History has seen many pandemics, but the bubonic plague, better known as the Black Death was one of the most devastating. This infectious bacteria is believed to have originated in China in the 1330s and was most likely spread via rat fleas on merchant ships, arriving in Europe in 1347. Tens of millions of people died, and records show that victims were from both poor and very wealthy backgrounds – the plague did not discriminate.
It became known as the ‘pestilence’ or ‘great mortality’ because of the high death rate. Coffins couldn’t be made fast enough to match demand, so mass graves or ‘plague pits’ were built. One observer noted, “There were hardly enough living to care for the sick and bury the dead.”
No one knew what caused the plague, meaning people often invented wild and even prejudicial theories – from exposure to bad air to the movements of the planets, or even Jews poisoning wells. The death and destruction led many to believe it was the end of the world, driving some people into madness.