The trade routes of Central Asia did not only help disseminate goods and ideas but also diseases such as the bubonic plague, known as the “black death.” The contagion first hit the Mongols, then the Arabic world and then Europe – the first wave of the epidemic came in the 1340s, and later waves in the 1360s and 70s. In 1347, the story has it, the Mongols had laid a siege on the prosperous Genoese city of Caffa, today’s Feodosia, on the Crimean peninsula, yet their armies were seriously weakened by the plague. In an act of what would come to count as biological warfare, the Mongols catapulted the corpses of their dead across the city walls, thereby infecting the inhabitants. In October the same year a Genoese ship fleeing from the conflict anchored in the harbor of Messina, Sicily, and by the time they arrived it was clear that its crew too carried the disease. From Messina the plague spread quickly along Europe’s trade routes, reaching Dorset on the southern coast of England already the following year. It is estimated that some 75 million people died from the plague worldwide and 20 million people in Europe alone – perhaps as many of half of the continent’s population. The only pandemic which can compare are the outbreaks of smallpox and other diseases which the Europeans brought with them to the Americas after 1492 – in which some 20 million people may have perished.
Although it was quite obvious to people at the time that the disease was spread through contagion, no one understood the biological mechanisms involved. Initially it was rats that had become infected, then the rats were bitten by fleas which in turn bit humans. The disease caused the lymph nodes to become very sore and to swell to the size of apples, and in about 80 percent of the cases death would follow within two days.
Everyone looked for an explanation for the disease. Weak and marginal groups were often identified as culprits – Catalans, Jews, beggars and the poor – but the weak and the marginal were dying too and could not serve as scapegoats in the long run. A religious explanation made more sense. The outbreak, various firebrand preachers explained, was God’s punishment for the sins of mankind. In Germany and Scandinavia large processions would form where the participants would flagellate themselves, imitating the suffering of Jesus on the cross, and asking God for forgiveness. (See the picture above, from Ingemar Bergman’s film The Seventh Seal) In many places social norms would collapse completely and licentiousness and criminality would spread. The power of medical authorities would break down too since traditional medicine, as originally taught by Greek physicians like Galen and Hippocrates, was of no use. In fact, visiting a doctor only increased the risk of catching the disease.
Throughout Europe all the deaths led to labor shortages and this made it easier for serfs to renegotiate their contracts with their lords or to simply run away and settle on their own land. At least in parts of Europe this contributed to putting an end to feudalism. Since such a lot of land lay fallow, land prices fell dramatically and in many cases the already powerful were able to increase their holdings many times over. The Black Death is reflected in the art of the period where memento mori, “remember death,” and contemptus mundi, “contempt of the world,” came to be important themes. Much of the art was created to commemorate the lives of the dead and to help the living prepare for their own, inevitable, fate.