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World History Volume 1, to 1500

16.3 The Black Death from East to West

World History Volume 1, to 150016.3 The Black Death from East to West

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Identify the origins and characteristics of the bubonic plague
  • Describe the response to the Black Death in Asia and North Africa
  • Describe the response to the Black Death in Europe

Imagine a world in which medicine was utterly defenseless against a disease that could kill within hours. Vaccines and antibiotics had not yet been discovered, nor was the existence of germs and their role in contagion understood. While treatments existed, their efficacy was limited, and medical knowledge was unequally understood across regions and within class structures. At times, the defenses against illness were prayers, divination, the protective aromas of flowers and spices, and for the select few who could afford to flee heavily populated areas, retreat to the countryside. Such was the world of the Mediterranean basin and Afro-Eurasia in the middle of the fourteenth century when the bubonic plague ravaged central Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe.

After the plague had run its course by the 1350s, it recurred in cyclical fashion several times during the second half of the fourteenth century. It was never fully eradicated, though subsequent waves were not as deadly as the initial outbreak, with the exception of the Great Plague of London in the 1660s and an especially virulent outbreak that began in China in 1894. Outbreaks have occurred more recently in parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, but surveillance, preventive measures, early diagnosis, and treatment with antibiotics remain the most effective approaches to preventing its spread.

The Origins and Spread of the Bubonic Plague

The bubonic plague, the most common variant of the disease caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, raises egg-shaped swellings known as buboes near an afflicted person’s lymph nodes in the groin, underarm, and upper neck areas. Other symptoms include fever, nausea, vomiting, aching joints, and general malaise. For the vast majority in the Middle Ages, death generally occurred within three days. The bubonic plague pandemic, which had far-reaching economic, political, social, and cultural effects throughout Afro-Eurasia, came to be known as the Black Death. This name, inspired by the blackened tissue the disease caused on the body, also came to express the fear and awe brought by a disease with a mortality rate ranging from 30 to 80 percent. That is significantly higher than the deadliest smallpox, influenza, and polio pandemics of the modern era. Although in its bubonic form the plague could not be spread from human to human, the rat flea became a major plague vector, an organism that spreads plague from one organism to another.

The black rat was one of the most capable animal hosts for the plague-carrying fleas. It was highly susceptible to the disease itself and an especially inconspicuous stowaway on trade caravans and merchant ships. Cases of bubonic plague proliferated as rats spread through the international shipping and trades routes of the Silk Roads and the Mediterranean Sea, where they colonized crowded dwellings in towns and cities. The spread of the plague only increased owing to the increased movement of people. First it was the Mongol armies, traveling over enormous distances and unintentionally bringing small mammalian stowaways among their foodstuffs. Then, owing to the Mongols’ protection of merchants and others traveling great distances during the Pax Mongolica, the disease spread further and in new directions. Finally, those forced to leave their homes for survival amid famine and environmental change created yet another pathway for the disease to spread.

Plague-bearing fleas generally preferred to feed on small rodents such as rats and marmots, but when their rodent hosts succumbed to the plague, they secured their next meal from the nearest human. Two even deadlier variants of the disease eventually emerged during the fourteenth century: pneumonic and septicemic. The pneumonic form directly infected the lungs and was spread from person to person by coughing, with a mortality rate of 95 to 100 percent. The septicemic variant, which resulted from plague bacteria circulating directly into the bloodstream, was invariably fatal and, according to contemporary observers, seemed to kill within hours of the first onset of symptoms. While historians had surmised for many decades that the plague had spread in primarily one form (bubonic) and in one direction (east to west), new evidence increasingly suggests there was a far greater diversity of spread.

Although in many regions where it struck the plague was eventually understood to be contagious, at first the means of transmission were not recognized. Some saw the epidemic as a divine punishment from God, and others speculated that it was caused by a rare conjunction of planets creating noxious atmospheric conditions on Earth. Others blamed foreign travelers, minority religious communities, or vagrants. The desperation incited by the plague’s relentless assault often led to scapegoating of marginalized populations, particularly in Europe.

