Why the Black Death took longer to appear in Eastern Europe than in Western Europe

Why the Black Death took longer to appear in Eastern Europe than in Western Europe

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As above, can someone hypothesize why?

The reason was population density and maintenance of proper hygiene.

East Europe was mostly sparsely populated, while larger cities were the worst off, as population densities and close living quarters made disease transmission easier. Cities were also strikingly filthy, infested with lice, fleas, and rats, and subject to diseases related to malnutrition and poor hygiene.

According to journalist John Kelly, "woefully inadequate sanitation made medieval urban Europe so disease-ridden, no city of any size could maintain its population without a constant influx of immigrants from the countryside". The influx of new citizens facilitated the movement of the plague between communities, and contributed to the longevity of the plague within larger communities.

A few rural areas, such as Eastern Poland and Lithuania, had such low populations and were so isolated that the plague made little progress. Parts of Hungary and, in modern Belgium, the Brabant region, Hainaut, and Limbourg, as well as Santiago de Compostela, were unaffected for unknown reasons some historians have assumed that the presence of resistant blood groups in the local population helped them resist the disease.

The Black Death led to the demise of feudalism. Could this pandemic have a similar effect?

By Adam McBride
Published April 26, 2020 2:00PM (EDT)

Nurse holding up fist in protest | Plague Doctor illustration (Getty Images/AP Photo/Salon)


In predicting the future, we often turn to our past experiences. Humanity has, after all, faced pandemics like this one before — many times, in fact — and few are as memorable and menacing as the Black Death. Arriving in Italy in AD 1347, the Black Death, now believed to be the bubonic plague, rapidly spread throughout Medieval Europe, wiping out between one-third and one-half of the entire European population.

The people of Medieval Europe were not unaccustomed to suffering, but this was unprecedented. Death would come within days or even hours of showing symptoms, and for those who fell ill, the mortality rate was probably upwards of 60%. Panic spread even faster, and the most sacred bonds of society began to unravel. Medieval chroniclers tell us of priests abandoning their flock, parents abandoning their children, husbands their wives, and vice versa — anything to escape the contagion. In some areas, Jewish communities were blamed and viciously attacked, while in others, throngs of penitent Christians publicly whipped themselves in imitation of Christ. For many, it was the end of the world.

What's often missing from this story, however, is the wider context and the lasting impact of the Black Death. This is a story not only of unfathomable tragedy, but also of transformation and rebirth. The plague, in combination with a host of other related and overlapping crises, delivered a death blow to Medieval Europe, ushering in a new age — the Renaissance and the rise of so-called agrarian capitalism — and ultimately setting the stage for the Industrial Revolution and the modern world. And the calamitous 14th century is not as far removed from our own experience as we would like to think.

Europe at the end of the 13th century was not so different from Europe today. Since the Second World War, we have experienced an unprecedented period of economic growth, and so it was for Medieval Europe on the eve of the Black Death. From AD 1000, Europe's population doubled or even tripled, and the economy became increasingly commercialized, underwritten by an increasingly sophisticated financial system, as new cities and towns emerged, universities were founded across the continent, and the magnificent Gothic cathedrals surpassed the Great Pyramid at Giza as the tallest man-made structures in the world.

But like the modern world, there were cracks in the façade — warning signs that the social and economic foundations of Medieval Europe were not as solid as they appeared. As the population grew, increasingly marginal land was turned over to agriculture, with diminishing returns, resulting in lower yields per capita and pushing the population dangerously close to subsistence levels. This left little slack in the economy to absorb a significant shock, and the 14th century would soon bring one shock after another.

First and foremost, the climate was changing. Sound familiar? Medieval Europe benefitted from several centuries of warmer weather, which boosted crop yields, but by the 14th century, the world was entering the so-called Little Ice Age. The changes were relatively minor when compared with our own climate crisis, but the impact was significant. Cooler and wetter weather depressed agricultural yields, at a time when there was already very little slack in the food supply. This contributed to a broader economic slowdown, as yields declined and prices rose, but it also brought Europe to the edge of famine.

