In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Black Death and Plague: The Disease and Medical Thought

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Collections Of Papers
  • Sources
  • British Isles
  • Italy
  • France
  • German-Speaking Regions
  • Scandinavian Countries
  • Spain
  • Eastern Europe And Russia
  • Middle East
  • Plague Studies Over The Long Term
  • The Disappearance Of Plague In Europe

Renaissance and Reformation Black Death and Plague: The Disease and Medical Thought
Samuel Kline Cohn
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 January 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 May 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0016


The history of the Black Death constitutes one of the most interdisciplinary fields of Renaissance and Reformation studies, bringing together not only a wide spectrum of scholars in the humanities and social sciences—students of literature, art history, economics, anthropology, demography—but also scholars across scientific disciplines such as archaeology, biology, zoology, genetics, dentistry, and more. Modern scholarship and enthusiasm for the subject have closely followed major outbreaks of epidemic diseases threatening Europe: the cholera epidemics of the 1830s (when the term “Black Death” became common in the English language for the disease’s outbreak from 1346 to 1352), the spread of bubonic plague (later christened Yersinia pestis) in 1894 to World War I, and most recently, the spread of HIV/AIDS from the mid-1980s to the present.

General Overviews

General works that cut across national boundaries can be divided into two chronological categories: those that concentrate almost exclusively on the Black Death (1346 to 1352), and those that consider the Black Death and successive waves of plague into the 18th or 19th century. For the most part, these works consider the Black Death and plague beyond considerations of the disease itself and analyze its demographic, economic, religious, and psychological consequences (see also the entry titled “Plague and Its Consequences”). During the second half of the 19th century, three multivolume national surveys of the history of epidemics were published, which concentrate on the history of plague. Valuable information can still be gleaned from Corradi 1972–1973 (on Italy), Creighton 1965 (on Britain), and Haeser 1875–1882 (on Europe, but concentrates on German-speaking regions). These titles are especially valuable regarding sources on the Black Death and subsequent plagues. Among the numerous works published during the last fifty years, Benedictow 2004, Bergdolt 1994, Carpentier 1962, Herlihy 1997, and Ziegler 1969 have traced the spread of the Black Death, estimated its mortality, commented on cultural reactions, and have analyzed economic and demographic consequences of plague.

  • Benedictow, Ole Jørgen. The Black Death, 1346–1353: The Complete History. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell, 2004.

    Dedicated to tracking the spread of the Black Death, country by country, argues that the plague was spread by rats and fleas but makes no reference to opposing views of the previous two decades. It gives the highest estimates yet for total plague mortality of Europe, which was 50 percent or more.

  • Bergdolt, Klaus. Der Schwarze Tod in Europa: Die Grosse Pest und das Ende des Mittelalters. Munich: C. H. Beck, 1994.

    Surveys the path of plague and its consequences, based largely on published chronicles and physicians’ plague tracts; particularly useful are chapters on the physician’s plague tract, Petrarch, and other examples of contemporary literature to evoke the psychological horrors of the Black Death. Reprinted in 1995 and 2000.

  • Carpentier, Élisabeth Carpentier. “Autour de la Peste Noire: Famines et épidémies dans l’histoire du XIVe siècle.” Annales: E. S. C. 17 (1962): 1062–1092.

    Excellent review of the historiography on the spread of plague from the Middle East across Europe (with map); analyzes the character of the disease (bubonic and pneumonic plague), demographic and economic consequences for the 14th century, medical thought and literature, the psychological ramifications of the persecution of Jews and class hatred; also draws on historical examples and historiography of Spain, France, England, Italy, German-speaking regions, and Poland.

  • Corradi, Alfonso. Annali delle epidemie occorse in Italia dalle prime memorie fino al 1850. 8 vols. Bologna, Italy: Forni, 1972–1973.

    A chronological listing of diseases and other natural calamities culled largely from chronicles (published and unpublished) and medical writings principally on plagues (plague tracts). Vols. 1 (from pp. 182 on) and 4 (pp. 32–605) cover the period from the Black Death’s first appearance in Messina in October 1347 to 1600. Vol. 2 covers the last two major plague waves in Italy: 1629–1633 and 1656–1657. Originally published 1865–1894.

  • Creighton, Charles. A History of Epidemics in Britain. 2 vols. With additional material by D. E. C. Eversley, E. Ashworth Underwood, and Lynda Overnall. London: Cass, 1965.

    Vol. 1 considers epidemics in English history from the plague of Bede (664–684) to the Great Plague of London in 1665; concentrates on the Black Death and its recurrent waves. It surveys chronicles, manuscripts, and archival records. Originally published 1891–1894.

  • Haeser, Heinrich. Geschichte der epidemischen Krankheiten im Lehrbuch der Geschichte der Medizin und der epidemischen Krankheiten. 3 vols. Jena, Germany: Hermann Dufft, 1875–1882.

    Principally vol. 3, Book 2: “The plague epidemics of the fourteenth century” (97–187), surveys theories of the origins of the plague; spread of the disease through Europe, including Russia, Hungary, and Poland, with dates of arrival (according to the chronicle evidence); some demographic estimates, aetiology, and social and moral consequences, such as the flagellants and massacres of Jews; followed by fourteen contemporary sources in the original languages.

  • Herlihy, David. The Black Death and the Transformation of the West. Edited by Samuel Cohn Jr. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

    Three short analytical chapters on the character of the disease, change in economic and demographic systems of Europe, and modes of thought; utilizes a wide variety of primary sources from saints’ lives to statistical analyses of tax records.

  • Ziegler, Philip. The Black Death. London: Collins, 1969.

    Describes various aspects of the plague placed within national contexts. Most chapters, however, concentrate on England and English sources. The book offers a wide body of published sources considering diverse topics such as the plague’s spread, mortality rates, and the psychological consequences of the Black Death. Its analysis, however, is limited mostly to the years 1347–1352. Reprinted with a new preface in 2003.

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