Dueling Voices

The Origins of the Black Death

In the following excerpts are two different historical interpretations of the origins of the Black Death. In the first, medievalist Philip Ziegler discusses the central Asian origins of the fourteenth-century bubonic plague pandemic, arguing that abnormally high death rates near Lake Issyk-Kul point to the pandemic’s beginnings. In the second selection, new research by medical historian Monica H. Green strongly suggests the disease first developed in the thirteenth century and was largely misunderstood amid the chaos of the Mongol conquests. Green argues that the plague outbreak of the mid-fourteenth century was actually one of four “explosive proliferations of Yersinia pestis into new environments” and that its origins go beyond a simplistic narrative of rats moving westward. As you read, consider what factors might have led each historian to take a particular point of view.

Though it is impossible to be categorical about the origins of the medieval pandemic, investigations near Issyk-Kul, a lake in Central Asia, show that there was an abnormally high death rate in 1338 and 1339. Memorial stones attribute the deaths to plague. Since this area is in the heart of one of the zones in which bubonic plague lies endemic, it is likely that this was the cradle of the Black Death. From there it spread eastward into China, south to India, and west to the Crimea some eight years later.

—Philip Ziegler, The Black Death

The combined approaches of evolutionary genetics—working from modern isolates of Yersinia pestis and the retrieved genetic fragments of the bacterium reclaimed from its premodern victims—have given new parameters to the history of plague. Currently, the biological archive, which has now yielded over three dozen complete Yersinia pestis genomes in evidence of Europe’s late medieval and early modern experience of plague . . . supports the idea that one specific strain of Yersinia pestis . . . entered the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, and from there into Europe, in 1347–1348. . . . The climate crises and grain shortages of the early fourteenth century may well explain the intensity of that outbreak. . . . But the (west Eurasian) Black Death, as traditionally defined, was preceded by the terrors experienced at the sieges in Song China and western Asia [by the Mongols] in the thirteenth century. . . . The historian, working with documentary sources, will need to track the humans who are now implicated in plague’s spread. In so doing, historians would do well to adopt epidemiologists’ neutral stance toward the task of tracking infectious disease: this is not about assigning ‘blame.’ It is about documenting humans doing what humans do.

—Monica H. Green, “The Four Black Deaths”

  • How do Ziegler and Green’s arguments about the origins of the plague differ?
  • Upon what sources is Green relying for her innovative conclusions?

Many historians have focused almost exclusively on the Black Death’s impact on Europe, assuming that other regions were only minimally affected. The Americas and Australia were, indeed, entirely spared due to their geographic isolation. Other areas such as the Indian subcontinent experienced relatively mild outbreaks. However, we now know that the disease’s spread affected much of Asia, the Middle East, Europe, North Africa, and possibly some regions of sub-Saharan Africa in what are now Ghana, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, and Ethiopia. And new scientific techniques such as genetic testing are strongly suggesting that the plague developed far earlier than modern historians had believed. In its most well-documented form, it ultimately spread along international sea and land trade routes in the 1340s and by 1409 had reached port cities of the Indian Ocean trade network in East Africa (Figure 16.13). Wherever it went, the Black Death left a trail of demographic destruction and long-term damage to social and economic networks, compounded by the combined effects of drastic climate changes, rebellions, and crop failures that preceded it in many parts of Afro-Eurasia in the early 1300s.

