The Arrival and Spread of the Black Death in Europe

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Europe on the Eve of Plague

Political Map of Europe in 1346
Political Map of Europe, 1346 Europe on the Eve of Plague. Melissa Snell

By the year 1346, Europe was beginning to see a decline in the period known as the "High Middle Ages." Populations were on the wane and famine had helped to reduce them. Several Italian banks had gone under, and with them the dreams of enterprising traders and town-builders. And the Papacy had been headquartered at Avignon for more than 30 years.

The Hundred Years' War was under way, and in 1346 the English scored a significant victory at the Battle of Crécy. Spain was in the midst of turmoil: there was armed rebellion in Aragon, and Christian Castile was engaged in a conflict with Moorish Granada.

Trade had not long before opened up with eastern societies through Mongol territory (the Khanate of the Golden Horde), and the Italian cities of Genoa and Venice profited most significantly from new markets and new products. Unfortunately, these new trade routes would be instrumental in bringing to Europe from the far reaches of Asia the worst epidemic of plague Christendom had ever known.

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Origins of the Plague

Possible sites of plague origin in 14th-century Asia
Possible sites of plague origin in 14th-century Asia Origins of Plague. Melissa Snell

It may never be possible to identify the point of origin of the fourteenth-century plague with any precision. The disease had been endemic in several locations in Asia for centuries, flaring up occasionally and setting off the severe sixth-century pandemic. At any one of these sites an outbreak could have occurred that initiated the Black Death.

One such location 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. Issyk-Kul's location along the trading routes of the Silk Road and its accessibility from both China and the Caspian Sea make it a convenient spot for spreading disease.

However, other sources refer to 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 however it started and however it spread, it 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. There too millions would succumb to its horror.

How the pestilence made its way to Mecca is not clear. Both merchants and pilgrims traveled by sea from India to the holy city with some regularity. But 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 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 very 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 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 panicking 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, 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 (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 left alive to tell the tale.

But few plague victims were all that was required to bring the deadly illness to mainland Europe.

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The Plague Spreads Swiftly

Spread of the Black Death Jan.-June 1348
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. 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 -- the thriving, prosperous center of trade and culture -- was particularly hard-hit, 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; 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 you can still see it 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 a month.

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, but the rats and their fleas didn't bother, so 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, and people died too swiftly to receive last rites from the priests (who were dying, too), 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

Spread of the Black Death Jul.-Dec. 1348
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, the Muslim soldiers were the first to succumb to the illness, and so horrific did they find it that some feared it 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 plain 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 Slows

A slower yet more horrifying progression
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 illness began to spread more slowly. 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 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 has it that its 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.

At the same time, a few areas in Europe managed to escape the worst. Milan, as was previously mentioned, saw little infection, possibly due to the drastic measures 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 stage of the Hundred Years War.