Did Poland Really Escape the Black Death?

28 Feb 2024
Since the outbreak of Coronavirus (COVID-19) in China, people have been making obvious parallels with other major pandemics in history, most notably the Bubonic Plague, or 'Black Death'Before the first confirmed case of Coronavirus in Poland, authorities were not doing much aside from propagating the idea that Poland would not be as affected by the virus as other countries. This optimism, though since proven wrong, may have had something to do with the region's historic so-called 'avoidance' of the medieval pandemic. Realistically, it affected Poland on a much smaller scale than the rest of Europe in the 14th century (sadly, this balance would be paid during WWII). Would history repeat itself 700 years later? Apparently not. The number of daily cases in Poland has increased at an alarming rate, and during September-October 2020 we've watched them double from week to week. On October 21st 2020, we reached 10,000+ cases, compared to just 5,000+ a week before.
The surreal image of the Beaked Plague Doctor is synonymous with the Black Death. While the mask looks terrifying, it had a genuine purpose:
Inside the beak would be filled with perfumes and herbs to deflect miasma, the horrific stench of 'bad air' from both plague victims and the dead. 

Poland Was Not Actually Spared

Before we go any further we need to clear up a perpetuated myth.
            A map showing the coverage of the Black Death,
             notably the areas of minor outbreaks in Green.
The largest of these areas are centred around historic Poland.
The statement that is often blabbed amongst history buffs and general know-it-alls is 'Poland Escaped the Black Death'. While we would've loved this statement to be true, quite simply, this statement is absolutely false. The bubonic plague absolutely made it to Poland and there were certainly a number of outbreaks around the area. Sadly, with the overall scale of the destruction and the poorly-kept records, we will never know exactly how many succumbed. Estimations have generally stated that the kingdom lost about 25% of its population. While this sounds like a lot by today's standards, losing a quarter of your inhabitants is a pale amount compared to countries like Italy, France and Spain, that suffered an estimated 75-80% loss of life. For this reason, Poland can be called an area of 'minor outbreak', as is highlighted in the map to the right. Other tiny areas, such as the Italian city-state of Milan, coastal areas of the Low Countries (now The Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg) and the Kingdom of Navarre (now Basque Country in Spain) were also 'lightly touched' in a similar fashion to our beloved Poland.

Quarantine of the Polish Borders

One key reason often attributed to the low rates of contagion was the decision by Polish king, Casimir the Great, to close the country's 'borders' shortly after the initial reports from the west and set up internal quarantines.
   Casimir the Great - Tolerant and Health-Conscious
This was not an operation like you would see in the current 'State of Epidemic Threat' at every road entry to Poland, more-so it related to medieval walled-cities and refusing entry to obviously-infected individuals. Therefore, contagious people could still travel between smaller communities in the countryside of a dominion. Nevertheless, Poland was a much less-densely populated area than elsewhere in Europe, so contagion was slower to spread.

Furthermore, travel time also plays an important factor here. For example, it would normally take 8 days to travel from Prague to Kraków on horseback, even slower if you were on foot. Compare that with the amount of time it would take for the plague to kick-in - between 24 to 72 hours to get sick. So, by the time you reached Kraków or any other city for that matter, you were clearly not going to be let into the city walls!

Poland's Jewish Population

As the historic scapegoats of Europe, the minority Jewish population of Europe suffered at the hands of a bigoted Christian-majority. Once again, thanks to the rulership of Casimir the Great, Jews were offered a safe haven in Paradisus Iudaeorum (ENG: Paradise of the Jews) as Poland became known. This population would thrive for centuries until the atrocities committed in WWII. Unfortunately, when the bubonic plague first hit Europe in October 1347, the gentile population was cynical of the lower rates of infection amongst local Jewry, and therefore subscribed to the idea that the plague was a Jewish conspiracy!
American Jewish historian Berel Wein and many others attribute the lower death-rates of Jews during the plague to the adherence of sanitary practices in Jewish law. Simple but regular actions, like washing his or her hands many times throughout the day or that one must not eat food without washing one’s hands, leaving the bathroom and after any sort of intimate human contact are considered basic hygiene in the 21st-century. However, these strict Jewish practices were hardly standard for the majority of common-folk who could go half his or her life without ever washing their hands!
A woodcut from the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493) depicting Jews burned alive en-masse. A prime example of Medieval Anti-Semitism
Another interesting point in Jewish law prevents an individual from reciting blessings and saying prayers by an open pit at latrines and at places with a foul odour. For this reason, the sanitary conditions in Jewish communities were always far superior than in the neighbourhoods of non-Jews.

