The Black Death – the world’s worst case of the bubonic plague is one of the world’s most devastating pandemics. It has existed for thousands of years and had infected many countries and cities around the world.

The worst case was in the 1300s when the disease spread from Asia all the way over to Africa and Europe. It killed 33-40% of the European population, 35 million people in China, 40% of Egypt, and 1/3 of the Middle Eastern population. As many of the accounts and church records were inaccurate or were unreliable the true extent of deaths caused by the plague is likely to be much higher than written records indicate.

The towns had poor hygiene and sanitation and drinking water was often contaminated as a result of this.  It was common practice up until quite recently, to dispose of  waste directly onto the streets or into rivers. This combined with animals such as rats and mice living in huge numbers everywhere, as well as homeless people was a recipe for disaster. The situation was so dire that people abandoned their houses to try and stop the spread of disease.

As religion was a huge part of daily life, and people believed that the plague was a bad omen from God and that it was a punishment. Monasteries and churches were accused of greed and corruption and improper conduct and many priests and monks fled.

As there wasn’t enough space for the dead as it was, so many of the dead were heaped onto piles and burned, in hope to stop the spread of the disease.

The other way that the plague was spread through the air – thing is called pneumonic plague, but it is much less common.

The actual cause of the plague is a bacteria carried by rats. Then a flea will bite the rat and then a human and then the human becomes infected with the plague.

The most common symptoms of the plague are:

Black lumps/markings on the neck, groin or armpit areas – buboes



Muscle cramps/pains


General weakness


Abdominal pain


Nausea and vomiting

Extreme weakness

Bleeding (blood may not be able to clot)


Skin turning black (gangrene)

If anyone was found to have any of those symptoms they would be quarantined off. The victim and their family would be locked in their house with no way of escape, and a man would go around town in the middle of the night and paint a cross on the door.

After being infected with the plague many victims did not recover. They would die within a matter of days. The only people who didn’t die or weren’t infected had/developed a gene called CCR5 that meant that they can’t or are much less likely to die of the bubonic plague.

(Picture of Plague Doctor)

Plague doctors would dress in a bird mask that was filled with herbs, they wore a long cloak with a hood and shoes. Many of the cure were very drastic and nowadays would be extremely dangerous. They were easy to spot and had some pretty odd cures:

  • Eating cooked onions
  • Wash in your urine
  • Smear yourself in feces
  • In the 1361 – 1364 outbreak, doctors discovered that bursting the buboes was a helpful cure.
  • Eating or rubbing arsenic over your body
  • Eating crushed emeralds
  • Cleansing your house with herbs
  • Kill Jews
  • Eating ten-year-old/rotten treacle
  • Leeches and/or bloodletting to ‘let out the impure blood’.
  • Rub your wounds with a chicken bottom
  • Sitting in sewers
  • Sitting in a room between two large fires
  • Flagellants’ went on processions in the whipping themselves, to try and stop Gods wrath.
  • Aromatherapy or sniffing

The song ‘Ring around the rosy, A pocket full of posies, Ashes … ashes, We all fall down.’ is about the plague. Ring around the rosy means the rosy rash – a symptom of the plague, a pocket full of posies – to keep the ‘good’ air in, ashes … ashes – the burning bodies and we all fall down dead.

There have been many smaller cases around the world throughout history. The most well-known is the pandemic in the 1300s, but there have been cases in the 1617th centuries and even in the early-mid 20th century. There are still cases of the plague today, but it is very uncommon – with an average of only 2000 cases worldwide per year.


Which cure do you think would work best?