History Foundation Module: What was the Black Death

St Roch with marks of the plague

What was the Black Death? The answer – as every schoolchild knows – is simple: the Black Death was the bubonic plague (or Yersinia Pestis to give it its scientific name). It’s a belief not confined to school children. Lots of websites – and lots of serious history books – confidently tell us that the disease which spread through Europe in the late 1340s and early 1350s was none other than Y. Pestis. How could it be anything else? The painful buboes – or gavoccioli (swellings in the groin and neck) – that were mentioned so frequently by observers in the mid-fourteenth century are surely some of the strongest indicators we have that bubonic plague was responsible for the worst catastrophe in human history.

However, students on Andy Croll’s foundation history module, ‘The Black Death: A Medieval Disaster’, have been looking afresh at some of the primary evidence from the mid-fourteenth century as well as considering some of the latest research by scientists and historians of medicine. Whilst many chroniclers mentioned buboes and painful swellings, we’ve seen how many didn’t. Likewise, we’ve seen how the Black Death spread far more quickly than Y. Pestis spread in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and how top scientists from Oxford failed to find DNA evidence of Yersinia in the teeth and bones of Black Death victims exhumed from five mass graves. The death rate of the fourteenth-century disease was also much higher than the modern form of bubonic plague.

So, just what was the Black Death? Experts put forward a number of possibilities ranging from anthrax through to haemorrhagic plague. It could be that the Black Death was an earlier, more deadly, form of bubonic plague that has since mutated. Or it could be that whatever was responsible for millions of deaths in the medieval period has itself died out. Whatever the answer, it’s clear that we have to read our primary sources with much more care than was hitherto the case. One gavocciolo does not make a bubonic plague epidemic.