If one were to paint a map of modern Europe on a glass pane and drop it, one would have a good approximation of a map of Europe during the 14th century. What are today regions of each particular country were in many cases independent states with fluctuating allegiances to neighboring powers, each nominally responsive to the dictates of the Pope. The governments of the time were almost exclusively feudal with a monarch at their head and in a state of nearly constant war. The lowest social class, the serfs, were essentially slaves by another name, and though a burgeoning merchant class was becoming prosperous, the vast majority of society would have been accustomed to a standard of living well below that of the people in the time of Justinian. Despite these material setbacks, the population of Europe had actually risen substantially in the intervening centuries, and inter-European trade was again flourishing. These were the conditions that set the stage for perhaps the greatest period of human suffering in history, what would then be known as The Great Mortality and later as The Black Death.
The variety of Yersinia pestis that would cause the black death made its first tentative appearance in the Chagatai Khanate (modern-day Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan) in 1339, probably jumping from an endemic plague reservoir in marmots (Orent, 2004, p. 104). Y. Pestis claimed several dozen lives before disappearing for a few years and reemerging with full force in the Khanate of the Golden Horde (Western Kazakhstan and Southern Russia) in the year 1346 (Kelly, 2005, p. 8). Here, it enters the historical record with the dramatic siege of the Genoese outpost city of Caffa in the Crimean Peninsula. Capable of resupply by sea but surrounded on the landward side by the forces of Khan Janibeg, the enemies were locked in a stalemate until the plague began to rip through Janibeg’s encampment, weakening his forces and convincing him to break off the siege in 1347. The Genoese rejoiced and considered this an act of god. However, not one to easily accept defeat, the Khan catapulted the corpses of his plague-dead into the city before withdrawing. Soon, whether by this first act of biological warfare or by the insidious spread of rats into the city, the inhabitants of Caffa began to die in droves (Kelly, 2005, p 9).
The siege was broken, many of the residents of Caffa fled and carried the plague with them across Europe infecting first the coastal cities and then gradually inland until the whole of Europe had been enveloped. As each city fell under the shadow of the plague, a remarkable number of citizens began recording their experiences. Agnolo di Tura, a cobbler, who wrote extensively about his family, his wife, Nicoluccia, and about civil life in Siena before the plague, continued to write after the plague reached his city:
In many parts of Siena, very wide trenches were made and in these they placed the bodies, throwing them and covering them with but a little dirt. After that, they put in the same trench many other bodies and covered them also with earth and so they laid them layer upon layer until the trench was full. Members of a household brought their dead to a ditch as best they could without a priest, without divine offices. Some of the dead were…so ill covered that the dogs dragged them forth and devoured many bodies throughout the city. (Kelly, 2005, p. 118)
He continued “No bells tolled, and nobody wept no matter what his loss because almost everyone expected death… and people said and believed, ‘this is the end of the world’,” (Tuchman 1978, p. 95). He wrote about the effects of the plague until the end of the year 1348 where he ended his chronicle with the brief but crushing line, “And I, Agnolo di Tura, … buried my wife and five children with my own hands” (Kelly 2005, p. 119).
The terror felt in Siena was compounded by the many hundreds of tragic stories laid down in personal accounts across the continent. In Ireland, John Clynn wrote in despair, “waiting among the dead for death to come… [I] have committed to writing what I have truly heard and examined… in case anyone should still be alive in the future,” (Kelly, 2005, p. 186). In Florence, Giovanni Boccachio wrote:
It was not merely a question of one citizen avoiding another;…this scourge had implanted such a terror in the hearts of men and women that brothers abandon brothers, uncles their nephews, sisters their brothers, and in many cases, wives deserted husbands. But even worse, and almost incredible was the fact that fathers and mothers refused to nurse and assist their own children as though they did not belong to them… a great many people died who would perhaps have survived had they received some assistance. (Kelly, 2005, p. 106)
But not all who experienced the horrors of the plague turned so callous. In Avignon, papal physician Gui de Chauliac stayed, “to avoid infamy,” even after the pope and many of the rich had left the city for the safety of the countryside. He tended to his patients until he became sick himself and, ever the consummate scientist, documented the course of his own illness (Kelly, 2005, p. 160). In Paris, the nuns of the Hotel Dieu (hospital) continued working to care for the sick “with all sweetness and humility,” even while they died at a rate so alarming that they had difficulty replacing them (Tuchman, 1978, p. 97).
