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The featured image of the Wikipedia page for the Black Death is a gif showing the spread of the bubonic plague throughout Europe. There are a few places where the plague never spread to, including the area around Milan. But most notably, the entire Kingdom of Poland is spared, even as virtually every other region is infected.

enter image description here

The Wikipedia page itself just says the following:

The plague spared some parts of Europe, including the Kingdom of Poland, the majority of the Basque Country and isolated parts of Belgium and the Netherlands.

But it never gives an explanation why Poland would be spared. Was Poland just lucky, or was something else at play?

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    Your map is misleading. The black death was an urban syndrome. People living in rural circumstances were not affected nearly so much. I know the average monk writing about it thought cities and towns were the whole world, but believe or not, farmers are people too. – Tyler Durden Oct 20 '14 at 1:08
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    @TylerDurden Is it true that the "average monk" was living in an urban environment. Most of the monasteries whose buildings survive in the UK are in rural areas, where the monks could contemplate without the distractions of city life. (On the other hand, maybe it's just because the urban monasteries would have had their stones and land reused after Henry VIII closed them down.) – David Richerby Oct 20 '14 at 12:27
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    @TylerDurden Norway was devastated by the black death. To this day ødegård - deserted farm - is a reasonable common placename. So I am not convinced about your claim that the black death was an urban syndrome. – Taemyr Oct 21 '14 at 9:08
  • related – Drux Mar 18 '15 at 13:58
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    It was not a urban syndrome as rich people from the cities tried to escape them and seek refuge in their domains of relatives' domains in the countryside, bringing the disease with them. The commerce between the cities and the countryside continued too, bringing more death. – Shautieh Feb 27 '17 at 14:33
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Poland wasn't actually "spared", it was merely less affected than the rest of Europe. That graphic is incorrect (or rather, incomplete), since a substantial number of both Poland and Milan's population did in fact die of the plague. Their death rates were only "low" in comparison to the rest of Europe - if it happened today, it would be horrifying to us.

Poland lost about a quarter of its population to the plague (...) Milan's death rate was less than 15%, probably the lowest in Italy save a few Alpine villages.

- Gottfried, Robert S. Black Death. New York: The Free Press, 1983.

Nonetheless, it is true that Poland did survive the Black Death relatively unscathed. In addition to Poland's relatively sparse population, a key factor is that King Casimir the Great wisely quarantined the Polish borders. By holding the plague off at the borders, the disease's impact on Poland was softened.

During Kazimierz's reign, the Black Death, a pandemic infection, swept across Europe, killing millions. But Poland established quarantines at its borders, and the plague skirted Poland almost entirely.

- Zuchora-Walske, Christine, Poland, North Mankato: ABDO Publishing, 2013.

The quarantine's effectiveness was further enhanced by Poland's relative isolation. While heavily hit regions such as the Mediterranean coast were densely interlinked with trade, the same was generally not true of Poland. When the Black Death arrived, this isolation helped insulate the Poles from the plague.

[M]uch larger areas, such as central Poland ... locations 'off the beaten trail' and not along the more popular trade routes were more likely to be on the lookout for ill travelers, 'foreigners', or perhaps not even be visited by outsiders at all. We believe that it was the exclusion of medieval traders and pilgrims that would significantly account for the lightly-affected Medieval Black Death regions

- Welford, Mark, and Brian H. Bossak. "Revisiting the Medieval Black Death of 1347–1351: Spatiotemporal Dynamics Suggestive of an Alternate Causation." Geography Compass 4.6 (2010): 561-575.

Additionally, it has often been claimed that that Poland fared better due to having fewer rats. Two popular explanations offered for this theory is that Poland had more cats, or alternatively less food for rats.

The 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.

- Cantor, Norman F. In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World It Made. Simon and Schuster, 2001.

It is, however, more likely that the local climate was simply less conductive to the plague's spread.

