Pandemics: A Look to the Past

by Cory Maxwell ’24

For the last six months or so, COVID-19 has captured the attention and fear of many people. Experiencing a pandemic which brings about a virtual global shutdown is certainly new to us all. Obvious to all readers, I am sure, is the fact that this is not the first pandemic to ever occur, and it will certainly not be the last. Nevertheless, I’d like to take a look at one of the deadliest pandemics of the past – the Black Death – and contrast it with the situation we are in now. As you read, try to imagine yourself in Europe during this time.

The Black Death (1346-1353)

The Black Death pandemic that took place during the 14th century was by far the deadliest pandemic to ever occur. It was brought from Asia to Europe in 1347, when a trade ship docked at the Port of Messina in Sicily. All the people found aboard were dead, or near death. Though the boats were ordered out of the port, it was to no effect, as the Black Death soon spread throughout all of Europe. The plague was actually a bacteria called ‘Yersinia pestis’, and the initial cause of the plague was rats. Certain rats can carry the bacteria without being affected by it, and fleas that bit the rats would then transmit the bacteria as they bit people. After the ship arrived in Sicily, however, and more humans began to get sick, simply sneezing or coughing near someone was enough to assure their death. The plague spread through the air. It was so prevalent that the Italian poet Giovanni Boccaccio, wrote that “the mere touching of the clothes, appeared to itself to communicate the malady to the toucher.” The symptoms of the plague were even worse – the most noticeable of them being the large, dark swellings on the neck, armpits, and upper thighs. Alongside this were fever, chills, vomiting, diarrhea, and severe aches and pains. Later, the port city of Ragusa started slowing the spread of the plague by putting incoming sailors into a 30-40 day period of isolation. The final effects of this plague were devastating. In the end, about half of Europe died.

Today  we have many advantages due to technology and an extensive knowledge of viruses. Think about how much of an improved situation we are living  in now – there are not hundreds of people lying on the streets, dead or dying. Perhaps your parents are not working due to the pandemic, but you do not have to fear the prospect of their sudden death. While this is all very grave to think about, we can be thankful that we are not dealing with the “Black Death”, and have access to committed medical workers. We must keep in mind that we have very comfortable lives during this pandemic compared to many people, and therefore should patiently wait until it’s safer for us to meet in person, and hopefully very soon AMHS will be open for in-person instruction, where we can all enjoy the company of old friends and perhaps make new ones. I know, as a freshman, that I am looking forward to that day!

For further reading:

The Great Mortality – John Kelly, 2005

The Black Death – Philip Ziegler, 1969

The Black Death, the Complete History – Ole Jorgen Benedictow, 2004

Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague – Geraldine Brooks, 2002


Black Death. (2020, September 08). Retrieved September 18, 2020, from

Editors, H. (2020, July 06). Black Death. Retrieved September 18, 2020, from