In these strange and scary pandemic times, its nice to live in a world of modern health care, science and the wide spread information about the internet. But pandemics and epidemics have always been a part of the human experience through history, and it’s really just in the last couple of centuries, we’ve really been able to combat the spread of viruses. So in that regard, we took a look at past pandemics and epidemics and how they affected the society and how they at that time, tried to combat it.

The plague of Justinian (541-542 AD)

St Sebastian pleading for the life of a gravedigger afflicted with plague during the 7th-century Plague of Justinian.
St Sebastian pleading for the life of a gravedigger afflicted with plague during the 7th-century Plague of Justinian.
(Josse Lieferinxe, c. 1497–1499)

This plague is the first well documented occurrence of a wide spread pandemic. And according to some historians, the most deadliest. In 2013 it was confirmed that the bacteria was the Yersinia pestis, the same that caused the Black death.

“During these times, there was a pestilence, by which the whole human race came near to being annihilated” – Procopius

The name comes from the Emperor Justinian of the Byzantian empire, a peasant son that had been chosen as emperor Justin, his uncle, to rule in these times. Justinian and members of his court, physically unaffected by the previous 535–536 famine, were afflicted, with Justinian himself contracting and surviving the pestilence. He was said to have been a stern and vicious ruler in the plague times, not budging on collecting the taxes from his starving and sickly farmers.

Mosaic of Justinianus I - Basilica San Vitale (Ravenna)
Mosaic of Justinianus I – Basilica San Vitale (Ravenna)
Photo by: Petar Milošević 2015

Merchant ships from Egypt came into the city of Constantinople the seat of the Roman Empire, carrying infected rats in the grain ships. We have a lot of first hands accounts of the Byzantine historians, like Procopius. He recorded that at its peak, the plague killed 10 000 people in the city of Constantinople, daily. There was no room to bury the dead, the bodies had to be stacked on top of each other. In the streets, in the houses, unburied, left unattended, feared. No one was left to bury them. There was no room for funeral rites and the once so great city reeked of death.

Proocopicus, hated the Emperor Justinius, and blamed him in his “Secret History”, claiming the emperor was a demon that created the plague, or at leas, was a punishment for his malice. He told of supernatural beings in human disguise that spread the disease after appearing to people. He claimed other dies after seeing visions in dreams, or heard voices, telling them that they would be getting the plague.

1975. This patient presented with symptoms of plague that included gangrene of the right hand causing necrosis of the fingers. Author=CDC/Dr. Jack Poland

In the end, the tombs were filled, so the soldiers built trenches for the bodies to be thrown in. That too failed, as it in the end, was no where left to dig. In the end the people carried the bodies of the dead down to the sea and threw them in to rid themselves of the stench of death and piling of bodies.

In the VIth century the inhabitants of Philippi embarked on the construction of an imposing basilica on the site of the town’s palaestra; the size of the planned building clearly exceeded the needs of the town, thus indicating that Philippi attracted many pilgrims. In 547 the so-called Justinian plague devastated the countries of the Mediterranean basin and in the early VIIth century an earthquake struck the region of Philippi; these two catastrophic events could have halted the completion of the basilica, standing as a proof and evidence on how plagues can alter the history as intended.

The Black Death (1347-1351)

Plague doctor the bubonic plague or the black death
Physician attire for protection from the Bubonic plague or Black death from 1656. A so called plague doctor. The purpose of the mask was to keep away bad smells, known as miasma, which were thought to be the principal cause of the disease, before it was disproved by germ theory.

It swept cross Europe in medieval times, laying towns, countries, cultures and riches in ruins. It did not start in Europe, but it remained as an imprint on it, to this today, some would even claim, a fear for it, that still rings today. And in the western world, every plague since then, has been compared to the infamous Black Death. So many myths, so many legends spun around it, who was to blame, were did it come from. It left plague pits, its own cemeteries and around 25 million dead in Europe alone.

People would die suddenly. They would be in the market, at work, at home, and the, suddenly fall dead of the illness. Doctors refused to attend the patients and priests declined administering last rites. Even worse, healthy people from families would often leave their infected loved ones to die and escaped to other places.

