably except, and 1626 nearly so. In 1630 was the great plague of Milan, described by Ripamonti. [Footnote 165-1] In 1632 a severe epidemic, apparently plague, was in Derbyshire. 1636 is the fourth great plague, year in London with a mortality of 10,400, and even in the next year 3082 persons died of the same disease. The same year 7000 out of 20,000 inhabitants of Newcastle died of plague; in 1635 it was at Hull. About the same time, 1635–37, plague was prevalent in Holland, and the epidemic of Nimeguen is celebrated as having been described by Diemerbroeck, whose work (Tractatus de Peste, 4to, 1641-65) is one of the most important on the subject. The English epidemic was widely spread and lasted till 1647, in which year, the mortality amounting to 3597, we have the fifth epidemic in London. The army diseases of the Civil Wars were chiefly typhus and malarial fevers. But plague was not unknown among them, as at Wallingford Castle (Wills, "Of Feavers," Works, ed. 1681, p. 131) and Dunstar Castle. From this time till 1664 little was heard of plague in England, though it did not cease on the Continent. In Ireland it is said to have been seen for the last time in 1650. [Footnote 165-2]

In 1656 one of the most destructive of all recorded epidemics in Europe raged in Naples; it is said to have carried off 300,000 persons, in the space of five months. It passed to Rome, but there was much less fatal, making 14,000 victims only -- a result attributed by some to the precautions and sanitary measures introduced by Cardinal Gastaldi, whose work, a splendid folio, written on this occasion (Tractatus de avertenda et profliganda peste politicoligalis, Bologna, 1684) is historically one of the most important on the subject of quarantine, &c. Genoa lost 60,000 inhabitants from the same disease, but Tuscany remained untouched. The comparatively limited spread of this frightful epidemic in Italy at this time is a most noteworthy fact. Minorca is said to have been depopulated. Nevertheless the epidemic spread in the next few years over Spain and Germany, and a little later to Holland, where Amsterdam in 1663–64 was again ravaged with a mortality given as 50,000, also Rotterdam and Haarlem. Hamburg suffered in 1664.


164-1 Lib. xliv.cap. 17, -- Oeuvres de Oribase, ed. Bussemaker and Daremberg, Paris 1851, vol. iii. p. 607.

164-2 Evagrius, Hist. Eccles., iv. 29 ; Procopius, De Bello Persico, ii. 22, 23.

164-3 See Noah Webster’s History of Epidemic Diseases, 8vo, 2 vols., London, 1800 (a work which makes no pretension to medical learning, but exhibits the history of epidemics in connexion with physical disasters, as earthquakes, famines, &c.); Lersch, Kleine Pest-Chronik, 8vo, 1880 (a convenient short compendium, but not always accurate); "Athanasii Kircheri Chronologia Pestium" (to 1656 A.D.), in Scrutinium Pestis (Rome, 1658), Leipsic [Leipzig], 1671, 4to; Boscome, History of Epidemic Pestilences, London, 1851, 8vo. The most complete medical history of epidemics is Haeser’s Geschichte der epidemischen Krankheiten (3rd edition, Jena, 1882), forming the third volume of his History of Medicine.

164-4 See the original account reprinted with other documents in Haeser, op. cit.; also Hecker, Epidemics of the Middle Ages, trans. by Babington, Sydenham Soc., London, 1844 ; Volkskrankheiten des Mittelalters, ed. Hirsch., Berlin, 1865; R. Hoeniger, Der Schwarze Tod in Deutschland, Berlin, 1882.

164-5 Vochs, Opusculum de Pestilentia, 1537; Fracastorius, "De Contagione, &c.," Opera, Ven., 1555; Hieron. Mercurialis, De Peste, praesertim de Veneta et Patavina, Basel, 1577; Prosper Borgarutius, De Peste, Ven., 1565, 8vo ; Filippo Ingrassia, Informatione del pestifero morbo…Palermo e…Regno di Sicilia, 1575 –76, 4 to, Palermo, 1576-77; A. Massaria, De Peste, Ven., 1597; Diomedes Amicus, Tres tractatus, Ven., 1599, 4to; Victor de Bonagentibus, Decem Problemata de Peste, Ven., 1556, 8vo ; Georgius Agricula, De Peste libri tres, Basel, 1554, 8vo. The works of English physicians of this period are of little medical value; but Lodge’s Treatise of the Plague (London, 1603) deserves mention

165-1 Josephus Ripamontius, De Peste anni 1630, Milan, 1641, 4to.

165-2 For this period see Index to Remembrancia in Archives of City of London, 1579–1664, Lond., 1878; Richardson, Plague and Pestilence in North of England, Newcastle, 1852.

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