Then, beginning in 1311, Europe began to experience a series of crop failures across the continent in what became known as the Great Famine. Reaching a peak in northern Europe in 1315-1317, the Great Famine may have killed 5 to 10% of Europe's population, less than a generation before the Black Death arrived in 1347.

At the same time, Europe entered a prolonged period of heightened geopolitical conflict, during which a dizzying array of kingdoms, principalities, sultanates and city-states waged innumerable wars, both large and small. Chief among these, in terms of social and economic impact, were the ongoing hostilities between England and France, culminating in the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453), and the fall of Acre in 1291, the last remaining crusader city in the Levant, which prompted a papal ban on trade with the Mamluk Sultanate. These conflicts inhibited trade between northern and southern Europe and between western Europe and the eastern Mediterranean, further slowing the European economy and incurring a massive fiscal burden that would soon ruin the European financial system and provoke uprisings in both France and England.

Northern Italy was the heart of the financial system at this time, and a small number of very large Italian banks, often referred to as "super-companies," were lending huge sums of money across Europe. As was the case in the 2008 financial crisis, few banks actually had the cash recorded in their ledgers. All available money was loaned out or tied up in investments, leaving the banks severely under-capitalized and vulnerable to insolvency in the event of a sudden large withdraw or a major default on their loans.

Both of these eventualities soon came to pass, triggering cascading failures across the financial system. First, war broke out between England and France in 1294, prompting King Edward I to withdraw huge sums of money from the Riccardi of Lucca, approximately equivalent to several billion dollars today. The Riccardi simply did not have the money, and Edward seized whatever assets he could. Then, over the following decades, three more super banks, the Frescobaldi, the Bardi and the Peruzzi, all of Florence, were each ruined by successive English kings who refused to pay their debts. Most spectacularly, Edward III defaulted on billions of dollars-worth of loans from the Bardi and Peruzzi, triggering a run on Florentine banks in the 1340s, setting off an international debt crisis and effectively ending public borrowing for the English crown. This was now less than a decade before the onset of the Black Death.

Meanwhile, the Catholic Church, the cultural and epistemological bedrock of Medieval Europe, was facing the most significant legitimacy crisis in centuries. The ambitious King Philip IV of France, who also played a central role in the credit crisis of 1294, was embroiled in a high-stakes tit-for-tat with Pope Boniface VIII when the King's men attempted to arrest the elderly Pope, inadvertently killing him. Shortly thereafter, in 1305, a Frenchman, Clement V, was chosen to be the next pope, and the papacy was relocated to Avignon, France. This understandably cast a long shadow over the Holy See, and the Avignon Popes were widely disliked and distrusted. The crisis only deepened in 1378 when a second pope was elected in Rome and a third pope was briefly elected in 1409 before all three were deposed in 1417.

We might compare this crisis of faith with the current legitimacy crisis of science in the United States. Like the scientific method, the Church was a shared way of knowing — a pathway to common understanding, which was essential to the social order of Medieval Europe.

It was in the midst of this spiritual, economic and geopolitical crisis that the Black Death arrived, sweeping through Europe in 1347-1353 and upending the balance of power, almost overnight. The psychological effects are difficult to identify with any certainty, precisely because so many other calamities were already tearing at the medieval subconscious, but the economic effects of the plague were nothing short of earthshattering. By killing perhaps 50% of the labor force, the Black Death drastically altered the supply of labor, land and coin. Wages skyrocketed, as labor was in short supply, and rents declined, as the plummeting population density created a surplus of land. Both of these developments substantially benefitted commoners, at the expense of the elite, particularly in England.

To understand why, it's important to understand the structure of the medieval economy. Past societies are never as simple or homogenous as we make them out to be. But by and large, Medieval Europe operated on a feudal or manorial system, in which most of the rural population was essentially servile, owing rent and/or services to aristocratic landowners in exchange for the use of their land. Peasants could have myriad different statuses, but in general, the archetypal serf was legally bound to their lord — although they could buy their freedom (or run away). Serfs worked the lord's fields (called the demesne), and in exchange, the serf was given a home and their own plot of agricultural land, from which they could eke out a living.

