This is the first in a mini-series of historical insights into the 14th century pandemic we call the Black Death, written with more than an eye on the sometimes uncanny resemblances it had to our own Covid-19 experience. Readers of this blog will already know that I have been researching this for my forthcoming novel, Thirteen Forty-Nine, which explores the impact of the Great Mortality, as contemporaries called it, on a fictional village in southern England. In this blog I look at what the Black Death was, where it came from, and its trajectory and effects across Europe.
The pandemic we call the Black Death probably had its origin in western Asia, and arrived in Europe in 1347 via the port of Genoa in Italy. The Genoese were well known for travelling and trading far and wide across the Medieval world, and one of the places they had settled was at Kaffa (or Caffa, now Feodosija) on the Crimean shores of the Black Sea in Asia Minor. The Genoese city was established in 1266, by agreement with the Khan of the Golden Horde, the local ruler. Here they were besieged (not by the first time) by Mongol forces in 1345–46. The Genoese were supplied by boat, however, and could not be starved out. According to Gabriele de’Mussi, a Genoese notary, writing soon after the event although not an eye-witness, the Mongol forces (he called them Tartars) used biological warfare in an attempt to break the siege: they hurled the bodies of their own plague-infected soldiers into the city. The attempt failed and the city remained in Genoese hands. However, a number of the Genoese defenders took ship and sailed away, taking the disease to Europe. Given the nature of European contacts with the Near East, it was almost inevitable that the plague would have found its way to the continent. But the siege of Kaffa and the Tartars’ biological warfare is a colourful episode that caught the medieval imagination and still intrigues historians today. It shows, moreover, how transport links play an important part in pandemic transmission – something we have learned about afresh in 2020.
The Black Death arrived at the port of Genoa, where the ship and its infected sailors were promptly sent on their way by the authorities – though not in time to save the city from the disease. From southern Italy it spread across the continent through 1347 and early 1348, moving northwards steadily though affecting some places more severely than others. A number of chroniclers described it and from their accounts it seems certain that the disease was a particularly virulent version of bubonic plague. Three different types were present, in differing mixes in different places and at different seasons, which is one of the reasons why it was so devastating (another significant factor may be that since there had been no similar outbreak of plague in Europe since the 6th century few people had any immunity to it). The most prevalent type in the early part of the pandemic, in Italy and France, was bubonic plague, which had a death rate of something around 60 or 70 percent of those infected. The symptoms were the classic growths (called buboes, giving the disease its name), a high temperature and a persistent rash or blotches under the skin. But in England, partly because of the colder weather experienced during winter and spring 1348/1349, many cases were of pneumonic plague, which affects the lungs and is very much more deadly. A third and rarer type, septicaemic plague, in which the bacillus enters the bloodstream directly and overwhelms the patient extremely quickly, is almost always fatal. Since the plague is a bacterial infection not a virus, these were simply different ways the flea-borne bacillus could enter or attack the body. They were not mutations like those we see in coronavirus-type epidemics. Today all three types of plague can be treated with antibiotics, but without them it was (and is) untreatable.
The disease reached England in June 1348, in all probability making its first landfall at Melborne Regis in Dorset. It moved across the country in a single prolonged wave, but its trajectory was complex; that is, it did not enter in the south and pass uniformly northwards across the country. Instead, it followed major transport routes, spreading first westwards along the south coast, with separate nodes of infection in major ports such as Bristol on the major inlet below the Severn estuary. This almost certainly represented transmission by ships, some directly from the continent of Europe, others from internal ports. For several months after the first infections in Dorset, the interior of southern England was almost untouched, but Dorset, Devon and Somerset suffered badly in this early period. In November or December 1348 the disease came to London, with devastating effects not only medically but also socially and economically; but the route of transmission is uncertain. Again, it may have been direct infection by sailors or passengers on ships from the continent, including possibly returning soldiers from Calais after the truce that halted the Hundred Years War, albeit briefly. Thus, rather surprisingly, the disease did not hit northern Hampshire until January 1349. The evidence from the turnover of parish incumbencies, which is one of the main ways in which the statistics for this pandemic were compiled, shows that the bulk of the deaths were in the period January to March 1349, though people did continue to die of plague in much smaller numbers for the rest of the year. The records of the Bishop of Winchester are extant and have been published (by Hampshire County Council).
Over Europe as a whole the death rate from the Black Death probably approached 40 per cent – vastly more than even the notorious Spanish flu of 1918–19, and a far far cry from our 21st century experience (less than a measly 0.15 per cent so far, even on the most generous estimates) – and in England, where the pneumonic form was prevalent, it was more like 50 percent, in some places higher. On the evidence of the transfer of incumbencies, Hampshire was one of the more badly affected areas. There was no idea of social distancing, and the lockdown-type social and economic paralysis that occurred in some of the bigger centres of population – in particular London, where there is some evidence of social dislocation – happened simply because no one had leisure for anything but the most basic essential activities. The plague returned in 1361, and periodically throughout the next three centuries, never quite as destructively as the 1348–1350 outbreak, but deadly enough to keep the population of England permanently lower than its pre-plague maximum. It did not fully recover until the 18th century.