Have you ever heard the nursery rhyme called Ring around the Rosie? "Ring around the Rosie. Pocket full of poesy. Ashes, Ashes, we all fall down." This nursery rhyme is actually about a disease from the 14th century that the people called the plague or Black Death. This disease was highly contagious. It spread across Europe. It was so widespread and so deadly that it is estimated to have killed one third of all the people in Europe. The plague was not limited to Europe. It also struck Asia and Africa, where the death toll was also high.
If you break down the poem you can actually understand the effects a bit more:
"Ring around the Rosie": Infected people broke out in a rash on their arms and neck that had red ring shaped marks with dark center spot that looked like a rose. They would then get a high fever, become unconscious, and finally die.
"Pocket full of posey": People carried flowers, often posies, to cover the smell of the dead and dying.
"Ashes, Ashes": People would burn the dead in the houses of people with the disease in order to try and stop it. The sky was dark with the ashes of the burnt buildings.
"We all fall down": The plague filled villages and cities alike with dead and dying victims. People would collapse in the streets and be left lying there. People were afraid to touch them or get near them.
The people called this illness the Black Death. Infected people broke out with red ring shaped marks with dark centers. They ran high fevers, became more ill, and died.
The skies were filled with ashes as people burned houses filled with the dead. Whole villages filled with the dead were burned down, trying to contain and kill the disease. Nothing worked. In just two years, 25 million people died of the plague. In ten years, the plague had killed over 30% of Europe's population. Can you imagine the fear people must have felt? People were sick everywhere. Whole families were wiped out.
Outbreaks of the disease seemed to come in cycles. For a while, the disease would slow down. Everyone would heave a sign of relief. Then, new outbreaks would appear. This continued throughout the remainder of the Middle Ages.
Medieval people thought that the plague was a punishment from God. If you were bad and misbehaved, you got the plague. They did not know that fleas transmitted the disease from infected rats to people. People in the towns were hit the hardest. There was no sanitation. People threw their garage in the streets. To a rat, coming off a ship, the towns must have seemed like heaven. The more infected rats, the more infected fleas, the more dead people. If someone with the plague sneezed on you or breathed on you, you would get the plague. You did not have to touch an infected person to get sick.
The cause of the plague was not discovered until the 20th century (the 1900s). Today, this disease is called the bubonic plague. We have a vaccine for the plague should an outbreak ever happen again. We're lucky. The people in the Middle Ages did not have vaccines to protect them from many diseases as we do today.