How did the Black Death - the bubonic plague - affect Scandinavia? (2023)

The deadliest pandemic in human history, the Black Death or bubonic plague, swept through Europe between 1347 and 1351. Estimates vary for the number of victims, from 75 to 200 million, across Eurasia and North Africa.

At the time, around 80 million people lived in Europe out of a global total of just under half a billion.

Sweden lost at least a third of its population, and the country would not recover for another 300 years. In Norway, the number is thought to be nearer 60 percent.

Densely populated Denmark would surely have been decimated in a similar fashion, although we have no idea of the numbers. The consequences across the Nordic region would be grave.

Where did it come from?

The commonly accepted theory is that rats aboard Genoese trade ships brought the plague to the Mediterranean from Crimea in 1347 – or rather, the fleas the rats were carrying.

Once the virus mutated so that it could be transmitted from person to person in airborne particles, its effects were catastrophic.

Renowned historian Ole Jørgen Benedictow, a Professor Emeritus at the University of Oslo, has made it his life's work to study and present the causes and effects of the 14th-century pandemic, particularly in the Nordic countries.

His 2004 book The Black Death 1348-1353: The Complete History is considered the definitive work on the subject.

(Video) The Black Death & How It Ravaged Europe | Medieval Documentary

From southern Europe, by 1348, the plague reached the British Isles, most notably Bristol and Dublin, both major ports dependent on sea trade. Norway was burying its first victims in 1349, a full year before the pandemic reached Scotland.

From Norway, it crossed to Sweden, while Denmark was hit by the Black Death arriving from the south through Germany. The pandemic did not reach Iceland until 1402.

Experts can pinpoint the specific ship likely to have carried the disease from London to Askøy, near Bergen, in May 1349. One theory suggests that there were fewer black rats in Norway, and more brown ones.

Later named rattus norvegicus, the brown variety is less likely to carry fleas of the kind that cause plague. In fact, some have argued that the replacement of the black rat population with brown ones was a factor in the reduction of the pandemic.

It is thought that plague bacteria can also live on hosts such as grain and cloth, which the ship may also have been transporting across the North Sea.

From Bergen, the disease headed north to Trondheim – it may well have reached Oslo several weeks before the west coast, again by ship, but because there is far more documentation of these devastating few years in western Norway, details of the spread of the pandemic in the south are sketchy.

How did the Black Death - the bubonic plague - affect Scandinavia? (1)

Aside from rats, it is thought that plague bacteria can live on different hosts - including grain and cloth. Photo: Kingfajr / Shutterstock

(Video) The Lasting Effects of the Black Death | Pandemics & the Economy | The Great Courses Plus

Sinking ships and rural refugees

Part of what we know was recorded by Einarr Hafliðason, an Icelandic cleric who traveled to Norway and France and wrote his findings in the Lögmannsannáll, a journal he kept until 1361.

In it, he describes the so-called plague ship that had docked from England but whose crew, and subsequently locals, rapidly started dying. The ship is said to have been sunk.

One legend that has lived on for nearly seven centuries is re-enacted every summer at the Hallingdal Museum in Nesbyen, halfway between Bergen and Oslo.

One of Norway's first open-air museums, it comprises 29 rural buildings, including the oldest secular one in Norway, the Stave storehouse dating back to 1334.

The exact date is known, as reported in Science Norway in 2013, due to an expert study of the rings within one of the logs used to build it. The story goes that the farm owner saved his daughter by hiding her away on her own there, where she remained while everyone in the vicinity died out.

She then emerged once she heard voices assuring her of her safety. The original storehouse was moved from the short distance from its original location in Ål to the museum in 1908, shortly after it opened. The dramatization of these events is a popular annual attraction there.

The tale underlines two important concepts surrounding the Black Death in Norway. First, that some understood the value of isolation – according to Norwegian SciTech News, the Norwegian state imposed strict restrictions on social gatherings during another wave of the plague in 1625 – and the devastation of the plague on agriculture.

The most credible data we have shows an approximate drop of around 60 percent of all farms and households across Norway, which correlates with the overall decrease in population, as also indicated by historian Ole Jørgen Benedictow in his comprehensive tome on the subject (you can buy the book The Black Death 1348-1353: The Complete Historyon Amazon, here).

