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The first recorded outbreak:
The first recorded epidemic ravaged the Byzantine Empire during the sixth century, and was named the Plague of Justinian after emperor Justinian I, who was infected but survived through extensive treatment. The epidemic is estimated to have killed approximately 50 million people in the Roman Empire alone. The historian Procopius wrote, in Volume II of History of the Wars, his encounter with the plague and the effect it had on the rising empire. In the spring of 542, the plague arrived in Constantinople, working its way from port city to port city and spreading through the Mediterranean, later migrating inland eastward into Asia Minor and west into Greece and Italy. Because the infectious disease spread inland by the transferring of merchandise through Justinian’s efforts in acquiring luxurious goods of the time and exporting supplies, his capital became the leading exporter of the bubonic plague. Procopius, in his work Secret History, declared that Justinian was a demon of an emperor who either created the plague himself or was being punished for his sinfulness.
The second recorded outbreak:
In the Late Middle Ages (1340–1400) Europe experienced the most deadly disease outbreak in history when the Black Death, the infamous pandemic of bubonic plague, hit in 1347, killing a third of the human population. It is believed that society subsequently became more violent as the mass mortality rate cheapened life and thus increased warfare, crime, popular revolt, waves of flagellants, and persecution.
The Black Death originated in or near China and spread from Italy and then throughout other European countries. Arab historians Ibn Al-Wardni and Almaqrizi believed the Black Death originated in Mongolia, and this was proven correct as Chinese records showed a huge outbreak in Mongolia in the early 1330s.
Research published in 2002 suggests that it began in the spring of 1346 in the steppe region, where a plague reservoir stretches from the northwestern shore of the Caspian Sea into southern Russia. The Mongols had cut off the trade route, the Silk Road, between China and Europe which halted the spread of the Black Death from eastern Russia to Western Europe.
The epidemic began with an attack that Mongols launched on the Italian merchant’s last trading station in the region, Caffa in the Crimea. In the autumn of 1346, plague broke out among the besiegers and from them penetrated into the town. When spring arrived, the Italian merchants fled on their ships, unknowingly carrying the Black Death. Carried by the fleas on rats, the plague initially spread to humans near the Black Sea and then outwards to the rest of Europe as a result of people fleeing from one area to another.
There were many ethno-medical beliefs for avoiding the Black Death. One of the most famous was that by walking around with flowers in or around their nose people would be able to “ward off the stench and perhaps the evil that afflicted them”. People believed the plague to be a punishment from God, and that the only way to be rid of the plague was to be forgiven by God. One such method used was to carve the symbol of the cross onto the front door of a house with the words “Lord have mercy on us”.
Pistoia, a city in Italy, even went as far as enacting rules and regulations on the city and its inhabitants to keep it safe from the Black Death. The rules stated that no one was allowed to visit any plague-infected area and if they did they were not allowed back into the city. Some other rules were that no linen or woollen goods were to be imported into the city and no corpses were to be buried in the city. However, despite strict enforcement of the rules, the city eventually became infected.
People who weren’t infected with the plague gathered in groups and stayed away from the sick. They ate and drank with limited food and water and weren’t even allowed oral communication because merely talking with one another increased the chance of passing on the disease.
While Europe was devastated by the disease, the rest of the world fared much better. In India, populations rose from a population of 91 million in 1300, to 97 million in 1400, to 105 million in 1500. Also sub-Saharan Africa remained largely unaffected by the plagues.
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Bubonic plague victims in a mass grave from 1720–1721 in Martigues, France
The next few centuries were marked by several localized or regional outbreaks of lesser severity. The Great Plague of Seville (1647), the Great Plague of London (1665-1666), the Great Plague of Vienna (1679), Great Baltic plague (1708-1712.) and the Great Plague of Marseille (1720), were the last major outbreaks of the bubonic plague in Europe
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