What exactly was the Black Death? Although medical historians argue about what disease it really was, the symptoms described by medieval chroniclers generally point to the black plague. This disease comes in four strains: the choleric, the septicemic, the enteric, and the bubonic. The first involved a horrible hacking cough while the lungs filled with fluid. Eventually the victim would drown in his or her own bodily fluid, but not before affecting everyone that they came into contact with. They would die within two days of contracting this strain. The second was the most painless and the most deadly, a silent sweep through the bloodstream that left the victim insane as it poisoned the brain. It had a 98% mortality rate, and the few survivors that were left severely brain damaged. The third was extremely rare, but just as deadly as the septicemic, and infected the intestinal tract. The fourth was the most physically horrible. Symptoms were a swelling of the lymph nodes and the formation of buboes filled with gangrenous black pus. This was the longest, most painful version of the Black Death. The tongue would swell so that the victim could no longer swallow. Blood vessels would burst under the slightest touch, causing horrible bruising. Often before the body entirely ruptured, a fever of such high temperatures that a person would literally seem to be burning from within would bring on death by dehydration. Oddly, this was the least deadly strain, with only about a 60% mortality rate. Yet all of these statistics tell nothing about what the disease really was, or how it really destroyed the people infected by it. For a more personal picture, I turned to historical fiction.
In Doomsday Book, a child who has just died of the plague is described like this:
Kivrin washed her little body, which was nearly covered with purplish-blue bruises. Where Eliwys had held her hand, the skin was completely black. She looked like she had been beaten. As she had been, Kivrin thought, beaten and tortured. And murdered. The slaughter of the innocents (Willis, pgs. 494-495).
The Black Death Part 4: The Path of the Disease