(Video) The Black Death: Worst Pandemic in History Visualized

This wreaked havoc on the local economy, pushing Norway into decline and, in part, toward the Kalmar Union.

In 1397, the country forfeited its independence for the creation of a pan-Scandinavian bloc with Sweden and Denmark, also bringing its colonies of Iceland, Greenland, the Orkneys, and the Shetland Islands into the fold. The union also acted as a bulwark against the growing economic power of the Hanseatic League.

Given the greater reduction of the country's elite during the Black Death as compared with Sweden or Denmark, Norway was also a junior partner in the arrangement, which lasted until 1523.

How did the Black Death - the bubonic plague - affect Scandinavia? (2)

The decimation of Sweden's working population placed extra pressure on those who had survived to be more productive. Photo: illustrissima / Shutterstock

Penance across the land

The situation in Sweden was somewhat different, and as there are fewer records from that period, not as clear today. The plague arrived there about a year after it had hit Norway, probably in the late summer of 1350.

King Magnus IV of Sweden, who was also King Magnus VII of Norway, was aware of the mass deaths over the border and issued a number of edicts to Swedish citizens relating to obligatory attendance of mass, regular confessions, and strict fasting. In 1850, the king made an appearance in Bergen, the epicenter of the Black Death the year before.

He then traveled to Stockholm, before the pandemic broke out there, having spread from the ports of Gotland, specifically Visby. Reaction to the pandemic that summer was swift; clergy was burned at the stake after forced confessions for having propagated the disease.

(Video) 1352: The Mystery Of The Black Death Woman | Medieval Dead | Chronicle

How the Black Death affected more remote areas of Scandinavia, northern Norway, northern Sweden, and Finland, then part of Sweden, we don't know, but these communities had little contact with the outside world and would not have gathered in significant numbers.

Back down south, the Swedish elite survived far better than its Norwegian counterpart, possibly due to having less interaction with the lower classes, and so Sweden was in a far stronger position by the time the Kalmar Union came into being.

The decimation of Sweden's working population placed extra pressure on those who had survived to be more productive, increasing unrest, in turn forcing the nobility to impose stricter taxes and longer working hours.

Peasant rebellions were commonplace in the 1400s. A more positive consequence of the plague was seen in Värmland, where two women, Karin Jota and Walborg, joined the dozen-strong members of the county judiciary due to the dearth of menfolk.

Unlike its northern neighbor, Denmark was forced to introduce a system of serfdom, so ravaged was the rural landscape. Much smaller than its Scandinavian counterparts, with a larger, denser population and a land border with continental Europe, Denmark would have suffered enormous losses to its populace – although there are no contemporary accounts.

Local land records in the following century indicate a significant number of empty farms. Much like in Norway and Sweden, it took Denmark two if not three centuries to recover, by which time the Protestant Reformation had spread across much of Scandinavia.

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(Video) What Made The Black Death So Deadly & Who Were The Plague Doctors


How did the Black Death affect Scandinavia? ›

The Black Death (Swedish: Digerdöden, 'The Great Death') was present in Sweden between 1350 and 1351. It was a major catastrophe which was said to have killed a third of the population, and Sweden was not to recover fully for three hundred years.

Did the plague affect Scandinavia? ›

Unlike the rest of the western Europe, the Black Death entered Scandinavia quite late in 1346 via trade routes.

When did the Black Death reach Scandinavia? ›

The plague that caused the Black Death originated in China in the early to mid-1300s and spread along trade routes westward to the Mediterranean and northern Africa. It reached southern England in 1348 and northern Britain and Scandinavia by 1350.

What were 3 major effects of the Black Death? ›

The plague had large scale social and economic effects, many of which are recorded in the introduction of the Decameron. People abandoned their friends and family, fled cities, and shut themselves off from the world. Funeral rites became perfunctory or stopped altogether, and work ceased being done.

What were three effects of the Black Death on Europe? ›

The effects of the Black Death were many and varied. Trade suffered for a time, and wars were temporarily abandoned. Many labourers died, which devastated families through lost means of survival and caused personal suffering; landowners who used labourers as tenant farmers were also affected.

