Post-classical history

Chapter Seventy-Two


The End of the World

Between 1338 and 1353, the plague arrives


The tenth Yuan emperor, Kublai Khan’s great-great-great-grandson Toghon Temur, sat on the Chinese throne. He had been crowned in 1333, aged thirteen. For eleven years he had been the passive ruler of a top-heavy, bureaucrat-stuffed, unevenly taxed empire, run for him by his chancellors.1

Five years after his coronation, an obscure little village below Lake Issyk-Kul began to die.* We know this only from the headstones found in the village graveyard; hundreds of them date from the years 1338 and 1339. “This is the grave of Kutluk,” one reads. “He died of the plague with his wife.”2

No contemporary accounts trace the spread of the illness in the next six years, but plenty of chroniclers record other disasters: drought and famine in the Huai river valley, torrential flooding rains in the provinces at Canton and Houkouang, locusts in Honan, an earthquake that carved a new lake into the Ki-Ming-Chan mountain range. Meanwhile, sickness seems to have moved silently west, along the trade routes between the Yuan cities and the markets of India. In 1344, an army from Delhi, marching south to put down a rebellion in Ma’bar, was wiped out by a “pestilence”; the Arab traveler Ibn Battuta, visiting the southeastern city of Madurai, discovered a lethal infection sweeping through it. “Whoever caught it,” he wrote “died on the morrow, or the day after.”3

By 1346, the Western world knew that something horrible had spread across the East; and, for the first time, symptoms of the illness were being set down by observers. “It began in the land of darkness,” wrote the Arab scholar Abu Hafs ‘Umar Ibn al-Wardi, “[and] it has been current for fifteen years. . . . Plague sat like a king on a throne and swayed with power, killing daily one thousand or more and decimating the population. It destroyed mankind with its pustules. . . . How amazingly does it pursue the people of each house! One of them spits blood, and everyone in the household is certain of death.”4

Death moved steadily westward: through Transoxania, into the lands of the Rus’ and the Golden Horde, down through Syria, towards Egypt. In 1347, a Golden Horde army that was laying siege to the city of Caffa (a Genoese-controlled trading port) sickened and began to die: “thousands upon thousands every day,” writes the contemporary Italian chronicler Gabriele de’ Mussis. “[They] died as soon as the signs of disease appeared on their bodies: swellings in the armpit or groin caused by coagulating humours, followed by a putrid fever.”5

In Renaissance chronicles, many epidemics are labeled “plague”; but this particular plague was marked by those swellings in armpit and groin. “These were at first the size of hazelnuts,” writes the Franciscan friar Michele da Piazza, who first saw plague at the port city Messina. “These glandular swellings grew . . . then to the size of a hen or a goose egg and became quite painful.” The swellings, or buboes, were caused by infected lymph nodes, which filled with pus: a symptom of the presence of Yersinia pestis, a bacterial infection carried by fleas. Bubonic plague.6

The bacteria had caused epidemics before; in sixth-century Byzantium, Yersinia pestis had killed millions. But never before had it spread so widely, and so quickly. And never before had it crossed the Mediterranean into the densely populated European countries. With no exposure came a complete lack of any immunity to the disease.

At Caffa, in 1347, the plague made that final leap. Piazza explains that the dying Golden Horde warriors hurled the corpses of their dead companions over the city walls with catapults, hoping to kill the defenders either with the illness itself, or with the stench of the decaying bodies. A handful of the inhabitants escaped by ship and made their way to Messina; and there, they died. And so did “everyone . . . who spoke with the victims . . . anyone who bought from them, touched them, or had any kind of intercourse with them.”7

To Piazza, the plague was demonic, an invasion of blackness; his story of the Mongol corpses neatly pins the sickness to a heathen and godless nation. In all likelihood, the plague simply spread into and out of Caffa as it spread everywhere else: on the backs of black rats that lived in the holds of ships, ran in and out of cities, and shed fleas wherever they went. And in a perfect storm of disrupted weather cycles, overcrowded cities, weakened population, far-flung merchant navies, and far-roving armies, the plague burned across Europe as it had burned across Asia and India and Syria.

Millions died writhing in pain from the swollen buboes, their skin blackened with internal bleeding, lips and noses turning gangrenous, vomiting blood. Millions more died when the infection settled in the lungs and caused pneumonia, killing so quickly—often within forty-eight hours—that the buboes never had a chance to form: “All who die so suddenly have an infection of the lungs and spit up blood,” wrote the French physician Louis Sanctus. “And . . . whenever one infected person dies, all who see him during his illness, or visit him, or have dealings with him in any way, or carry him to his grave, straightaway die without remedy.”8

In Constantinople, at least half the city’s population perished; John Cantacuzenus watched his thirteen-year-old son die. “So incurable was the evil,” he wrote, “that [no] bodily strength could resist it. . . . Great abscesses were formed on the legs or the arms, from which, when cut, a large quantity of foul-smelling pus flowed. . . . There was no help from anywhere . . . there was no hope left.”9

In Florence, the poet Giovanni Boccaccio watched in amazement as two pigs on the street nosed the cast-off rags of a plague victim, and then collapsed, struggling and dying as if poisoned. Houses stood empty everywhere, entire families wiped out within hours of each other; bodies stacked in the street, trenches dug in churchyards with hundreds of corpses stowed “tier upon tier,” covered only with a thin layer of dirt. In some villages, everyone died. Crops were left untended, doors open, churches deserted; cows and sheep wandered free.

