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The Black Death
The pathogen Yersinia pestis
, believed to have originated in Asia, has caused some of the deadliest pandemics in human history, peaking in Europe between 1348 and 1350 in the Great Pestilence with strains continuing until the 1700s. Both the event and the disease are also known by the name given by later writers, The Black Death. Experienced by the whole of Eurasian/Mediterranean civilization to some degree, it so traumatized the human race that the formal name the disease was given in Europe, derived from the latin words for to strike down
, and to lamentnote
, is to this day synonymous with both "widespread threat to society" and "lethal contagious disease": The Plague
Keep in mind that the disease is not called the "bubonic plague"; it's simply "plague". "Bubonic" merely one way the disease plays out: by infecting the lymph system and colonizing the lymph nodes, which swell up into "bubos".note
In coastal areas, the most common form of plague at that time was pneumonic plague, which affects the lungs. Septicemic plague affects the bloodstream. The difference? Pneumonic plague kills all but a handful of sufferers, usually within a day. Septicemic plague is always fatal and kills within hours. Bubonic plague victims, on the other hand, can take days to die, and one-third actually survive
with long lasting traumatic damage to their internal organs and immune systems- with the effect of making these victims the most noticeable and horrifying.
The disturbing explanation for the disease's alternate name, the black death, is that in both the septisemic and bubonic presentations, the victims are left in a horrific swollen and decaying state due to a combination of ruptured lymph nodes and frostbite-like patches of black gangrene —before they die
. Following the Black Plague pandemic, this image was so burned into Europe's psyche that it spawned our modern visualization of The Undead
, a stark contrast to the prior depictions of liches and kin as unusually pale but otherwise unremarkable
, or totally skeletal
There have been many other outbreaks of plague other than the 1348-1350 pandemic. The most recent occurred at the beginning of the 20th century, killing tens of millions in India and China, and the earliest outbreak for which we have definitive historical evidence (at least according to some historians) is The Plague of Justinian in the 6th Century.
When this appears in a story you know things are quickly going to go downhill for the heroes (if there even are heroes). Due to its transcending memories of death, destruction, and desperation, such stories generally have a Downer Ending
. It tends to be used because to most cultures, death is feared and a reminder of our own mortality is chilling.
See also The Plague
for devastating pandemics in general.
For more on the science and history of the plague, see the Other Wiki.
As a Death Trope, all Spoilers will be unmarked ahead. Beware.
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- Black Death obviously has this as a topic. It shows well how different people responded to the outbreak in 1348.
- The Black Death plays a major thematic role in The Seventh Seal.
- According to Batman Begins, the Black Death was the League of Shadows' doing.
- Referenced in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
- Season of the Witch takes place during the Black Death, though it misrepresents its symptoms as being more similar to leprosy (probably to increase its horror value) and ends on the revelation that it was created by a demon to raise an undead army.
- In Northern Europe, the effect of the black death was so severe it held the population down for centuries. It didn`t help much that the disease showed up time and again all the way to 1650. In Norway especially, people came to see the plague incarnate as an old hag, clad in dark clothes, wearing a broom and a rake. Her face was either a skull or made of decomposing flesh. Tradition has it that she usually saved some if she used the rake. On the other hand, if she used the broom, no one was spared.
- Based on truth in television in the more remote parts of Norway and possibly Sweden, where the entire population of some valleys were found dead after the plague, and were not repopulated for 200 years. In one particular case, a lone hunter just accidentally stumbled over the local church, still standing in the middle of nowhere. In the meantime, the building was made a hive for bears. The bearskin allegedly still hangs on the wall in this particular church.
- The most known depiction of the Plague Hag (Pesta) was made in the late nineteenth century by Norwegian painter Theodor Kittelsen, who claimed to have met her in a dark wood near his home. And he ran really fast on his way home. He claimed she looked like this◊.
- Boccaccio's Decameron (written a few years after the plague) is about ten wealthy Florentines who decamp to the countryside with their retinue to escape from the plague, and pass their days in storytelling.
- In the Alternate History novel The Years of Rice and Salt, the Black Death causes the extinction of Western civilization.
- At the end of The Name of the Rose (set in 1327) it's mentioned that William eventually died during the Black Death.
- Ken Follett's World Without End includes a section where the plague comes to Kingsbridge and Caris, our heroine, desperately struggles to limit the destruction. Later parts of the book deal with the sociological changes the plague brought.
- When everyone in the Michael Crichton novel Timeline get tired of the Corrupt Corporate Executive, they send him back in time to 14th century Europe at the height of The Plague. It takes him a little while to realize just where he's been sent, but when he puts it together he notes that he's already showing symptoms...
- A Journal of the Plague Year, as its name says, deals with the epidemic of London between 1664 and 1666.
