When was Europe first discovered?

The Black Death - the plague rages in Europe

In search of the origin

It took people a long time to figure out what to do to stop the spread of the disease - and around a third of Europe's population died in the first five to six years.

The people of the Middle Ages did not yet know where the plague came from, which is why many theories arose: Bad winds, an unfavorable constellation of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn or the contaminated water were blamed in many places for the eerie new disease.

Those responsible for the contaminated water were quickly found: the Jews were accused of having poisoned wells and were then persecuted, expelled or murdered across Europe.

Skeptics noticed that the Jews also fell ill and died of the plague, but they couldn't do much: entire Jewish quarters were burned down and their residents murdered - in Cologne, for example, there were estimates at least 800 victims.

The plague spread across Europe

There had been plague epidemics long before the 14th century. In Constantinople, today's Istanbul, the disease had broken out again and again - until it disappeared for several hundred years. Around 1347 the "Black Death" came to Central Europe - presumably on ships from the Middle East.

The port city of Caffa on the Crimean Peninsula, today's Feodosija in Ukraine, was one of the most important trading colonies in Genoa at that time.

From there the plague spread through trade routes in Europe. Among others, France, England, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Poland, Finland and finally even Greenland were affected.

Many people fled the affected cities in a panic, which made the epidemic all the faster. An estimated one third of the European population died of the plague between 1347 and 1353. There are no really reliable numbers of victims, the estimates vary between 20 and 50 million deaths.

Bloodletting and herbs as antidotes

In the Middle Ages, people did not know of any effective remedy for the plague. The sick were often bled: blood was drawn from them by cutting into a vein, usually in the upper arm.

Other sick people were given emetics or enemas. Today it is known that these measures did more harm than good to already weakened patients.

To protect themselves, people wore scarves or masks over their faces. They also tried to fight the disease by burning fragrant woods and herbs and spraying vinegar or rose water, but this was unsuccessful.

Isolation and quarantine

Initially, the sick were taken to local hospitals without any special precautions, and the dead were buried normally. The houses of plague sufferers were later marked with a cross, and those affected had to move to compulsory shelters outside the cities.

As the number of deaths increased, the plague spread fear and terror among the people. As a result, sufferers were often abandoned by their own families and friends. Even clergymen refused to help.

It was only after several hundred thousand people had died that it became clear that the spread of the disease could be contained by isolating the sick. Around 1423, long after the spread of the epidemic had reached its peak, the first plague hospital in Europe was located on an island near Venice.

A quarantine station was also set up on a Venetian island. Since the Venetians suspected a connection between the plague and shipping traffic, travelers who came from polluted cities were initially under observation for 40 days.

For this time they had to stay on the island of Lazzaretto Nuovo in the Venetian lagoon. The term "quarantine" arose from this period of isolation, because "quaranta" is the Italian word for 40.

Diseases and beliefs

For the people of the Middle Ages, illnesses were above all a punishment from God. Therefore, during great epidemics, the veneration of certain saints such as the Virgin Mary or that of the plague saint Sebastian increased. People also made more pilgrimages to holy places.

Some believers began to scourge themselves: they wandered around for days, beating themselves bloody in the meantime. With these measures they wanted to atone for their sins and make sure that they would have it good in the hereafter.

The church's indulgence trade also increased enormously during the plague. With the help of indulgences, people were able to buy themselves free from their sins and thus also from the cleansing process of purgatory for a certain period of time.

In 1894 the riddle of the plague was solved

The plague pathogen was only discovered in 1894 by the Swiss doctor Alexandre Yersin. Today we know that the plague is a bacterial infectious disease that was transmitted to fleas and humans in the Middle Ages mainly by rats and other rodents.