Post-classical history



IT would be tedious and probably unprofitable to trace the Black Death in any detail through the remaining countries of Europe. For one thing, the great majority of the more important contemporary chroniclers lived in Italy, France, Germany or England and most of the significant research has been done in those countries. For another, the remarkably similar course which the Black Death took in each country that it visited makes extensive treatment unnecessary. One of the most striking features of the plague is the way in which its principal phenomena are constantly reproduced. The same phrases are used to describe the appearance of the disease, the same exaggerated estimates of mortality appear, the same passions are aroused, the same economic and social consequences ensue.

The similarity is to some extent illusory. The impression is derived partly from the common Latin tongue, used by almost all the chroniclers, and partly from the authority of the Catholic Church which imposed an appearance of uniformity on widely differing social formations. Beneath this veneer of uniformity there were, of course, important variations of wealth, culture and national temperament, but the bracket within which such variations could operate, though today being rapidly narrowed again by technological advances, was more restricted in the Middle Ages than at any subsequent period. Any generalizations about Europe as a unit must be perilous, but they will be much less perilous if applied to Europe of the fourteenth century than of the eighteenth or nineteenth. The impact of the Black Death was broadly the same in every country which it visited and anyone observing its effects in Italy and France could have predicted, with a fair degree of success, what would happen as it ravaged Germany and England.

Odd details stand out from the records, often of little more than anecdotal interest. ‘During the second year,’ recorded the Greek historian Nicephoros Gregoras1 who was himself a witness of the plague in Constantinople,

it invaded the Aegean islands. Then it attacked the Rhodians as well as the Cypriots and those colonizing the other islands … The calamity did not destroy men only but many animals living with and domesticated by men. I speak of dogs and horses, and all the species of birds, even the rats that happened to live within the walls of the houses …’

‘The second year’, from the context, must mean 1348. Other evidence suggests that Cyprus, at least, was attacked in the late summer of 1347. It seems to have been afflicted with unfair harshness. While the plague was just beginning a particularly severe earthquake came to complete the work of destruction. A tidal wave swept over large parts of the island, entirely destroying the fishing fleets and olive groves on which the prosperity of the Cypriots largely depended. The islanders massacred their Arab slaves, for fear that these should somehow take advantage of the disturbances to get the upper hand, and fled inland. But flight seems to have availed them little. ‘… A pestiferous wind spread so poisonous an odour that many, being overpowered by it, fell down suddenly and expired in dreadful agonies.’ This phenomenon,’ exclaimed the German historian Hecker in justified surprise, ‘is one of the rarest that has ever been observed.’2

Dalmatia seems to have received the plague across the Adriatic from North Italy. Dubrovnik was attacked in January 1348, and Split about two months later. In this latter city the wolves, unlike their more superstitious colleagues in Styria, saw the Black Death as nothing but a happy accident which immeasurably improved the prospects for the season’s hunting. They ‘came down from the mountains and fell upon the plague-stricken city and boldly attacked the survivors.’3 The rate of mortality was so high that the authorities gave up any pretence of trying to cope and left the dead piled in the streets for weeks at a time.

Scandinavia was attacked by way of England. According to Lagerbring4 it was carried by one of the wool ships which sailed from London in May 1349. A member of the crew must have caught the plague just before sailing. The symptoms developed when the ship was at sea and the disease spread so rapidly that within a few days all the crew were dead. The vessel drifted helplessly until at last it ran aground somewhere near Bergen. The perplexed Norwegians ventured aboard and discovered, too late, what sort of cargo their visitors had brought. The story is picturesque and could well be true, though it is sure that Norway would sooner or later have been infected by some other, if less macabre means.

In 1350 King Magnus II of Sweden took somewhat belated alarm. He addressed a letter to his people, saying: ‘God for the sins of men has struck the world with this great punishment of sudden death. By it most of the people in the land to the west of our country are dead. It is now ravaging Norway and Holland and is approaching our kingdom of Sweden.’5 He ordered the Swedes to abstain on Friday from all except bread and water, to walk with bare feet to their parish churches and to process around the cemeteries carrying holy relics. Such measures did as little as elsewhere to appease the divine anger. Sweden suffered like the rest of Europe and two brothers of the King, Hacon and Knut, were among the victims.

When the Black Death first reached Bergen several of the leading families and the inhabitants of the chapter-house fled to Tusededal, in the mountains, and began to build themselves a town where they thought that they would be safe.6 Needless to say, the plague pursued them and carried off the entire community with the exception of one girl. Years later the girl was discovered, still living in the area but run wild and shunning human company. She was christened ‘Rype’, meaning wild bird, but seems to have been tamed without undue difficulty, returned to society and married happily. All the land which had been marked out for the new community became the property of herself and her heirs and the ‘Rype family’ were for several centuries among the large landowners of the neighbourhood.