A map is shown. Water is highlighted in white and land is shown in gray. The Atlantic Ocean is located in the southwest, the Indian Ocean in the south, and the Pacific Ocean in the east. Europe is labelled in the west, North Africa in the southwest, Asia in the north, and the Middle East is labelled in the middle. Red dashed lines indicating “Trade routes” crisscross Europe, southern Asia and the Middle East from the Pacific Ocean to the western coast of Europe. In Africa they hug the east and northeast coasts. Black arrows are shown indicating “Spread of bubonic plague (Black Death).” Two arrows begin in eastern Asia and one heads northwest while the other one heads west, splitting into two – one heads west to Europe and the other heads toward the Middle East and splits into two, one north and one continuing west. The arrow heading to the west continues along the coast and heads south along the northeastern coast of Africa. An arrow begins northeast of the Indian Ocean in South Asia and heads northeast. Two arrows begin in eastern Europe and one heads north while the other heads southwest and then breaks off into three arrows heading west and into North Africa. One arrow begins in southern Europe and breaks into two, one heading north and the other west.
Figure 16.13 Route of the Black Death. This map compares trade routes with the spread of the Black Death across Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe. (credit: modification of work “TNM Download (v2.0)” by National Land Cover Database (NLCD)/United States Geological Survey (USGS)/U.S. Department of the Interior, Public Domain)

The Black Death in Asia and North Africa

Although the exact date of the Black Death’s arrival in China remains unknown, Chinese historical records first refer to the appearance of a deadly epidemic in the years from 1331 to 1334. The accounts of the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs Service, compiled in the late nineteenth century, suggest that roughly thirteen million people perished during this lethal outbreak. For those living in China, the devastation likely seemed to portend the withdrawal of the Mandate of Heaven from the rulers of the Yuan dynasty. Epidemics, droughts, and other catastrophes could be perceived as omens of divine displeasure and an indication that a ruler had lost divine support.

After ravaging China, the plague continued to spread west along trade routes by land and sea that eventually enabled it to engulf much of the Middle East. The Il-Khanate was heavily reliant on the trade networks of the Silk Roads and especially vulnerable to the plague’s disruption of the trade communities therein. In the midst of a protracted conflict with the Golden Horde, a rival khanate to the north, the Il-Khanate was reeling from the shock of invasion, factional disputes, and the death of the ruler Abu Sa’id Bahadur Khan (possibly from plague) in 1335. The plague’s devastating impact on trade and the population decline further compounded the deterioration of Il-Khanate Mongol rule after Abu Sa’id’s death. Cities such as Tabriz in Iran that had long served as thriving centers of trade were largely abandoned by the 1340s, when foreign merchants abruptly fled the city and commerce plummeted. To put this into perspective, imagine what would occur if today’s most renowned cosmopolitan centers of trade like New York, Tokyo, London, and Hong Kong fell suddenly into ruin as deserted ghost towns.

The decline of Tabriz was truly shocking to contemporary observers, but few cities were spared when infected fleas accompanying trade caravans were readily transported across central Asia and into the Middle East. Although the mortality rate across the Middle East was high, much of our knowledge of the plague’s impact in the Muslim world comes from historical documentation of its impact on the Mamluk Empire (1250–1517), which suffered a population loss of roughly one-third.

Under the control of the Mamluk rulers, who were based in Cairo, the trade routes of the Nile delta were hit especially hard. As in Yuan China, the onset of plague in Egypt was intensified by localized famines that disrupted agriculture and sent many rural peasants to large cities like Cairo and Alexandria in search of employment as unskilled wage laborers. Being in these densely populated zones significantly increased their chances of contracting the plague. The nomads of the region had long known to avoid settled areas when strange diseases appeared, and they largely managed to outrun the disease by retreating into the desert. Although some of Cairo’s Mamluk elite fled to rural areas north of the city in 1347, most decided to remain and protect their citadel from potential attacks from their rivals. In the process, however, they made themselves vulnerable to the plague and experienced high mortality rates.

Treatises written by Islamic scholars in the 1340s shed some light on the ways in which the Muslim world responded to the suffering. These texts, meant to serve as chronicles of the plague, also provided medical guidance and advice about proper conduct during epidemics. Doctors could neither define nor remedy the disease, so plague texts tended to frame the epidemic with religious explanations and recommendations derived from the Quran and religious law. Typically describing the plague as noncontagious, they instructed readers not to flee from it, declaring it a potential opportunity for martyrdom for faithful Muslims and a warning to infidels sent directly by God.

