By Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D., Purdue University
Between 1347 and 1353, the entire medieval world suffered the worst epidemic in known history—what has now come to be called the Black Death. However, there were a few communities—and some entire nations—that were spared mostly during the initial mid-14th century outbreak. How did they manage this?
Spread of the Black Death
The plague, or the Black Death, swept across the continent between 1347 and 1353, first gaining access through port cities, and then advancing simultaneously but more slowly via overland routes. In the end, some 50 per cent of the population perished, with another significant segment of the population contracting the disease but surviving it.
However, there were places that escaped the onslaught of the Black Death.
Iceland escaped the first wave of plague and remained plague-free during the initial years of the Great Mortality. It seemed that it enjoyed a degree of natural protection simply by virtue of the fact that it was an island.
However, Sicily, Britain, and Ireland are also islands, but all of them suffered terribly from the initial onslaught of the Great Pestilence. The difference here is that these places were deeply invested in Mediterranean trade routes, and that’s the first place the plague struck, the port cities along these routes.
It took plague a few years after the initial outbreak to make it to the Nordic countries, and Iceland’s trade relationships were primarily with Norway and Sweden.
But timing factored in, in another way as well. In August 1349, an Icelandic trading ship that had traveled to Norway was preparing to return to Reykjavik from Bergen with new goods on board. Just before the ship was scheduled to set sail, a plague epidemic was recognized as having broken out on board, and the voyage was canceled. This event both saved the Icelandic population and made them extremely cautious about trading with countries and communities where there was even a rumor of plague.
Learn more about the economics of the Black Death.
Plague Outbreak in Iceland
Iceland managed to avoid plague until there was finally an outbreak there in 1402. As with the initial outbreaks in the medieval world 50 years earlier, mortality rates were estimated at around 50 percent.
After this experience, Iceland managed to avoid plague until they were hit with a second outbreak in 1494. Again, that outbreak is estimated to have killed half the population—but Iceland was lucky in that they managed to go almost a century between outbreaks while most of the rest of the medieval world was experiencing new plague outbreaks every decade or so.
The limited number of outbreaks in Iceland and the long periods between them is responsible for Iceland’s very existence today.
This is a transcript from the video series The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Escape of Finland
Another Scandinavian country that seems to have largely escaped the Black Death was Finland. Although this nation is connected to Sweden and Norway, it was a fairly isolated entity in the mid–14th century—almost like an island—and its population density was a key factor in its survival.
By best estimates, the population of Finland was similar to that of Iceland—around 60,000 people or so. However, there were no major towns in Finland, and population density was minute. Also helping Finland was the fact that it didn’t have very much in the way of trade networks that ran outside the country. Because of its isolation both physically and culturally, Finland dodged the worst of the plague.
Yet another reason that Finland seems to have escaped relatively unscathed is because of the way in which its nearest neighbor, Sweden, was infected.
Infection of Sweden happened slowly, relative to the rest of the medieval world, and the plague came via Norway and a little later again, via Denmark, and the main areas of infection were on the western shores on the Baltic Sea. The plague doesn’t seem to have established itself with any sort of firmness on Sweden’s eastern shores, so Finland didn’t need to worry about infection from that quarter.
Learn more about the conspiracy theories during the plague.
Poland: Spared or Not?
For a long time, there was a line of argument in historical circles that Poland had been only minimally affected.
The most likely primary reason for Poland appearing to have escaped the Black Death by and large is that there’s simply not very much data available for the time and the place. And the reason for this, according to the great plague historian Ole Benedictow, is that under communism, there was an active effort to suppress evidence of the socioeconomic impact of the Black Death.
Also, the borders of medieval Poland were somewhat different from those of the modern country of the same name. In 1348, Poland was a very small, landlocked kingdom bordered by Prussia, the German states, and what we consider today part of the Ukraine.
But whether we’re talking about the borders of the medieval or modern Poland, it’s safe to say that, where once there seemed to be consensus that Poland had managed to escape the worst of the Black Death, in fact, it experienced it on a level similar to what was occurring throughout the rest of the medieval world.
This makes sense, because unlike Finland or Iceland, where plague had only one viable route in and where this route was cut off or blocked or limited, the Black Death was coming at Poland from all sides—from the north, via Gdańsk, which was hit in 1349; from the west, via the city of Frankfurt, a Polish trading partner that was overrun with plague in 1351; and from the south, via the river Vistula. Given the fact that plague was present on three out of four sides of medieval Poland, it seems unlikely that this region could have avoided infection.
Common Questions about the Black Death in Iceland, Finland, and Poland
The first place the plague struck was the Mediterranean trade routes and the port cities along these routes.
Iceland had the first plague outbreak in 1402, and then the second outbreak in 1494.
The population density was very low in Finland, and it didn’t have very much in the way of trade networks that ran outside the country. This physical and cultural isolation helped Finland escape the worst of the plague.