The archetypal serf was not paid for their work in the lord's fields — that was their obligation to the lord in exchange for the use of the lord's land. The modern equivalent would be if your landlord was also your boss, and in order to live in your apartment, you had to sign away your freedom and that of your children, in perpetuity. Not only that, the medieval lord was also the primary unit of legal, civic and military power, often serving as the first stop for legal matters and the first defense against brigands and rival kingdoms.

In the wake of the Black Death, however, the shortage of labor and the abundance of land empowered peasants to negotiate better terms with their lord, and the lord, with no one to work his fields, was in no place to refuse. This was especially the case in England, where the aristocracy was more dependent on the cultivation of the demesne. With perhaps half the population gone, there were simply not enough peasants to work the land, and the average income of the English lord declined significantly. In response, the lord's wheat fields were increasingly turned over to livestock, or rented out to tenant farmers, who would pay the lord a fixed rent, keeping the agricultural produce for themselves.

The ambitious commoner could now acquire sizable tracts of land, and with the agricultural product of that land entirely at their disposal, commoners were incentivized to maximize the productivity of their land and sell the surplus at market for a profit. This transition is often referred to as the birth of Agrarian Capitalism.

Urban laborers and craftsmen also benefitted from rising wages. The average lifespan increased, and standards of living improved across the board. The shortage of skilled tradesmen even created new opportunities for urban women: the widows of merchants and craftsmen were encouraged to run their husbands' businesses, and the number of female apprentices in London increased significantly at this time.

The aristocracy, however, were predictably appalled by the newfound power of the common rabble, and the elite sought to maintain their position by imposing artificially low wages and by compelling laborers to accept any available work. Sumptuary laws, which restricted what commoners could wear and eat, also became common during the 14th and 15th Centuries. However, these laws do not appear to have been effective, and tensions continued to mount between the aristocracy and the wider populace, who were increasingly impatient for change.

This, combined with the soaring fiscal burden of near-constant war, set off a series of uprisings, most notably the French Jacquerie of 1358 and the English Peasants' Revolt of 1381. The aristocracy responded with force wherever they could, but they could not turn back the clock.

Even in war, their role was changing. While the medieval lord was renting out his fields, the knight was increasingly losing his place on the battlefield. This was, in theory, the primary purpose of the secular aristocracy: to be professional killers, to defend the realm and to protect the clergy and the peasantry. But starting in the 14th century, infantry units comprised of commoners, like the Swiss pikemen and English longbowmen, began to win a series of decisive victories against mounted knights, revolutionizing military tactics and hastening the obsolescence of the feudal aristocracy.

All the while, a new intellectual spirit was taking root across western Europe. Influential thinkers like John Wycliffe and Marsilius of Padua began to question the worldly authority of both the Church and the state, arguing that power rested ultimately with the populace rather than the ruler, and the unworthy ruler could lose their right to govern. Writers and philosophers were increasingly concerned with the here and now, the individual and the observable, rather than the abstract and the universal. The works of Chaucer, Petrarch and Christine de Pizan celebrate the uniqueness of the individual, savoring the moment and often drawing attention to the messiness of the human experience. William of Ockham directly challenged the tedious abstraction of medieval philosophy, famously advocating for more efficient and rigorous reasoning à la Ockham's Razor.

A new confidence in scientific thought began to blossom, as precocious scholars like Nicole Oresme and Jean Buridan postulated the rotation of the earth and the law of inertia, more than a century before Copernicus and Isaac Newton. In the wake of the Black Death, plague doctors were among the first to believe they had surpassed the knowledge of the Greek and Roman world ironically, they were wrong, but the lower mortality of later outbreaks led many doctors to proclaim they had cured the disease, which instilled a new faith in scientific progress. This was the beginning of a paradigm shift, the repercussions of which have shaped our modern world, and the calamitous 14th century was the crucible through which this new paradigm came into being.

Now, seven-hundred years later, what, if anything, can we learn from this — what can the crises and consequences of the 14th century tell us about our own pandemic and the impending aftermath? On the one hand, the current pandemic pales in comparison to the Black Death. The Black Death killed at least 30% of Medieval Europe, whereas the new coronavirus is unlikely to kill more than 0.03% of the US population. There will be no labor shortage in the wake of the coronavirus quite the opposite, there will likely be a labor surplus, due to the ensuing economic contraction. As for rents, the housing market is essentially frozen as people shelter in place, and housing prices are likely to decline in a recession, but the real cost of housing relative to income is unlikely to see the kind of seismic shift experienced after the Black Death.

