The Great Pestilence

A Brief Look at the Black Death in Europe (1347 – 1353)

The Triumph of Death by Mehau Kulyk

The Triumph of Death by Mehau Kulyk, 15th century fresco

Arguably, the tumultuous 14th century was unmatched in terms of human misery and widespread loss of life until our own 20th century with its two devastating world wars. This dubious honor is due, in large part, to a sweeping pandemic known as the Black Death that ravaged its way across Europe in the years 1347 – 1353. It should be noted that the term “Black Death” only came into common usage in the mid 17th century. Those who lived through it generally described it as the Great Pestilence or the Great Mortality. It has been estimated that between 30% and 60% of the population perished under the influence of this terrible disease.

We now know this highly infectious disease as the bubonic plague, so called because of the resultant discoloration and inflammation of the lymph nodes located in the groin and armpits. These swellings are often referred to as buboes. Modern research has identified the underlying pathogen as the Yersinia Pestis bacteria, a zoonotic disease, i.e., capable of being passed between animal species, that is primarily transmitted through the bites of infected fleas carried by rodents. The cramped and unhygienic living conditions of medieval Europe provided the perfect environment for the rapid spread of such a contagion.

Suffering Man, detail from the reverse of the Isenheim Altarpiece, c.1510-15, Musee d'Unterlinden, Colmar, France / The Bridgeman Art Library

Suffering Man, detail from the reverse of the Isenheim Altarpiece, c.1510-15, Musee d’Unterlinden, Colmar, France / The Bridgeman Art Library

It is believed that the plague originated in central Asia in the 1330s. From there it radiated out, eastwards into China, south into India and the Middle East, and west into the Crimea, arriving there sometime in 1346. The local Tartar populace, seeking a convenient scapegoat, set upon Christian traders along the ancient Silk Road, assaulting a Genoese trading post in Tana. The startled Genoese fell back on the fortified city of Caffa, along the Crimean coast, and with their Venetian allies prepared for a desperate siege. The Tartar army quickly invested the surrounding hills and brought up their heavy siege engines, intending to batter the city into submission. But before they could make a material impression on the city’s defenses, the dreaded pestilence was upon them. The filthy and overcrowded Tartar camp quickly became a living hell. The hard-pressed Italians saw this as divine intervention and rejoiced at the discomfort of their enemies. Their rejoicing soon turned to anguish when the Tartar commander, in the first recorded use of biological weapons, used his siege engines to hurl the decomposing corpses of plague victims over the city walls. Within days the plague raged as violently inside the city as outside. The siege collapsed and the Tartar army melted away. The surviving Genoese and Venetians took to their galleys and headed for home, carrying the seed of Europe’s bitter harvest.

No one knows precisely the route that the retreating galleys followed from Caffa, but the seafaring methods of the time required even large sailing vessels to remain relatively near the coast, hopping from port to port to replenish water and stores. It is believed that the fleet stopped in Constantinople in late 1347 leaving terrible suffering in its wake. From there it is likely that they dispersed, for by the spring of 1348 virulent outbreaks had been reported in Messina, Sicily, Sardinia, Venice, and Genoa.

Gabriele De’ Mussi, a lawyer from Genoa writing later that year, describes their panicked flight this way:

“…among those who escaped from Caffa by boat were a few sailors who had been infected with the poisonous disease. Some boats were bound for Genoa, others for Venice, and to other Christian areas. When sailors reached these places and mixed with people there, 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 and Venetians bear responsibility for revealing the judgments of God. …there were scarcely ten survivors from a thousand sailors…” (Horrox, 1994)

A Flemish chronicler of the time by the name of De Smet provides us additional color on their eventual homecoming in Genoa:

“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…” (Ziegler, 1969)

One such port was Marseilles in southern France. The authorities there acted quickly to prevent the vessels from discharging their cargo, but unfortunately, not quickly enough. The plague was now ashore in France, the most populous nation of medieval Europe. Driven by desperation, the stricken crew carried on into Spanish waters, leaving a trail of misery along the coast of Languedoc.

The Triumph of Death, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1562

The Triumph of Death, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1562

It was not until the summer of 1348 that the plague succeeded in crossing the channel and settling on English soil. The consensus opinion places the entry point along the south coast at Melcombe Regis on the River Wey. Whether this is strictly accurate makes little difference, as it is probable, from the near simultaneous reports of outbreaks at Bristol and Southampton, that the pestilence was waging a multi-pronged assault on the island nation. In any case, by the following year the plague was raging from coast to coast and no one appeared safe.