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    Since my only reference is my (Polish) wife, I'll just add this as a comment. Poland at the time mostly forest, with significant distances between settlements. Casmir introduced internal quarantines (as well as those at the borders), so that travelers (especially caravans) had to wait some distance outside cities for a period before entering. He also conducted significant building works, with some exaggeration, Poles say that Casmir found a Poland built of wood and left a Poland built of brick. From the link above, and this "quote" about building, Poland was clearly rich, also a plus factor. – andy256 Oct 20 '14 at 0:04
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    ... the sprouting of disease pathogens from outer space.?? I guess that could explain it. – user2338816 Oct 20 '14 at 10:51
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    @user2338816 Yeah Fred Hoyle might not have been the best person for me to quote here. I'll see if I can find a replacement. – Semaphore Oct 20 '14 at 10:58
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    @Semaphore I was rereading this and now have a question about your final sentence. How is Poland's climate different enough than surrounding (NESW) areas that it could be significantly 'less conductive to the plague's spread' at all? – CGCampbell Jan 10 '15 at 17:13
  • @CGCampbell Poland marks the start of the Humid Continental Climate, which is colder, more extreme and less wet than Western Europe's Temperate Oceanic climate. I once heard a hypothesis that this helped mitigated the plague, but I didn't find a solid reference or study to support it when writing this answer. – Semaphore Jan 10 '15 at 19:42
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There are three types of plague, Pneumonic, Bubonic, and Septicemic all of which are caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. People infected by fleas get the bubonic form of the plague. However, if the bacteria reaches the lungs, it becomes pneumonic plague which is more virulent spreading via person to person by coughing then no rats are needed since the bacteria becomes airborne

Quite a lot of scientists now think that the plague was in fact airborne and not spread by rats, but by infected people with the Pneumonic form of the plague. This version spreads much faster and kills quicker. Thankfully antibiotics can today prevent the disease from becoming pneumonic (air-born)

Yersinia pestis can survive for at least 24 days in contaminated soil Up to 5 days on other materials link

The travel times and relative isolation were probably enough to stop most of the spread (explained in comments below) ... Considering peasants were not allowed to travel in those days, most likely the plague was spread by traders, this is why the more dense populations were more affected.

With more remote populations kept safe especially since it could kill within 24 hrs of catching it probably those infected died before reaching their destination.

So to help get an idea of travel times: how the distances saved the population I’ve used this map - old travel routes of Europe http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e1/Late_Medieval_Trade_Routes.jpg so for instance Prague to Krakow (240 miles on google maps) on horse would be 8 days travel (assuming that the roads are flat and that the modern road follows the same path of the medieval trade route. With a wagon pulled by horse 15 - 25 miles/day takes 9.6 - 16 days. With a wagon pulled by oxen 10 - 12 miles/day takes 24 - 20 days (most people who were infected with the plague died within 24-72 hrs so it becomes easy to see that most would die on the way before reaching the more dense populations

I grabbed the approx. horses and wagon travel times here: http://www.terryburns.net/How_fast_could_they_travel.htm

As an aside I think most likely Milan had such a low mortality rate less than 15% because they understood it was people passing the plague to each other. They walled up not only the infected family but the houses on either side leaving them to die. Rats are really great climbers and would have escaped being walled up, just watch these little guys go! :P https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7o4LrfnX9QQ

climbing up brick (the camera has trouble to keep up!) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8bt9Ukw1iB0

So if it had of been the rats spreading the plague walling would have made no difference at all, since they would have simply gone off to the next area and start infecting people again.

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    I'm not sure I understand - (1) how do the reports from the teeth support the thesis? I'm not challenging the result, I just don't have the medical background to follow it. (2) Could you cite the sources? this is interesting and I might like to read up. – Mark C. Wallace Oct 20 '14 at 16:42
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    sure Im not a scientist myself but there are plenty of articles about the plague being airborne though... theguardian.com/science/2014/mar/29/… history.com/news/… archaeology.org/news/1950-140331-black-death-airborne theweek.co.uk/health-science/57918/… – StackBuddy Oct 20 '14 at 16:52
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    its not so surprising small towns were least effected,People travelled to trade in the big cities, no one travelled for fun. Travel was very hard for any distance. People could only travel by foot, horse, boat or wagon. To go any distance took a long time. For instance to travel 30 miles by horse took 3 days one way on flat ground, so I suppose you could draw a line in on a map, look at the radius that a person could travel in the amount of time that a virus could survive outside a host Polands size and isolation most likely saved it. – StackBuddy Oct 20 '14 at 18:57
  • Mortality continued to rise throughout the bitterly cold winter, when fleas could not have survived, and there is no evidence of enough rats. Black rat skeletons have been found at 14th-century sites, but not in high enough numbers to make them the plague carriers, he said. In sites beside the Thames, where most of the city's rubbish was dumped and rats should have swarmed, and where the sodden ground preserves organic remains excellently, few black rats have been found.theguardian.com/world/2011/aug/17/black-death-rats-off-hook – StackBuddy Oct 20 '14 at 20:29
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    those are fantastic comments modifying the original answer. If I get time, I'll try to edit them back into the original answer. They really help me to understand. – Mark C. Wallace Oct 21 '14 at 12:59
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It seems that there is a correlation between exposure to and surviving the plague and a genetic predisposition against infection with HIV that has a prevalence in Northern Europe that is not observed in Southern Europe:

