The Black Death was an epidemic that killed upward of one-third of the population of Europe
between 1346 and 1353 (more on proportional mortality below). The precise specification
of the time span, particularly the end dates, varies by a year or so, depending on
the source. A less severe (but still potent) follow-on epidemic in 1361, ostensibly of the
same disease, is, by convention, separate from the Black Death. A common misconception
is that black refers to skin discolorations accompanying the disease. Black is meant in the
metaphorical sense of terrible. In fact, the term “Black Death” was not used until the middle
of the sixteenth century. Contemporaries called it the “pestilence”.
The historical importance of an event that killed such a huge proportion of Europe
requires little elaboration. Even by contemporary standards, the Black Death was shocking.
Certainly, life in the fourteenth century was short from a modern perspective, but even
the worst mortality events in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, up to 1346, do not
compare to the Black Death. However, it is important to bear in mind exactly what these
mortality crises were during the end of the high middle ages, and in the early period of
the late middle ages up to the Black Death. The 1290s witnessed numerous wheat failures
throughout Europe, caused in the main by unfavorable weather, and the agricultural situation
did not improve in the early fourteenth century. Famine mortalities reached ten percent
in some localities. There are even reports by chroniclers of cannibalism, though these are
regarded as apocryphal by some historians.
Historians debate whether these stresses represented a true long-run Malthusian crisis.
The counter-argument is that medieval agriculture was capable of feeding Europe, meteorological
bad luck aside. In any case, the hypothesis that the Black Death itself was an
inevitable consequence of population pressure — that the Black Death was endogenous, if
you will — is no longer well-regarded. The intercession of some external pathogen is now
regarded as a condition without which the Black Death would not have occurred. Just what
that pathogen was, and from where it came, are debated to this day (cf. below).
Apart from the second plague (1361), the closest thing to a repeat of the Black Death
was the Great Plague of 1665, which by some estimates killed fifteen to twenty percent of
the population in certain locales. In modern times, the 1918–19 influenza pandemic comes
to mind, and it killed more people than the Black Death because it was truly worldwide and
because the twentieth century had much larger population denominators than the fourteenth
century. The 1918–19 flu killed perhaps 2.5 percent of the world population — for
percentage mortality it doesn’t even come close to the Black Death. These comparisons are
somewhat arbitrary, as the Black Death struck Europe and western Asia, while the flu was
global, but it’s safe to say that the world has not experienced anything quite like the Black
Death since the fourteenth century.