In Marseille, fifty-six thousand people died in a single month. Eight hundred souls died every day in Paris; among them, King Philip VI’s beloved wife Joan. In Avignon, Pope Clement VI bought a field just outside the city and consecrated the entire thing so that sixty-two thousand bodies could be buried there.10

The plague crossed over to England and Ireland in 1348, spreading from the southwest up and across the islands. Nearly half of England died. “Many villages and hamlets were deserted,” the Leicester priest Henry Knighton noted, “because everyone who had lived there was dead, and indeed many of these villages were never inhabited again.” “[It has] stripped villages, cities, castles, and towns of their inhabitants so thoroughly that there is scarcely anyone left alive in them,” wrote the Irish monk John Clynn, from his empty monastery. “The whole world is encompassed by evil.” Then he added, “I, waiting among the dead for death to come, have committed to writing what I have truly heard . . . I leave parchment for continuing the work, in case anyone should still be alive in the future.” Beneath these last words is added, in the handwriting of another, “Here, it seems, the author died.”11


72.1 The Spread of the Plague

Between October of 1348 and February of 1349, a hundred thousand Egyptians died in Cairo alone. “Cairo became an empty desert,” wrote the Arab chronicler Maqrizi, “and there was no one to be seen in the streets. A man could go from the Zuwayla Gate to the Bab al-Nasr without encountering another soul. . . . Corpses lay piled along the public way, burial trains jostled one another, and the dead were carried to their graves amidst commotion.”12

“No one controls anything and they do not even ring the church bells anymore,” wrote Agnolo di Tura, from the Tuscan town of Siena. “Giant pits are being excavated for the multitudes of the dead and the hundreds that die every night. And I . . . have buried five of my sons with my own hands. . . . Everyone believes it is the end of the world.”13

AND THEN THE DYING, finally, began to slow.

By the middle of 1350, plague deaths in England and Europe had thinned to a tiny trickle. The epidemic circled back around through the land of the Rus’, where it persisted until 1353, killing the Grand Duke of Moscow and all seven of his children. And it was never again entirely absent; all over the known world, plague outbreaks would erupt again and again.14

The survivors found themselves facing newly emptied countrysides, deserted villages, waste fields. “In the following winter there was such a lack of workers,” Henry Knighton complained, “. . . that there had hardly ever been such a shortage before.” In England, prices of essentials had tripled or quadrupled. Farmhands, now a rare commodity, began to charge exorbitant fees for their labor.15

“Many have certainly / Heard it common said,” wrote the French poet Guillaume de Machaut,

How in one thousand three hundred and forty nine,

Out of one hundred, there remained but nine.

Thus it happened that for lack of people

Many a splendid farm was left untilled,

No one plowed the fields

Bound the cereals and took in the grapes,

Some gave triple salary . . .

Since so many were dead.16

So many were dead; and no one agreed on what it all meant. The faculty of the medical school in Paris published a report blaming the plague on the conjunction of “three planets in Aquarius,” which had caused the “deadly corruption of the air.” King Edward III of England, mourning the loss of his fifteen-year-old daughter, blamed the spiritual wickedness of his people. “It was thought,” wrote the Florentine Matteo Villani, “that the people, whom God by grace had preserved in life, having seen the extermination of their neighbors . . . would become better, humble, virtuous . . . overflowing with love and charity for one another. But . . . the opposite happened.” In France and Germany, Jews were accused of poisoning the wells; hundreds were seized and murdered by angry mobs. From Avignon, Pope Clement VI condemned this violence and composed a Mass for the turning away of plague: O God, who does not desire the death but the penitence of sinners, we beseech you graciously to turn your people to you . . . mercifully withdraw the flail of your anger from them.17

“We have lost almost everything,” wrote the Poet Laureate Petrarch, in a letter to a friend, “and found no rest. . . . Last losses are beyond recovery, and death’s wound beyond cure. There is just one comfort: that we shall follow those who went before. . . . The life we lead is a sleep; whatever we do, we dream. Only death breaks the sleep and wakes us from dreaming. I wish I could have woken before this.”18


*The identification of the 1338/1339 deaths in Central Asia as the first sign of plague is widely but not universally accepted. The exact origin of the “Black Death” continues to be debated, as does the identity of the plague; this chapter takes the majority view that the fourteenth-century pandemic was bubonic plague caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, but a solid minority of scientists and historians continue to argue for other causes, such as anthrax, hemorrhagic fever, typhus, or some combination of infectious diseases. The literature on the Black Death is huge and the research voluminous; a good starting place is Philip Ziegler’s standard study The Black Death (John Day 1969; paperback reissue, Sutton Publishing, 1997). A useful collection of primary sources is found in Rosemary Horrox, trans. and ed., The Black Death (Manchester University Press, 1994). On the identity of the plague, see Graham Twigg, The Black Death: A Biological Reappraisal (Schocken Books, 1985), and Susan Scott and Christopher Duncan, Biology of Plagues: Evidence from Historical Populations (Cambridge University Press, 2001). Useful analyses of the plague’s aftermath include Samuel K. Cohn, The Black Death Transformed (Arnold Publishing, 2002) and David Herlihy, The Black Death and the Transformation of the West (Harvard University Press, 1997).

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!