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The Black Death began its astonishing destruction in the East

Posted in Biology, Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Medicine on Tuesday, 26 November 2013

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This edited article about the Black Death first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 462 published on 21 November 1970.

Siege of Kaffa, picture, image, illustration

A vast army of Tartars surrounded Kaffa in Abyssinia in 1346; suddenly, when it seemed that the city must surely fail, the plague broke out among the Tartar hosts, by James E McConnell

It was the golden age of chivalry, an age when gallant knights fought each other with lance and sword at tournaments, an age when England could look with pride at her king, Edward III, who had routed the Scots and inflicted crushing defeats on the French at Crecy and Calais. It was the year 1348. England’s wars with France and Scotland were over, and she was now prosperous and thriving on her large exports of wool and cloth. It was a time, then, for pride and for confidence in a bright future. And why not? Trade and Edward would surely look after England for a long time to come.

How wrong they all were, those proud English revelling in their prosperity. For, by the end of that fateful year, England was to see her population decimated and her country turned into a wasteland by an enemy far more terrible than any she had met on the battlefield.

The enemy came in the shape of an ordinary French sailor who had sailed with a fair wind to the coast of England. It is not known for sure where the sailor landed, but it is generally assumed that it was at Melcombe Regis, now Weymouth, which was an important port at that time. The fact that he was able to walk off the ship at all is surprising. For he carried within him the baccillus of the pestilence known as The Black Death.

The story of the “Death” in England, is only a very small part of the history of this terrible epidemic which raged across the whole of Europe, killing twenty five million people.

It had begun ravaging Europe in the autumn of 1347, but it had originated in the East several years earlier. It had been heralded by ominous reports brought back by travellers returning from distant Cathay and India with frightening stories of disasters, multiplying on each other with such rapidity that the credulous could only assume that they were a chastisement given by God to the heathens. These travellers’ stories were full of storms and earthquakes such as the world had never seen before. In China alone, there had been drought, famine and floods. There had been violent earthquakes, so severe that on one occasion a mountain had disappeared. There had been a swarm of locusts such as that which had been inflicted by Aaron on the Pharaoh for refusing to free the Israelites, and even worse, a noxious mist which had crawled across the land, destroying every leaf and blade of grass which lay in its path. Between Cathay and India, there had been a great rain of fire, and on the borders of India, people had suffered the horror of a downpour of serpents, lizards and frogs.

These first reports which filtered through to Europe were undoubtedly exaggerated, if not downright lies. But there was no doubt about one thing. Strange things were happening in the East.

But this was only the beginning. Next came reports of a great plague, spreading across the East. In Cairo, ten to fifteen thousand people were dying of it daily. In China, more than thirteen million were said to have died, and India was now almost depopulated. From Tartary, throughout Mesopotamia, Syria and Armenia, the land was covered with the unburied dead. And so it went on. Report after report of death and disaster raging across the East with such unabating fury that it must surely only be a matter of time before it reached Europe. And yet, from what one gathers from some of the writers of those days, no one seemed unduly concerned that the spectre of death was marching inexorably across the land to destroy them all.

To understand this seeming indifference to death, one must know something of the life and attitudes of the people of the Middle Ages – the dark night of the mind when superstition, fear and ignorance ruled. It was an age when a high mortality rate at an early age induced in everyone an apathetic acceptance of one’s lot, which was almost inevitably an unhappy one, thanks mainly to disease, malnutrition and the very pattern of medieval life itself which could put one in the hands of the public executioner or torturer for the most simple crime. A constant witness to violent death and shouldering incredible hardships, medieval man had reached the state when he could face the thought of death with fatalistic resignation.

But it went even further than that. Life was so oppressive in the Middle Ages that one turned to the Church, which, alas, gave little consolation to those who needed it most. The Churches and cathedrals themselves were certainly beautiful, awe inspiring places, which excited the imagination of even the most humble peasant seeking an escape from the drab world around him outside. But the preachers inside them were messengers of doom who were constantly warning their congregations that the end of the world was at hand. During the middle of the fourteenth century, there was certainly enough happening to justify the preachers’ warnings. There had been reports of a column of fire having been seen in the sky above the Papal Palace at Avignon, and another report that a ball of fire had been seen travelling across the sunset skies above Paris. Falling stars, the eruption of Mount Etna, a harvest failure in France, a series of earthquakes in Italy, were all assumed to be the work of God, showing his displeasure of a world beset with sin. The preachers, then, had been right. The end of the world was coming, and when it did come, one could only accept it with the same fatal resignation that one had accepted all the trials of life.

By then the Black Death was already on its way to Europe, carried by caravans bringing silks, spices and other Oriental merchandise from Baghdad and Alexandria, to the Italian merchant settlements in the Crimea, including the Genoese dominated port of Kaffa, where it was the unlucky fate of its inhabitants to become the first European victims of the plague.

In 1346, Kaffa was besieged by the Tartars, who surrounded the city with a vast army which promptly began hammering at the walls with catapults and battering rams. Suddenly, when it seemed that the city must surely fall, the plague broke out among the Tartar hosts, killing thousands of them daily. Although the Tartar forces were now ready to flee, their commander had no intention of retreating until he had dealt them one final devastating blow. Loading the corpses of his plague stricken men into one of his catapults, he projected them over the walls into the city. The Christian defenders promptly threw the plague infected bodies into the sea. But the damage had been done. When the survivors of the siege were conveyed by galleys to Genoa, they carried with them the deadly baccillus, just as a French sailor was to carry it to England, a year later.

The Black Death was about to set foot in Europe.

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