However, despite the valiant efforts of a few, the plague raged on, and in desperation, the survivors looked for someone that they could blame. The French blamed the English, the Florentines blamed the Genoese, and the Genoese blamed the Mongols, but by far the most common scapegoat of every European society were the Jews. Antisemitism was by no means new to the continent, but under the stress of the plague it reached a furor that would not be recapitulated until the advent of Nazi death camps. A conspiracy theory of the time held that Jews across Europe had been poisoning wells at the instruction of a mythical Rabbi, Jacob of Toledo, and despite a firm statement from the Pope against it, many cities began murdering their Jewish population as a reaction to, and in some cases a prophylactic against, the plague (Kelly, 2005, p 231-233). In Basel, on January 9, 1349, the townspeople erected a wooden structure on an island, locked the Jewish men, women, and children inside, and set it on fire (Kelly, 2005, p. 255-256). Similarly, in Strasburg, one chronicler wrote that the Jews were, “stripped almost naked by the crowd” and were marched “to their own cemetery into a house prepared for burning,” (Kelly, 2005, p. 256).
As the initial plague outbreaks wore on into decades of endemic disease, it also became widely recognized that the poor suffered disproportionately compared to the rich. Scottish chronicler John of Fordun noted that the plague “attacked especially the meaner sort and common people—seldom the magnates,” (Tuchman, 1978, p. 98). This was attributed to the aristocracy’s ability to flee plague-infested cities and retire to their country estates, but likely also involved the stresses of starvation and extreme poverty that beset many of the peasants. Women also seemed to be more vulnerable than men, perhaps owing to their increased time at home and thereby in greater contact with fleas; similarly, members of the clergy, as well as doctors, were particularly hard hit (Tuchman, 1978, p. 99). This burgeoning understanding of the role of active intervention in public health also lead to the invention of the quarantine. The word “quarantine” derives from the Italian words “quaranta giorni” meaning “40 days” (History of Quarantine, 2012)—a number chosen for its religious significance, but with the fortunate side effect of being longer than the incubation period of plague.
Between 1346 and 1353, it has been estimated that 25 million people died–a full third of the population of Europe (Orent, 2004, p. 136) In the century that followed, Europe experienced a population decline of up to 60-75% (Kelly, 2005, p. 281) bringing the death toll to perhaps as high as 100 million. This holocaust created the preconditions that catalyzed massive social and economic changes that would shape the modern world. With such a large decrease in population, labor became a scarce resource and the lower classes began to demand higher wages (Tuchman, 1978, p. 120). This spurred a counter-reaction to attempt to maintain the status quo. In England, Edward III froze wages at pre-plague levels and parliament passed the Statute of Laborers, a law that limited collective bargaining rights and was still on the books centuries later when it was used as the partial justification for breaking up factory unions in the progressive era (Tuchman, 1978, p. 119-120).
However, despite the aristocracy’s efforts to put the cat back into the bag, their efforts were ultimately doomed to failure. With peasant demands being met with only heavy-handed suppression, revolts erupted frequently across the continent. In France, the Jacquerie created a smoldering fear of unrest, and in England, The Peasants Revolt planted the seeds of lasting social change that would lead to the end of serfdom and the beginning of a free market (Tuchman, 1978).
History of Quarantine. (2012, January 10). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/quarantine/historyquarantine.html
Kelly, J. (2005). The great mortality. New York: HarperCollins.
Orent, W. (2004). Plague: the mysterious past and terrifying future of the world’s most dangerous disease. New York: Free Press.
Tuchman, B. W. (1978). A distant mirror: the calamitous 14th century. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.