Other contemporary Arab writers described the plague as an apocalyptic catastrophe that resulted from a breach in the gate that separated humanity from Gog and Magog, the evil forces that, according to tradition, threatened to destroy the faithful. Even given the apocalyptic tone of this account, however, the Muslim response to the plague generally lacked the doomsday predictions and persecution of minorities that occurred in other regions such as Christian Europe. Although many undoubtedly fled the plague in spite of the treatises, Muslim writers tended to emphasize the importance of a collective and controlled response that promoted resignation and acceptance of God’s will.

Many formerly thriving industries in Mamluk cities went into deep decline during the plague, but there was a sudden increase in the construction of madrasas, mosques, and tombs, which for those who survived were a means of expressing gratitude. As a result, urban artisans who worked on these tended to be compensated very well for their skill. The only other occupational group in the Mamluk Sultanate that prospered in the wake of the plague was the spice merchants, since Egypt continued to serve as an important depot in the international spice trade. As agriculture and trade in other industries plummeted, however, the golden age of the Mamluk rulers came to an abrupt end in 1341. Although the Mamluks continued to rule until 1517, fierce clashes and ethnic rivalries within their empire created significant political instability that ultimately led to its collapse.

The Black Death in Europe

As the plague began wreaking havoc in the Mamluk Sultanate, it was also making its way to the ports of Europe via Silk Roads trade caravans and merchant ships sailing the Black Sea in 1346–1347. After striking the Mongol-controlled cities of Astrakhan and Sarai (in present-day Russia), when bales of flea-infested marmot fur were unloaded, the plague then traveled down the River Don, where it reached the city of Caffa (present-day Feodosiya, Ukraine), a center of trade on the Crimean Peninsula.

The plague’s entry point into Europe, Caffa was also the site of a Mongol siege targeting Genoese traders who had taken refuge in the city. Gabriele de Mussis, an Italian notary clerk who witnessed the siege, wrote a gruesome account of the Mongols’ efforts to launch plague-ridden corpses into the city. Although its reliability is difficult to establish, the story nevertheless demonstrates that even though the role of microbes was not yet known, dead bodies were believed to be sources of contagion. But the plague was most likely spread to Caffa by flea-infested rats independent of the Mongol siege. Caffa had long served as an important administrative center of Genoese trade, and its port was a major hub of merchant activity.

From Caffa, the plague made its way to Italy in the summer of 1347, when plague-bearing rats boarded ships headed across the Black Sea, through the Dardanelles, and onward to the ports of Messina and Genoa. From there, the disease was carried to the port of Marseilles and spread into the European interior along rivers, paths, and roads, leaving perhaps as many as twenty-four million dead, roughly 30 percent of the continent’s population at the time.

The plague’s arrival in Europe occurred after a period of economic contraction following a series of famines and crop failures earlier in the fourteenth century. In the early 1300s, a rising population and a relative decline in agricultural productivity had created an economic crisis and falling standards of living for all but the most privileged elites. For the vast majority of people living at the lower end of the economic spectrum, falling wages led to limited resources, poorer diets, and widespread malnourishment. Well before the plague’s arrival in the 1340s, the European population was reeling from years of economic decline and poor nutrition, which may have weakened immune systems and made some people more vulnerable to attacks of infectious disease.

In addition to the demographic and economic impacts of the Black Death era, modes of artistic and literary expression were significantly transformed in response to the plague’s devastation. In the visual arts, the fears engendered by the omnipresence of death and decay initiated a new emphasis on realism that grappled with themes of salvation and mortality. Macabre representations of deathbed scenes and dancing skeletons became especially prominent reminders of the inevitability of death and fears of hell and damnation (Figure 16.14). Although the visual iconography of death reflected the collective cultural trauma associated with the plague, it also served as a potent reminder to celebrate life in the face of it.

