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Geography in the News: The Black Plague

Black Plague Gravesites Uncovered Excavations in the spring of 2013 for London’s Crossrail, a large railway project under constructions in the city, uncovered a series of graves from the 14th century thought to be people who died of the Black plague. This terrible disease ravaged the cities of Europe during this periodic killing an estimated...

Black Plague Gravesites Uncovered

Excavations in the spring of 2013 for London’s Crossrail, a large railway project under constructions in the city, uncovered a series of graves from the 14th century thought to be people who died of the Black plague. This terrible disease ravaged the cities of Europe during this periodic killing an estimated 20 million and sending city dwellers fleeing to the countryside.

Because so many died so quickly from the plague, most bodies were buried in mass graves. The Crossrail excavation, however, uncovered an organized gravesite. The find leads researchers to hypothesize that, even in the midst of widespread panic and overwhelming conditions associated with the plague, a few cemeteries were planned to accommodate the dead.

The plague in Europe first appeared in the port of Messina, Sicily, in the fall of 1347, arriving on a fleet of trading ships from the Black Sea. People meeting the ships were horrified to see most of the sailors either dead or dying from a mysterious ailment. Most were covered in black boils oozing blood, thus giving the disease the name, the “Black Death.” The ships were ordered back to sea, but it was too late.

The disease had arrived in China, India, Persia and Egypt five or so years earlier, but because communication was so slow, there were only rumors about it in Europe in 1347. When the plague entered Europe’s teeming population, it ultimately killed one-third of its people.

The disease was horrifyingly efficient. Even seemingly perfectly healthy men, women and children were reported to go to bed at night and be dead by morning. The symptoms—in addition to the boils—included high fever, chills, vomiting, diarrhea and debilitating pains. Black Plague could be transmitted through the coughs and sneezes of infected individuals, but the most efficient distribution of the disease occurred through insect bites, most commonly by fleas.

Most of the fleas transmitting the plague came from infected rats. Rats commonly traveled aboard trading ships from port to port and they inhabited the densely packed European cities, many of which were ports.
The port cities of Marseilles, France, and Tunis, North Africa, followed Messina, as the disease quickly spread to other ports, then to inland cities. By 1348—just one year after it arrived in Messina—the Black Death had spread to Paris and London.

The bacillus (bacteria) associated with the plague was not identified until French biologist Alexandre Yersin discovered it in the late 1800s and named it Yersina pestis. In addition to affecting humans, the disease can infect a host of warm-blooded animals, including horses, cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and chickens, as well as ground squirrels and chipmunks.

City dwellers whom fled to the country to avoid the disease often carried infected fleas with them, introducing the plague to farm animals and families. Nobody seemed immune from this awful disease, as even doctors and clergy abandoned their duties to minister to the population.

The huge numbers of people dying from the plague across Europe necessitated that most burials were in mass graves. In fact, records indicate that official ceremonies quickly ceased as any contact with the dead bodies—even of loved ones—carried the danger of contracting the disease.

Within a few years, the Black Death ran its course in Europe. There have been occasional outbreaks since, but nothing approaching that of the 1340s. Better sanitation practices and attention to vermin extermination helped halt the disease.

According to the World Health Organization, “There are seven countries, namely Brazil, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Madagascar, Myanmar, Peru, United States of America, and Viet Nam which have been affected by plague virtually every year during the last 44 years.” There is an average of seven cases per year occurring in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), mostly related to fleas from ground squirrels in the western states.

gitn_1193_NGS Plague
Source: Geography in the NewsTM

Antibiotics have lessened the death toll of the plague. Nonetheless, many continue to die in developing countries. Because the disease’s symptoms occur so rapidly, infected individuals often have little time to reach medical care. Between 1,000 and 2,000 deaths per year are reported in Africa.

While the Black Plague continues to kill in developing countries, its impact is nothing like that seen in Europe in the 1300s. London’s Crossrail excavations have revived widespread interest in Europe’s legendary bout with the Black Death.

And that is Geography in the NewsTM

Geography in the NewsTM
–>Sources: GITN 1193 Excavation Sheds Light on the Black Death, April 12, 2013;;;;;; and

Co-authors are Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor.

Geography in the NewsTM  is solely owned and operated by Neal Lineback for the purpose of providing geographic education to readers worldwide.


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Meet the Author

Neal Lineback
Neal Lineback has written weekly Geography in the News (GITN) articles for more than 25 years (1,200 published articles) while he was Chair of Geography and Planning at Appalachian State University and since. In 2007, he brought his daughter Mandy Gritzner in as a co-author. She is also a geographer with a graduate degree from Montana State University. GITN has won national recognition and numerous awards from the Association of American Geographers, the National Council for Geographic Education and Travelocity, among others..