The Plague from the East

THE BLACK DEATH originated in the East. During 1346 rumours reached Europe of strange and terrible happenings in the East. Since few travellers went there, eyewitness accounts have not survived. But other writings are not lacking in imagination or vividness. For example, a Flemish priest, basing his remarks on a letter from a friend at the papal court, declared: “In the East, hard by Greater India, in a certain province, horrors and unheard of tempests overwhelmed the whole province for the space of three days. On the first day there was a rain of frogs, serpents, lizards, scorpions, and many venomous beasts of that sort. On the second, thunder was heard, and lightning and sheets of fire fell upon the earth, mingled with hail stones of marvellous size; which slew almost all, from the greatest even to the least. On the third day there fell fire from heaven and stinking smoke, which slew all that were left of men and beasts, and burned up all the cities and towns in those parts.

“By these tempests the whole province was infected; and it is conjectured that, through the foul blast of wind that came from the South, the whole seashore and surrounding lands were infected, and are waxing more and more poisonous from day to day. . . (13)”

This idea that the plague was caused by a corrupted cloud of mist or smoke, which destroyed the land it passed over, became widely accepted. It was to influence the attempts of physicians to deal with it. Some writers thought that this cloud had been drawn up by the sun from the stagnant depths of the sea. But a chronicler from Este in Italy thought otherwise: “Between Cathay and Persia there rained a vast rain of fire, falling in flakes like snow and burning up mountains and plains and other lands, with men and women. And then arose vast masses of smoke, and whosoever beheld this died within the space of half a day, and likewise any man or woman who looked upon those who had seen this . . . (14)”

The origin of the plague remained a mystery; but people soon realized that a plague of unexampled fury had struck the East. Tales began to circulate, beginning in the leading European seaports, of the terrible numbers who were dying of it: “India was depopulated, Tartary, Mesopotamia, Syria, Armenia were covered with dead bodies; the Kurds fled in vain to the mountains. In Caramania and Caesarea none were left alive… (15)”

At first the news caused little concern in Europe. Stories of natural disasters from the East were common enough. But before the end of 1346 it was said that the plague was rapidly spreading westward, taking a huge toll of life as it went. Knighton recalled the fears of those days: “In this year there was a general mortality among men throughout the whole world. It broke out first in India, and spread thence in Tharsis, thence to the Saracens, and at last to the Christians and Jews; so that in the space of a single year, namely, from Easter to Easter, as it was rumoured at the court of Rome, 8,000 legions of men perished in those distant regions, besides Christians… (16)”

We do not know how, and when, the plague first reached Europe. The infection was probably carried along the trade routes, particularly those by which Eastern spices and silks were taken to European traders. Much of this trade was carried in galleys from collecting places in the Crimea to Genoa, Venice, Messina and other Italian ports.

At any rate, by the spring of 1348 the Black Death was well established in Sicily and on the Italian mainland. Here is an account of its arrival in one of these ports by a Flemish chronicler: “In January of the year 1348, three galleys put in at Genoa, driven by a fierce wind from the East, horribly infected and laden with a variety of spices and other valuable goods. When the inhabitants of Genoa learned this, and saw how suddenly and irremediably they infected other people, they were driven forth from that port by burning arrows and divers engines of war; for no man dared touch them; nor was any man able to trade with them, for if he did he would be sure to die forthwith. Thus, they were scattered from port to port … (17)”

The Black Death—like the Great Plague which ravaged London Fearful in 1666—was bubonic plague. The germs were spread by rat fleas – rats were common aboard trading ships. Though no one understood this at the time, their accounts of the physical symptoms of the disease leave no doubt as to the nature of the plague. There was the tell-tale sign known as the bubo—the inflamed swelling of lymphatic glands, especially in the victim’s groin or armpit.

This is how Boccaccio described them in the Decameron, a book of stories said to have been told by seven Florentine ladies and gentlemen, while taking refuge in a country villa to escape the plague in the city: “In men and women alike it first betrayed itself by the emergence of certain tumours in the groin or the armpits, some of which grew as large as a common apple, others as an egg, some more, some less, which the common folk called gavocciolo. From the two said parts of the body this deadly gavocciolo soon began to propagate and spread itself in all directions indifferently; after which the form of the malady began to change, black spots or livid making their appearance in many cases on the arm or the thigh or elsewhere, now few and large, now minute and numerous. And as the gavocciolo had been and still was an infallible token of approaching death, such also were these spots on whomsoever they shewed themselves. . . (18)”

Some writers noted a variant of the plague. This was pneumonic plague, an attack of bubonic plague in which the sufferer developed pneumonia. This was a much more violent and deadly form of the disease. It seems to have come with the winter months and died out again in the spring. Gui de Chauliac, physician to the papal court at Avignon, noted these two forms of the plague: “The mortality… lasted seven months. It was of two types. The first lasted two months, with continuous fever and spitting of blood, and from this one died in three days. The second lasted for the rest of the period, also with continuous fever but with apostumes and car­buncles on the external parts, principally on the armpits and groin. From this one died in five days. . . Men suffer in their lungs and breathing and whoever have these corrupted, or even slightly attacked, cannot by any means escape nor live beyond two days (19).”

Despite medical belief that the plague was due to a corrupted atmosphere, people soon found that it could be passed on by contact with the sufferer. Boccaccio himself noticed the dangers of infection:

“The virulence of the pest was the greater by reason that intercourse was apt to convey it from the sick to the whole, just as fire devours things dry or greasy when they are brought close to it. Nay, the evil went yet further, for not merely by speech or association with the sick was the malady communicated to the healthy with consequent peril of common death; but any that touched the clothes of the sick or aught else that had been touched or used by them, seemed thereby to contract the disease (20).”

The rapidity with which the disease spread from person to person in so many different ways was the most frightening aspect of the visitation. One chronicler wrote: “The contagious nature of the disease is indeed the most terrible of all the terrors, for when anyone who is infected by it dies, all who see him in his sickness, or visit him, or do any business with him, or even carry him to the grave, quickly follow him thither, and there is no known means of protection (21).

To the medieval mind, it was very disturbing to find that, if the Black Death were God’s punishment for wickedness, it claimed its victims without discrimination—good and bad, Christian and heathen. Knighton told a story which showed this outlook: “The King of Tharsis, seeing so sudden and unheard of a mortality among his subjects, set out with a great multitude of nobles towards Avignon to the Pope. . . He purposed to be baptized a Christian, believing that God’s vengeance had fallen upon his people by reason of their evil lack of faith. But, after twenty days’ journey, hearing that the plague wrought as great havoc among Christians as among other nations, he turned and went no farther on that way, but hastened home unto his own country (22).”

No amount of prayers and penance could seem to stem the plague in its advance towards Europe. The very foundations of medieval society were soon to be shaken. People prepared for death.