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The Black Death

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Has what happened in these years ever been read about: empty houses, derelict cities, ruined estates, fields strewn with cadavers, a horrible and vast solitude encompassing the whole world? Consult historians, they are silent; ask physicians, they are stupefied; seek the answer from philosophers, they shrug their shoulders, furrow their brows, and with fingers pressed against their lips, bid you be silent. Will posterity believe these things, when we who have seen it can scarcely believe it?
Petrarch, Letters on Familiar Matters (1349)

The pathogen Yersinia pestis, originating from Central Asia, has caused some of the deadliest pandemics in human history, peaking in Europe between 1346 and 1353 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. It's believed that an outright majority of Europe and Asia's population was killed by this outbreak. In terms of absolute numbers, with anywhere between 75 million and 200 million deaths, it was the absolute deadliest pandemic ever recorded and proportionally the single deadliest event in recorded history.

Keep in mind that the disease is not called the "bubonic plague"; it's simply "plague". "Bubonic" is merely one way the disease plays out: by infecting the lymph system and colonizing the lymph nodes, which swell up into "bubos". 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, mostly within a week of the first symptoms. Septicemic plague is always fatal and can kill within hours of the first symptoms appearing, or sometimes even before any symptoms occur. note  People would rise well in the morning, develop symptoms by noon, and be dead by nightfall. Bubonic plague victims, on the other hand, can take days or even weeks to die, and around 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 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, animalistic, 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. The growing use of antibiotics, the invention of vaccines centuries later, and the improvement of hygiene conditions have ensured that no plague pandemic of such scale can happen anymore in most modern countries, but there are still limited outbreaks in the areas where there's a lack of these.

One of the things that made the plague so horrible is that there wasn't any escape. Most diseases spread from person to person and thus hit urban areas far harder than rural. People seeking to escape an epidemic could flee to the countryside. However, yersinia pestis is carried by rats note , and rats are territorial such that their population density was uniform in medieval Europe and the plague was likewise uniform. Where other diseases were epidemic and the superstitious could blame them on moral decay in urban centers, the black death was pandemic and it could only have felt like the entire world was being condemned by heaven.

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.

Compare: The Spanish Flu and the COVID-19 Pandemic.

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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    Comic Books 
  • In Robin (1993), the biological weapon Edmund Dorrance gets his hands on is revealed to be the black death, which an old Nazi scientist had managed to recreate and which Dorrance somehow heard of and sent his hired help to go track down.
  • The 1373 special issue of The Wicked + The Divine is set during the outbreak. The plague was apparently created by a previous Recurrance of the Pantheon and Ananke deliberately spread it in the 1370s to see what would happen. This ends up coming back to bite her as she gets infected by the disease and is left bedridden.

    Fan Works 

  • The British film Anazapta had a name change to Black Plague for its American release, and one trailer implied it was all about this trope. In truth it's a mystery thriller set when the Black Death has started to arrive in Britain.
  • 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.
  • Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance: The bad guys rather foolishly inject Ransui with the plague before throwing him back into the general population.
  • The Last Duel: The film's events occur in 1386, roughly 40 years after the start of the pandemic that decimated Europe. It calmed down circa 1353, but there are still outbreaks here and there as characters talk about the economy being slowed down by the loss of workers/serfs to it.
  • Referenced without being named in the Dung Ages scene of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and Played for Laughs of course. It's easy to guess what causes all the casualties that the "Bring out your dead!" guy comes to seek and put in his cart, and a woman smacking a cat against a wall alludes to people killing cats out of superstition in the Plague times. Several people who want to hide from the cart are seen coughing, probably out of the pneumonic form of the Plague.
  • Panic in the Streets is about a random crook who gets murdered over a crooked card game. Things take a turn when the autopsy reveals the dead guy was going to die within 24 hours anyway because he had pneumonic plague. A heroic doctor and the cops then go on a frantic chase to find the killers before they spread plague all over the city.
  • 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 Miss Mend, anti-Bolshevik terrorists set out to unleash the Black Death on the Soviet Union by concealing ampoules of plague culture inside electrical insulators.
  • White Shadows in the South Seas: Dr. Matthew Lloyd, who has become too troublesome to the Evil Colonialist in charge of a south Pacific island, is set adrift on the open ocean in a boat filled with victims of the plague. Luckily for Lloyd the ship runs aground next to an island before he catches it.
  • The 2017 Beauty And The Beast reveals that Belle's mother died from this when Belle was too young to remember her. Although given that the movie seems take place around the 18th century, it's likely one of the later outbreaks rather than the Black Death itself.
  • Isle of the Dead revolves around the people on an isolated island finding out that septicemic plague is in their midst. Dwindling Party ensues, as does paranoia, fear, and murder as the situation deteriorates.
  • In The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), the titular character dresses up as an old woman and sneaks out a fellow aristocrat; when questioned by a soldier, "she" claims to be escorting her young grandson, who unfortunately is afflicted by what she claims is "the horrible black plague!" The soldier hastily sends her on her way.
  • In Disney's Swiss Family Robinson, Mr. Robinson wards off a pirate ship by raising a quarantine flag, "warning that there's Black Death aboard." The flag portrayed as a quarantine flag is actually the "India" signal flag.

