What ended the Black Death, history's worst pandemic

The bubonic plague ravaged the world for centuries, killing up to 200 million people.

What ended the Black Death, history's worst pandemic

A man dresses as a plague doctor at the Bannockburn Live event on June 28, 2014 in Stirling, Scotland.

Credit: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
  • The Plague was the worst pandemic in history, killing up to 200 million people.
  • The disease spread through air, rats, and fleas, and decimated Europe for several centuries.
  • The pandemic eased with better sanitation, hygiene, and medical advancements but never completely disappeared.

    • While the world continues to suffer from the onslaught of COVID-19, its toll has yet to approach the grim statistics of history's deadliest pandemic–the Black Death. Also called the Black Plague, this terrible illness afflicted Europe and Asia in the mid-1300s, with new outbreaks over several centuries. It killed about a third of the European population when it began–nearly 20 million people. Over a few years, the total for the extremely contagious plague is estimated to have reached as high as 200 million victims globally.

      The bubonic plague first came to Europe in 1347, aboard 12 trading ships from the Black Sea that docked at the Sicilian port of Messina. Most of the sailors on those ships were either dead or terribly ill, covered in black boils full of blood and pus. By the time the authorities tried to send these ships away, it was too late and the plague started spreading. This was due, in particular, to the fact that the disease did not only transmit through air but also through the bites of infected fleas and rats. These were plentiful in Europe of the time, and a real mainstay aboard ships, which carried the plague from port to port. The illness also spread to livestock like cows and sheep and even chicken.

      People praying for relief from the bubonic plague, circa 1350. Original Artwork: Designed by E Corbould, lithograph by F Howard.

      Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

      The disease likely originated in Asia over 2,000 years ago. This ancient pestilence decimated the world on different occasions but none as bad as when it hit in the Middle Ages.

      Caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, the plague resulted in terrifying symptoms. As reported by the History Channel, the Italian poet Giovanni Boccaccio described the afflictions that came with the plague in no uncertain terms: "In men and women alike, at the beginning of the malady, certain swellings, either on the groin or under the armpits…waxed to the bigness of a common apple, others to the size of an egg, some more and some less, and these the vulgar named plague-boils."

      Ambulance men of Florence, Italy, carrying a patient on a stretcher whilst wearing masks to ward off the plague.

      Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

      Attacking the lymphatic system, the plague also brought with it fever, vomiting, diarrhea, body aches, and pains. Unfortunately, available medieval treatments like bloodletting certainly weren't too pleasant and did little to stem the tide of the Black Death. Neither did the belief of many that the plague was a punishment from God. This resulted in the purging of "heretics" like the massacres of thousands of Jews in 1348 and 1349 and a whole class of self-flagellating people who went from town to town beating themselves in penance.

      What finally ended the Black Death? It went away for periods of time but would come back for a new round during several centuries like its resurgence in London in 1665-1666, when it killed about 100,000 – a quarter of the city's population. The eventual weakening of the pandemic was likely due to the practice of quarantining infected people that originated in Venice in the 15th century and is with us to this day. Improved sanitation, personal hygiene, and medical practices also played a role in ultimately slowing the plague's terror march. Still, annually there are about 1,000 to 3,000 cases of the plague even in the modern world.

      Plague 101 

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      The first nation to make bitcoin legal tender will use geothermal energy to mine it.

      Credit: Aaron Thomas via Unsplash
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      This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

      In June 2021, El Salvador became the first nation in the world to make bitcoin legal tender. Soon after, President Nayib Bukele instructed a state-owned power company to provide bitcoin mining facilities with cheap, clean energy — harnessed from the country's volcanoes.

      The challenge: Bitcoin is a cryptocurrency, a digital form of money and a payment system. Crypto has several advantages over physical dollars and cents — it's incredibly difficult to counterfeit, and transactions are more secure — but it also has a major downside.

      Crypto transactions are recorded and new coins are added into circulation through a process called mining.

      Crypto mining involves computers solving incredibly difficult mathematical puzzles. It is also incredibly energy-intensive — Cambridge University researchers estimate that bitcoin mining alone consumes more electricity every year than Argentina.

      Most of that electricity is generated by carbon-emitting fossil fuels. As it stands, bitcoin mining produces an estimated 36.95 megatons of CO2 annually.

      A world first: On June 9, El Salvador became the first nation to make bitcoin legal tender, meaning businesses have to accept it as payment and citizens can use it to pay taxes.

      Less than a day later, Bukele tweeted that he'd instructed a state-owned geothermal electric company to put together a plan to provide bitcoin mining facilities with "very cheap, 100% clean, 100% renewable, 0 emissions energy."

      Geothermal electricity is produced by capturing heat from the Earth itself. In El Salvador, that heat comes from volcanoes, and an estimated two-thirds of their energy potential is currently untapped.

      Why it matters: El Salvador's decision to make bitcoin legal tender could be a win for both the crypto and the nation itself.

      "(W)hat it does for bitcoin is further legitimizes its status as a potential reserve asset for sovereign and super sovereign entities," Greg King, CEO of crypto asset management firm Osprey Funds, told CBS News of the legislation.

      Meanwhile, El Salvador is one of the poorest nations in North America, and bitcoin miners — the people who own and operate the computers doing the mining — receive bitcoins as a reward for their efforts.

      "This is going to evolve fast!"
      NAYIB BUKELE

      If El Salvador begins operating bitcoin mining facilities powered by clean, cheap geothermal energy, it could become a global hub for mining — and receive a much-needed economic boost in the process.

      The next steps: It remains to be seen whether Salvadorans will fully embrace bitcoin — which is notoriously volatile — or continue business-as-usual with the nation's other legal tender, the U.S. dollar.

      Only time will tell if Bukele's plan for volcano-powered bitcoin mining facilities comes to fruition, too — but based on the speed of things so far, we won't have to wait long to find out.

      Less than three hours after tweeting about the idea, Bukele followed up with another tweet claiming that the nation's geothermal energy company had already dug a new well and was designing a "mining hub" around it.

      "This is going to evolve fast!" the president promised.

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