How did the Trade Routes Spread the Plague in Scandinavia?

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Black Death: The World's Most Devastating Plague

By: Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D., Purdue University

Unlike the rest of Europe, the Black Death’s entry into Scandinavia was quite late. It wasn’t until 1349 that the plague hit Scandinavia. However, Scandinavia’s experience of the plague was different from the rest of western Europe. Why was that?

Image showing a medieval ship.
The trade routes were mainly responsible for spreading the plague in Scandinavia. (Image: Design Projects/Shutterstock)

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The Source of the Plague

Between 1349 and 1351, various forms of the bubonic plague caused the greatest number of deaths in Scandinavia. The source of the infection was traced to a specific ship carrying wool to Norway. This ship departed London in May 1349. It probably was intending to arrive and unload its cargo in Oslo, but somewhere en route, the ship was infected with the plague. It is believed that one of the crew must have been infected but did not know it before embarking.

According to numerous accounts, the entire crew died, and the ship sailed on and drifted until it ran aground somewhere near Bergen. However, there are other accounts that state that the ship did not run aground at all but was spotted drifting by people on shore somewhere on the west coast of Norway. Curious, they rowed out to see what had happened and then brought the disease back with them. There are also various accounts that suggest some of the crew had died, but the remainder made it to Norway, where, while they were still alive, they infected the local residents.

How a Ship Infected Scandinavia with the Plague

There are various accounts that state that the plague entered Scandinavia via a ship that travelled to Norway from England in 1349. According to one of the chronicles, Lawman’s Annal: “At that time a ship left England with many people on board. It pulled into the bay of Bergen, and some of its cargo was unloaded. Then, all the people on the ship died. As soon as the goods from this ship were brought into the town, the townsmen began to die. Thereafter, the pestilence swept all over Norway and wrought such havoc that not one-third of the people survived. The English ship sank with its cargo and the dead men and was not unloaded. More ships, cargo vessels, and many other ships, sank or drifted widely around. And the same pestilence visited the Shetland Islands, the Orkney Islands, the Hebrides, and the Faroe Islands.”

It is certain that the plague came to Norway from England via a ship in late spring 1349. From Lawman’s Annal, it is clear that the plague was striking off the islands of what is believed as present-day Scotland before becoming a presence in the interior of that realm.

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The Culprits: The Trade Routes

When it comes to the spread of plague through Scandinavia, it is clear that the trade routes were the culprits. In general, the Scandinavian sociopolitical system was somewhat different from the rest of Western Europe. Feudalism was not as strongly or deeply pervasive. While still a primarily agricultural society, the land was mostly freely held—rather than in fee or vassalage from the king or a lord—and there were many who lived in mountain settlements where agriculture could not offer a subsistence existence.

Image of a medieval port city
Most of the Scandinavian countries relied heavily on trade for sustenance. (Image: Sasa Dzambic Photography/Shutterstock)

Those who lived in the mountains were dependent on extensive trade networks running down to the coast for many of the goods they required for survival. It was along these routes that the plague made its way inland through Norway and then to Sweden, and finally to Denmark, which was also suffering from plague coming up from the south. Interestingly, plague struck Denmark, Norway’s neighbor to the south, before it struck much of the German-speaking lands, including Austria, in the European interior.

This is a transcript from the video series The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague. Watch it now Wondrium.

The Socioeconomic Structure of Scandinavia

An important factor of the socioeconomic structure of Scandinavia is that the agricultural system there was particularly dependent upon young, unwed men—known as ungkarl, plural ungkarlar—as labor. This was different from a place, such as England, where agriculture was performed by a family unit, with the oldest male—the father or head of the household—being arguably the most important component of the feudal, manorial structure. So important was the head of the household in England when it came to agricultural production that if the father should die, it was considered a great loss to the lord of the manor, as he no longer had one of his most valuable and productive workers. To make up for this loss in productivity, the family of the deceased would pay a death tax, known as a heriot, to the lord of the manor.

Image showing a medieval young, unwed man in Scandinavia known as ungkarl.
The medieval agricultural system of Scandinavia was dependent on young, unwed men in Scandinavia. They were known as ungkarlar. (Image: Tntk/Shutterstock)

It meant that while it was necessary for young men to marry and reproduce in order to carry on the production of society, marrying too young was not ideal, because that took a man out of the ungkarl labor pool. When the Black Death swept through Scandinavia, it carried off many young men and women who were the producers of the next generation. The Scandinavian agricultural system was further damaged when, in response to the onslaught of the Black Death, there was another demographic shift—people started marrying younger, which once again diminished the ungkarl labor pool.

The Plague’s Journey Onward

Once Sweden succumbed in 1350, the Black Death’s conquest of Western Europe was pretty much complete, as that was also the year that the Great Mortality finally made its way up north from the Italian Peninsula. After hitting Budapest, Munich, Vienna, Strasbourg, Mainz, and other cities in that area in late 1349, the plague moved in the start of the new year of 1350 into Nuremberg, Prague, Hamburg, Cologne, and the environs of those cities. The northern wave, brought to Scandinavia by a boat in 1349, headed south and east and crashed into another wave of pestilence moving north and west overland. From Italy to Ireland, from France to Denmark, the Black Death’s conquest of Europe was complete once Sweden fully succumbed in 1350. From 1351–1353, the plague would complete its deathly journey by heading east and south through Poland into Russia and ending up almost exactly where it had begun.

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Common Questions About the Plague in Scandinavia

Q: How did the bubonic plague enter Norway?

The bubonic plague came to Norway from England via a specific ship carrying wool to Norway. The ship had departed London in May 1349.

Q: How was the plague’s entry into Iceland delayed by almost half a century?

When a member of a ship’s crew that was about to return to Iceland from Norway fell ill, the members, recognizing the symptoms to be that of the plague, canceled their journey home, thereby delaying the plague’s entry into Iceland by almost half a century.

Q: Why was marrying too young not ideal in Scandinavia during the Black Death?

Marrying too young in Scandinavia during the Black Death was not ideal, because that took a man out of the ungkarl labor pool. These unwed men worked as laborers in the agricultural system.

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