A black drawing is shown on a stark white background. Two skeletons are shown with wispy hair holding hands dancing in the middle on cobbled ground. To their left a skeletal figure stands in a long robe playing an oboe type instrument. At the right, another skeletal faced figure with scraggly long hair stands holding hands with the dancing skeleton on the right. This figure is showing their inside organs and in their left hand they are holding some of their intestines. Along the bottom of the image a skeleton with one arm raised lies on the dark ground covered with a long sheet, part of which hangs off of the skeletal figure at the left playing the instrument.
Figure 16.14 Dance of Death. This fifteenth-century woodcut image from the Nuremburg Chronicle of Hartmann Schedel depicts Death dancing and celebrating. The personification of death as a dancing skeleton became a common theme in late medieval Europe that reflects the psychological toll of the Black Death. (credit: “The Dance of Death” by Michael Wolgemut, from the Nuremberg Chronicle of Hartmann Schedel/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Medieval writers also sought to make sense of the Black Death by documenting the experience of living through the pandemic and exploring themes of transience and mortality. For example, in Giovanni Boccaccio’s famous collection of novellas, The Decameron, a fictional group of young men and women taking refuge from the plague in a villa outside Florence pass the time by trading stories that reflect upon love, loss, and the vagaries of fortune. The Decameron also calls attention to larger social responses engendered by the plague’s demographic devastation, such as the growing prominence of merchants due to the continued growth of global trade and people’s loss of confidence in the European Christian Church.

Although the Christian Church remained a bastion of spiritual solace for many during the Black Death, social responses to the plague in medieval Europe ranged from increased piety to hedonism to resigned acceptance of inevitable death. Those who could afford to do so fled the crowded urban centers, but most did not have this luxury. Medieval European cities remained hotbeds of infection despite the efforts of some Italian cities to impose quarantine and travel restrictions. Some cities even closed markets and prohibited gatherings for funerals; others required the removal of the infected to plague hospitals. Lacking a germ theory of contagion, however, medical practitioners were unable to fully explain or remedy the plague, although centuries of early scientific observations led many to attempt the techniques and approaches that had served in outbreaks of other diseases. Failing to fully grasp how and why the disease was spreading, however, many of the devout turned to the clergy, who were also dying in record numbers, mostly because of their efforts to care for the sick. But they too were unable to prevent the plague’s relentless toll.

Although some blamed the plague on earthquakes, astrological forces, or poisonous fog, most people in Christian Europe agreed it was a sign of God’s displeasure. In some towns, the belief that communities had to be purged of “morally contaminating people” such as prostitutes and beggars also led to the scapegoating of Jewish people, who were falsely accused of causing the plague by poisoning wells. Regardless of the fact that their communities also suffered from the plague, Jewish people faced widespread persecution, escalating in several cities to full-blown massacres (Figure 16.15). Driven by the fire-and-brimstone dogmatism of late medieval Christianity, those who led the persecution of marginalized populations sought to placate God by building churches, developing cults to plague saints like Saint Roche, and hunting heretics and outsiders they believed had provoked divine displeasure.

A black and white image is shown in a decorated frame with leaves at the corners and in the middle. At the left, a tower of a castle is seen with portions of two other towers in the far background. A large group of people stands wearing dark clothes, helmets and hats, and some holding spears. One man in the front with a beard and curly hair holds a stick and hits at a group of six seemingly naked people hidden in a bush. To the right of the bush, a man in a long shirt and black shoes holds four sticks over his head and has an open mouth looking down at the bush. Behind him are seen four obscure people and one man behind him leans over with crossed arms resting on the bush. The ground and background is dark and smudged.
Figure 16.15 Scapegoating in a Pandemic. This image from a fourteenth-century Belgian manuscript shows Jewish people being burned alive on false accusations of spreading the plague. The anti-Semitism inflamed by the Black Death in many parts of medieval Europe sometimes had deadly consequences, and the scapegoating of Jewish and other marginalized communities led to full-blown massacres at times. (credit: modification of work “Burning of Jews during the Black Death epidemic, 1349” by Bibliothèque royale de Belgique from A History of the Jewish People by H.H. Ben-Sasson/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

In Their Own Words

Strasbourg during the Black Death

This excerpt from The Cremation of Strasbourg Jewry St. Valentine’s Day, February 14, 1349 describe the destruction of the Jewish community in Strasbourg in the time of the Black Death and how city authorities who attempted to defend the city’s Jewish population were overwhelmed by an angry mob.

