On this day in history : 16th July 1439 – King Henry VI bans kissing in England – in an attempt to stop the spread of the plague…. A ban that failed as people refused to co-operate….

Inspired by the Black Death, ‘The Dance of Death’ or, ‘Danse Macabre’ – a common painting motif in the late Medieval period – Public domain

People in the Middle Ages believed that disease was spread through tiny particles…. It was not understood that the plague was spread by black rats, which were everywhere; fleas would bite the rats and then humans, passing the disease on…. Symptoms would start with a high fever and a hacking cough…. Huge black boils, some the size of an egg, would then appear on the neck, in the armpits and groin area…. Most died within 2-7 days…. There was no medical help….only special ‘plague doctors’ who would beat sufferers with a rod to try and ‘purify’ them of whatever sin they had committed in order to receive such a terrible punishment….

Copper engraving of Doctor Schnabel (Dr Beak), a plague doctor in 17th Century Rome, circa 1656 – Public domain

It is thought the disease arrived in Europe from Central Asia via the Silk Route – with rats coming in onboard merchants’ ships…. It is thought between 1347 and 1351 up to 200 million died across Eurasia; there are no exact figures but recent research believes between 45-50% of Europe’s population was wiped out…. It is estimated around 30% of England’s population died but some sources say it could have been as high as 50%…. Whole families perished….nobody was safe, from peasants to royalty…. The unhygienic environment of the time meant disease spread quickly….King Henry VI issued his decree – banning kissing until the plague had passed – as he believed ‘if the lips were kept chaste the small particles of plague could not be passed on’….

The Great Plague of London, in 1665, killed up to 100,000 people – Public domain

By the end of 1350 Black Death had more or less died out in Europe….but not so in England, the disease kept on recurring…. It peaked in 1665 with the Great Plague of London….and it was The Great Fire of London in 1666 that helped eradicate the disease by killing most of the black rats….and their fleas….

Black rat at London Zoo – Image credit: Liftarn CC BY-SA-3.0

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