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/library/10/4/l_104_05.html

  • +1 Fascinating link. I was going to say this should be a comment, but it can stand as a legitimate answer. – Mike Oct 22 '14 at 2:43
  • It is also hypothesized that hemochromatosis might have provided plague resistance, as Yersinia pestis * feasts on the *ferriten in normal white blood cells that is absent in those having, and reduced in those carrying, that genetic mutation. – Pieter Geerkens Dec 31 '15 at 16:26
  • Fascinating... The most interesting thing I've read today. – ElmoVanKielmo Dec 19 '18 at 12:44
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One factor to consider also is that Poland had a much smaller population than western Europe. Around the time of the black death, the polish population was something like 2-3 million, while the French population was about 14 Millon or even higher. It's common sense that disease spreads easier in higher population density areas, especially when hygiene was poor like in the middle ages.

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ANOTHER EXPLANATION REGARDING POLAND IS THAT IT HAD A LOT OF JEWS, PARTICULARLY IN URBAN SETTINGS; NOW, WHY WERE Jews Less Affected?

And even if Jews died at a lesser rate, it can be attributed to the sanitary practices Jewish law.

For instance, Jewish law compels one to wash his or her hands many times throughout the day. In the general medieval world a person could go half his or her life without ever washing his hands. According to Jewish law, one could not eat food without washing one’s hands, leaving the bathroom and after any sort of intimate human contact. At least once a week, a Jew bathed for the Sabbath. Furthermore, Jewish law prevents the Jew from reciting blessings and saying prayers by an open pit at latrines and at places with a foul odor. The sanitary conditions in the Jewish neighborhood, primitive as it may be by today’s standards, was always far superior to the general sanitary conditions.

Jewish law also prescribes certain sanitary conditions related to burial of the dead. Leaving corpses unburied not only abetted the conditions that spread the bubonic plague but typhus and other diseases as well. The Jews, on the other hand, had a unique sense of community that not only led them to feel a responsibility to attend to the sick and dying, but caused them to always maintain a formal burial society (chevrah kadisha), whose responsibility it was to make sure that any Jew who died was treated according to Jewish law, including washing the body before it was buried.

These are only a few examples how Jewish law preserved the Jewish people through this terrible dark period of plague. It imposed a sanitary standard on the Jew far above the ordinary sanitary standard that medieval Europe had

Source: https://www.jewishhistory.org/the-black-death/

  • I did not know this so I up-voted it as helpful. I think your comment is true of poorer people but as far as I know richer folk would have a ewer of water available at mealtimes (at least) to wash their hands. – bigbadmouse May 29 '18 at 9:29
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When I traveled Krakow last month, the tour guide explained Black Death affected less in Poland because they had life style sanitizing dishes with vodka.

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    Was distillation widely known back then? – user31389 May 25 '18 at 15:48
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No rats.

Endemic plague only persists in areas infested with rats, which occurred in urbanized areas of Europe, because people were throwing garbage into the streets.

In well-kept countrysides there was no plague, because there was not enough rats.

Poland was an agricultural country centered around manors, not large cities, hence no rats.

Note that to be infected you actually have to be bitten by the flea of the rat, so you literally have to be living with rats to be in danger.

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    "People were throwing offal into the streets." Offal? Offal is organ meat: kidneys, liver and so on. Why would people throw good food into the street? – David Richerby Oct 20 '14 at 12:29
  • @DavidRicherby Heheheh. Although one of the definitions of offal is garbage/refuse. – LateralFractal Oct 20 '14 at 13:06
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    Having spent large parts of my childhood in rural communities, I can tell you your logic is wrong. Wherever you have large amounts of grain stored at one place, you have an abundance of rats (mice too, although I don't know if they are also plague carriers). If Poland was agricultural - and in Europe this usually includes lots of grains, especially in pre-potato times - it must have had rats. – rumtscho Oct 20 '14 at 13:43
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    @rumtscho While it is true there are rats on farms, the exposure to disease is much less. This is because the nests of the rats are not usually where people are living and because each farm is distant from the other, making transmission from one farm to another difficult. In a city, one bad rat can literally infect the entire rat population of the city, but in a rural, spread out place like ancient Poland transmission will occur much more slowly. – Tyler Durden Oct 20 '14 at 15:11
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    Actually it turns out rats had nothing to do with it; the problem was gerbils Seriously. – Mark C. Wallace Mar 17 '15 at 1:38

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