The Plague That Shook Medieval Europe

The plague killed a third of Europe's population in three years. Burying the dead meant risking infection.
Unsanitary conditions spread the plague through Europe. Luckily for Rick, the disease was gone by the time he started his budget travels.
By Rick Steves

Ever wonder why we say, "God bless you" when someone sneezes? It's because of the bubonic plague. Throughout your travels in Europe, you'll see "plague monuments" — built by dazed, grateful survivors — in cities such as Siena, Prague, and Vienna.

The bubonic plague — or "Black Death" — killed as much as one-third of Europe's people in three long years (1347–1350). The disease spread quickly, leaving whole cities devastated in its wake. The plague killed with such power and swiftness that "the living could scarcely bury the dead." The resulting economic, physical, and emotional shock is unsurpassed in European history.

The plague migrated from Central Asia to Europe in 1347. The Mongols, who were besieging a Genoese trading town on the Black Sea, carried the plague. The clever Mongol commander catapulted diseased corpses into town and the sickness spread. One Genoese ship escaped, transporting its terrible cargo to Sicily. By 1348, the plague had spread through Italy, France, and all of Europe.

The disease is caused by a bacteria carried by fleas (which travel on rats). Humans get it when bitten by the fleas, and then spread it by coughing.

The symptoms were quick and harsh. The first sign was sneezing (hence, "God bless you"), followed by the appearance of lumps or "buboes" (hence, "bubonic"). Then came pneumonia and almost inevitably, death within three days. The disease was so infectious that it seemed impossible to avoid. Nothing could be done to help the afflicted, and they were abandoned by the healthy to avoid contagion.

The unsanitary conditions of medieval Europe allowed the disease to move rapidly northward. London, Vienna, Florence, and Avignon (the papal city at the time) were particularly hard-hit.

A few remote pockets in Europe escaped the Black Death, including Oberammergau in southern Germany. As the sickness claimed lives in nearby villages, the townspeople of Oberammergau prayed for mercy. If spared, they promised to put on a grand production every 10 years, depicting Christ's crucifixion. Oberammergau remained untouched, and the town has been holding a Passion Play each decade for over 300 years. In 2000, the last time it was performed, the play was sold out during its entire 100-day performance season.

During the plague, some fanatics thought worldwide repentance was necessary. They marched through cities, calling on citizens to join them as they scourged themselves with whips. In some areas, these groups became more popular that the priests, whose rituals had been powerless when faced with the Black Death.

The plague eventually became just a lingering memory in Europe's collective subconscious. The Italian writer Petrarch witnessed the horror of the plague years and correctly prophesied: "Oh, how happy will be future times, unacquainted with such miseries, perhaps counting our testimony as a mere fable!"

Strange as it may sound, some good came out of all the loss of life: a healthy economy that would support the Renaissance more than a century later. With fewer people, labor was scarce, and the common worker could demand a better wage. Technology itself was not been affected by the plague, but there were fewer people to divide the fruits of that technology.

Survivors went on one of history's great shopping sprees, trying to forget the horrors they'd seen. Luxury goods — fancy clothes, good food and drink, lavish houses, and entertainment — were in high demand. For the first time, the lower classes enjoyed such items as chairs, dishes, and fireplaces.