Material on this page copyright by David W Tschanz
In October 1347, two months after the fall of Calais, Genoese trading ships put into the harbor of Messina in Sicily with dead and dying passengers and crew. The afflicted sailors showed black swellings about the size of an apple in their armpits and their groins. The swellings oozed blood and pus as they grew in size and burst. The sick suffered severe pain and died within five days. Several days would pass before the citizens of Messina realized the dying and ill sailors and their ships had brought an epidemic into their midst. Their actions came too late to save them and served only to involve others.
The Messinans drove the ships out of port to find 'safe harbor' elsewhere. One ship bearing its lethal cargo made it to Marseilles in November, the remainder put in at Corsica and Sardinia. Ships from Marseilles carried the pestilence to Barcelona and Valencia, from whence the disease spread to Spain and Portugal. England, safe for awhile, was reached in August by a ship from Calais that had put into the Dorset port of Melcombe. By the end of 1349, the epidemic had spread its tendrils of death throughout Europe.
It was not to be called the Black Death until a century later. At its height it was merely called the Pestilence or the Great Mortality. The best estimates of modern demographers are that one third to a half of Europeans living in the warm air of the summer of 1347 would die by the winter of 1349 from the plague. One third of Europe would have meant twenty four million dead, but in truth no one knows how many died in Europe. Nor is the death toll in China, India, the Middle East, or North Africa known.
The Plague seems to have had its origins in southeast Asia. It spread to China when the Mongol overlords of the Celestial Empire attempted to invade southeast Asia. The Mongols carried it into Central Asia and southern Russia. It was there, whilst putting in to a Crimean port invested by the Mongols, that the Genoese seem to have acquired the disease: The Mongols had thoughtfully tossed the bodies of several plague victims over the walls using siege engines.
The urban centers of Europe were ripe for epidemic and they were hardest hit. The death list mounted so fast in some places that the victims died unattended and the living could barely keep up with the grim task of burying the corpses. The pattern of the disease was similar for each city. When a city was stricken the disease usually remained active some four to six months, killed off a large section of the population and disorganized the entire life of the town. Then it would subside during the winter, only to return the following spring where it raged again for six months.
In Paris, 800 died a day, and the city would lose 50% of its population of over 100,0000. Florence, already weakened by a famine in 1347, lost 80% of is citizens; Venice, Hamburg, and Bremen two thirds; London one half. In Marseilles 16,000 deaths were recorded in a single month. Previously flourishing cities, like Carcassone, Montpellier, Rouen, Arras, Laon, and Reims, were dealt an irreversible blow and sank to mere shadows of their former prosperity, never to recover.
In crowded Avignon, a city of 50,000 and the seat of the Papacy, 400 died daily, 7,000 houses were emptied, and a single graveyard received 11,000 corpses in six weeks. Half the city's inhabitants reportedly died in the space of a few months, including nine cardinals and 70 lesser prelates. When the graveyards could hold no more, corpses were tossed into the Rhone River, which Pope Clement VI was forced to consecrate as a burial ground. Everywhere the Church was forced to resort to extraordinary ends to assure at least the semblance of the sacraments for the dying --no small matter in a population as tied to religion as Europe's was at that time. Bishops in England, faced with a loss of priests to minister the sacraments gave permission to laymen to make confession to each other as was done by the Apostles, "or if no man is present than even a woman". Pope Clement finally granted remission of sins to all who died of the plague.
The situation was almost as bad in the countryside. Peasants dropped dead on the roads, in the fields, and in their houses. Survivors, in growing helplessness, fell into apathy, leaving ripe wheat uncut and livestock untended. English sheep, bearers of the precious wool, caught the disease too, and died throughout the countryside, with reports of 5,000 dead in one field alone, the stench of their rotting carcasses filled the air for miles around.
The mortality in the countryside was erratic, in one place only 20% would die, in another entire villages would be wiped out. By the time the plague was over, 200,000 villages and hamlets would be abandoned across the face of Europe. Givry in Burgundy was typical of the experience of the smaller vilages. A thriving little town of 1,300 in the summer of 1345, she recorded 615 deaths in the summer of 1348 in a fourteen week period.
Unsurprisingly, monasteries, convents, prisons, and other closed communities were doomed when the plague was introduced to them. The Convents of Carcassone and Marseille lost everyone. At Montpeiler 133 Dominican Friars died out of 140. Petrarch's brother, Gherardo, member of a Carthusian monastery of 36, buried the prior and 34 fellow monks one by one, sometimes three a day, until he was left alone with his dog. Petrarch's beloved Laura was among those who succumbed to the Plague.
Ships were death traps. Along the shores of England it was not uncommon to see ships under full sail being driven by the winds of the Channel, or tossing about aimlessly, making it clear that all aboard had died.