However, if we take a wider view, there is more to the late medieval crisis than a shortage of labor and a surplus of land. The devastation of the Black Death may have been the straw that broke the camel's back, but Medieval Europe was already on course for social and economic upheaval. As is the case today, great-power conflict was brewing, and with large parts of France already under English control, the eventual showdown between England and France was probably inevitable. Inequality was also a source of stagnation and tension well before the Black Death, as the European economy was becoming increasingly commercialized, a new urban middle class was emerging, and the role of the aristocracy in war, in economic production, and in civic life was shifting. But most significantly, and most presciently for our own time, Europe was headed for a climate catastrophe, and regardless of the Black Death, the continent would have almost certainly faced a series of demographic shocks, like the Great Plague, until considerable changes were made to the existing socio-economic system.

The lesson we should take from this today is not the differences between the coronavirus and the Black Death, but rather the broader similarities between the 14th century and the 21st century. As we emerge from our makeshift bunkers — thankful and perhaps overly confident from averting a worst-case scenario — war between China and the US still looms ever larger, socio-economic inequality is reaching record levels, trust in institutions and our established epistemology is waning, and as we enter the worst depression since the 1930s, climate change once again threatens to throw us back into the Middle Ages. The coronavirus has exposed deep fissures in our society, but it has not been severe enough to force us to address these problems. We may feel as though we dodged a bullet, but if we continue business as usual, what happens next is likely to be much worse. The calamitous 21st century is just getting started, and a more apt parallel for the Black Death is probably yet to come.

Adam McBride

Adam McBride is a medieval archaeologist (PhD Oxford), campaign staffer, and policy advisor.

The Medieval Combat Society

It is believed that the Black Death originated in central China in 1333 as the population succumbed to starvation. The plague spread to the Crimea where Kipchak Mongols or Tartars attacked Genose carrying furs and silks from Cathay, were besieging a Genoese trading centre of Calla, and catapulted their own dead into the city. The Genoese traders escaped by sea carrying the plague to Messina in Italy. In 1348 the plague spread from Cyprus to Florence which was also suffering from famine. The plague spread to Genoa from the Levant on 3 Galleys that went on to Marseilles, and then to the English south coast near Southampton, in 1348. The Black Death ravaged Bristol killing most of its inhabitants. It reached London around 1 November 1348 and by 2 February 1349, 200 people were being buried every day. The daughter of king Edward III, Joanna of died of the plague in Bordeaux on her way to marry Don Pedro, heir to the throne of Castille. The Scots who had not been affected by the black death took advantage by attacking England at this time, but this was simply that the plague had not travelled that far north, and were soon also afflicted.

In 1349 Edward III wrote a letter to the Mayor of London asking that the streets should be cleaned as of old, where he complained that the streets and lanes of London were 'foul with human faeces, and the air of the city poisioned to the great danger of men passing, especially in this time of infectious disease'. On 18 June 1349 the Ordinance of Labourers was passed in an attempt to keep pay the same as pre-plague levels. In 1352 Parliament cited violations with wages at x2 and x3 pre plague levels. Stocks were ordered to be set up in every town for offenders. The black death broke out again in the Spring of 1361, but there was a low incidence of the pneumonic form so the death rate was lower, it was said to affect the young, particularly males. The population of Britain was estimated at between 3.5-5 million before 1348 and 2 million in 1377. Plague returned to England again in 1391.

The plague came in two forms:

Pneumonic Plague giving fever and spitting of blood and the body became marked with small black pustules, thus the name The Black Death, this was the more infectious and almost always fatal, they became bed ridden for 2 to 3 days and died on the 3rd or 4th day.

Bubonic Plague was spread by fleas, and the symptoms were fever and carbuncles and enlarged lymph glands or buboes, thus the name bubonic plague, and the recovery rate for this was higher.

