In October 1347, twelve Genoese merchant ships pulled into port at Messina, Sicily, where the dockworkers knew something had gone wrong. Most of the sailors on board were dead due to the effect of the Plague. The reason the Sicilians called it “black death” is likely because they were returning from the Crimean seaport of Caffa on the Black Sea or it could also have been the black sores that covered the body of the victims.
The contagion was brought to Caffa by Mongolian warriorswho wanted to lay siege to the city. As the frightened citizenry hid behind ramparts, the Mongols hurled infected bodies over the walls. By the time the Genoese sailors arrived, the infection had turned into an epidemic, and along with spices and goods, the disease soon landed in Sicily. From there, it spread all over Europe.
Before it would run its course, the disease would kill 35 percent of the known world and nearly half the population of England. It was an equal opportunity disruptor and spared no one, neither king nor queen and, especially not children. It would take only several years before the disease changed the world in ways no one imagined. But after a period of social and economic upheaval, life recovered as survivors relied on well-known strategies: retreat, renewal, and let’s not forget recreation.
Gabriele De’ Mussi, a lawyer, living near Genoa writing in about 1348 recorded the account in his journals:
“The dying Tartars (Mongols), stunned and stupefied by the immensity of the disaster brought about by the disease, and realizing that they had no hope of escape, lost interest in the siege (of Caffa) on the Black Sea.
But they ordered corpses to be placed in catapults and lobbed the bodies into the city in the hope that the intolerable stench would kill everyone inside. Among those who escaped from Caffa were a few infected sailors.
Some boats were bound for Genoa and to other Christian areas. When the sailors reached these places, it was as if they had brought evil spirits with them: every city, every settlement, and their inhabitants, both men, and women, died suddenly. We Genoese bear responsibility for revealing the judgments of God, (because) to our anguish, as we hugged and kissed we were spreading poison from our lips.”
The Genoese lawyer accused his country folk of causing the disease. Soon others would get the blame.
A World Caved In
The setting for mass devastation began long before rats and fleas hopped aboard European merchant vessels.
The medieval agricultural economy was unable to provide food for a growing population, forcing farmers to plant on barren land with inferior results. Food shortages worsened every decade by the time the Plague reached Marseille in the mid 14th Century, it spread rapidly through cities and towns. The most effective protection against disease, our own bodies’ natural immunity response, was dormant due to extreme famine.
The impact of the Plague became so lethal that within two years of exposure, the small village of Digne declined from over 10,000 population to 1,500. Within two centuries, the population growth of France from all previous centuries was wiped out and would not reach pre-Plague levels until well after the French Revolution in 1789. The Romans built walls to protect the city against the spread of infection that still stand today.
The Plague was followed by the first global anti-immigrant and anti-trade movement. Naturally, a force so destructive required someone to blame. Ignorance found flammable tinder. The melange of fear, Christian beliefs that held onto powerful remnants of pagan witchcraft, and the lingering resentment against minority groups such as foreigners and Jews, turned minorities into objects of persecution. Fear was matched by viciousness as the desire to eradicate the disease intensified. As people died, the bonds of civil society loosened like a ragged collar. The trauma suffered by innocents was no less tragic than the disease itself.
The symptoms of the Bubonic Plague are swollen glands and small, open sores or “buboes,” the Medieval origin of a child’s cry of “booboo,” referring to swollen glands (technically called buboes) that ooze into body sores, and where we get the name, bubonic Plague. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention notes “patients develop sudden onset of fever, headache, chills, and weakness and one or more swollen, tender and painful lymph nodes.” When a mother asks her child if a ‘booboo’ hurts, she has no idea how she is recalling Renaissance history.
Before it would run its course, the Plague killed as many as 200 million people or 50% of the population in Europe. According to medieval historian Philip Daileader, “In Mediterranean Europe, areas such as the south of France, where the Plague ran for about four years consecutively, it was probably closer to 75–80%.”
The irony is that the virus kills its host so quickly that an infected person has only a few days to live. The chance of an epidemic under these circumstances should be minimal, but scientific ignorance played a role in spreading the disease far and wide. The cause would not be discovered until 1671 when a Dutch lens grinder, Antony van Leeuwenhoek, built a simple microscope. The combination of the instrument and his naturally superb vision enabled him to see bacteria and single-cell organisms with his naked eye. His microscope revealed Oriental Rat fleas from Central Asia preyed on the local rat population, which lived on merchant ships. What no one suspected back in the 14th Century, however, was when the rats died, the fleas wouldn’t die with them but wander onto human hosts. Voila, the Plague. A person contracting the disease had a useful life of less than a week. Even today, there is no cure.
Except it could have been avoided
The Plague led to a series of complex and social changes in addition to economic consequences.
The Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio, who lived through the Plague as it ravaged Florence in 1348, wrote, “One citizen avoided another, hardly any neighbor troubled about others, relatives never or hardly ever visited each other. What is even worse and nearly incredible is that fathers and mothers refused to see and tend their children, as if they had not been theirs.”
Those who lived fled their villages seeking safety and those who stayed buried the dead behind. That was the rhythm of life. People believed that touching someone would spread the disease, so friends, family, and even children kept distant. People were shunned for safety. Physical affection was forbidden. The most pernicious sense, however, wasn’t touch but smell. The odor of death was so suffocating that walking the streets required perfume as they walked the streets. The idea that fragrance can enhance our sensory pleasure persists to the present day.
The Plague had a profound emotional effect on medieval society and led people to worry about their ability to withstand the lingering presence of death. It provoked a variety of reactions, some unfortunate while others demonstrated the ability to transform.
In France, the Black Death was a time of unimaginable anguish, but in many ways, it improved. As society turned on its head, life changed in countless ways, which, if you survived, turned out to be a better thing. Why? It has something to do with our power to transform in the face of total disruption.
The scarcity of labor meant that wages rose, and an abundance of cheap land allowed more competition for production. Estates inherited by a handful of survivors were b like a medieval version of condos. Spreading the wealth became a much more common theme during the Middle Ages. Today, we would call this the rise of a middle class.
The Plague disrupted a cherished tradition of the Medieval caste system. It liberated the serfs and peasants by increasing wages. They could spend more on luxuries such as meat, reducing their pure grain diet, which gave them strength and vitality. The landowners had no choice but to put up with these changes as the population dwindled and tenant farms abandoned.
Villages became ghost towns, forcing people to move to places they weren’t welcome, so they had to learn new languages and customs. Locals who had never before met anyone outside of their village had to overcome their fear of strangers. They would confront someone by touching the passerby’s hand to detect the presence of a weapon. Today, we refer to this customary greeting as a handshake.
Families thrived under these dire circumstances. The roles of men and women began to equalize as there were no extra hands to do chores. Working the family farm and raising children required everyone on deck.
Estates inherited by a handful of survivors created more widespread wealth. A surplus of empty land and farms made bargains available to those who had the cash to spend, for survivors inherited their entire family holdings in many cases. In our terms, the great Medieval estates became tear downs.
The newest status symbol wasn’t the coachman and a fancy carriage, but life itself. Hierarchical society flattened out, Not only was life mobile, but people’s status became mobile, too. You were no longer bound by where you were born but who you might become and where you might move. Imaginations were ready for a new era.
As the great German philosopher, Nietzsche, pointed out, “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.”
It did both to the Europeans living in the 14th Century. We need to weigh this against the devastation they suffered if we are to have a complete picture of medieval society. The Plague wasn’t anything one would wish on civilization, but along with great suffering came useful changes. Some of these will surprise you.
For instance, if you like the barbed skits on Saturday Night Live, you can thank the Plague or, more accurately, Boccaccio, as he was inspired to write The Decameron — the first medieval sitcom which allowed people momentary escape from the troubles. His message wasn’t aimed at courtiers either, but at commoners, as they were the ones suffering. Which is why he broke with tradition and wrote in the language of the day, Florentine, and not Latin so that everyone could enjoy it. Bawdy skits were acted out on the street, the kind of humor anyone could enjoy.
If you enter a hospital with pneumonia, the Plague began the medical practice of isolating people with specific symptoms long before we understood infectious disease. Before then, everyone was lumped together in the same room or even the same bed where they passed germs.
If you enjoy reading things books in English (vs. Latin) or being middle class, even democracy, which teaches us to rearrange humankind’s priorities to lead better lives, then you owe a debt of gratitude to the Plague. It brought the world down to the level of the average person who mattered now more than ever, and who became a vital part of restoring it.
We don’t worry about the Bubonic Plague any longer (although there are still a few hundred reported cases in the world each year).
The challenges have remained the same, as the Medievals taught us: take time to understand, analyze, and persevere against ignorance, arrogance, and resistance to the truth. How we react to disruption can have dire consequences more significant than the cause. By learning the troubling lessons of the past, perhaps we can skip a few.
As we think about the future, we can reliably assume more disruption is in store in the form of war, disease, or terror. Above all, we will need leaders that look to facts and science for solutions and deal with present circumstances by wise counsel, not propaganda. As FDR counseled during the Great Depression, “the only thing we have to fear is fear,” because he knew that when people are unsure about survival, base instincts kick in, leading to panic. That is why we should ‘fear fear’ more than disruption, as reacting from instinct can waste hundreds of years determining the real cause of the problem.
By examining the troubling lessons of the past, perhaps we can skip learning them a second time.