In the year 1349 there occurred the greatest epidemic that ever happened. Death went from one end of the earth to the other, on that side and this side of the sea, And from what this epidemic came, all wise teachers and physicians could only say that it was God’s will.

In the matter of this plague the Jews throughout the world were reviled and accused in all lands of having caused it through the poison which they are said to have put into the water and the wells—that is what they were accused of—and for this reason the Jews were burnt all the way from the Mediterranean into Germany, but not in Avignon, for the pope protected them there.

Nevertheless they tortured a number of Jews in Berne and Zofingen [Switzerland] who then admitted that they had put poison into many wells, and they also found the poison in the wells. Thereupon they burnt the Jews in many towns and wrote of this affair to Strasbourg, Freiburg, and Basel in order that they too should burn their Jews. But the leaders in these three cities in whose hands the government lay did not believe that anything ought to be done to the Jews. However in Basel the citizens marched to the city-hall and compelled the council to take an oath that they would burn the Jews, and that they would allow no Jew to enter the city for the next two hundred years. Thereupon the Jews were arrested in all these places and a conference was arranged to meet at Benfeld Alsace, February 8, 1349. The Bishop of Strasbourg [Berthold II], all the feudal lords of Alsace, and representatives of the three above mentioned cities came there. The deputies of the city of Strasbourg were asked what they were going to do with their Jews. They answered and said that they knew no evil of them. Then they asked the Strasbourgers why they had closed the wells and put away the buckets, and there was a great indignation and clamor against the deputies from Strasbourg. So finally the Bishop and the lords and the Imperial Cities agreed to do away with the Jews. The result was that they were burnt in many cities, and wherever they were expelled they were caught by the peasants and stabbed to death or drowned.

The Cremation of Strasbourg Jewry St. Valentine’s Day, February 14, 1349

  • According to this source, why did the people of Strasbourg seek to destroy the city’s Jewish population in response to the plague?
  • Why might a minority community like Strasbourg’s Jews become a scapegoat? What does this excerpt suggest about Jewish-Christian relations in this period?

The desperation and zealotry that inspired some responses to the plague in medieval Europe are perhaps best seen in the appearance of flagellants, people who believed that by publicly flogging themselves, they could atone for the sins of humanity and mitigate divine retribution. After this idea originated in Eastern Europe and took root in Germany, the flagellants traveled from town to town, reciting penitential verses and lashing themselves with leather whips until they drew blood. They were usually welcomed by townspeople who hoped they could bring an end to the plague epidemic. Occasionally, their rhetoric took an anti-Semitic turn, accusing the Jewish people of causing the plague to annihilate Christendom. The flagellants were active through much of Europe in the early years of the plague pandemic and may have even spread the disease through their contaminated blood. As a result of their increasingly radical orientation, however, by 1349 flagellants had been officially condemned by Pope Clement VI, and they ultimately faded into oblivion in the fifteenth century.

The plague left each region it affected with long-term economic and demographic consequences, including widespread depopulation and cyclic outbreaks of the disease in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Old systems of belief came into question, and ancient social hierarchies shifted to accommodate the significant population losses that followed the plague. Peasants, laborers, and those at the lower end of the socioeconomic hierarchy tended to experience the greatest mortality, but for those who survived, pronounced labor shortages led to the demise of some industries and more favorable working conditions in others. The disadvantaged began to question whether social elites really did enjoy God’s privilege, as the social hierarchy generally preached, since they too succumbed to the plague and failed to care for those to whom they bore responsibility.

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