The Black Death: an essay on traumatic change


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  • All authors 1. International University of Altdorf.

The Journal of Psychohistory , 01 Jan 2009 , 36(3): 249-259 PMID: 19235361 


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Research interests: psychology (), publisher: the journal of psychohistory, publication date: 2009, publication name: the journal of psychohistory, research interests: christianity , history , social change , life style , medieval islamic history , and 10 more medicine , humans , child , psychohistory , europe , child abuse , plague , historical studies , child rearing , and life change events ( medicine , humans , child , psychohistory , europe , child abuse , plague , historical studies , child rearing , and life change events ), publication date: 2006, publication date: 2008, publication name: journal of psychohistory, research interests: psychology and psychohistory (), research interests: christianity , social change , life style , medieval islamic history , humans , and 7 more child , europe , child abuse , plague , historical studies , child rearing , and life change events ( child , europe , child abuse , plague , historical studies , child rearing , and life change events ), publication name: the journal of psychohistory.

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Black Death

By: Editors

Updated: March 28, 2023 | Original: September 17, 2010

Black Death

The Black Death was a devastating global epidemic of bubonic plague that struck Europe and Asia in the mid-1300s. The plague arrived in Europe in October 1347, when 12 ships from the Black Sea docked at the Sicilian port of Messina. People gathered on the docks were met with a horrifying surprise: Most sailors aboard the ships were dead, and those still alive were gravely ill and covered in black boils that oozed blood and pus. Sicilian authorities hastily ordered the fleet of “death ships” out of the harbor, but it was too late: Over the next five years, the Black Death would kill more than 20 million people in Europe—almost one-third of the continent’s population.

How Did the Black Plague Start?

Even before the “death ships” pulled into port at Messina, many Europeans had heard rumors about a “Great Pestilence” that was carving a deadly path across the trade routes of the Near and Far East. Indeed, in the early 1340s, the disease had struck China, India, Persia, Syria and Egypt.

The plague is thought to have originated in Asia over 2,000 years ago and was likely spread by trading ships , though recent research has indicated the pathogen responsible for the Black Death may have existed in Europe as early as 3000 B.C.

Symptoms of the Black Plague

Europeans were scarcely equipped for the horrible reality of the Black Death. “In men and women alike,” the Italian poet Giovanni Boccaccio wrote, “at the beginning of the malady, certain swellings, either on the groin or under the armpits…waxed to the bigness of a common apple, others to the size of an egg, some more and some less, and these the vulgar named plague-boils.”

Blood and pus seeped out of these strange swellings, which were followed by a host of other unpleasant symptoms—fever, chills, vomiting, diarrhea, terrible aches and pains—and then, in short order, death.

The Bubonic Plague attacks the lymphatic system, causing swelling in the lymph nodes. If untreated, the infection can spread to the blood or lungs.

How Did the Black Death Spread?

The Black Death was terrifyingly, indiscriminately contagious: “the mere touching of the clothes,” wrote Boccaccio, “appeared to itself to communicate the malady to the toucher.” The disease was also terrifyingly efficient. People who were perfectly healthy when they went to bed at night could be dead by morning.

Did you know? Many scholars think that the nursery rhyme “Ring around the Rosy” was written about the symptoms of the Black Death.

Understanding the Black Death

Today, scientists understand that the Black Death, now known as the plague, is spread by a bacillus called Yersinia  pestis . (The French biologist Alexandre Yersin discovered this germ at the end of the 19th century.)

They know that the bacillus travels from person to person through the air , as well as through the bite of infected fleas and rats. Both of these pests could be found almost everywhere in medieval Europe, but they were particularly at home aboard ships of all kinds—which is how the deadly plague made its way through one European port city after another.

Not long after it struck Messina, the Black Death spread to the port of Marseilles in France and the port of Tunis in North Africa. Then it reached Rome and Florence, two cities at the center of an elaborate web of trade routes. By the middle of 1348, the Black Death had struck Paris, Bordeaux, Lyon and London.

