The Arrival and Spread of the Black Plague in Europe

Plage doctor mask
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Some of the earliest reports of the Black Plague show up historical accounts of the 1320s in China, the 1330s in Central Asia, and the 1340s in Europe. Any of these sites may have been the catalyst for an outbreak that initiated the Black Death, which is estimated to have killed 30 percent to 60 percent of Europe's population. Worldwide, the plague is estimated to have killed as many as 100 million people in the 14th century. 

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Origins of the Plague

Possible sites of plague origin

Melissa Snell

One location that may have initiated the spread of the Black Death is Lake Issyk-Kul in central Asia, where archaeological excavations have revealed an unusually high death rate for the years 1338 and 1339. Memorial stones attribute the deaths to plague, leading some scholars to conclude that the pestilence could have originated there and then spread east to China and south to India. Located along the trading routes of the Silk Road, Issyk-Kul was easily accessible from both China and the Caspian Sea, making it a likely spot to spearhead the mass spread of the disease.

However, other sources refer to the plague in China as early as the 1320s. Whether this strain infected the entire country before spreading westward to Issyk-Kul, or whether it was an isolated incident that had died out by the time a separate strain from Issyk-Kul reached the east is impossible to tell. But the disease took a devastating toll on China, killing millions.

It is most likely that rather than moving south from the lake through the seldom-traveled mountains of Tibet, the plague reached India from China via common ship trading routes. Millions of lives were lost here, too.

How the disease made its way to Mecca is not clear, but both merchants and pilgrims traveled by sea from India to the holy city with some regularity. However, Mecca was not struck until 1349, more than a year after the disease was in full swing in Europe. It is possible that pilgrims or merchants from Europe brought it south with them.

Also, whether the disease moved directly to the Caspian Sea from Lake Issyk-Kul, or whether it first moved to China and back again along the Silk Road is unknown. It may have been the latter, since it took a full eight years to reach Astrakhan and the capital of the Golden Horde, Sarai.

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The Black Death Comes to Europe, 1347

The arrival of the disease in eastern Europe and Italy The Black Death Comes to Europe, 1347
Melissa Snell

The first recorded appearance of the plague in Europe was at Messina, Sicily in October of 1347. It arrived on trading ships that likely came from the Black Sea, past Constantinople and through the Mediterranean. This was a fairly standard trade route that brought to European customers such items as silks and porcelain, which were carried overland to the Black Sea from as far away as China.

As soon as the citizens of Messina realized what a horrible sickness had come aboard these ships, they expelled them from the port, but it was too late. Plague quickly raged through the city, and panicked victims fled, thus spreading it to the surrounding countryside. While Sicily was succumbing to the horrors of the disease, the expelled trading ships brought it to other areas around the Mediterranean, infecting the neighboring islands of Corsica and Sardinia by November.

Meanwhile, the plague had traveled from Sarai to the Genoese trading station of Tana, east of the Black Sea. Here Christian merchants were attacked by Tartars and chased to their fortress at Kaffa (sometimes spelled Caffa). The Tartars besieged the city in November, but their siege was cut short when the Black Death struck. Before breaking off their attack, however, they catapulted dead plague victims into the city in the hopes of infecting its residents.

The defenders tried to divert the pestilence by throwing the bodies into the sea, but once a walled city had been struck by plague, its doom was sealed. As the inhabitants of Kaffa began to fall to the disease, the merchants boarded ships to sail home. But they could not escape the plague. When they arrived in Genoa and Venice in January of 1348, few passengers or sailors were alive to tell the tale.

Unfortunately, all it took was a few plague victims to bring the deadly illness to mainland Europe.

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The Plague Spreads Swiftly

Spread of the Black Death Jan.-June 1348 A Swift Strike
Melissa Snell

In 1347, only a few parts of Greece and Italy had experienced the horrors of the plague, but by June of 1348, nearly half of Europe had met the Black Death in one form or another.

When the ill-fated ships from Kaffa arrived at Genoa, they were chased away as soon as the Genoese realized they carried plague. As with the episode at Messina, this measure failed to prevent the disease from coming ashore, and the repelled ships spread the illness to Marseilles, France, and along the coast of Spain to Barcelona and Valencia.

In mere months, the plague spread throughout all Italy, through half of Spain and France, down the coast of Dalmatia on the Adriatic, and north into Germany. Africa was also infected at Tunis via the Messina ships, and the Middle East was dealing with an eastward spread from Alexandria.

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The Spread of the Black Death through Italy

1348 The Spread of the Black Death through Italy
Melissa Snell

Once the plague moved from Genoa to Pisa, it spread with alarming speed through Tuscany to Florence, Siena, and Rome. The disease also came ashore from Messina to Southern Italy, but much of the province of Calabria was rural, and it proceeded more slowly northward.