From this distant vantage point it is impossible to comprehend the terror and helplessness that medieval Europeans must have felt in the face of such an overwhelming tragedy. The sheer scale of human suffering was almost beyond belief. But like the phoenix, mankind has a way of adapting to calamity, of finding a way to rebuild upon the ashes of the past. European society was profoundly altered by those awful years. For instance, the resulting scarcity of labor wrought fundamental changes on the daily lives of working men and women across medieval Europe. The feudal system, which had tied a man to the land and limited his opportunity for improvement, was swept away. The Church, largely discredited for its inability to limit the ravages of this terrible disease, began to lose much of its temporal power. As a result, the fledgling secular state came fully into its own. And finally, many historians now see the glorious flowering of the Italian Renaissance as a direct reaction to the prevailing pessimism that gripped Europe in the difficult decades following the Great Pestilence. Battered and tested, the human race had emerged from the chaos and would live to fight another day.


Horrox, R. (Ed.). (1994). The Black Death. (R. Horrox, Trans.) Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press.

Ziegler, P. (1969). The Black Death. New York: Harper Collins.


7 thoughts on “The Great Pestilence

  1. A thorough and enjoyable read, James. The title of ‘The Black Death’ has nowadays become a convenient name for the pestilence of 1349 as it distinguishes it from what is often called.’The Great Plague’ of 1665. Of course,as you know, the pestilence/plague returned to Engand several times between those dates. I do agree that it is difficult for us to envisage the terrors of this awful disease and the people’s helplessness and inability to counter it. Your end-note about the BD being the start of a changing society is also interesting.The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 is often taken to be the start of the breakdown of feudalism in England. Although it was unsuccessful, it paved the way for continued unrest and gradual change.
    I do realise I don’t need to say all this to you, James, as you have no doubt studied this period to greater depth than I have. (I.m a geologist, when all’s said and done!) I am just making my point about how interesting your post is. Thank you for rekindling my interest in this.

    • Thanks, Millie. Having just observed the irrational fear and panic caused by three cases of Ebola here in Dallas, I can only imagine the effect of such a widespread outbreak of infectious disease among a population ignorant of its cause and helpless to arrest its progress. Medical science has come a long way, but human nature has remained remarkably unchanged.

      • I don’t imagine that human nature will ever change one bit.I can imagine how people in Dallas are feeling, though.Let’s hope the number does not go up from three. Keep well!

  2. Great article. How is the plague transmitted from person to person? If the disease primarily gets carried by rat fleas, why would flinging corpses over a wall or merely visiting a coastal town have an effect? How long is the incubation period? What was the survival rate specifically? Could you get the plague twice? Finally, if a third to a half of Eyeope died off, what does that mean about how prevalent infection was given the survival rate? In other words, what percentage of Europe actually got the disease?

    • Good questions, David. Although the accounts of the time often contain what must certainly be exaggerations, modern experience with bubonic plague (which is still fairly common in certain parts of the world) can provide some of the answers. It should first be noted that it would appear that there were actually three distinct variants of the plague at work and they seemed to supplant one another according to the season of the year. The most common appears to be the flea-borne variety which was the slowest to replicate. It should also be noted that the fleas have been shown to be capable of surviving without a host for up to six months. Therefore, they could travel well in cargoes of grain or cloth even in the absence of rats. Although it seems certain that rodent-borne fleas were critical in the early stages of the epidemic and in their transference by sea and along inland trade routes, some epidemiologists dispute whether they contributed much to the rapid transmission of the disease once it had taken hold in a locality. The second and more deadly version of the plague was the pneumonic or pulmonary plague. It attacked the lungs and caused the patients to vomit and cough up blood. One can easily see that living with or caring for a patient with this form of the disease was much more dangerous. The deadly bacilli would become airborne through the patient’s exhalations. The third form was a septicaemic variant that attacked the bloodstream. The patient’s blood was quickly swarming with the bacilli which made transmission by human fleas and even mosquitoes possible. This form of the plague would generally kill a person before the buboes had even had time to form. There are descriptions of people dying within just a few hours of contact with an infected person or going to bed in perfect health and dying overnight. These victims almost certainly had the septicaemic variety. As to incubation, I don’t have a good answer. It certainly varied based upon the type. However, it would seem that most victims died within four days to a week from infection. The septicaemic variety was much quicker. Survival rates too, are difficult to estimate and again would be dependent on the variety. In an outbreak of the pneumonic variety in the late 19th century the survival rate was between 10% and 40%. As to your question about the siege of Caffa, the accounts describe “mountains of corpses” being discharged into the city. One can well imagine rats being attracted to the scene, as well as people being assigned to the clean-up and disposal. One would also assume that the bodies themselves would be flea-infested. Not a pretty picture! I don’t know whether a patient could get it twice, although I would assume not. Our whole basis for modern inoculation depends upon the human body’s ability to develop antibodies against further infection. I highly recommend Philip Ziegler’s book “The Black Death” for further reading. It is easier reading than some of the other books I have read on the subject and very informative. Cheers.

  3. A good post, just my sort of thing. I did quite a lot of research on the Mortality for one of my novels. One of the features of the later outbreaks, for example in around 1460, was that older people who had lived through the 1349 episode seemed to be immune. Children and young people were the main sufferers. As you say, James, this accords with our modern understanding of disease.

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