Between 1347 and 1353, the whole of the medieval world was affected by the Black Death. About 50 percent of the population perished because of it. However, there were a few communities and nations that managed to escape the initial outbreak. Such was the case with Nuremberg.
Nuremberg was a major hub in terms of trade through and across the Alps, so it seems logical that it would have been severely affected once plague broke out. But, according to some measures, Nuremberg had a mortality rate of only about 10 percent.
Sanitation in Nuremberg
At the time, Nuremberg was unique among Western European medieval cities for its high standards of public health.
Unlike many European cities, in Nuremberg, the streets were not only almost entirely paved, but they were also regularly cleaned. Whereas plenty of other cities had open sewers into which people would dump trash or empty their chamber pots, in Nuremberg, by law all garbage had to be bagged up and carted away.
In most towns and villages in the medieval world, it would have been a common sight to see pigs just wandering about. This was because it was easier to simply let your pig run loose for most of the year, foraging for their own meals than it was to keep the animal enclosed and procure sustenance for it. Some of the early eyewitness accounts of plague from Italy specifically mention the sight of dead bodies lying in the streets, and pigs rooting around the corpse and then falling dead themselves.
In Nuremberg, pigs were not allowed to roam the streets. This, in combination with the edicts concerning trash, meant that the city itself was unusually clean. And cleanliness and good sanitation translated to fewer rats. Fewer rats, of course, meant fewer fleas. And fewer fleas meant less occasion for plague to be transmitted to a human host.
If the city employed high standards of sanitation and hygiene, then so did its citizens.
Learn more about the plague’s effects on the Medieval Church.
Many of you may have probably come across the myth that people in the Middle Ages never bathed. That’s absolutely not true. Of course, they didn’t do it as frequently as people do in the modern world, but most people liked to look and feel clean. Most cities had public bathhouses where, for a fee, you could go and scrub off the dirt of last week’s labors. Criers would regularly circulate through cities that had bathhouses, announcing when the water was hot.
In Nuremberg, there were 14 public bathhouses, and as far as we can tell, they were strictly regulated. In many other places, certain bathhouses were really brothels in disguise, but not in Nuremberg. In that city, regular inspections took place to make sure that everything was legit and that the facilities were kept clean.
It is known from contemporary record accounts that municipal employees had a bathing allowance factored into their salaries—meaning that they got an extra amount of money in their paychecks each week or month specifically designated to offset the cost of using the bathhouses.
This is a transcript from the video series The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Hygienic Disposal of the Dead
As can be imagined, a city like this was quick to dispose of its dead as hygienically as possible.
While in many other places, the clothes in which someone had died might actually be taken off the corpse and given to someone or sold, in Nuremberg, the clothing of the dead, plus all their bedding was destroyed. Rooms in which people had died were required to be fumigated—meaning that some kind of strong-smelling herb, like sage, or some kind of incense, would be lit in the room. The smoke would clear any foul odors, and also probably drive away rats and their fleas.
All of these efforts probably worked to make it less likely that the pneumonic form of the plague would spread, and, once again, good sanitation meant fewer rats, meant fewer fleas, meant less plague.
Learn more about the artistic responses to the Black Death.
Escaping the Devastation of the Plague
So, although death seemed to be everywhere in medieval Europe between 1347 and 1353, there were a few places that managed to escape widespread devastation. Some were spared because of geography, like Finland and Iceland; some because of draconian preventive measures, like Milan; and others because of cleanliness, like Nuremberg. Still others were only supposed to have escaped, when in fact they were probably infected at about the same rate as the rest of the medieval world: Poland is the best example of this.
However, for those who were spared on this go-round, their luck was about to run out. For almost 300 years, the plague returned again and again to Western Europe. It was never as virulent or as deadly as it had been during the first outbreak, but the never-ending recurrences dramatically impacted Western society. Each time Europe looked to be recovering, each time it looked about to shake off the shackles of disease and move forward into a new age, that old enemy would show up again and again and again.
Common Questions about the Black Death in Nuremberg
While plenty of cities had open sewers into which people would dump trash or empty their chamber pots, in Nuremberg, by law all garbage had to be bagged up and carted away.
In Nuremberg, there were 14 public bathhouses and they were strictly regulated. Regular inspections took place to make sure that everything was legit and that the facilities were kept clean.
In Nuremberg, the clothing of the dead, along with their bedding, was destroyed. Also, the room in which a person had died was required to be fumigated so the smoke would clear any foul odors, and also probably drive away rats and their fleas.