Between 75 and 200 million people died in a few years’ time, starting in 1348 when the plague reached London.
The pandemic moved fast: It often killed a host within days of their first developing the high fever, the telltale rash, and the repellent buboes or swellings in the armpits and groin, which turned black and burst, expelling pus and bacteria.
So many were struck down and so rapidly, that it was long thought that the Black Death killed indiscriminately.
Certainly the disease took men, women, and children, rich and poor. Anthropologist Sharon De Witte, who is currently at University of South Carolina, felt the answer could be obtained by studying skeletal remains of plague victims and comparing them to other medieval skeletons buried in normal, nonplague cemeteries, and she tackled that question for her dissertation work at Pennsylvania State University.
Some towns barricaded themselves in, afraid to let anyone in who was not already there and equally afraid to let anyone out.
Mothers abandoned husbands and children—and vice versa—for fear of catching the contagion.
Whole villages die within a few weeks, and fear spreads even faster than the infectious agent.
With hindsight, the pandemic can be traced to the Mongol Empire, which in addition to conquering with its vast army enormous areas of Asia, opened and ensured the safety of the Silk Road for trade.
Some took it as divine punishment for the world’s wicked ways, possibly the end of the world.
Others blamed Jews, foreigners, travelers, and lepers, who were shunned and turned away where once they had been welcomed or at least accepted.