Contemporary sources say that the plague originated in Mongolia. It traveled all the way before it hit Europe in full force in 1347/48 along the coast. Giovanni Boccaccio, most known for his book, Decameron, was a first hand witness to the plague. In his book, he describes the harsh reality of it:

“The pestilence was so powerful that it was communicated to the healthy by contacting the sick, the way a fire close to dry or oily things will set them aflame.”

the Flagellants in germany during the plague
They established their camps in fields near towns and held their rituals twice a day. The ritual began with the reading of a letter, claimed to have been delivered by an angel and justifying the Flagellants’ activities. Next, the followers would fall to their knees and scourge themselves, gesturing with their free hands to indicate their sin and striking themselves rhythmically to songs, known as Geisslerlieder, until blood flowed. Sometimes the blood was soaked up in rags and treated as a holy relic. Painting by Pieter van Laer  (1599–after 1641 ) from ca. 1635.

In Milan, if a person was found to be infected, they would close them inside the house, the house would be walled up, windows and doors filled with bricks, with all the people still inside.

Several people were blamed of the disease. Jews were burned throughout Germany or banished. In Esslingen, the Jews gathered in their synagogue and set it on fire. In Strasbourg the town counsel tried to protect them, but they were burned in their own cemetery.

The pestilence paved way to a scary brotherhood, The Flagellants, the Brethren of the Cross. Devout Christians looked at the plague as a punishment from God fro their sins. In Germany, this movement spread like the plague itself. They wore dark clothes with red crosses, hiding their face and walked in a line behind their leader. They would parade in a circle before throwing themselves on the ground, the leader beating them all for their sins. Then they would get up before beating themselves with a scourge, a stick with three tails with knots. They would whip their backs bloody. This they hoped, would appease God. Many died from these marches that raged in Germany and France.

theodor kittelsen pesta
Theodor Kittelsen – Pesta i trappen, 1896 (Pesta on the Stairs).

The plague reached far, even to outskirts countries like Iceland and Greenland, The plague managed to hit Norway in 1349 when a wool-carrying ship from England halted at Bergen port. Within days, the entire ship crew were dead and then the rampage started in rest of Norway. Norwegian called the plague “pest”. Folklore thought that the plague was an old woman, “Pesta” and that she came to town with either a rake or a broom. If she used her broom, everyone would die. If she used the rake, some would live. Today, people are named after the deserted and dead farms. Ødegård (desolate farm), a common surname among Norwegians to this date.

This wasn’t the last Europe saw of the plague however. It came and went in waves during the next centuries.

The Third Plague (1855 to the 1950s)

This plague started in Yunnan, China, and eventually led to the discovery of a cure for it. It was then the connection to rats were discovered and a more planned combat against the plague could go forth.

Picture of Manchurian Plague victims in 1910 -1911 that has been historically mislabeled as “Body disposal at Unit 731” A much higher resolution photo, with Russian text stating that these were “Dead plague bodies held in storage awaiting scientific research” can be seen here.

Shi Tao-nan wrote a poem about the plague called: Death of Rats.

Dead rats in the east,
Dead rats in the west!

As if they were tigers,
Indeed are the people scared.

Few days following the death of the rats,
Men pass away like falling walls!..

The coming of the devil of the plague
Suddendly makes the lamp dim,

Then it is blown out,
Leaving man ghost and corpse in the dark room

The writer of the poem died of the plague only days after it was written.

The plague continued to rage, from Hong Kong it spread with ships to the world. To US, Latin America, India and South Africa. India was particularly hit by the plague, and over the next thiry years, over twelve million people died of it in India alone. It died out in the 1950s. In 1894 the Hong Kong doctore, Alexandre Yersin found evidence of the Yersinia Pestis as in the Justinian plague and Black Death.

Today, fewer than 200 people die of the plague worldwide each year, mainly due to lack of treatment. Plague is considered to be endemic in 26 countries around the world, with most cases found in remote areas of Africa. The three most endemic countries are Madagascar, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Peru. The latest victim to it being a couple in Mongolia after eating the raw kidney of a rodent. Commonly considered a folk remedy for good health.


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Orent, Wendy. Plague: the Mysterious Past and Terrifying Future of the Worlds Most Dangerous Disease. Place of publication not identified: Free Press, 2012.

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