Today, this grim sequence of events is terrifying but comprehensible. In the middle of the 14th century, however, there seemed to be no rational explanation for it.

No one knew exactly how the Black Death was transmitted from one patient to another, and no one knew how to prevent or treat it. According to one doctor, for example, “instantaneous death occurs when the aerial spirit escaping from the eyes of the sick man strikes the healthy person standing near and looking at the sick.”

How Do You Treat the Black Death?

Physicians relied on crude and unsophisticated techniques such as bloodletting and boil-lancing (practices that were dangerous as well as unsanitary) and superstitious practices such as burning aromatic herbs and bathing in rosewater or vinegar.

Meanwhile, in a panic, healthy people did all they could to avoid the sick. Doctors refused to see patients; priests refused to administer last rites; and shopkeepers closed their stores. Many people fled the cities for the countryside, but even there they could not escape the disease: It affected cows, sheep, goats, pigs and chickens as well as people.

In fact, so many sheep died that one of the consequences of the Black Death was a European wool shortage. And many people, desperate to save themselves, even abandoned their sick and dying loved ones. “Thus doing,” Boccaccio wrote, “each thought to secure immunity for himself.”

Black Plague: God’s Punishment?

Because they did not understand the biology of the disease, many people believed that the Black Death was a kind of divine punishment—retribution for sins against God such as greed, blasphemy, heresy, fornication and worldliness.

By this logic, the only way to overcome the plague was to win God’s forgiveness. Some people believed that the way to do this was to purge their communities of heretics and other troublemakers—so, for example, many thousands of Jews were massacred in 1348 and 1349. (Thousands more fled to the sparsely populated regions of Eastern Europe, where they could be relatively safe from the rampaging mobs in the cities.)

Some people coped with the terror and uncertainty of the Black Death epidemic by lashing out at their neighbors; others coped by turning inward and fretting about the condition of their own souls.


Some upper-class men joined processions of flagellants that traveled from town to town and engaged in public displays of penance and punishment: They would beat themselves and one another with heavy leather straps studded with sharp pieces of metal while the townspeople looked on. For 33 1/2 days, the flagellants repeated this ritual three times a day. Then they would move on to the next town and begin the process over again.

Though the flagellant movement did provide some comfort to people who felt powerless in the face of inexplicable tragedy, it soon began to worry the Pope, whose authority the flagellants had begun to usurp. In the face of this papal resistance, the movement disintegrated.

How Did the Black Death End?

The plague never really ended and it returned with a vengeance years later. But officials in the port city of Ragusa were able to slow its spread by keeping arriving sailors in isolation until it was clear they were not carrying the disease—creating social distancing that relied on isolation to slow the spread of the disease.

The sailors were initially held on their ships for 30 days (a trentino ), a period that was later increased to 40 days, or a quarantine — the origin of the term “quarantine” and a practice still used today. 

Does the Black Plague Still Exist?

The Black Death epidemic had run its course by the early 1350s, but the plague reappeared every few generations for centuries. Modern sanitation and public-health practices have greatly mitigated the impact of the disease but have not eliminated it. While antibiotics are available to treat the Black Death, according to The World Health Organization, there are still 1,000 to 3,000 cases of plague every year.

Gallery: Pandemics That Changed History



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Plague: A Very Short Introduction (1st edn)

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3 (page 35) p. 35 Big impacts: the Black Death

  • Published: March 2012
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‘Big impacts: the Black Death’ explains how the contention that major epidemic disasters changed the course of historical events — the ‘Great Disaster’ interpretations of history — leaves too much out of the account. Focusing on the second pandemic in Europe, and on the Black Death which initiated it, it describes the effect of the disease on human behaviour and explains how it might well appear to have reshaped the course of European history. However, it does not seem to have been plague alone which determined population trends in the fifteenth century. It is impossible to attribute everything to plague in explaining long-term and large-scale economic and social change.

