Counting our blessing: History of Plagues

Instead of following trends and spending my infinite amount of spare time dancing in front of a camera showing the true extent of how mentally deranged I am, I’ve spent an unhealthy amount of time reading random shit and getting sucked into the Wikipedia hole. I have read about a vast range of pandemics in history and compared them to what we are going through at the moment. We are going through a tragic time, but if we look back on history and look at how they dealt with their pandemics, we are all quite lucky. So, I decided to share my logic in an upbeat blog post so that you can all be a little less depressed at the fact that in history, millions of others suffered a hell of a lot more. I hope you enjoy it!

In the 14th Century, the Black Death hit Europe, which consisted of symptoms of pus buboes and blackness under the skin, known as necrosis, which results in the death of cells in living tissue. It is believed to have started around Mongolia, Tibet or western China and slowly spread through Asia and into Europe. Rodents, human fleas and lice were the main transports of the plague. People who had the plague were shut up in their homes for up to 40 days. The outside of these houses was marked with a red cross; guards would prevent the residents from leaving and were tasked with providing food and provisions. In 1349, 40% of all land in England changed hands, which was the most significant transfer of wealth in England in one year. 30% of the European population died during the Black Death. 

The Great Plague of London of 1665 was a disease transported by rats. Like the Black Death, if a family member had caught the plague, the rest of the family would be locked inside the house, a red cross would be put on the door so people would avoid the house, and guards would stand watch. The big issue during this time is that provisions had broken down in London, and families who were forced inside weren’t as well-stocked with food. The 1603 plague guidelines recommended eating toast sprinkled with vinegar rose leaves and cinnamon; however, poor people were told just to eat toast with butter, “for Butter is not only a preservative against the plague, but against all manner of poisons” [2]. The plague was associated with public disorders, and people with the disease who were spotted out on the streets would be whipped or executed. It is believed the great fire of London in September put an end to the plague, as it helped kill off some of the rats and fleas that carried the plague [3].

In 1720, the Great Plague of Marseille hit south France through Marseille; it had arrived on a merchant ship which had picked up infected passengers during a journey to the Middle East. The French introduced a law that any communication between Marseille and the rest of France would be punished by death. To enforce this, they built a plague wall across the countryside with guard posts away from the wall. Some of the walls remain now in different parts of the Plateau de Vaucluse. The plague was contained, but it is believed to have killed roughly 100,000 people [4].

In August 1832, Ireland was hit by a Cholera outbreak that started from Sligo Port. Sligo was the worst affected. Six hundred forty-three people died during the pandemic. A fourteen-year-old girl named Charlotte Blake Thornley witnessed the Cholera outbreak and wrote accounts of the time. She witnessed pits being dug and victims being pushed into the graves by wooden poles, as people were afraid to touch the infected. Some were buried alive. Charlotte Blake Thornley grew up to be the mother of Bram Stoker, and she told these stories to him when he was young. It is believed that this inspired Bram Stoker to write one of the most famous horror novels of all time, Dracula [5].

When an influenza pandemic broke out, many countries ignored the signs and censored the press in order to maintain morale. With the large number of troops moving around during the First World War, the Spanish flu spread. The young suffered more than the elderly—the elderly had already been exposed to influenza and had an immunity to it, but the young hadn’t—and the highest mortality rate was among those from ages 27–30. Spain was a neutral country during the war with more press freedom to report on the epidemic; these stories gave the impression that the flu came from Spain. Reports show that the Spanish Flu had been spreading for months, possibly years, and was ignored before the pandemic broke out in 1918 [6].

These stories of plagues and horror might make you a little pessimistic; however, the knowledge that the world is not ignoring this, that science is here to save us, that we are not pushing affected patients into graves while they are still alive, that we are not sealing people off and waiting for them to die, and that we aren’t running out of food should cheer up most. This is not the world’s first pandemic; we are not suffering a 70% mortality rate like the Black Plague. Most world leaders are trying to help prevent the spread. This is not the first time a leader or British prime minister has been ill while in office. It is also not unprecedented, like the media keeps on saying it is. From the past, we can learn what will happen after the world starts to reopen. We will see a rise in xenophobia and racism because people will blame those who are from where they believed was the source of the disease. With Trump’s recent comments, I feel the coronavirus won’t be any different, and world leaders should be careful what they say and who they blame. With our global transport networks, the coronavirus can spread much faster than most past diseases, so I feel a slow approach to reopening everything would be smart as we already know it can spread quickly. The Black Death had a massive cultural impact, with plays and pamphlets published; I imagine there will be plenty of TV and films about this period [2]. We are living in the best times: We have entertainment, television, computer games, the internet—all to prevent us from going insane while we are isolating, which is something people from the past lacked. Our science is much more advanced, and our nurses, scientists and frontline workers are here to save us. We should be counting our blessings! 


[1] History Hits Podcast: Black Death: Professor Mark Bailey: April 22nd 2020

[2] Black Tudors, The untold Story by Miranda Kaufmann 

[3] History Hits Podcast: Coronavirus is NOT the plague: Rebecca Rideal: March 9th 2020



[6] History Hits Podcast: Origins of the Spanish Flu: Douglas Gill: April 2nd 2020

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s