Jewish law also prescribes certain sanitary conditions related to burial of the dead, which were undertaken by the burial sociery, Chevrah Kadisha, who are kind of like funerary directors in Jewish communities. Practices, such as washing the body of the deceased and stationing shomrim, watchers of corpses, ensured that vermin were kept away from the dead. These factors, no doubt, hugely reduced the spread of infection in their communities.
Illustration from The Chronicles of Gilles Li Muisis (1272–1352) showing citizens of Tournai (now Belgium) burying plague victims.
Scenes like this were commonplace all over Europe in the 14th Century, albeit on a much smaller scale in the Kingdom of Poland.

Geography and Climate

As a final pointer that is often discussed as an asset to slowing the spread of disease is Poland's geographical and climatic position in Europe. Firstly, as was touched on before, Poland was more sparsely-populated than elsewhere in Europe and, more-specifically, could hardly compare to the densley-populated Mediterranean coast that had evolved through trade and generally warmer weather. And on the point of weather, Poland's temperate seasonal climate is believed to have mitigated the spread of the plague due to the fact that it was colder than Southern and Western Europe. Taking it a step further, historian Norman F Cantor theorises in his book In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World It MadeThe absence of plague in Bohemia and Poland is commonly explained by the rats' avoidance of these areas due to the unavailability of food the rodents found palatable. Maybe both points are true? Maybe neither? Sadly, we will never know for sure. 

The Black Death VS Coronavirus

On a virological level, it's impossible to compare the two. The Bubonic Plague is a flea-borne bacterial disease, carried by rodents that jumped to humans. Coronavirus (COVID-19) is a strain of severe acute respiratory syndrome transmitted primarily via respiratory droplets. Whilst the deathtoll of the latter is currently just under 8,000 worldwide, nevertheless shocking, it must be remembered that the Bubonic Plague wiped out 30-60% of medieval Europe and an estimated overall death toll of 75-200 million people in Eurasia. The Black Death truly earnt its name.

Medieval Xenophobia - An illustration portraying
a Jew poisoning the well of a Christian settlement.
Beyond of the stats, other common factors are still present: Xenophobia towards Jews has been replaced with Xenophobia towards Asian minorities across the world. Misinformation by the dominance of the Church in Medieval Europe that Jews were poisoning the wells of Christian communities is somehow echoed in recent fake news headlines that China had a biological-weapon that unintentionally leaked. Asylum granted to Jews in Poland in 14th-Century is a far cry from the Law and Justice (PiS) party's stance on accepting any quote of Syrian Refugees. Sadly, Coronavirus will currently not help these individuals in their case for resettlement. Poland was certainly quicker to close its borders than others in Europe, much like it had in the 14th-century. We hope that measures put in place will somehow prevent the population from going the way of Italy, which is currently the hardest-hit nation in Europe with regard to Coronavirus.

You like Death? You wanna see more?

As the impact of the bubonic plague was not felt as much in Poland, key sites are non-existent. In our article, Creepy Poland, we talk about a number of sites where bones have been used to furnish the interiors of churches and tombs (how lovely!). Most notably, Kaplica Czaszek (ENG: the Chapel of Skulls) on the Polish/Czech border is furnished with plague victims from the 17th Century - not the same period as the Black Death!

Plague crosses, distinguished by their double-beams (this style is known as karawaki in Polish), are commonly-found on roadsides and in regional areas in eastern Poland. In the middle-ages, these were used to mark infected buildings areas of high contagion. Those that are seen around the country now were placed in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, supposedly in response to cholera outbreaks. These evolved into a sort of 'amulet' that the common-folk viewed against many misfortunes: diseases, accidents, curses, theft, storms, lightning and insomnia to name a few! During an October 2020 appeal for strict social-distancing and sanitary standards in churches to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Bishop Piotr Libera of Płock suggested 'placing plague crosses, where it would be possible to pray to the Savior of the world for mercy and salvation'.
A 'Plague Cross' on a roadside in Sumiężne, Masovia.

Read more on the latest on Coronavirus in Warsaw.
Read more on the latest on Coronavirus in Kraków.
Read more on the latest on Coronavirus in Łódż.
Read more on the latest on Coronavirus in Gdańsk, Sopot and Gdynia.
Read more on the latest on Coronavirus in Katowice.
Read more on the latest on Coronavirus in Wrocław.
Read more on the latest on Coronavirus in Poznań.


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