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Topics on Black Death to Inspire You

Black Death Essay Topics

Occasionally, maybe in movies, history books, novels, or plays, you might have probably encountered the term Black Death. Of course, it brings to mind the pain, grim memories, and suffering in ancient times. Talk of chaotic mass graves, madness-allover, and devastation in the medieval city, there were many catastrophic effects of the Black Death.

Not even modern science has unearthed the casualties of the Black Death epidemic. However, there are claims and anecdotal evidence to suggest that it killed nearly twice as many people like those who lost their lives to World War II.

Could there at least be positive consequences you may ask? Well, maybe this list of Black Death essay topics will tell us more. If you come across bubonic plague essay topics, they are the same thing. However, for now; be our guest. In a few minutes as we take you through different categories of Black Death, essay topics.

What is the Black Death?

The Black Death was an epidemic that killed upward of one-third of the population of Europe between 1346 and 1353 (more on proportional mortality below). The Black Death was the Great Plague of 1665, which by some estimates killed fifteen to twenty percent of the population in certain locales.

Surprisingly, the medieval European social-demographic system rebounded from the Black Death. A common misconception is that black refers to skin discolorations accompanying the disease. However, Black is meant in the metaphorical sense of terrible. It is what we know as pestilence, in modern times.

If you are confused about the best Black Death essay thesis, find out more about Black Death by reading:

  • Sample black death essay
  • Sample Black Death book review of Black Death : The book is The Black Death, 1346:1353: The complete history by Ole J. Benedictow.

Our writers can also help you come up with a Black Death thesis statement that will catch the eyes of your professor. Talk to us.

Cause and Effects Topics on the Bubonic Plague

  • The impacts of the Black Death in the emancipation of the European counties post the pandemic period.
  • The main effects of the bubonic plague in China
  • The causes and effects of the Black Death
  • The role of Black Death in Protestant Reformation, a cause and consequences analysis
  • Did the pandemics during medieval times affect the genes of Europeans
  • Myths surrounding the Black Death
  • Impacts of Black Death on Western Civilization
  • Black Death and Religion
  • The economic consequences of the Black Death
  • How black death affected Feudalism
  • Impacts of Black Death on society
  • Social Responses to the Black Death
  • How black death affected families
  • The consequences of the Black Death on international relations
  • Did the Black Death lead to the strengthening of medical research?
  • The consequences of the bubonic plague on the European Export market
  • Black Death as the genesis of the end of the Middle Ages
  • Impacts of the Black Death on the Industrial Revolution
  • Cultural and Spiritual consequences of the Black Death in the late Middle Ages
  • Factors that led to the spread of the Black Death in Europe
  • The genesis of the Black Death
  • The impacts of Black Deaths on Disease Control and Emergency Management
  • The impacts of the Black Death on immigration

Related Reading: Argumentative essay topics and ideas.

Compare and Contrast Black Death Topics

  • Can Black Death be equated to Ebola or Coronavirus outbreak?
  • Compare the management of the bubonic plague and a devastating international communicable disease outbreak (Zika Virus, Ebola, Coronavirusetc.)
  • Compare the impacts of the Black Death on urban and rural populations
  • Compare and contrast pneumonic plague and the bubonic plague
  • Compare the position of the Catholic and Protestant churches pre-and post-bubonic plague
  • Compare and contrast the perception of the Black Death among different cultures
  • Compare and contrast modern and medieval definition and control of the bubonic plague
  • Compare and contrast black death and smallpox
  • How were the Great Plague and Black Death Similar?
  • Black Death Vs. Ebola outbreak
  • Justinian plague vs. Bubonic Plague

