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.
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.
Aside from rats, it is thought that plague bacteria can live on different hosts - including grain and cloth. Photo: Kingfajr / Shutterstock
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 History on Amazon, here).
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.
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.
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.
This deep-dive article was written thanks to the support of subscribers to The Viking Herald's Facebook page. Do you enjoy our work? You can SUBSCRIBE here or via our Facebook page. You'll get access to exclusive content and behind-the-scenes access.
Feel free to reach out to discuss potential stories that may be in the public interest. You can reach us via email at firstname.lastname@example.org with the understanding that the information you provide might be used in our reporting and stories.