  • Modern folklore has it that the Nursery Rhyme "Ring Around the Rosie" is actually a description of the Black Death. As any folklorist will tell you, this is a "Just So" Story supported by no historical evidence. Snopes has a debunking.
  • 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, wielding 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. In continental Europe a scythe was added to that imagery, thus The Grim Reaper was born.
    • 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.
  • Romani Mythology: The black death is personified as the cat and dog headed Poreskoro. This is not as cute as it sounds.
  • Some versions of the classic "Vanishing Hotel Room" urban legend end with the explanation that the sick mother/daughter was vanished because she had a deadly disease, and the hotel/city wished to prevent a mass panic. If the disease is specified, it's usually the Black Death.

  • Boccaccio's Decameron (written a few years after the plague) is about ten wealthy young Florentines (seven noble ladies and three gentlemen) 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 is even more deadly than it was in real life, and causes the extinction of Western civilization, allowing Asian, Muslim, and Native American cultures to become dominant.
  • At the end of The Name of the Rose (set in 1327) it's mentioned that William of Baskerville 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.
    • It 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.
      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 Wormwood.
      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 covers 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.
    • Norwegian examples include The Bridegroom, telling the tragic story of a girl who falls in love with a fiddler who dies in the plague, and the story of Guro Heddeli, telling the tragic story of another girl who falls victim to the plague. Later, the children´s book A Ship Arrived In Bjorgvin In 1349 gave a more accurate account of the subject.
  • 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.
  • In Horatio Hornblower and Noah's Ark, Midshipman Hornblower is sent to pick up supplies from the city of Oran on the day of a plague outbreak. Facing a three-week quarantine in a plague city with a crew of panicky men and a delay in desperately-needed foodstuffs, Hornblower asks and is allowed to spend the period on the ship—they're more effectively quarantined at sea than anywhere else and it gets them back to the fleet quickly (fortunately, they evade contagion).
  • A large portion of The Dwarf is spent with the titular character observing the death and desperation around him as the Black Death strikes his city.
  • Both pneumonic and bubonic strains feature in the novel The Plague which details a outbreak of the disease in the French Algerian city of Oran.
  • Area 51: It's revealed the Airlia weaponized the disease to cull humanity in the past. They do so again in the present, making it even worse.
  • The Doctor Who Expanded Universe New Series Adventures novel Plague City has the Doctor and companions arrive in Edinburgh during the great plague of 1645.
  • Parry, the incarnation of Evil (aka Satan) in Incarnations of Immortality helps cause the plague as revenge for his humiliation at the hands of the other incarnations. He regrets that it gets as out of hand as it does, however, and at Chronos' behest, though he can't stop it outright, he helps spare at least one city that will be important to the renaissance. In a nice bit of accuracy, he does this by having his minion Beelzebub (official title: Lord of Flies) draw the fleas away from the city, so the plague doesn't get a hold there.

