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Sunday, 14 May 2017

World History: The Black Death

The Dance of Death
In the mid-fourteenth century an epidemic spread across Eurasia. This epidemic obliterated populations and costed the lives of of between 75 and 200 million people. In Europe it is estimated that 60% of the population were wiped out by this epidemic. For this it has been remembered as the Black Death. Strangely, despite the huge ramifications of the Black Death it has often been sidelined by historians; in The Penguin History of the World John Roberts devotes less than a page to the Black Plague in a 1,188 page book. The Black Plague shaped the world and shows us how the most primitive form of life can fundamentally alter human history.

Origins and Early Plagues
Yersina pestis
The Black Death was not the first epidemic to decimate the planet's population. As we saw when we looked at the Byzantine Empire a plague outbreak in the mid-sixth century wiped out 25 million people, and was nicknamed 'Justinian's Plague' after the Byzantine emperor. Today we now know that the bacteria which caused the plague is Yersina pestis; this bacteria is named after its discoverer Alexandre Yersin. This bacteria produces three types of plague: bubonic, pneumonic and septicemic. The bubonic form causes the lymph glands to swell creating painful, pus-filled swellings called 'buboes'. Compared to pneumonic and septicemic forms it was possible to recover from this strain, and it is likely that Byzantine Emperor Justinian caught this strain over the over strains. Pneumonic forms creates an effect like pneumonia; the lungs (pneuma) fill with fluid which can be spread to healthy people via coughing and sneezing. Finally, septicaemiac causes dark discoloration of the skin caused by toxins produced by the pathogen. In a pre-antibiotic and pre-modern medicine world pneumonic and septicaemiac strains were far more fatal than the bubonic variety. Due to the dark buboes and skin caused by the disease William Chester Jordan has suggested that this is the reason for it being called 'the Black Death'; the first recorded usage of this term was in 1555 in Sweden calling it svarta doden. It is a common misconception that rats carried the plague. Instead it was the fleas living on rats which carried the disease. Fleas would jump from rat to human, and as they bit their new host they would transmit the disease. Black rats lived alongside humans so as infected rats died fleas jumped to humans.

For years it was believed that the plague originated in China. After all, in 1911 there was a small outbreak in Manchuria. However, graves dating from 1338 at Lake Issyk Kul in Kazakhstan have inscriptions saying that the dead had died of the plague. Historians now believe the steppes of Central Asia to be the origins of the Black Death outbreak. Geneticists have stated still that northern China could still be the origin. Whether it originated in China or Central Asia it was the perfect position to spread across Eurasia for two reasons: the Silk Road and the Mongols. The Silk Road created a momentous trade route which stretched from Korea to the western Mediterranean. Merchants traded goods across Eurasia and with them came rats. Merchants took rodents with their fleas through India to the Middle East where rats would hop aboard ships. There they would infect the crews as they made landfall in Europe. The Mongols also helped. Not only did they allow the Silk Road to be reborn their conquests spread the disease. Infected soldiers and horses took the plague from Central Asia and China across Eurasia. Not only that the Mongols used biological warfare. It was not uncommon for Mongol armies to catapult plague-infected corpses across city walls further spreading the disease. By 1353 the plague had infected China, Korea, India, the Middle East and Europe.

The Plague in the Middle East
The Plague spreading to the Middle East
The Black Death arrived in the Middle East through two routes: one via the Indian Ocean and one via a land route. In the fourteenth century the Middle East was one of the most prosperous regions in the entire world. Baghdad and Cairo had a population of over a million by 1300 as Aleppo, Damascus and Tunis had populations between 50 to 100,000. The cities of the Middle East attracted merchants from across India, Europe and China. However, it had started to decline. The Mongol invasions had devastated the region (although it still remained lucrative), and irrigation systems had started to fail. Traders from Constantinople inadvertently brought the plague to Alexandria and by 1347 it had spread north into Gaza, Jerusalem, Damascus and Acre to name but a few cities. In 1349 there was a huge outbreak in Mecca. This was serious as it could then spread to Muslim pilgrims. The sultan of Yemen returning from captivity in Cairo accidentally brought the plague with his party in 1351 infecting the region.

The Plague in Europe
The Plague in Europe
Traders brought the plague to Constantinople in 1347. Constantinople had one of the most lucrative markets in the world so merchants spread it to the rest of Europe. Europe had been going through crisis at the time. A generation prior to the epidemic famines had swept Europe. Thousands had died through starvation or had moved to urban areas to escape the impoverished rural areas. Paradoxically, Europe faced overpopulation. The famines were exacerbated by too many mouths working too little land. The feudal system was constricting on the rural population meaning that they could not adapt too much. Centuries later Malthus would cite this as why overpopulation could wreck society. The Black Plague hit Europe at a time of weakness. There seems to be several points of entry of the plague into Europe but one of the main ones was Sicily. Writing ten years after the outbreak a Franciscan friar wrote that twelve Genoese galleys brought the infection to Messina, possibly from Crimea. It is believed that they then took the disease to Genoa and Venice. Within a year outbreaks were recorded across Italy, France, Spain, and Greece, and had even spread to southern England. The plague devastated Europe's peasantry and even rat population. In the Burgundian village of Givry deaths per year before the plague ranged from 14 to 43; in 1348 it was at 649. On the Taunton estate of the Bishop of Winchester there were 23 deaths in 1346, 34 in 1347, and then shot up to 707 in 1349. What is important to note is how the plague infected countries at different points. For example, the plague entered England through Bristol in the south and Grimsby in the north. Only a few regions remained relatively unaffected like the Kingdom of Poland, Alpine regions and some areas in the Basque. This was due to a lack of trade which prevented the spread of the plague. By 1353 almost all of Europe was infected.