The Black Death, or at least its effects, spread north. For many years the Danes and Norwegians had maintained small settlements for hunting and fishing in Greenland. Preoccupied by their troubles they now gave up the expeditions and abandoned to their fate any unfortunates who might still have been established there. ‘Towering icebergs formed at the same time on the coast of East Greenland,’ wrote Hecker in 1832, ‘in consequence of the general concussion of the earth’s organism; and no mortal, from that time forward, has ever seen that shore or its inhabitants.’7


Spain deserves rather less cursory treatment. No major study of the Black Death in the Iberian Peninsula has yet been written8 but some valuable pioneer work has recently been undertaken, notably by Dr A. Lopez de Meneses,9and it is now possible to piece together a rough picture of what happened.

It must first be said that Spain, in the middle of the fourteenth century, was physically and psychologically quite as ill-equipped to face the plague as either France or Italy. Moorish Granada to the south was racked by dissension and depressed by the recent defeats it had suffered at the hands of King Alfonso XI of Castile. But Castile itself was little better. Alfonso, by his triumphal conquest of Algeciras, had the prestige of victory to bolster his position. The preparations which he was making for a siege of Gibraltar promised still greater glory. But the price which his country had paid was exhaustion and improverishment; high enough when one remembers the scars which it still bore as a memorial of the civil wars during the infancy of its King. Finally, in Aragon, Pedro IV was grappling with armed rebellion and victory was not won until 1348. Instability, insecurity, the constant dread of destruction in campaigns embarked on by irresponsible rulers bent upon little save their own personal glory and aggrandisement: these were the hall-marks of medieval Spain.

According to Pedro Carbonell, archivist of the Court of Aragon, the Black Death began in the city of Teruel and spread out from there through all Aragon, reaching Saragossa in September or October 1348. This seems most unlikely. Teruel is far from the sea and all the evidence suggests that Spain was first infected through its ports. The timing too is wrong since the first cases of the plague in Spain were recorded in April and May 1348, almost six months before it spread to Saragossa.

Carbonell must have known that the Black Death had much earlier reached his master’s possession of Majorca. In April 1348 Pedro IV instructed the Government of Majorca to take steps to prevent the further propagation of the disease.10 This not very helpful instruction does not seem to have been observed with any success. One chronicler puts the death roll at fifteen thousand in a single month and other writers suggest that the total loss was at least twice that figure and up to eighty per cent of the total population.11On 3 May the Government of Majorca were complaining that the island was so weakened by disease that it could no longer protect itself against the attacks of pirates and the Bey of Tunis. They appealed for help from the mainland. Pedro IV agreed to send some galleys but, with the characteristic pawkiness of a central government, insisted that Majorca pay half the cost. By June 1349 the Governor of Majorca found himself in his turn instructed to send troops to defend the still worse depopulated Minorca against probable enemy attack.

The Mediterranean coast of Spain was quickly affected. Barcelona and Valencia were both struck by the plague in May 1348, and Almeria in June. Ibn Khātimah, the Arab physician, who was living in Almeria at the time, says that the first case arose in a house in the poor quarter of the town belonging to a family called Beni Danna.12 The plague took an unusually protracted course, lasting through the autumn and winter and still being active when Ibn Khātimah wrote his record in February, 1349. Even at its peak it was not killing more than seventy people a day in a population that must have been in the neighbourhood of twenty thousand.

The disease spread next through Arab Spain so that the armies confronting Alfonso XI were afflicted before their Christian enemies. It is said that the Arabs were deeply disturbed by this phenomenon and many of them seriously thought of adopting Christianity as a form of preventive medicine. Fortunately for their faith, however, the Black Death was soon raging quite as disastrously among the troops of Castile. ‘When they learned that the pestilence had now reached Christian men their good intentions died and they returned to their vomit.’13 The Castilian army in front of Gibraltar survived inviolate through 1349; then, in March 1350, was suddenly attacked by the plague. The senior officers begged King Alfonso to leave his troops and seek safety in isolation but he refused to do so. He duly caught the disease and died on Good Friday, 26 March 1350. He was the only ruling monarch of Europe to perish during the Black Death.

