Nearly 700 years after the black plague swept across Europe, it continues to haunt the world as the worst scenario of an epidemic. Called the great mortality because it caused its devastation, this second great pandemic of bubonic plague became known under the name of black plague at the end of the XVIIth century.
Modern genetic analysis suggests bubonic plague was caused by bacteria Yersinia pestis or Y. pestis. The main among its symptoms is the painfully swollen lymph nodes that form boils filled with pus called buboes. People with fever also experience fever, chills, headache, shortness of breath, hemorrhage, bloody sputum, vomiting and delirium, and if left untreated, a survival rate of 50 %.
During the black plague, three different forms of the plague appeared across Europe. Here is a timeline of his horrific assault on humanity.
Black plague emerges, spreads via the Black Sea
The strain of Y. pestis emerges in Mongolia, according to John Kelly’s account in The great mortality. It is possibly transmitted to humans by a tarabagan, a type of groundhog. The deadliest epidemic is in the Mongolian capital Sarai, which the Mongols transport west to the Black Sea region.
Mongolian king Janiberg and his army are in the nearby town of Tana when a fight breaks out between Italian merchants and a group of Muslims. After the death of one of the Moslems, the Italians flee by sea towards the Genoese outpost of Caffa and Janiberg follows on land. When he arrived in Caffa, Janiberg’s army besieged for a year, but was struck by an epidemic. As the army catapults the bodies infected with their dead onto the city walls, the Genoese under siege also become infected.
Both sides of the siege are decimated and the survivors of Caffa escape by the sea, leaving behind streets covered with corpses fed by wild animals. A ship arrives in Constantinople, which, once infected, loses up to 90% of its population.
Another Caffan ship docks in Sicily, the crew barely alive. Here, the plague kills half the population and moves to Messina. The fleeing residents then spread it to mainland Italy, where a third of the population died the following summer.
The plague arrives in France, brought by another of the Caffa ships arriving in Marseille. It is rapidly spreading across the country.
A new strain enters Europe
Another strain of plague enters Europe by Genoa, brought by another Caffan ship which berths there. The Genoese attack and chase the ship, but they are still infected. Italy is facing this second strain when it was already fighting the previous one.
Y. pestis is also heading east of Sicily in the Persian Empire and through Greece, Bulgaria, Romania and Poland, and south to Egypt, as well as Cyprus, which is also struck by the destruction of an earthquake and a deadly tidal wave at the same time.
Venice is coping with its own epidemic, paving the way for the first organized response, with committees ordering inspections of ships and burning them with contagion, closing taverns and restricting wine from unknown sources. The canals are filled with gondolas shouting official instructions for the disposal of corpses. Despite these efforts, the plague kills 60% of the Venetian population.
The plague awakens anti-Semitic rage in Europe, causing repeated massacres of Jewish communities, the first taking place in Provence, where 40 Jews were murdered.
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Violent anti-Semitism spreads
A group of religious fanatics known as the Flagellants are beginning to appear in Germany. These groups of 50 to 500 half-naked hooded men walk, sing and fight with eyelashes until they are swollen and bloody. Originally the practice of 11th century Italian monks during an epidemic, they spread across Europe. Also known for their violent anti-Semitism, the Flagellants mysteriously disappear in 1350.
The plague strikes Marseille, Paris and Normandy, then the strain divides, one strain moving towards the Belgian city of Tournai to the east and the other passing through Calais. and Avignon, where 50% of the population dies.
The plague also crosses Austria and Switzerland, where a fury of anti-Semitic massacres follows it along the Rhine after a rumor spread that the Jews caused the plague by poisoning wells, as Jennifer Wright details in his book, Heal soon, the worst plagues in history and the heroes who fought them. In the cities of Germany and France, the Jewish communities are completely wiped out. In response, King Casimir III of Poland offered refuge to the persecuted Jews, beginning a mass migration to Poland and Lithuania. Marseille is also considered a refuge for the Jews.
Black plague reaches London, Scotland and beyond
After the infection and death of King Edward III’s daughter, Princess Joan, the plague reached London, according to King Death: The black plague and its consequences in the end of medieval England by Colin Platt. As the devastation increases, Londoners flee to the countryside to find food. Edward attributes the plague to the garbage and human excrement piled up on the streets of London and across the Thames.
One of the worst massacres of Jews during the black plague takes place on Valentine’s Day in Strasbourg, with 2,000 Jews burned alive. In the spring, 3000 Jews defended themselves in Mainz against the Christians but were defeated and massacred.
The plague strikes Wales, caused by people fleeing the south of England, and ends up killing 100,000 people there.
Vikings, paralyzed by the plague, interrupt exploration
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An English ship brings the Black Death to Norway when it runs aground in Bergen. The crew of the ship died at the end of the week and the plague goes to Denmark and Sweden, where the king thinks that fasting on a Friday and that the shoes preceding Sunday will please God and put an end to the plague . It didn’t work, killing two of the king’s brothers and moving to Russia and east Greenland, forcing the Vikings to stop exploring North America.
Scotland, having so far avoided the plague, hopes to take advantage of the weakness of amass an army and plan an invasion. While waiting at the border to begin the attack, the troops were infected, with 5,000 dead. By choosing to retreat, soldiers bring the disease back to their families and a third of Scotland perishes.
Black plague fades, leaving half of Europe dead
The spread of the plague begins to stop considerably, perhaps thanks to quarantine efforts, having caused the deaths of 25 to 50 million people and resulted in the massacres of 210 Jewish communities. In total, Europe has lost around 50% of its population.
Read more: Social distance and quarantine were used in medieval times to fight against the black plague
With the Black Death considered safe behind them, Europeans are faced with a changed society. The combination of the massive death rate and the number of survivors fleeing their homes is rocketing well-established social and economic systems. It becomes easier to get work for better wages and the average standard of living increases.
With the feudal system dying, the aristocracy tried to adopt laws preventing any further rise of the peasants, leading to upheavals and a revolution in England and France. Significant losses within older intellectual communities created an unprecedented opportunity for new artistic ideas and concepts to settle, leading directly to the Renaissance and to a younger and enlightened period of human history.
Bubonic plague never comes out completely, resurfaces several times over the centuries.
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