Expository Topics on Black Death/Bubonic Plague

  • Black Death in London
  • Black Death in India
  • What caused the Black Death?
  • Life during the Black Death
  • Religious effects of Black death
  • How Black Death inspired art
  • Black death and its impact on agriculture and architecture
  • How the black death changed medicine
  • How did the Black Plague end?
  • What were the perceptions of people on the Black Death?
  • Bulbous Plague
  • Positive impacts of Black Death
  • Social effects of Black Death
  • Bubonic Plague in New York
  • How the Black Death affected Trade
  • Was Black Death a hemorrhagic fever?
  • Black Death and the Magna Carta
  • Septicemic plague and treatment approaches
  • How the Black Death response changed Emergency Response by nations
  • Etiology of the Black Death
  • White Penitents movement during the 17th-century pandemics
  • Quarantine strategies used by Medieval cities during the Black Plague
  • Does bubonic plague pose danger to modern society?
  • Hypotheses of the Medieval people on the cause of Black Death
  • Symptoms and progression of the Black Death
  • Why Black Death stopped
  • Is the black plague the first biological weapon?
  • Main victims of persecutions during the pandemics
  • Origins of the names Great Plague and Black Death
  • The image of a plague doctor in modern pop culture
  • Flagellants and the interpretation of Black Death
  • How Medieval Europe could have managed the bubonic plague
  • Italian cities' response to the Black Plague
  • Black Death and Slavery
  • Cultural effects of the Black Plague

English and Literature Topics on Black Death

  • Influence of black death on medieval literature
  • Canterbury tales of the black death
  • The Influence of the Black Death on Medieval Literature and Language
  • Analysis of Science, Alchemy, and the Great Plague of London by Scott Shelly
  • The symbolism used in the painting Plague by Arnold Böcklin.
  • Analysis of The Black Death poem by Matthew Henning
  • Famous Black Death Paintings
  • Black Death and Renaissance beliefs on death
  • Black Death artifacts
  • Famous poems about Plagues
  • Guillaume de Machaut's Poem Jugement dou and Black Death

Important Books the Document the Black Death

  • The Plague Pamphlets of Thomas Dekker By Thomas Dekker; F. P. Wilson
  • Plagues, Healers, and Patients in Early Modern Europe by Eamon, William
  • Hunting the Double Helix: How DNA Is Solving Puzzles of the Past by Anna Meyer
  • The Black Death in Egypt and England: A Comparative Study by Stuart J. Borsch
  • The Later Middle Ages, 1272-1485 by George Holmes
  • Plantagenet England, 1225-1360 by Michael Prestwich
  • The Story of Rats: Their Impact on Us, and Our Impact on Them by S. Anthony Barnett
  • The Black Death: An Essay on Traumatic Change by Atlas, Jerrold
  • Plague Bug Wasn't All That Fierce: DNA Analysis Suggests Living Conditions Fed Black Death by Bascom, Nick
  • What a Pest: Why the Black Death Still Won't Die by Anthes Emily
  • Historical Dictionary of Late Medieval England, 1272-1485 by Ronald H. Fritze and William B. Robison
  • The Black Death: The Greatest Catastrophe Ever: Ole J. Benedictow Describes How He Calculated That the Black Death Killed 50 Million People in the 14th Century, or 60 percent of Europe's Entire Population by Benedictow, Ole J
  • The Prospect of Global History by James Belich ; John Darwin; Margret Frenz; Chris Wickham
  • Events That Changed Great Britain, from 1066 to 1714 by Frank W. Thackeray; John E. Findling
  • Science, Alchemy, and the Great Plague of London by Scott Shelley
  • The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio
  • Death and the Pearl Maiden: Plague, Poetry, England by David K. Coley
  • The Black Death by Rosemay Horrox
  • Encyclopedia of the Black Death, Volume 1 , by Joseph Patrick Byrne

Parting Shot!

There you have it; these are some of the most common Black Death essay topics. However, we have twisted them around wittingly to help you write the best outlines for your term papers, thesis, research papers, and short essays on Black Death. If you have gone through the list and you feel like it is too much grim to write a paper on, we can help. You can order an essay online from us and we will assign the best writer. Gradecrest is the ultimate best when it comes to English essay writers !

the black death an essay on traumatic change by jerrold atlas

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