Plague victims suffered initially with a headache then chills and a fever with some suffering vomiting and nausa, pain in the legs and arms and back. Hard painful swellings appeared after a day or two on the neck, under the arms, and on the inner thighs and as they grew they began to ooze pus and blood. After the buboes appeared, the victim would then start to bleed internally with blood in their urine and stool. Black boils and spots would appear over the body as blood pooled beneath the skin. The victims would be in great pain, and death would occur about one week after contracting the plague. Scepticemic Plague would occur when the disease entered the victims bloodstream, death would swiftly follow, possibly before other symptoms had developed. When the plague attacked the victims digestive system it was called Enteric Plague, and this could also kill before other symptoms developed.

Medieval Beliefs

The plague affected all walks of life from the rich to the poor and people thought that the plague was God's punishment. In 1349 the Flagellants appeared in England, 600 arriving from Flanders, they wore no shoes and were bare from the waist up and had a cap with a red cross on the front and back, and carried a scourge with 3 tails, each having a not, with which some had fixed the middle one with a nail. As they marched they whipped themselves drawing blood, four would chant together and another four would chant in response. They would then stretch on the ground in the shape of a cross with the rear one stepping over the ones in front whipping them, until he lay down whereby the rear one would get up and take his turn, until all had whipped the others.

The Plague in Europe

In 1348 the plague arrived in Europe. In Saint-Maurice, there was an outbreak lasting 9 weeks from April to June 1349 with149 deaths in the village, (40 % of the population), in the surrounding countryside, mortality was between 25 to 30 %. Paris had 800 deaths a day at its peak, and by 1349 around 50,000 of its 100,000 population had died. In Vouvry 29 out of 67 died. In Bern, they buried 60 bodies per day. Bremen, Hamburg and Venice lost at least 60% of their populations, Vienna was losing 500 people a day at its peak. Once the death rate reached around 70 %, the survivors were probably immune. Switzerland's population declined from around 800,000 in 1300 to 600,000 in 1400. Béziers 1304 population 14,000, 100 years later 4,000. In France in 1350 the price of wheat had increased fourfold. At St Omer near Amiens, 1 year after the plague passed textile workers had 3 wage increases. In Italy Pisa was suffering 500 deaths a day at its peak. 1374 In Milan plague victims were taken out of the city where they would be left to die or recover, and it is said that the Archbishop Visconti ordered houses with plague victims to be walled up wether they were dead or alive, as a result Milan seems to have had fewer deaths. Anyone who nursed a plague victim was required to be put in quarantine for 10 days. In 1382 The Black Death returned to Europe in a weaker epidemic although it took an especially heavy toll in Ireland. By the end of the century it is estimated that 75 million people died.

Social change caused by the plague

The population around 1300 in England was around 5 million, in 1400 it was around 2.5 million, it was not until 1630 the population reached again 5 million. Famine had caused the population to already shrink before the plague by 5-10% from 1315-25. (The Time Travellers Guide to Medieval England, 2008, Ian Mortimer) and the resultant total drop was a result of these different influences, the greatest being the Black Death. Plague caused huge social changes throughout Europe, there were less people to work the lands and those that survived had more wealth between them. In the Abbey of Ramsay, England, 30 years after the plague, grain production had halved. Such drops in output caused grain prices to rise, and peasants were in higher demand for their labour and could attain higher wages, despite laws to stop them. The black death killed many clerics, and children in grammar schools who were previously taught French, were instead taught English due to the lack of French trained clerics. After the initial epidemic there was a rise in Europe in marriage and birth rates.

Plague Timeline

1333 Black Death originated in central China

1348 the plague spread from Cyprus to Florence

1348 Plague arrives in England on the south coast near Southampton

1348 September 2 Joanna, daughter of king Edward III died of the plague in Bordeaux on her way to marry Don Pedro, heir to the throne of Castille

1348 November 1 plague reaches London

1348 November 29 - A new Vicar is appointed at Shaftesbury, England, to replace one who had died of the plague

1348 December 10 - Third Vicar appointed to Shaftsbury, England, to replace those who died of plague

1349 Edward III orders streets to be cleaned

1349 February 2, 200 people were being buried every day.

1349 May 12 The fourth new Vicar of the church in Shaftsbury, England is appointed, when predecessors die of the Plague.

1349 June 18 Ordinance of Labourers was passed in an attempt to keep pay the same as pre-plague levels.

1352 Parliament cited violations with wages at x2 and x3 pre plague levels. Stocks were ordered to be set up in every town for offenders.

