The Black Death
The trade routes of Central Asia did not only 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 Europe. The first wave 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 on the Crimean peninsula, yet their army was already seriously weakened by the disease. 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 the city anchored in the harbor of Messina, Sicily. 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 southern 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. [Read more: “The Columbian exchange“]
Although it was obvious to everyone 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. 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 in the long run serve as scapegoats. A religious explanation made more sense. The outbreak, various firebrand preachers explained, was God’s punishment for the sins of mankind. Throughout Europe the deaths led to labor shortages which made it easier for serfs to renegotiate their contracts with their lords or to simply run away and settle on their own land.