How did the Black Death affect people in Europe? ›

The Black Death was the largest demographic shock in European history, killing approximately 40% of the region's population between 1347 and 1352. Some regions and cities were spared, but others were severely hit: England, France, Italy and Spain lost between 50% and 60% of their populations in two years.

Which country was most affected by the plague? ›

The most severe outbreak of plague, in the Chinese province of Hubei in 1334, claimed up to 80% of the population. China had several epidemics and famines from 1200 to the 1350s and its population decreased from an estimated 125 million to 65 million in the late 14th century.

What was the effect of the Black Death on Norway? ›

Once it arrived in Norway, the plague tore through the country. Estimates are between one third and two thirds of the population being killed. While exact numbers of deaths aren't known, the country didn't fully recover to its pre-pandemic population level until the 17th century.

Which country did the black plague hit the hardest? ›

Italy had been hit the hardest by the plague because of the dense population of merchants and active lifestyle within the city states. For example, the city state of Florence was reduced by 1/3 in population within the first six months of infection.

What were the effects of the Black Death on society? ›

The consequences of this violent catastrophe were many. A cessation of wars and a sudden slump in trade immediately followed but were only of short duration. A more lasting and serious consequence was the drastic reduction of the amount of land under cultivation, due to the deaths of so many labourers.

How did the Black Death spread so quickly? ›

Most evidence points to the Black Death being the main bubonic strain of plague, spread far and wide by flea-ridden rats on boats and fleas on the bodies and clothes of travellers.

How did the Black Death spread to Europe? ›

The medieval Silk Road brought a wealth of goods, spices, and new ideas from China and Central Asia to Europe. In 1346, the trade also likely carried the deadly bubonic plague that killed as many as half of all Europeans within 7 years, in what is known as the Black Death.

What was the biggest impact of the Black Death? ›

The epidemic killed 30 to 50 percent of the entire population of Europe. Between 75 and 200 million people died in a few years' time, starting in 1348 when the plague reached London.

How did the Black Death change the European economy? ›

The plague had an important effect on the relationship between the lords who owned much of the land in Europe and the peasants who worked for the lords. As people died, it became harder and harder to find people to plow fields, harvest crops, and produce other goods and services. Peasants began to demand higher wages.

What impact did the Black Death have on European society and economy? ›

The Black Death killed between a third and a half of the population of Europe and the Near East. This huge number of deaths was accompanied by general economic devastation. With a third of the workforce dead, the crops could not be harvested and communities fell apart.

What places did the Black Death affect? ›

Cause and outbreak

From Kaffa, Genoese ships carried the epidemic westward to Mediterranean ports, whence it spread inland, affecting Sicily (1347); North Africa, mainland Italy, Spain, and France (1348); and Austria, Hungary, Switzerland, Germany, and the Low Countries (1349).

How did the Black Death affect the population of Europe quizlet? ›

The Black Death decimated the European population, killing almost one-third of the people. This loss of population resulted in a labor shortage, which in turn drove up workers' wages and prices for goods. Landowners converted farmland to herding land, which drove many rural farmers to find work in towns and cities.

Which country was least affected by the Black Death? ›

In the middle of the 14th century, the Black Death wiped out half of Europe's population. However, Poland and Milan managed to escape the worst of the pandemic and had death rates much lower than those of the other affected nations.

Does the Black Death still exist? ›

Bubonic plague still occurs throughout the world and in the U.S., with cases in Africa, Asia, South America and the western areas of North America. About seven cases of plague happen in the U.S. every year on average. Half of the U.S. cases involve people aged 12 to 45 years.

How did the Black Death affect religion? ›

As the hysteria quieted down, some Christians turned their anger at the Catholic Church that seemed helpless to stop the Black Death. In fact, many local priests either died of the plague or abandoned their parishes when it struck. The church's failure led to thousands of people joining the Flagellant Movement.

How painful was the Black Death? ›

The plague caused painful and frightening symptoms, including fever, vomiting, coughing up blood, black pustules on the skin, and swollen lymph nodes. Death usually came within 3 days.

