The recent announcement that Liberia has become Ebola-free got me to thinking of the formative role pandemics have played in European history.

The Black Death (or Bubonic Plague) was one of the most devastating events in human history. It resulted in the deaths of an estimated 75 to 200 million people—or 30%–60% of Europe’s total population—and peaked in the years 1346–53.  It took 150 years for Europe’s population to recover.

The Black Death is thought to have originated in the arid plains of Central Asia, from whence it then traveled along the Silk Road, reaching the Crimea by 1343. It was most likely carried from there through the Black Sea and Mediterranean by Oriental rat fleas living on black rats which were regular passengers on merchant ships. Modern analysis of DNA from the remains of victims in northern and southern Europe indicates that the pathogen responsible was the Yersinia pestis bacterium, probably causing several forms of plague.

The aftermath of the plague created a series of religious, social, and economic upheavals, which had profound effects on the course of European history. As an art history major when I was in college, I generally look at the visual record to see the impact of big events—which is why this post is once again a photo essay.

The plague repeatedly returned to haunt Europe and the Mediterranean throughout the 14th to 17th centuries. The plague was present somewhere in Europe in every year between 1346 and 1671, and occasionally until the 19th century.

The first North American plague epidemic was the San Francisco plague of 1900–04, followed by another outbreak in 1907–08. From 1944 through 1993, 362 cases of human plague were reported in the United States; approximately 90% occurred in four western states: Arizona, California, Colorado, and New Mexico. Plague was confirmed in the United States from 9 western states during 1995. Currently, 5 to 15 people in the United States are estimated to catch the disease each year—typically in western states; the disease is kept under control by the use of insecticides, antibiotics, and a plague vaccine.

However, the plague bacterium could develop drug-resistance and become a major health threat again.



child death.





black death 88.


plague doctor.



black-death 77.





Groove of the Day

Listen to Dead Can Dance performing “The Host of Seraphim”


Weather Report

86° and Clear to Partly Cloudy


1 Response to “pandemic”

  1. 1 Frank Manning
    May 17, 2015 at 5:40 pm

    Back in graduate school one of my colleagues posited a radical hypothesis correlating the Black Death, European witch hunts, and the changes in attitude toward abortion over the centuries. Whether it’s valid or not is up for debate, but it is nevertheless tantalizing. People who like conspiracy theories will love it! Here is the gist of his hypothesis.

    From the fall of the Roman Empire through the 14th century the population of Europe was relatively stable and in balance with the highly inefficient agricultural output of the feudal system based on serfdom. They achieved that demographic stability through abortions, which were quite common in that period. The medieval abortion providers were almost entirely midwives and female “healers”, especially the herb-savvy women who still secretly practiced the Old Religion. After the Black Death killed off up to half the population of most European countries, repopulation became a matter of national survival. So abortion was banned, and the abortion providers were branded as witches and ruthlessly exterminated. This, my colleague argued, was the origin of the witch hysteria in early modern Europe.

    Abortion again came into favor in the late 18th century but was outlawed again in the mid-19th century, when modern warfare began to require mass conscription into national armies. Having large families was touted as a patriotic duty in countries such as France and Germany, both of which lost about a million and a half men in World War I.

    Thus, my colleague concluded, first the Black Death and then the need for large armies of conscripted soldiers were the real reasons why abortion was outlawed for so long in Western society. I don’t fully agree with his thesis, but I think it dovetails nicely with this excellent post on the plague.

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