1361 Spring The black death breaks out again

1377 Population of Britain estimated at 2,000,000

1379 Poll Tax recorded 4 Gloucestershire villages as having no return

1388 4th outbreak of plague. Earlier re-occurrences had affected mainly children but this time it was mainly adults.

Although the 14th Century Black Death caused a great deal of death resulting in social changes, it was not the first or the last plague. In 541 AD a plague was noted in Egypt that soon spread in 542 AD to the Eastern Roman Empire which then spread into Persia and Southern Europe around the Mediterranean, and would flare up occasionally until the 8th Century. The historian Proccopius described the plague as originating in Egypt and another write Evagrius gave the source as from the region of Ethiopia and Sudan. The plague occurred during the reign of the Emperor Justinian and so became known as the Justinian Plague, and Procopius recorded that the emperor contracted the plague but recovered.

The plague had bubonic, pneumonic and septicemic forms, but was different in that many of the plague victims had hallucinations before and after other symptoms appeared, with Procopius describing victims entering into a deep coma or violent delerium.

The number of deaths are not recorded from this Plague, and deaths were caused indirectly due to staration after the death of many of the farmers, but it is thought that the death rate was high with Procopis recording in the first four months of the outbreak in Constantinople, the capital of Byzantium, as many as 10,000 deaths per day. John of Ephesus stated that plague pits were dug in Constantinople to hold 70,000 bodies each, but were not enough with bodies left accross the city to rot.

The drop in population, estimated in Constantinople to be between one third and half the population led to labour shortages, and the survivors were in greater demand so labour costs and then inflation increased, and with less people there was less tax income.

Infamous plagues

Three particularly well-known pandemics occurred before the cause of plague was discovered. The first well-documented crisis was the Plague of Justinian, which began in 542 A.D. Named after the Byzantine emperor Justinian I, the pandemic killed up to 10,000 people a day in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul, Turkey), according to ancient historians. Modern estimates indicate half of Europe's population—almost 100 million deaths—was wiped out before the plague subsided in the 700s.

Arguably the most infamous plague outbreak was the so-called Black Death, a multi-century pandemic that swept through Asia and Europe. It was believed to start in China in 1334, spreading along trade routes and reaching Europe via Sicilian ports in the late 1340s. The plague killed an estimated 25 million people, almost a third of the continent’s population. The Black Death lingered on for centuries, particularly in cities. Outbreaks included the Great Plague of London (1665-66), in which 70,000 residents died.

The cause of plague wasn't discovered until the most recent global outbreak, which started in China in 1860 and didn't officially end until 1959. The pandemic caused roughly 10 million deaths. The plague was brought to North America in the early 1900s by ships, and thereafter spread to small mammals throughout the United States.

The high rate of fatality during these pandemics meant that the dead were often buried in quickly dug mass graves. From teeth of these plague victims, scientists have pieced together a family tree of Y. pestis, discovering that the strain from the Justinian Plague was related to, but distinct from, other strains of the plague. (Read how modern plague strains descended from a strain that arose during the Black Death pandemic.)

Warp speed!

Ah, the warp drive, that darling of science fiction plot devices. So, what about a warp drive? Is that even a really a thing?

Let's start with the "warping" part of a warp drive. Without doubt, Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity ("GR") represents space and time as a 4-dimensional "fabric" that can be stretched and bent and folded. Gravity waves, representing ripples in the fabric of spacetime, have now been directly observed. So, yes spacetime can be warped. The warping part of a warp drive usually means distorting the shape of spacetime so that two distant locations can be brought close together — and you somehow "jump" between them.

This was a basic idea in science fiction long before Star Trek popularized the name "warp drive." But until 1994, it had remained science fiction, meaning there was no science behind it. That year, Miguel Alcubierre wrote down a solution to the basic equations of GR that represented a region that compressed spacetime ahead of it and expanded spacetime behind to create a kind of traveling warp bubble. This was really good news for warp drive fans.

