The that killed such a huge proportion

The Black Death was an epidemic that killed upward of one-third of the population of Europebetween 1346 and 1353 (more on proportional mortality below).

The precise specificationof the time span, particularly the end dates, varies by a year or so, depending onthe source. A less severe (but still potent) follow-on epidemic in 1361, ostensibly of thesame disease, is, by convention, separate from the Black Death. A common misconceptionis that black refers to skin discolorations accompanying the disease. Black is meant in themetaphorical sense of terrible. In fact, the term “Black Death” was not used until the middleof the sixteenth century. Contemporaries called it the “pestilence”.

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The historical importance of an event that killed such a huge proportion of Europerequires little elaboration. Even by contemporary standards, the Black Death was shocking.Certainly, life in the fourteenth century was short from a modern perspective, but even1the worst mortality events in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, up to 1346, do notcompare to the Black Death. However, it is important to bear in mind exactly what thesemortality crises were during the end of the high middle ages, and in the early period ofthe late middle ages up to the Black Death. The 1290s witnessed numerous wheat failuresthroughout Europe, caused in the main by unfavorable weather, and the agricultural situationdid not improve in the early fourteenth century. Famine mortalities reached ten percentin some localities.

There are even reports by chroniclers of cannibalism, though these areregarded as apocryphal by some historians.Historians debate whether these stresses represented a true long-run Malthusian crisis.The counter-argument is that medieval agriculture was capable of feeding Europe, meteorologicalbad luck aside.

In any case, the hypothesis that the Black Death itself was aninevitable consequence of population pressure — that the Black Death was endogenous, ifyou will — is no longer well-regarded. The intercession of some external pathogen is nowregarded as a condition without which the Black Death would not have occurred. Just whatthat pathogen was, and from where it came, are debated to this day (cf. below).

Apart from the second plague (1361), the closest thing to a repeat of the Black Deathwas the Great Plague of 1665, which by some estimates killed fifteen to twenty percent ofthe population in certain locales. In modern times, the 1918–19 influenza pandemic comesto mind, and it killed more people than the Black Death because it was truly worldwide andbecause the twentieth century had much larger population denominators than the fourteenthcentury. The 1918–19 flu killed perhaps 2.5 percent of the world population — forpercentage mortality it doesn’t even come close to the Black Death. These comparisons aresomewhat arbitrary, as the Black Death struck Europe and western Asia, while the flu wasglobal, but it’s safe to say that the world has not experienced anything quite like the BlackDeath since the fourteenth century.


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