03. Early Europe & Colonial Americas, Art & Humanities

Pestilence & Prayer: Introduction (1)

Pestilence & Prayer: Introduction (1)

Our household is unique considering the climate of COVID-19: Will is obsessed with infectious diseases and I did my art history undergraduate thesis on the Black Death, the epidemic that swept through medieval Europe leaving millions dead. As you can see, we are academically prepared for what we are dealing now (emotionally…we’ll see). Considering my thesis is on an epidemic, albeit one much deadlier (thank God) than what we are currently seeing, I thought it would be interesting to post it on here, bit by bit, like a serial story. Perhaps it will keep you entertained during semi-quarantine times; I mean, you’ve got nothing else to do.


The Black Death of 1348 is known as the greatest biomedical disaster in European history. Although it was not the first plague epidemic, the Black Death swept through Europe indiscriminately killing the majority of people it came into contact with, and affected society unlike any other natural calamity*. The reactions to the plague were often depicted in art because art was one of the most important societal mediums of expression in the Medieval Era. Religious art dominated this period, and saints were the most common religious figures pictured in art. In my thesis, I will explore the most prevalent saints in connection to the plague and discuss their importance during its recurring waves.

The Black Death was not the only plague epidemic that not swept Europe nor was it the last; waves of plague reoccurred between two to twenty years after the Black Death until the early 18th century, often appearing for months at a time. These subsequent outbreaks were not as devastating as the initial wave in 1348, but the fact that this epidemic returned so frequently kept people constantly aware of eminent death and in fear of not dying well. The Ars Moriendi (The Art of Dying Well) was a Latin text from the fifteenth century that provided directions to the procedure of what was seen as a “good death.”

The prominent theory about the advent of the Black Death is that the bubonic plague arrived in Europe from Asia on boats sailing through the Mediterranean Sea. The plague affected port-cities more heavily than inland cities with little connection to Mediterranean trading; thus the Italian Peninsula, especially Venice, was especially hit. The images in this thesis focus on Italy because of the prolific amount of plague-related artworks created during the period after the initial outbreak in the fourteenth century. After the Council of Trent in the late sixteenth century, many plague-saint images dwindled and the focus eventually centered upon science and medicine.

Medical and historic research indicates that three different strains of plague caused the disease that overwhelmed Europe: bubonic, pneumonic, and septicemic. The three types had slightly different symptoms and mortality rates, but they were all caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. Bubonic plague was the most prevalent, and its symptoms were commonly pictured in art. A flea bite caused the bubonic strain; after being bitten, there is an incubation period of about one week and then a black pustule surrounded by a red ring appears at the sight of the bite. Flu-like symptoms then develop as the lymph node nearest the bite begins to swell. This stage is very painful and many doctors would try to reduce the tenderness by draining the pus from the lymph node; ultimately, the cause of death was cardiac arrest.

Ring-a-round the rosie,
A pocket full of posies,
Ashes! Ashes!
We all fall down.

Pneumonic and septicemic were more rare than the bubonic strain, but they both have mortality rates closer to 100%. Pneumonic plague was transmitted from person to person and the infection is caused when the plague moved into the lungs. The incubation period is half that of bubonic because the body is starved of oxygen. On the other hand, septicemic plague was transmitted through lice fleas, but it has no incubation period and the victim died within a day. The quick incubation period and high mortality rates caused an initial panic in Medieval society.

Next thesis blog post: Pestilence & Prayer: Religion Introduction (2)


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