Reactions to the Plague
The Grim Reaper visits
The Black Death had a profound affect on primarily Europe and the Middle East. As we have seen entire communities were decimated by the plague. It was during this period that we see more of the icons that we associate with death appearing. The Grim Reaper is one such example. With so many people dying death became personified. Doctors across Europe and the Middle East tried to ascertain what exactly caused the plague. Here we see a divergence between religion and other aspects of society. Egyptian chronicler Maqrizi managed to identify how long it took people to die from the disease and tried to find its origin. He successfully identified that it affected the animal world as well, and even managed to say that it came from Uzbekistan. He said that onagers, boars, lions, camels, hares, and wolves 'all lay dead in fields afflicted with the boil'. In contrast, others turned to more supernatural ideas. A Flemish cleric wrote:
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 other venemous beasts of that sort...On the third day there fell fire from the heaven and stinging 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...
Similar to how the Christian world viewed the Viking raids the plague was often seen as a punishment from God. It was widely believed that the plague was punishment for the sins of Europe. One chronicler wrote:
This plague on these accursed galleys was a punishment from God, since these same galleys helped the Turks and Saracens to take the city of Romanais which belonged to the Christians and broke down the walls and slew the Christians as though they were cattle or worse; and the Genoese wrought far more slaughter and cruelty on the Christian than even the Saracens had done.
Here it is clear that European merchants who traded with Muslim states, or acted as mercenaries for Muslims, were to blame for the plague. At a local level we see this as well. General calls of impiety and sin of the populace were blamed. Unfortunately, those rejected and marginalized by society were blamed for the plague. Romani, lepers, pilgrims, foreigners, and Jews to name a few groups were targeted by populations. Muslims and Jews were comparatively less affected by the Black Death due to the emphasis on cleanliness in their religions. This helped reduce the chance of infection. In Europe Jews were often confined to ghettos which segregated them from the rest of the population reducing their chances of infection. As a result they were accused of causing the plague (although they too were infected). Jews were wrongly accused of poisoning wells and pogroms began. In 1349 on Valentine's Day in Strasbourg 900 Jews were burnt alive despite the plague not affecting the city yet. Across Europe pogroms caused the deaths of hundreds to thousands of Jews. It was also promoted by authorities. Murdering Jews was seen as social cleansing to get rid of sin in the local community. 

Seventeenth Century Plague Doctor
The Black Death changed world history. With a maximum of 200 million people being killed by the epidemic the world's population sharply dropped. Europe's population dropped by 30-60% and a third of China's population died. Strangely, the Black Death aided in Europe's rise to power. As mentioned earlier Europe was facing a crisis with overpopulation. It is morbid but the plague fixed this issue. With labor being in shorter supply laborers became more valuable and they knew it. Italian chroniclers recorded how nurses and artisans in the cities called for higher wages, and rural laborers for better land. This helped kickstart the European economy which would later dominate the world. Specifically in western Europe feudalism and serfdom went into decline, and in England serfdom disappeared within a century. The social upheavals and shifting economy facilitated Europe's transition away from the Middle Ages. Meanwhile, in China the plague was one factor which contributed to the fall of the Yuan Dynasty. The plague reaffirmed to many people that the dynasty had lost the Mandate of Heaven. 

The Black Death was not the last plague outbreak. There were a series of outbreaks in Italy in 1361-2, 1381-4, 1400, 1422-25, 1436-9, 1447-51 and 1485-7. In England there were eleven outbreaks until the 1490s. Outbreaks would continue through the years with a major one in 1665 striking London. In Yunnan Province in 1855 there was another pandemic which spread to every continent where 12 million died in China and India. Even more frightening in 1994 a smallscale outbreak in Surat, India killed 52.

Studying the Black Death shows how not everything in history can be controlled by humans. Although we aided the spread we could do nothing to prevent it to start with. The Black Death also helps paint a light on future outbreaks. Smallpox in the Americas caused the Great Dying resulting in the deaths of 90% of the Native American population. The spread of smallpox initially started like the Black Death with it being spread by unknowing populations. It then paralleled the Black Plague again as it began being used as a way to decimate populations the same way that the Mongols used the plague. Knowing about the Black Death also helps us today. We live in an increasingly globalized world with connections everywhere. Over the last century we have faced huge epidemics including the Spanish Influenza pandemic. In recent years we have faced AIDs, SARS, bird flu, swine flu, ebola and Zika. A pandemic could potentially wipe out humanity. By looking at the past we can possibly save ourselves. Thank you for reading and, next time we shall compare and contrast the worlds of the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean to see how trade shaped the societies there.

The sources I have used are as follows:
-The Black Death by Philip Ziegler
-The Black Death Transformed: Disease and Culture in Early Renaissance Europe by Samuel Cohn Jr.
-The Penguin History of the World by John Roberts
-A History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani
-Europe in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries by Denys Hay
-The Black Death and the Transformation of the West by David Herlihy
-Europe in the High Middle Ages by William Chester Jordan
-The Black Death: The Greatest Catastrophe Ever

For a full list of the World History posts please see here

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