The Black Plague has been called the greatest tragedy ever. That’s pretty serious when you consider it’s being compared to events like The Spanish Inquisition, WWII, and the AIDS epidemic. But, the fact is, it wiped out 60% of Europe’s total population.
One surprising effect? The people left over lived longer than anyone else ever before.
What is the bubonic plague?
Spread by dirty street rats (or rather, the fleas living on them), bubonic plague kills about 80% of people infected. How? The bacteria are smart, perhaps slightly more so than the average adult male. But that’s just speculation.
Once they’re inside your body, they straight up shank any rogue immune cells they encounter. True story. After that, they start stealing your iron right out of your own red blood cells. Eventually, your immune system realizes that something is terribly wrong and in a completely unnecessary overreaction, it basically kills you.
You read that right. Your own immune system does you in.
What was it like to live during the plague years?
Well, first off, you’d be lucky to actually be alive. But if you were, you likely did nothing more than carry dead bodies around . . . All day long. Every church had giant pits, ready for the recently deceased to get tossed right in.
The holes were so full of corpses, and so poorly covered, that dogs often pulled out bodies, devouring them right on the street.
If the whole process seems unfeeling and cruel, consider this: everyone lived in constant terror of catching the plague themselves. And since you didn’t want to be the next one thrown into the pit, it made sense to bundle that body up and get rid of it as fast as possible.
Survival of the fittest
In a sort of saving grace, it turns out the plague was good for one thing: It weeded out the weak. (Too soon? Even after 700 years, that feels a little bit harsh.)
In a page right of out of Darwin’s playbook, those that survived did so because they were genetically less susceptible to the bacteria. Or just lucky. Either way, Europe saw a boost in longevity post-plague.
The average number of people living to 70 and beyond jumped up dramatically in the following years, and the population was healthier in general. Thanks, plague!