Theblack plague epidemic which reached Europe in 1348, called the Great Plague, was particularly devastating, wiping out some 25 million people, or a third of the European population at the time. Known for at least 3000 years, the plague is transmitted by certain insects, in particular the rat flea. Bubonic plague, in its most severe form, kills in four days. In France, this epidemic takes place in the dramatic context of the start of the Hundred Years War.
Previous black plague epidemics
Europe has already suffered two great waves of epidemics, in Antiquity and during the early Middle Ages (plague of Athens, between 430 and 427 BC, and plague of Constantinople, which began in 542 AD). Subsequently, the medieval West was repeatedly the victim of epidemics, especially leprosy, but by its spread and repetition, the Great Plague was a phenomenon of a scale unknown until then.
At the end of the 14th century, after a long phase of demographic growth, the European population entered a phase of stagnation. As in previous epidemics, undernourishment, famine and famine provide fertile ground for the spread of disease; overcrowding and living and hygienic conditions (especially in urban areas) only worsen the situation: bubonic plague (fatal in 80% of cases, transmitted to humans by rat fleas ) and pulmonary plague (fatal in almost all cases, contagious between humans) are wreaking havoc.
The arrival of the Great Plague in Europe
Part of Central Asia in the 1330s, the Great Plague or Black Death soon spread to China and India, following trade routes. At the end of 1347, contaminated rats infecting the holds of merchant ships, the disease spread to Marseille and, quickly, Avignon, city of the Popes since 1309 and center of the Christian world (see Papacy in Avignon). The following year, the whole of French territory, Spain, southern England, Italy, the Balkans then, in 1349, the rest of Europe (with the exception of Bohemia, Hungary and large pockets in Poland, Béarn and Flanders) are affected.
Highly concentrated population groups, armies, monasteries and cities are particularly affected, while some cities, such as Milan and Nuremberg, are miraculously spared. In addition, the plague affects the different categories of the population very unevenly. The urban proletariat, already weakened by poverty and famine, is paying a heavy price. The aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, which are better fed and have better sanitary conditions, are privileged in the face of this scourge. They also have the opportunity to flee from the spreading epidemic. Less densely populated areas, especially the countryside, are also more spared.
A divine curse?
The people of the time saw the epidemic as a manifestation of divine wrath. In the absence of a medical cure, it is won by a renewed Christian fervor. A vast movement of atonement and flagellants is growing across Europe. Some communities serve as scapegoats, like the Jews. Accused of poisoning, they suffered pogroms, especially in Spain and Germany (2,000 executions in Strasbourg, in February 1349).
the Great Plague sees the emergence of numerous manifestations of flagellants, which belong to a religious fanatic sect of 13th century Europe. Convinced of the imminence of divine wrath, the flagellants do penance by denouncing each other collectively in public. Faced with the scale of the movement during the Black Death and following the sectarian outbursts it generates, Pope Clement VI declared flagellants heretics from 1349. At the beginning of the 15th century, the sect was definitively condemned by the Council of Constance ( 1414-1418).
A large-scale pandemic: Europe devastated
Nearly 25 million people are believed to have perished from the plague, with the proportion of deaths reaching nearly half of the population in some countries, such as France. In the long term, the epidemic has significantly accelerated the demographic decline that began at the turn of the century, mainly because of its recurrence (1360, 1369, 1375, etc.) and its impact on the youngest categories of the population. The disease remained endemic until the 18th century: the last major western manifestation of the Black Death dates from 1720-1722 and remains known as the "plague of Marseille".
From an economic point of view, the Great Plague brought medieval Europe into a period of recession, due to the shortage of labor, the drop in consumption and the return to fallow land of vast areas previously cultivated. . These troubled times also had an influence in the artistic field: painting turned towards more dismal themes, imbued with the supernatural ...
- The Black Death and its ravages: Europe decimated in the 14th century, by Jonathan Duhoux. 50minutes, 2015.
- France in the Middle Ages: From the Year 1000 to the Black Death, 1348, by Marie-Anne Polo de Beaulieu.