Weird History
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How You Could Have Survived The Black Plague

Updated July 19, 2019 115.0k views14 items

The Black Death was a devastating epidemic, taking around 50 million lives, or more than half of Europe's population. After the first major outbreak in 1348, the plague continued to return for centuries, with outbreaks occurring in Europe through the middle of the 17th century. People infected with the plague had a 4-in-5 chance of succumbing to their symptoms, making it one of the most devastating diseases in human history. In the face of the epidemic, medieval plague doctors tried - and usually failed - to save lives. Some cities instituted quarantines to stop it from spreading. Venice sent victims to an isolated location called Poveglia Island where many spent their final days. Milan sealed up plague victims and their living relatives in their homes.

People who survived the plague inherited a better world, where living standards increased and life expectancy grew higher. In fact, the effects of the Bubonic plague on modern culture are surprisingly positive. So, how could you survive the plague? While many methods promoted by European doctors didn't help much, there were several ways to increase your chances of living through history's worst epidemic.

  • Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Avoid Urban Centers

    Rats carried fleas infected with the plague into Europe's cities. Major cities like Florence and Siena lost at least 60% of their population during the epidemic. Cities had a higher mortality rate because crowded areas helped the spread of the disease.

    As Dr. Tim Brooks, an expert in diseases at Public Health England explains, the plague could spread pneumonically from person to person, and "[I]n the right social conditions, with the right circumstances to bring humans and rats together, and in a society where caring for relatives and neighbors was the thing, you get bubonic plague, followed by pneumonic plague."

    Infected people spread their disease unknowingly because fleas would jump from them to any healthier host within a two-meter radius. Avoiding other people ended up being one of the best strategies for survival. 

  • Photo: D. Small / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Wall Up And Isolate Any Houses With Signs Of Infection

    The plague was incredibly dangerous, with an astonishing 80% mortality rate. Some cities chose draconian approaches to limit the spread of disease, including walling up houses that showed signs of infection. In Milan, for example, which had a population of 100,000, the ruling Visconti family ordered authorities to wall up the homes of plague victims, trapping both infected and uninfected people inside.

    Some Milanese even sealed up their own family members with plague victims, almost guaranteeing their demise. As gruesome as the practice was, Milan had the lowest mortality rate of any Italian city at just 15%. 

  • Photo: Nicolas Poussin / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Avoid The Remains Of Plague Victims

    One Florentine chronicler wrote, "All the citizens did little else except to carry bodies to be buried." Mass burial sites haunted the chronicler, who wrote of layers of victims and dirt, "just as one makes lasagne with layers of pasta and cheese."

    Exposure to plague victims, even after they have passed, could spread the disease. When some Florentines abandoned the remains of their loved ones, tossing them into the street without burial, Boccaccio complained about the lack of mourners or funerals. But avoiding the remains of plague victims was a solid survival strategy. 

  • Photo: James le Palmer / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Sit Alone Within A Ring Of Fire

    The epidemic took a huge toll on the Catholic Church. In Avignon, where Pope Clement VI lived, a third of the cardinals succumbed to the illness; however, Clement survived. The pope may have lived because of his doctors' recommendation to sit surrounded by fire. Even in the summer, Clement followed the advice, which may have prevented plague-carrying fleas from reaching him.

    The flames may have also kept infected people from coming too close to Clement - and kept rats away, as well.