- In The Trolls, the children's usual babysitter is unable to look after them, because she caught a "touch of" the Black Death while vacationing in Europe. Alarmingly, she still offers to show up if the parents really need a babysitter. The mom understandably doesn't take her up on this offer.
- The Dresden Files:
- In Death Masks, it's revealed that The Black Death was originally caused by fallen angels using magic. The plot of the book involves them preparing to do it again.
- Is later mentioned again in Cold Days. Harry knocks some jars off a shelf in the home of Mothers Winter and Summer, and when he puts them back, he notices the labels.
Narration: The writing on the cracked pot said simply, Wormwood.
The letters began to fade, but I saw some of the others: Typhos. Pox. Atermors. Choleros. Malaros.
Typhus. Smallpox. The Black Death. Cholera. Malaria.
And there were lots of other jars on the shelf.
- Connie Willis' Hugo- and Nebula-award winning novel Doomsday Book is set in a future version of Oxford where time-travel has become possible, but is used mostly by historians. Kivrin Engle, who studies medieval history, convinces history professor Dunworthy to send her back to the 14th century. Unfortunately, something goes (very) wrong, and Kivrin finds herself in the middle of the 1348 Black Death epidemic. Oopsies!
- A good amount of Scandinavian literature cover the period, due to the fact that the demographics and political landscape changed radically in these areas, at least partly because of the plague. And the plague survived in living tradition all over the place.
- In Up the Line, by Robert Silverberg, there is a popular series of time tours tracing the 14th century Black Death epidemic. Protagonist Jud, while a bit depressed, takes one tour in the series of four (it was the one he could get a spot in on short notice).
- A Parcel of Patterns, among other works, tells the true story of a Derbyshire village called Eyam whose inhabitants voluntarily quarantined themselves for over a year when the plague reached them.
Live Action TV
- In the Highlander TV series, Amanda died for the first time during the Black Death. She was not sick herself but she was stealing from houses under quarantine and was clubbed to death because people assumed she was infected.
- In an episode of Torchwood, a number of people slip through the time rift into present-day Cardiff — causing, among other things, an outbreak of bubonic plague. Fortunately, Owen recognizes it, and these days it's treatable.
- In the Secret Army episode "Ring of Rosies" La Résistance discover that an Allied airman being sheltered by them caught bubonic plague from his service in Africa, and so they must prevent the other members of his unit from escaping and infecting an occupied population suffering from lack of food and medical care. One man who does so is gunned down and his body burnt by molotov cocktail.
- NCIS. Tony opens a letter and gets sprayed by a white powder that they naturally assume is anthrax, but it turns out to be weaponised Y. pestis. There is no cure, but fortunately as a fit, well-nourished male with access to modern medical care Tony's chances of surviving are a lot better.
- The Collector: The plague features prominently in Morgan's past.
- The patient of the week is infected with this in the House episode "Sleeping Dogs Lie" although she doesn't die from it.
- True Blood: In a flashback, we learn that in the 17th Century, Nora was helping people infected, contracting the illness herself in the process. This led to Godric turning her into a vampire.
- Seanan McGuire's cheery Filk Song "The Black Death" argues for the theory that the Black Death was not in fact Y. Pestis:
Speaking epidemiologically, bubonic plague doesn't make sense to me.
Yersinia pestis gets you dead, it's true, but it isn't as effective as the common flu.
If you want to wipe out half of Europe's population, you'll need a better agent for your devastation;
You need a viral agent that is tried and tragic — let's take a look at fevers that are hemorrhagic.
- In the backstory of Warhammer 40K, the Chaos god of disease Nurgle had been in existence for quite some time before hand (possibly as the Babylonian god Nergal), but he truly awoke with the massive death toll caused by the plague.
- A scheduled event in Medieval II: Total War. You can have isolated outbreaks of generic plagues at any time, but near the endgame the world is rocked by the historical Black Death. Typically the campaign crashes to a halt as armies lose men faster than replacements can be recruited, royal family members die left and right, and nations' economies tank from all those dead peasants. Of course, an enterprising player can take advantage of this by, say, sneaking a Spy into an afflicted settlement and sending him to infiltrate as many enemy cities as possible before expiring...
- The spread of the Black Death is also one of the few scripted events guaranteed to happen in both Crusader Kings games, where it's almost instantly lethal to any character that catches it and effectively destroys the economy of any provinces it spreads to.
- One scenario of Plague Inc allows you to take control of a modern-day outbreak of the Black Death and evolve it so that it kills off humanity.
- As has been noted elsewhere on this page, the Black Plague is an entirely treatable illness these days (its effects have been likened to "a bad case of the flu with some pneumonia and chicken pox symptoms tossed in for good measure"). Ironically, this has led to the darkly humorous fact that, in modern industrialized first-world countries at least, the most common source of new plague outbreaks is the vaccination itself (about 1 in 1000 recipients of the plague vaccine actually contract the disease from getting vaccinated).