The Renaissance was an age of artistic, literary, philosophical and scientific rebirth. New ideas invigorated Europe as it emerged from the Dark Ages. Into this new world of cultural advancements, disease-carrying rats arrived on ships from the East. The Black Death -- or plague -- infected millions, creating a pandemic unlike any that came before.
The Black Death
Yersinia pestis, also known as the Black Death or the plague, wreaked havoc long before the age of the Renaissance. The ancient Greeks experienced plague epidemics, as did the Byzantine Empire in the sixth century. Originating in Central Asia, the plague spread to China and India, where it left their ports and arrived in Europe aboard rat-infested ships. The rats carried fleas that bit humans, transmitting the disease. Early symptoms of the bubonic form of plague included fever, sweating, shaking and weakness. Some caught the pneumatic form, which affected the lungs and caused coughing in addition to the other symptoms. Buboes, or swellings, filled with blood, and pus appeared at the lymph nodes as the disease progressed, causing severe pain.
Causes and Avoidance
A commonly held belief was that God had sent the plague as punishment. In Italy, where the Black Death first struck during the Renaissance, officials found a more practical explanation. They blamed the arrival of foreign ships carrying not only cargo, but pestilence. Consequently, they implemented restrictions dictating a 40-day waiting period before a ship could unload, which is where the modern idea of quarantine originated. Certain cities built housing outside the city limits for those infected. The medical community suggested various ways to avoid the plague, including abstaining from sex, baths, overexercise and obesity. The doctor of Pope Clement VI believed that if the Holy Father sat in the midst of large fires, he would avoid catching the disease. Finally, many simply fled their cities to avoid infection.
Various treatment suggestions were put forth by the medical community. These included lancing the buboes to drain the fluids they believed caused the infection. Many hung pomanders, or balls, of fragrant herbs or perfumes around their necks to purify the air. Another suggestion was to drink wine and become lighthearted, to ward off the unhealthful effects of fear. Bloodletting -- making incisions to allow small amounts of blood to drain -- was also common at the time. Some treatments were fantastical, such as the use of a potion containing ground unicorn horn. Arsenic and mercury were also believed to bring about a cure. Finally, the most outrageous treatment was to tie a live chicken to a bubo in an attempt to rid the body of disease.
Death came swiftly, usually within a few days, for most people with the plague. Septicemia, or blood poisoning, sometimes resulted from germs entering the bloodstream after buboes were lanced. Some survived for as long as two weeks before succumbing. About 70 percent of people who contracted the Black Death died. Renaissance Europe was decimated, losing a third of its population to Yersenia pestis. Because a person could be contagious before showing any symptoms, it was impossible to avoid infection until it was too late. The only people truly safe from bubonic plague were those born with a genetic resistance to it -- about 0.2 percent of Europeans.