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Yersinia pestis, the bubonic plague, or The Black Death. The Black Death was one of the deadliest pandemics in human history, peaking in Europe between 1348 and 1350 but strains continuing until the 1700s. It's believed to have originated in Asia. For more on the science and history of the plague here is the Other Wiki.

The epidemic was known at the time as the Great Pestilence. The name "Black Death" is relatively recent.

When this appears in a story you know things are quickly going to go downhill for the heroes (if there even are heroes). Due to its transcending memories of death, destruction, and desperation, such stories generally have a Downer Ending. It tends to be used because to most cultures, death is feared and a reminder of our own mortality is chilling.

Keep in mind that the disease is not called the "bubonic plague"; it's simply "plague". "Bubonic" simply means that the disease affects the lymph system (and the lymph nodes, which swell up into "bubos") first. In coastal areas, the most common form of plague was pneumonic plague, which affects the lungs. Septicemic plague affects the bloodstream. The difference? One-third of bubonic plague victims survive and those who don't survive take days to die. Pneumonic plague kills all but a handful of sufferers, usually within a day. Septicemic plague is always fatal and kills within hours.

There have been many other outbreaks of plague other than the 1348-1350 pandemic. The most recent occurred at the beginning of the 20th century, killing tens of millions in India and China.

See also The Plague for devestating pandemics in general.

Examples of The Black Death include:


  • Black Death obviously has this as a topic. It shows well how different people responded to the outbreak in 1348.
  • The Black Death plays a major thematic role in The Seventh Seal.
  • Referenced in Monty Python and The Holy Grail.
  • The plague -- and the strategic use of its victims during the seige of a castle -- plays a major role in 1985's Flesh+Blood. The film also provides some of the most graphically accurate depictions of the disease ever seen on screen.


  • Boccaccio's Decameron (written a few years after the plague) is about ten wealthy Florentines who decamp to the countryside with their retinue to escape from the plague, and pass their days in storytelling.
  • In the Alternate History novel Years of Rice and Salt, the Black Death causes the extinction of Western civilization.
  • At the end of The Name of the Rose (set in 1327) it's mentioned that William eventually died during the Black Death.
  • Ken Follett's World Without End includes a section where the plague comes to Kingsbridge and Caris, our heroine, desperately struggles to limit the destruction. Later parts of the book deal with the sociological changes the plague brought.
  • When everyone in the Michael Crichton novel Timeline get tired of the Corrupt Corporate Executive, they send him back in time to 14th century Europe at the height of The Plague. It takes him a little while to realize just where he's been sent, but when he puts it together he notes that he's already showing symptoms...
  • A Journal of the Plague Year, as its name says, deals with the epidemy of London between 1664 and 1666.
  • In The Trolls, the children's usual babysitter is unable to look after them, because she caught a "touch of" the Black Death while vacationing in Europe. Alarmingly, she still offers to show up if the parents really need a babysitter. The mom understandably doesn't take her up on this offer.

Live Action TV

  • In Highlander the Series, this is how Amanda died the first time.
  • In an episode of Torchwood, a number of people slip through the time rift into present-day Cardiff -- causing, among other things, an outbreak of bubonic plague. Fortunately, Owen recognizes it, and these days it's treatable.
  • Secret Army. La Résistance discover that an Allied airman being sheltered by them has it, and so they must prevent the other members of his unit from escaping and infecting an occupied population suffering from lack of food and medical care. One man who does so is gunned down and his body burnt by molotov cocktail.
  • NCIS. Tony opens a letter and gets sprayed by a white powder that they naturally assume is anthrax, but it turns out to be weaponised Y. pestis. There is no cure, but fortunately as a fit, well-nourished male with access to modern medical care Tony's chances of surviving are a lot better.
  • The Collector: The plague features prominently in Morgan's past.
  • The patient of the week is infected with this in the House episode "Sleeping Dogs Lie" although she doesn't die from it.


  • Seanan McGuire's cheery Filk Song "The Black Death" argues for the theory that the Black Death was not in fact Y. Pestis:

 Speaking epidemiologically, bubonic plague doesn't make sense to me.

Yersinia pestis gets you dead, it's true, but it isn't as effective as the common flu.

If you want to wipe out half of Europe's population, you'll need a better agent for your devastation;

You need a viral agent that that is tried and tragic -- let's take a look at fevers that are hemorrhagic.


Web Original

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