During the 14th Century, more than a third of Europe’s population was decimated due to what is now considered to be the worst pandemic in history, the Black Plague – also colloquially referred to as Black Death. The ghastly stories of souls perishing in the most disgustingly graphic manner possible has fed the imagination of many horror writers, and have been the stuff of nightmares for centuries.
Considering the medical advancements made in our lifetime alone, it might be difficult to imagine the scope of the Black Plague’s destruction. But massive tomes and artworks were produced during that era, now acting as a visual reference for the disease’s numerous horrors. The malady would make itself known once extremities turned black, tumors the size of apples would appear, and the victims would begin vomiting blood. That’s all before things got downright ugly.
The following are some of the creepiest aspects to have emerged from its aftermath, tracing the nightmarish effects of the Black Plague on the population. Definitely don’t read if you have an overactive imagination!
1. People “Found” Religion
Perhaps one of the cruelest characteristics of the plague was not even related to its gruesome impact on the body. Instead, it took a heavy toll on people’s psyche, as they were confronted with an unfathomable darkness for which they were entirely unprepared. Superstition gave way to the Middle Ages’ version of conspiracy theories. Some took to blaming everything from rats – which at least bore some scientific merit – to, unfortunately, minority groups such as the Jews.
However, these superstitions gave way to full-blown religious hysteria. Many thought the Black Plague was god’s wrath made manifest; punishment for their sins. Radical religious practices were undertaken, most notably self-flagellation in public squares. Walking through the town squares of Europe in the 14th Century was to be introduced to a litany of human woe and misery. Religious fundamentalists wandered the streets, screaming of the impending apocalypse and god’s rage at their sins. Those suffering with the disease, sometimes including their families, were left to starve as part of the plague’s ripple effects on the economy, entirely forsaken as darkness ravaged much of the continent.
With all the religious fervor, many would confess their sins, even minor infractions, as a way to ward off the horrors of the plague. Others would take to secluding themselves in churches entirely, in the hopes of escaping the gruesome realities around them. Others still took to blaming the prevalence of witchcraft and women, since the majority of the dead were men. Thus, the public displays of whipping of oneself or others were incredibly prevalent, as a kind of bloody penance for the worst disease ever seen.
2. Destruction of Societal Pleasantries
Given the Black Plague’s tremendous effects on society, the trouble posed by religious zealots were the least of their worries. The environment practically invited an “each man for himself ethos,” and citizens actively avoided one another. Popular poetry and stories from the day paint a picture of a society being ripped apart at the seams. Neighbors slamming the door in each other’s face when asked for help, and relatives almost never visiting each other. People became more and more isolated, and a truly apocalyptic wave of doom took over countries as the plague quickly spread. Terror was struck in the hearts of men and women, so much so that a wife would abandon her husband, a brother his sister, and so on. Perhaps even more tragically, parents refused to treat their plague-stricken children, and would leave them for dead.
This meant that hundreds – if not thousands – of sick men and women were left without care, except for, perhaps, the charity of friends. However, greed supersedes everything else, and more often than not, servants would steal from their employers – or, vice versa, in that employers would immediately order the killing of their sick servants.
To top it all off, there was a kind of bookend to the religious mania of the time, as looser morals also prevailed. Feeling that they were already forsaken, people didn’t just steal from one another to save themselves, but they also apparently had no qualms about sleeping with one another, or taking advantage of the meek. There are several disturbing accounts of incest, rape, and other bizarre sexual proclivities openly taking place as the Black Plague ravaged much of Europe. Indeed, it saw the destruction of society in more ways than one.
3. Mass Burials
Modern human history is rife with post-WWII images of mass graves in the light of the Holocaust and other man-made genocides and atrocities. However, perhaps the first known “trend” of mass burials can be traced to the Black Plague. The pandemic saw the death of millions of citizens, and the supply of cemeteries could not meet the demand.
The plight of the peasantry and what could now be referred to as the middle classes were especially tragic. Since they did not have the means to prevent catching the disease, and no one to care for them, people fell ill by the thousands. Some, out of sheer desperation, would commit suicide in the streets. Others, unable to even leave the sanctity of their homes, would die alone – the only thing alerting neighbors to their death was the stench emanating from their decaying bodies.
Death filled every corner, as corpses were left to rot in the open. Porters who were willing would be paid enormous sums just to carry these bodies using wagons as a means of transporting the dead bodies in the streets, or go door to door collecting the dead, and taking them to local churches. At some point, the number of the dead brought to churches every other hour was far too many to be given a proper burial. And since whole families were wiped out, the family graves were already overflowing. Perhaps the saddest part is, because the cemeteries were all full, huge trenches needed to be dug up, so that hundreds of bodies could be buried all at once – there was no time for each soul to be given their burial rights.
4. The Rise of Quarantines
The term “quarantine” – which basically refers to the exclusion and isolation of those coming from infected regions, or others suspected of carrying the plague to avoid mixing with the population at large – was coined in the early 15th Century, as a way to describe a practice that had become commonplace during the Black Plague. Horrifying quarantines were set-up by governments as a kind of interim camp for those who were ill, or suspected of falling ill with the plague. People would remain there, in ghastly conditions, with barely any proper sustenance or care for 40 days – a period which, in and of itself, had biblical connotations. Some people would be driven to utter madness by the harsh conditions. Others, of course, would die, whether due to having caught the plague, or any other gruesome disease in the bacteria-ridden close quarters of a quarantine.
A Test of Faith
The sudden and seemingly inexplicable rise of the plague in Europe did not just lead to millions of deaths, it also tested the beliefs of many, as the church had no official explanation for why such a disastrous “event” would occur. While the ravages of the disease itself are bloody and gruesome – some of the surviving paintings and artworks from the era make leprosy seem like a small mercy – the Black Plague threatened to tear apart the entire social fabric of Europe and parts of the Middle East. It is still referred to as one of the darkest hours in human history, with so many lost souls left forsaken. And the living remained to pick up the pieces.