Bubonic Plague and How it Affected the Elizabethan Era


The Bubonic Plague originated in the Gobi dessert. It was spread by fleas which were in turn carried by rats and other animals. The first recorded incident of the plague was in the sixth century. The European lifestyle started changing, however, when people started moving from rural communities into big cities. Innovations in travel at the time allowed for more trade. Trade routes started to connect all parts of the “known” world. European, Asian, and even some African populations were set for disaster.

While The increased use of trade routes insured the spread of the disease all around the “known” world, the unhygienic conditions of the growing cities resulted in an epidemic in which approximately one third of earth’s human population died. During the Elizabethan Era, sewage was discarded in the streets of London and the nearby Thames River was used as a garbage dump. Most of London’s streets and alleys were cramped and narrow. These filthy conditions gave rise to a swarm of rats. The rats contracted the fleas from other rats and animals that came to England by several overseas trade routes. Immediately the infected fleas mingled with rat populations. As the bacterial pathogen responsible for the plague killed off the rats, the infected fleas started attacking humans. The epidemic was by that time in full motion.

All businesses were hard-hit by the plague, but theater was one of the most devastated. The Old Globe Theater was closed by the English authorities in their futile attempts to stop the spread of the Bubonic Plague, otherwise known as the “Black Death”. Shakespeare’s family was not immune to the disease, and several of his siblings were killed by it. The epidemic must have influenced him much like it did all the survivors in Europe. Perhaps that is why he wrote so many tragedies.

The symptoms of the plague were: “buboes” or swollen lymph nodes in the armpits, legs, neck, or groin; high fever; delirium; bleeding of the lungs; muscle pains; and an intense desire to sleep, which if yielded to quickly proved fatal. The “buboes” started red, then turned to purple and black as the disease progressed. “Bloodletting” or cutting a vein to let blood out of the infected areas was a common practice. Astonishingly, the blood was black, vile smelling, and disgusting, with some greening gunk mixed in.

Since no one knew what caused the: “Black Death”, the attempts to halt it were usually vain. Physicians wore protective clothing which actually prevented flea bites, and a mask which contained an oil that filtered the air they breathed. Although these safety measures proved effective, the treatments for the plague were generally herbs that were applied to relieve the symptoms. The lack of people to care for the sick was great, as everyone was afraid for their life. Disposing of the bodies was a horrific task. Workers soon became few so, recovered victims were forced to aid that difficult cleanup.

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