The Black Death: the historians’ view

Was it inevitable that plague would sweep Europe in the Middle Ages? How long did it take sufferers to die? And what was life like in its aftermath? Here, a panel of experts reflect on some of the big questions of a disease that repeatedly ravaged Europe over hundreds of years...

A contemporary pictorial depiction of the Great Plague.

This article was first published in the July 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine

Was an epidemic like the plague inevitable during the medieval period?

Ole Jørgen Benedictow: No, it was not inevitable, but the requirements for its arrival and devastating long-time presence in Europe increased with rising population density and local and regional trade.

The development of long-distance trade by galleys and cogs from the late 1200s was crucial to plague’s spread, because it linked Europe together and with distant trading stations and commercial hubs near plague focal points in north Africa, the near east, the Middle East, and in southern Russia. In the early 1300s, the probability that plague would arrive in Europe was rapidly increasing; the commercial and demographic requirements for its dissemination were all in place.

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