When the pestilence reached Milan, the occupants of the first three houses it struck were walled up—sick or not—and left to die. This horrifyingly harsh measure, ordered by the Archbishop, appeared to succeed to some degree, for Milan suffered less from the plague than any other major Italian city.

Florence, however—the thriving, prosperous center of trade and culture—was hit particularly hard, by some estimates losing as much as 65,000 residents. For descriptions of the tragedies in Florence, we have the eyewitness accounts of two of its most famous residents: Petrarch, who lost his beloved Laura to the disease in Avignon, France, and Boccaccio, whose most famous work, the Decameron, would center on a group of people fleeing Florence to avoid the plague.

In Siena, work on a cathedral that had been proceeding apace was interrupted by the plague. Workers died or grew too ill to continue and money for the project was diverted to deal with the health crisis. When the plague was over and the city had lost half its people, there were no more funds for church-building, and the partially-constructed transept was patched up and abandoned to become part of the landscape, where it can still be seen today.

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The Black Death Spreads through France

1348 The Black Death Spreads through France
Melissa Snell

The ships expelled from Genoa stopped briefly at Marseilles before moving on to the coast of Spain, and within a mere month, thousands died in the French port city. From Marseilles, the disease moved west to Montpelier and Narbonne and north to Avignon in less than 30 days.

The seat of the Papacy had been moved from Rome to Avignon in the early part of the fourteenth century, and now Pope Clement VI occupied the post. As the spiritual leader of all Christendom, Clement decided he would be no use to anyone if he died, so he made it his business to survive. His physicians helped matters along by insisting he remain isolated and keeping him toasty-warm between two roaring fires in the dead of summer.

Clement may have had the fortitude to withstand the heat, though the rats and their fleas didn't, and the pope remained free of plague. Unfortunately, no one else had such resources, and one-quarter of Clement's staff died in Avignon before the disease was done.

As the pestilence raged ever more fiercely, people died too swiftly to even receive last rites from the priests (who were dying, too). As such, Clement issued a decree stating that anyone who died from the plague would automatically receive remission of sins, easing their spiritual concerns if not their physical pain.

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An Insidious Spread through Europe

Spread of the Black Death Jul.-Dec. 1348 An Insidious Spread
Melissa Snell

Once the disease had traveled along most of the trade routes in Europe, its exact course becomes more difficult—and in some areas nearly impossible—to plot. We know that it had penetrated into Bavaria by June, but its course across the rest of Germany is uncertain. And while the south of England was also infected by June of 1348, the worst of the epidemic didn't strike the majority of Great Britain until 1349.

In Spain and Portugal, the plague crept inland from the port cities at a somewhat slower pace than in Italy and France. In the war at Granada, Muslim soldiers were the first to succumb to the illness, and some feared the horrific disease was Allah's punishment and even contemplated converting to Christianity. Before any could take so drastic a step, however, their Christian enemies were also struck down by the hundreds, making it clear that the plague took no notice of religious affiliation.

It was in Spain that the only ruling monarch to die of the disease met his end. The advisors of King Alfonse XI of Castile begged him to isolate himself, but he refused to leave his troops. He fell ill and died on March 26, 1350, Good Friday.

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1349: The Infection Rate Begins to Slow

A slower yet more horrifying progression Spread of the Black Death, 1349
Melissa Snell

Having infected virtually all of western Europe and half of central Europe in about 13 months, the spread of the illness finally began to slow. Most of Europe and Britain were now keenly aware that a horrible plague was among them. The more affluent fled the heavily-populated areas and retreated to the countryside, but almost everyone else had nowhere to go and no way to run.

By 1349, many of the areas that had initially been afflicted were beginning to see the end of the first wave. However, in the more heavily-populated cities, it was only a temporary respite. Paris suffered several waves of plague, and even in the "off-season" people were still dying.

Once again utilizing trade routes, the plague appears to have made its way to Norway via ship from Britain. One story notes the first appearance was on a wool ship that sailed from London. One or more of the sailors had apparently been infected before the vessel's departure; by the time it reached Norway, the entire crew was dead. The ship drifted until it ran aground near Bergen, where some unwitting residents went aboard to investigate its mysterious arrival and were thus infected themselves.

A few fortunate areas in Europe managed to escape the worst. Milan, as was previously mentioned, saw little infection, possibly due to the drastic measures that were taken to prevent the spread of the illness. The lightly-populated and little-traveled region of southern France near the Pyrenees, between English-controlled Gascony and French-controlled Toulouse, saw very little plague mortality. And strangely enough, the port city of Bruges was spared the extremes that other cities on the trade routes suffered, possibly due to a recent drop-off in trade activity resulting from the early stages of the Hundred Years War.