Plague...the Black Death


The Black Death.

The Scourge of God.


Today, we shudder when we read about this disease that killed off a third to half of Europe’s population in the 14th century.  And we think it was a one-time pandemic of a disease that caused more deaths than any other and mysteriously went away.

Wrong on both counts.

Where bubonic plague began is still not pinpointed, but the 14th century outbreak of it came from Russia, near the Crimea, and swept across fromRussia to England, killing an estimated 25 million people in the space of a few years.

That’s the pandemic we learn about, but there were outbreaks of bubonic plague roughly every generation for the next 400 years.  Vienna, Seville and most notably London had outbreaks of plague in the 17th century and smaller epidemics continued until the late 19th century.

And the worst killer in the world?  The flu epidemic of 1918, which killed some 75,000,000 people around the world in two years at the end of the First World War.

Most recently, the AIDS epidemic has slaughtered about 25,000,000 people over the last 30 years and it continues to be a major cause of death in some African countries.

Ironically, it was the opening up of trade routes and travel that spread the plague so quickly in the 14th century, just as epidemiologists warn about the spread of disease in our instant jet age.

Hands down, though, the disease that lurks in our minds as the scariest and most dangerous is the Black Death.  It conjures up images of bodies lying in the streets, of people dropping dead where they stood, of death carts trundling by, of bodies dumped by the hundreds in plague pits.  There was no one left to bury the dead, no way to stop the carnage, few left to mourn and no list of who died.

Since no one knew what is was or how it started, they also were baffled by how it ended.  Even now, there’s no clear answer.  Some people seem to have a genetic mutation that gave them immunity, so that the plague killed those most susceptible.

Today, we know what caused it.  The plague is an infection caused by the Yersinia pestis bacteria, named for the Swiss bacteriologist Alexandre-Emile-JeanYersinwho identified it in 1894.  It’s treated by antibiotics, but about 14 percent of those who contract it still die.

The plague is still with us—on average, 13 people in the United States contract it yearly, and the World Health Organization estimates 2,900 cases internationally each year.  In the U.S., it’s most typically found in the West—California, Colorado, New Mexico—where is lives in the rodent population of wild areas.

Yes, those ground squirrels and cute chipmunks you take pictures of in Yosemite may very well be carrying plague.

One of the more publicized cases took place this summer when a Prineville, Oregon man tried to save a cat that was choking on a mouse.  The cat bit him for his trouble and transmitted the bacteria. He’s survived after ending up in life-support, a month of hospitalization and amputation of his fingers and toes.

The chances that you’ll ever run into the plague bacillus are very slim, unless you shop like my daughter.  She’s an RN with a macabre sense of humor so one year she bought her daughter (a stuffed animal fanatic)…you guessed it, a small, black, furry Yersinia pestis bacteria.  It looks much like a small Guinea pig without legs.

We don’t befriend squirrels and chipmunks and all hope that the only plague we run into is the stuffed variety.


Michele Drier was born inSanta Cruz and is a fifth generation Californian.  She’s lived and worked all over the state, calling both Southern and Northern California home.  During her career in journalism — as a reporter and editor at daily newspapers – she won awards for producing investigative series.

Her mystery Edited for Death, called “Riveting and much recommended” by the Midwest Book Review and a Memorable Book for 2011 on DorothyL, is available in paperback at Amazon and B&N.





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Her paranormal romance series, SNAP: The Kandesky vampire chronicles, is available in ebook format at Amazon.  The first book, SNAP: The World Unfolds, received a 4-star rating from the Paranormal Romance Guild.  The second book, SNAP: New Talent, also received 4 stars from PRG and the third book of the Kandesky Vampire Chronicles, Plague: A Love Story, was published in June 2012.



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10 comments to Plague…the Black Death

  • Very interesting article. Although I knew much of what you wrote, there were a few facts I did not know. Beryl

  • Michele Drier

    Thanks for the note, Beryl. It’s an interesting disease!

  • Wow, that was interesting and informative. Thanks for sharing. Gives a lot to think about.

  • Michele Drier

    You’re most welcome, Ana. As a kid, I aways wanted a chipmunk for a pet and my mother alway said no. Maybe she knew?

  • Fascinating post, Michele. My upcoming dystopian release in September, Waning Moon, is about this exact thing. The story takes place in about 45 years, after a viral plague destroys 3/4 of Earth’s population.

    It would only take a fast mutating virus that is impervious to our current medicines to spread and wipe out whole cities exactly like the Black Plague. Scary stuff! Keeping my fingers crossed for an asteroid shower and instant annihilation instead:-)

    Thanks for sharing this.

  • Michele Drier

    I know! What we don’t know is frightening, even though we’re beyond flagellation as a cure for the plague. Waning Moon sounds intriguing.
    Thanks for the comment!

  • Michele,
    Very interesting post. The Black Plague is one of those topics we find most interesting and horrifying.

  • Michele Drier

    I agree, Marilyn. Because no one understood what it was or how it spread, it was terrifying.

  • I contracted plague in 2001 from my back yard in suburban Atlanta. (Huge flea infestation, large rats everywhere due to heavy real estate development nearby.) It was misdiagnosed as a virus, possibly because doctors were in denial that someone could get plague in suburbia. I wasn’t given antibiotics, but I’m apparently partially CCR5 resistant, because after about 3 weeks, my immune system finally stomped it. Buboes are not fun, folks.

    The novel Year of Wonders presents a highly fictionalized account of the plague outbreak in England in the location where epidemiologists believe the CCR5 gene first manifested. Some of my ancestors come from that area, go figure.

    From my experience, I’d say that plague is more prevalent than statistics report. My case demonstrates that the disease can be available right outside your door, even brought in your home. Although the CCR5 gene, which also accounts for resistance to smallpox and AIDS, isn’t that common in the human population, its presence can obscure a case of plague.

  • Michele Drier

    Hi Suzanne and thanks for the comment! Yes, it is still with us and I suspect a lot of docs have never seen a case so don’t diagnose it correctly.
    And yes, that gene mutation (CCR5)saved a village and is still with some of us.