Where did the Black Death not hit? ›

Another theory is that the Black Death originated near Europe and cycled through the Mediterranean, Northern Europe, and Russia before making its way to China. Other historians such as John Norris and Ole Benedictaw believe the Black Death likely originated in Europe or the Middle East and never reached China.

Was the bubonic plague painful? ›

Bubonic plague is the most common form and is characterized by painful swollen lymph nodes or 'buboes'. Plague is transmitted between animals and humans by the bite of infected fleas, direct contact with infected tissues, and inhalation of infected respiratory droplets.

How did the Black Death impact society and the environment? ›

As the population died, including the rich people, the demand for lead also dropped. The Black Death was so deadly, mining for lead virtually stopped and no lead dust, coming from both mining as smelting, was dispersed into the environment.

How did the Black Death spread 3 ways? ›

To understand the historic outbreak, scientists from the University of Oslo modeled the three transmission routes for the disease – rats, airborne and human fleas and lice – using mortality data for nine outbreaks that spanned the time period of the second pandemic.

How did people survive the Black Death? ›

How did it end? The most popular theory of how the plague ended is through the implementation of quarantines. The uninfected would typically remain in their homes and only leave when it was necessary, while those who could afford to do so would leave the more densely populated areas and live in greater isolation.

What did people think caused the Black Death? ›

Some believed it was a punishment from God, some believed that foreigners or those who followed a different religion had poisoned the wells, some thought that bad air was responsible, some thought the position of the planets had caused the plague.

How did the Black Death affect Norway? ›

The rapid spread through Norway

Once it arrived in Norway, the plague tore through the country. Estimates are between one third and two thirds of the population being killed. While exact numbers of deaths aren't known, the country didn't fully recover to its pre-pandemic population level until the 17th century.

Did the black plague affect Vikings? ›

Whatever the exact cause, the Black Plague did not skip the former Vikings in the Nordic kingdoms as the Justinian Plague had. More international trade and population flow ensured that the plague ravaged the kingdoms of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden.

What was the Black Death Why was it important to medieval Europe? ›

Definition. The Black Death was a plague pandemic which devastated medieval Europe from 1347 to 1352 CE, killing an estimated 25-30 million people. The disease originated in central Asia and was taken to the Crimea by Mongol warriors and traders.

Which country did the Black Death affect the most? ›

Italy had been hit the hardest by the plague because of the dense population of merchants and active lifestyle within the city states. For example, the city state of Florence was reduced by 1/3 in population within the first six months of infection.

What countries were infected by the Black Death? ›

From Crimea, it was most likely carried by fleas living on the black rats that travelled on Genoese ships, spreading through the Mediterranean Basin and reaching North Africa, Western Asia, and the rest of Europe via Constantinople, Sicily, and the Italian Peninsula.

How did the Black Death spread from person to person in Europe? ›

One of the worst pandemics in human history, the Black Death, along with a string of plague outbreaks that occurred during the 14th to 19th centuries, was spread by human fleas and body lice, a new study suggests.

Did the Vikings have STDS? ›

A damaged skull believed to be that of a Viking indicates the ancient Nordic seafarers and plunderers carried the sexually transmitted disease syphilis as they raped and pillaged Europe, authorities say. The find may show syphilis existed in Europe 400 or 500 years earlier than previously thought.

What plague was in Viking times? ›

Vikings had smallpox and may have helped spread the world's deadliest virus. Summary: Scientists have discovered extinct strains of smallpox in the teeth of Viking skeletons -- proving for the first time that the killer disease plagued humanity for at least 1400 years.

What empire did the black plague affect? ›

In the fourteenth century, the Black Death spread rapidly throughout Asia and Europe, including in Greece and across the Byzantine empire.


1. The Black Death of Medieval Europe and Their Cures
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2. Black death in medieval times, causes of the black death in medieval, causes of the Black plague?
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3. Impact of the Black Death | Timewatch | BBC Studios
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4. The Black Death Explained: Global History Review
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5. The Black Plague Legends & Pesta (Scandinavian Folklore Explained)
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6. How The Black Death Nearly Wiped Out Europe?
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