The Black Death was one of the deadliest plagues the world has ever seen. It claimed the lives of anywhere from 30% to 60% of Europe’s population and killed an estimated 100 million people worldwide. Despite this there is still much that is unknown about the Medieval plague and there are many pervasive myths about the plague that continue to this day. Some myths about the Black Death have persisted for over a century and others have only recently been understood. While the Black Death may have wiped out Europe centuries ago, today it barely makes the news when someone contracts the disease as it is no longer a death sentence. In fact, with modern medicine it has become quite rare for someone to die from the Black Death.
“Black Death” Does Not Refer to the Blackened Flesh of its Victims
One of the pervasive myths about the Black Death is that the name is descriptive, in that it describes what happens to the victims. This belief has continued throughout the years because it is quite fitting. One of the effects of the bubonic plague is that it causes acral gangrene which in turn causes parts of the body to turn black. Another is red spots that appear on the skin and eventually turn black. The spots would grow in size and number until they covered large portions of the body. The victim would die two to seven days after the initial infection.
Given that those who contracted the disease turned black as they died and that there was no cure, it made sense that the disease would be referred to as the “Black Death.” However, the term Black Death did not even arise during the same time period as the plague. The plague was rampant throughout Europe in the 14th century but it was not until the 16th century that the term “Black Death” was used to describe it. The real reason for the name was a choice of translators who were translating a 14th century poem that referenced the plague.
In 1350 the Flemish astrologer Simon de Covinus described the plague that ravaged his country. He wrote a poem which he entitled “mors atra.” The title could be translated two different ways either as “Black Death” or “Terrible Death.” The translators, for whatever reason, decided interpret the title as “Black Death” and from there the infamous plaque got the name for which it is best known. The name took on quickly and it would eventually be a way for historians to differentiate between the medieval plague of the 14th century and the Great Plague of 1665 which devastated England.