B is for Black Death

Pieter Bruegel’s Triumph of Death 1562, from wikipedia.

It’s 1347 in Caffa. The Mongols have been besieging the Genoese for four years, and some of the newest recruits turn out to be stricken with a rather nasty disease that causes bleeding lumps. As soldiers die, the troops catapult the infected bodies over the walls, which some note as one of the first instances of biological warfare. Since Caffa is a port, many escape in ships, carrying the disease with them to Sicily. By the time the pandemic spreads across Europe, somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 the population would die, and, in densely-populated cities, near 70-80%.

A 14th century French mass grave, photo from wikipedia.

The Pandemic After-Party

The Black Death didn’t launch the Renaissance, and it wasn’t even the only widespread calamity of the day. There were massive famines throughout the 14th century in Europe as a mini-Ice Age followed centuries of relatively warmer weather. A different kind of climate shift–a drying out in the grasslands to the far east–may have pushed rats out of those drying grass of Siberia down south and east, to the population centers nearer to Mongolia and China. Virus + fleas + rats + people on horseback and on ships, all moved west. (Of course, China and India also suffered massive casualties from the plague, earlier than 1347, which is often overlooked.)

Large-scale reduction in populations cause upheaval, but they can be followed by opportunity. When the peasants recovered, they were in high demand. Their standard of living increased dramatically.

Travel and trade had dwindled for decades, but now it was turbo-charged, with traders flying around the Mediterranean, the Silk Road, the round-the-tip-of-Africa route to carry goods again. People were healthier, food was more abundant, more resources were available. You could stop worrying about how soon you were going to die and start thinking about pillows, cinnamon, and how to paint Venus on a seashell.

The Black Death set up some of the conditions that made the rebirth so noticeable.

The spread of the bubonic plague in Europe, map by flappiefh.

What Exactly Were the Genoese doing in the Crimea?

It’s worth asking why northwestern Italian traders (from the blue circle) were in charge of a city over in the Crimean peninsula (the red circle). Caffa was the local’s name for the city that hangs above what would become Turkey; the city was also called Theodosia by the Greeks and Feodosia or Феодосия by the Ukrainians today. Since this is part of the disputed area currently occupied by Russia, you can see how far east this is from the western Mediterranean.

The Golden Horde, that very successful Mongol empire which stretched from Hungary to the Pacific Ocean at one point, were the rulers of this town in the late 13th century. They sold the city to the Genoese, who were vying with the Venetians over trade in the Black Sea. (I’ll write about the Venetians and Constantinople in future days.)

In the 1340s, the Mongols returned, looking for more tribute, and there was a heavy-duty trade dispute. In the end, the Khan commander Jani Beg attacking the city. Jani Beg’s army of Mongols is also described as Crimean Tatars, which means there was a large cross-Eurasian population mixing across that region. And, because of the strategic placement of the Crimean peninsula, people who live in what appears to be a beautiful port have been subjected to being “taken over” for a thousand years.

Caffa, Theodosia, painted by Carlo Bossi, 1856.

The Pandemic Party that Anticipates the Future

One of the more famous written works which both arose out of the Black Death and presaged the age to come, was Boccacio’s The Decameron. The book is a collection of stories told by a group of ten that fled the plague in Florence, which had one of the higher mortality rates, close to 75%. Yet the tales told by these men and women are funny, bawdy, and full of emotions and normal human behavior as opposed to fear and anxiety.

Humans are resilient! Chaucer was said to be heavily influenced by Boccaccio’s approach. Thus, while the stories were written during what would probably be still the “medieval” period, the writing anticipates the realism and humanism of the era to come.

The Plague of Florence, woodcut by Sabatelli after Boccaccio. Photo from wikipedia.

The Renaissance followed this pandemic and its times of upheaval; it represented a period of optimism for humanity. As we all emerge from our pandemic (quickly in historical context although slowly from our point of view), this may energize us with hope.

Second Renaissance, maybe?

5 Replies to “B is for Black Death”

  1. I’ve always been interested in hearing about the Black Death and those times. The diseased bodies being catapulted to the enemy is quite an image–horrifying, but rather ingenious. Some great info in this post relevant in relation to current times.

    Arlee Bird
    Tossing It Out Battle of the Bands

  2. Thank you! I am specifically aimed to find things people “always wanted to know about.”

  3. A second Renaissance would be so nice! (We are having elections here today and it has been anything but.)
    As an archaeologist, one of the first thing they taught us about city excavations was that the plague actually survives underground for quite some time. Not middle ages time, but more recent outbreaks can be risky to excavate. Ick.
    The Multicolored Diary

    1. Yikes! If you’re ever excavating, and some Nazis show up with an “ark” and they want to open it at midnight when the winds are howling, you might want to avert your eyes… Thanks for your comment!

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