But the royal house of Aragon did not escape unscathed. King Pedro lost his youngest daughter and his niece in May, and his wife in October. By the autumn order seemed to be breaking down in his dominions. Bands of armed brigands were straying over the countryside and an ordinance had to be published ordering severe punishment for any one found looting the houses of plague victims. Li Muisis records the experiences of a pilgrim to St James of Compostella who passed through Salvatierra on the way home.14The town had suffered so grievously from the plague that not one citizen in ten remained alive (a characteristically woolly estimate which, inter alia, took no account of those people who had fled the town, to return when the plague was past). The pilgrim put up at an inn and ‘after taking supper with the host (who, with his two daughters and a single servant was the only survivor of his entire family and who had no sensation of being sick himself), paid for his night’s lodging in advance, as he meant to leave at dawn the next day, and went to bed.’ Next morning, when he got up, he found that, after all, he had to see the proprietor of the inn. After trying for some time to get an answer he eventually routed out an old woman sleeping in another part of the inn. It was then that he discovered that host, daughters and servant had all died during the night. ‘On hearing this,’ Li Muisis records, ‘the pilgrim made all haste to leave the place.’ In his account of the plague Ibn Khātimah referred to its intense infectiousness and to the coughing of blood by the victims; anecdotes of this kind confirm that the pulmonary and septicaemic variants of the Black Death must have been rife in Spain.

Until quite recently it was accepted tradition that the plague scarcely penetrated to Castile, Galicia and Portugal. This is clearly not true, though in general the Atlantic coast of Spain was less severely afflicted than the Mediterranean. The rich of Castile seem to have been peculiarly affected by the urge to give their lands and possessions to the Church in the hope that they might thereby earn themselves freedom from the plague or, at the worst, the guarantee of a comfortable niche in paradise. So far, indeed, did this process go that, when the panic abated, it was found that the economic structure of the country had been dislocated and an altogether undesirable amount of wealth accumulated in the hands of the Church. To redress the balance King Pedro I in 1351 ordered that, where the donors themselves or their heirs could be traced, then the Church must disgorge its gains.

Though Portugal as a whole does not seem to have suffered particularly seriously, the city of Coimbra was devastated. It is said that ninety per cent of the population died – a statistic which need not be believed. But it seems certain that the prior and all the prebendaries of the great collegiate monastery of St Peter of Coimbra perished within a few days, an impressively clean sweep suggesting that the popular tradition may not have been totally devoid of substance.


Dr Carpentier has prepared a map of Europe at the time of the Black Death (reproduced here) showing the movements and incidence of the plague. Virtually nowhere was left inviolate. Certain areas escaped lightly: Bohemia; large areas of Poland; a mysterious pocket between France, Germany and the Low Countries; tracts of the Pyrenees. Certain others were afflicted with especial violence: cities mainly – Florence, Vienna, Avignon – but also whole areas such as Tuscany. A host of factors, some of them still unidentified, played their part in deciding whether any given area should suffer lightly or severely. The inclinations of the rats must have been the most important: a shortage of food in one place driving them on, the resistance of the indigenous rats holding them at bay in another. Climate was certainly significant; it seems that the bacillus of pulmonary plague finds it hard to survive in cold weather. The chance movement of an infected human could sometimes save or condemn a village. Did some people also enjoy a built-in resistance to bubonic plague? Even today the science of epidemiology cannot provide a fully conclusive answer – the problem of where and when a disease will strike next is still unsolved.

But such gradations in horror were anyway of minor significance. Though the density of corpses might vary, the smell of death was over the whole of Europe. Scarcely a village was untouched, scarcely a family did not mourn the loss of one at least of its members. As the shadow of the Black Death passed away it must have seemed to those who survived that recovery could never be a possibility.


1 C. S. Bartsocas, Journal of the History of Medicine, Vol. XXI, No. 4, 1966, p.395.

2 op. cit., p. 13.

3 Farlati, Illyricum Sacrum, iii, p.324.

4 Historia, iii, p.406.

5 Gasquet, op. cit., p.78.

6 Nohl, op. cit., p.37.

7 op. cit., p.28.

8 C. Verlinden’s monograph, ‘La Grande Peste de 1348 en Espagne’, in the Revue beige de Philologie et d’Histoire, XVII, 1938, p.103, is the best general study yet published.

9 ‘Documentos acerca de la Peste Negra en los dominios de la Corona de Aragon’, op. cit., p.291 and ‘Una consecuencia de la Peste Negra en Cataluña: el pogrom de 1348’, op. cit., p.92.

10 ‘Documentos acerca …’ op. cit., 20 April, 1348.

11 Philippe, Histoire de la Peste Noire, p.54.

12 Sudhoff, Archiv, XIX, pp.46–8.

13 Walsingham, R. S., 28, I, p.273; cf. Capgrave, R. S. 1, p.213. (This may not relate to Spain in particular though it could as well apply there.)

14 ‘Chronicon ma jus Aegidii Li Muisis’, De Smet, Vol. 11, p.280.

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