As the Black Death continued unchecked a change in its methods of transmission took place. As the sick became more numerous, some survived long enough to develop the infection in their lungs. Now the disease was no longer limited to the rat-flea-man cycle with its 50-75% mortality rate, but appeared in th emore deadly pneumonic form as well (as in the breakout in the Indian city of Surat in 1994). Both forms were lethal, but the pneumonic form could strike with an abruptness that added to the terror the disease evoked. Numerous chronicles from all over Europe tell of persons going to bed in health and never wakening, of doctors catching the illness at the bedside and dying before the patient, and of persons in normal conversation who dropped dead in midsentence.
As the death toll mounted, even the expression of grief became a cause for concern by the authorities. Seeking to stem public panic, officials forbade the ringing of bells, the wearing of black except by widows, and restricted funerals, when they were actually held, to only two mourners.
The Black Death, with its great mortality and its seeming sentence of death for all whom came in contact with it caused a warping of the collective medieval mortality which brought with it both a sense of a vanishing future and a dementia of despair.
The plague was not the kind of calamity to inspire man to greater heights of altruism. Its loathsomeness and deadliness did not herd people together in an air of mutual distress, rather it prompted their desire to escape one another.
Angelo di Tura, a chronicler of Siena, described the atmosphere as one in which "Father abandoned child, wife husband, one brother another for this plague seemed to strike through breath and sight, so they died. And no one could be found to bury the dead for money or friendship." The scene he described would be echoed across all of Europe.Guy de Chauliac, the Papal physician and the "father of surgery" was more blunt in his assessment -- "A father did not visit his son, nor the son his father. Charity was dead."
Those who could, primarily the wealthy, sought safety in flight (as in Boccaccio's Decameron,) leaving the urban poor to die in their burrows. But though the death rate was higher among the poor, the rich and the powerful also perished. Although Alfonso XI of Castile was the only monarch to die, his neighbor Pedro of Aragon lost his wife, a daughter, and a niece in the space of six months. The Byzantine Emperor lost his son. Charles IV's wife Jeanne and her daughter in law, the wife of the Dauphin, also succumbed. Jeanne, the Queen of Navarre and daughter of Louis X was another victim. Edward III's second daughter, Joanna, died of Plague in Bordeaux while on her way to marry Pedro, the heir of Castile. In England the Archbishop of Canterbury, John Stratford died in August 1348, his successor died in May 1349, and the next appointee three months later. Curious sweeps of mortality affected some bodies of London merchants. All eight wardens of the Company of Cutters, all six wardens of the Hatters, and four wardens of the Goldsmiths died. Sir John Pulteney, master draper and four times Lord Mayor of London was a victim, as was Sir John Montgomery, Governor of Calais.
Naturally the death rate was highest among the clergy and the doctors whose professions brought them in close contact with the sick and dying. Out of 24 physicians in Venice, 20 lost their lives in the plague. Clerical motrality varied with rank. Prelates managed to sustain a higher survival rate than the lesser clergy. Among bishops, the death rate has been estimated at one out of six. Priests died at a rate closer to one out of two. The Pope may have owed his survival to a peculiar treatment which 'purified' the air about him: Three fires were kept buring about his person for days on end, the heat probably making things uncomfortable for the fleas, not to mention His Holiness.
Government officials found no special immunity and their loss contributed to the general chaos. In Siena, four of the nine members of the governing oligarchy died. In France one third of the royal notaries succumbed, while in Bristol 15 out of 52 members of the Town Council died.
To add to the terror of the seemingly unstoppable march of death was the unknown nature of its origin. The absence of an identifiable earthly cause gave the plague supernatural and sinister quality.
The role of rats and fleas as vectors in the transmission of the disese was never suspected. There were several reasons for this. Both were common in the period and had achieved a familiar anonymity (remember 'The Pied Piper of Hamlin"). There must have been great die offs of the rats, who would have been struck by the plague first, but if there were, no one saw it sufficiently unusual to comment on it. To confuse any attempt to associate these common medieval vermin with the disease striking Europe was the fact that the plague was also being spread by respiratory infection. And, finally and simply stated, the medieval mind was unable to make the connection. Besides there were other possible causes that better fit their preconceived notions of the way the universe was ordered.
An earthquake, which had a carved a path of wreckage from Naples to Venice in the summer of 1347, was blamed for releasing gases into the air which poisoned all on whom they fell. The scholars of the University of Paris stated that the Black Death resulted from "a triple conjunction of Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars in the 40th degree of Aquarius, occurring on the 20th of March 1345", but added that they did not know how.
No one really believed them anyway. To the common people there could only be one source of a thing as sweeping and as total as the Pest --the wrath of God punishing mankind for its sins. There was official support for this feeling. In a bull of 1348 Clement called the Plague, "a pestilence with which God is afflicting his Christian people." King Philip VI believed that God was punishing France for her sins and issued a unusual public health decree against blasphemy. For the first offense a man was to lose a lip, for the second the other lip and for the third, the tongue itself.
Others saw it as more than just an expression of divine displeasure and chastisement. The Italian chronicler Matteo Villani spoke for them when he said the plague was "Divine action with no goal less than the extermination of mankind." Villani himself succumbed to the disease, literally dying at his desk as he wrote of its terrors..