    Live Action TV 
  • In Cathedral of the Sea, Arnau returns to Barcelona during the plague years and saves two Jewish children from an antisemitic mob.
  • The opening of the Ghosts (UK) episode “About Last Night”, shows Nick brings back gifts for his village after his trip from London. Unbeknownst to them, they were infected with the plague, thus the whole village got infected and died.
  • 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 company who produced it as a testing ground for new medicines also engineered it to self-destruct after a day of exposure so it won't cause an outbreak.
  • In NCIS: New Orleans, an early case involves plague being found on a Navy ship. In a Required Spinoff Crossover, Tony is sent in from DC to assist on the case, because of his previous experience.
  • 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.
  • Frontier Circus: In "Incident at Pawnee Gun", Casey finds himself in a Quarantine with Extreme Prejudice situation when peace officers believe his chimpanzee has the bubonic plague.
  • The ecoterrorists in the second series of The Bridge (2011) are developing a supercharged genetically-engineered version of plague, intending to release it at a meeting of the EU member states' environment ministers.
  • The second Horatio Hornblower telefilm is based in part on Hornblower and Noah's Ark. While quarantined at sea, one of the sailors starts weaving and swaying, prompting the others to try and toss him overboard using spars until Hornblower steps in. There's a tense moment when Hornblower gets close to the man, but a sniff of his breath shows that he's just drunk. Later, the reckless Dreadnought Foster takes some cattle before the quarantine is up, over Hornblower's voluble protests.
  • The Black Death shows up in the first season of Blackadder, in the episode "Witchsmeller Pursuivant".
  • In the Father Brown episode "The Alchemist's Secret," Father Brown and his old friend Professor Hilary Ambrose investigate the alleged hiding of an alchemical formula to turn lead into gold, supposedly hidden in a secret chamber at Ambrose's university. There is indeed a formula hidden there, but it's actually for concentrated, weaponized version of the plague that was tested on a nearby village, wiping said village from the map.
  • The Outer Limits (1995): In "Last Supper", Jade discovered that she was immortal at 20 years old when everyone else in her village in Spain died of the Black Death and she survived.
  • Planet of the Apes: In "The Surgeon", Leander tells Urko that there is an outbreak of the Black Death in the clinic so that he will leave quickly and Galen, Virdon and Burke can escape.
  • Mystery Hunters: Mentioned for the background of the Edinburgh Vaults that Araya visits. The location is was once a street where it's inhabitants were killed by the black death and, once empty, had a street built over it. Araya investigates reports that ghosts of the inhabitants, including a little girl named Annie, now roam in the vaults.

  • 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.
  • The whole album A Chronicle of the Plague as well as the track "Breath of the Black Plague" from the album Twilight of Europe by the Ukrainian minimalist dark ambient band Dark Ages are all about the subject.

  • The Twilight Histories episode “Mask of the Plague Doctor” takes place in Medieval Florence in 1348, the year the plague arrived in Italy.

    Tabletop Game 

  • The Black Death plays a small but decisive role in Romeo and Juliet. The reason Friar Laurence's letter never reaches Romeo is that the messenger got stuck in a plague quarantine.

    Theme Parks & Attractions 
  • At the London Dungeon, there's a section about the Great Plague of London of 1665-1666. A Plague Doctor will look for symptoms of the plague in the group of visitors and ask which member is looking "a bit peaky".

    Video Games 
  • 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. An expansion for the second game, The Reaper's Due, focuses on plagues and diseases in general. Special attention is given to the Black Death itself, with major announcements as it spreads through various regions and several events related to the nobility and peasantry reacting to the devastation it brings.
  • 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. It starts off quite contagious and very lethal at the cost of blatant, undeniable and panic-inducing presence on the infected, with completely accurate symptoms, but it can evolve into something milder or worse depending on what you do (usually one followed by the other, to make sure everyone catches it).
  • Though Vampyr (2018) takes place during the 1918 Spanish flu, the Black Death (more specifically the 1665 Plague of London) is referenced several times in the backstory and are revealed to have be tied: It turns out that both diseases were engineered by the Red Queen to make humanity suffer and sent a Disaster, a Humanoid Abomination in her service, to spread it whenever they went. The Black Death was ended when vampire champion William Marshall fought against the Disaster in 1666 under St. Paul's Cathedral, with him being forced to burn the church down and causing the Great Fire of London to make sure she was dead.
  • A Plague Tale: Innocence is set during the time of the Black Death. While the plague itself is mentioned several times, the primary thread in the game are the Swarm of Rats that eat everything in their path.


    Western Animation 
  • Since Il Était Une Fois... l'homme tells the story of Western civilization from prehistoric times to modern times, it's no surprise that the Black Death is inescapable. Specifically, it is shown in Episode 13, which is about The Hundred Years War.
  • The Periwig-Maker is about a wig-maker in London during the Great Plague of 1665-66, who watches from his shop as, across the street, a little girl and her mother fall victim to the Black Death.

    Real Life 
  • As has been noted elsewhere on this page, the 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).
  • Contrasted with a well-known meme based on Pandemic, the vast majority of modern plague outbreaks now happen in Madagascar, which suffers dozens of cases and several deaths every year. The last major outbreak was in 2017, when the disease caught the authorities by surprise by spreading to the urban population (through infected travelers) instead of staying in isolated rural areas as it previously did. Almost 2600 cases were officially counted, of which 221 died.