The Spread Of The Plague Was Likely The Result Of Many Factors

Wikimedia Commons Janibeg, the Mongol warrior who commanded the siege of Kaffa.

According to a 2002 paper by microbiologist Mark Wheelis, even though the siege of Kaffa can be considered a significant record of the early spread of the Black Plague, it can not be considered the defining event that introduced the disease to all of Europe.

Wheelis argues that the Black Plague showed up in Europe beginning in July 1347, a year after the siege of Kaffa, but if the plague was spread after being brought back by merchants fleeing the city, then it would have appeared much earlier in the historical record. After all, the Mongols first attacked in 1343 and the Italians arrived back in Europe in the spring of 1347.

Furthermore, de’ Mussi’s account has yet to be corroborated by a separate, secondary source. It is also plausible that there were racial motivations behind de’Mussi’s account, seeing as he blamed the so-called “heathen Tartar races.”

Wikimedia Commons Map of the spread of the Black Plague.

A single instance, like an act of war, can not be considered the defining moment that the plague was introduced to Europe. Instead, it was likely a combination of factors like transatlantic trade and yes, war, working simultaneously, and over great distances that contributed to its deadly reach.

Why the Black Death took longer to appear in Eastern Europe than in Western Europe - History

C oming out of the East, the Black Death reached the shores of Italy in the spring of 1348 unleashing a rampage of death across Europe unprecedented in recorded history. By the time the epidemic played itself out three years later, anywhere between 25% and 50% of Europe's population had fallen victim to the pestilence.

The plague presented itself in three interrelated forms. The bubonic variant (the most common) derives its name from the swellings or buboes that appeared on a victim's neck, armpits or groin. These tumors could range in size from that of an egg to that of an apple. Although some survived

The Plague's Progress
the painful ordeal, the manifestation of these lesions usually signaled the victim had a life expectancy of up to a week. Infected fleas that attached themselves to rats and then to humans spread this bubonic type of the plague. A second variation - pneumonic plague - attacked the respiratory system and was spread by merely breathing the exhaled air of a victim. It was much more virulent than its bubonic cousin - life expectancy was measured in one or two days. Finally, the septicemic version of the disease attacked the blood system.

Having no defense and no understanding of the cause of the pestilence, the men, women and children caught in its onslaught were bewildered, panicked, and finally devastated.

The Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio lived through the plague as it ravaged the city of Florence in 1348. The experience inspired him to write The Decameron, a story of seven men and three women who escape the disease by fleeing to a villa outside the city. In his introduction to the fictional portion of his book, Boccaccio gives a graphic description of the effects of the epidemic on his city.

The Signs of Impending Death

"The symptoms were not the same as in the East, where a gush of blood from the nose was the plain sign of inevitable death but it began both in men and women with certain swellings in the groin or under the armpit. They grew to the size of a small apple or an egg, more or less, and were vulgarly called tumours. In a short space of time these tumours spread from the two parts named all over the body. Soon after this the symptoms changed and black or purple spots appeared on the arms or thighs or any other part of the body, sometimes a few large ones, sometimes many little ones. These spots were a certain sign of death, just as the original tumour had been and still remained.

The violence of this disease was such that the sick communicated it to the healthy who came near them, just as a fire catches anything dry or oily near it. And it even went further. To speak to or go near the sick brought infection and a common death to the living and moreover, to touch the clothes or anything else the sick had touched or worn gave the disease to the person touching. "

Varying Reactions to Disaster

". Such fear and fanciful notions took possession of the living that almost all of them adopted the same cruel policy, which was entirely to avoid the sick and everything belonging to them. By so doing, each one thought he would secure his own safety.

Some thought that moderate living and the avoidance of all superfluity would preserve them from the epidemic. They formed small communities, living entirely separate from everybody else. They shut themselves up in houses where there were no sick, eating the finest food and drinking the best wine very temperately, avoiding all excess, allowing no news or discussion of death and sickness, and passing the time in music and suchlike pleasures. Others thought just the opposite. They thought the sure cure for the plague was to drink and be merry, to go about singing and amusing themselves, satisfying every appetite they could, laughing and jesting at what happened. They put their words into practice, spent day and night going from tavern to tavern, drinking immoderately, or went into other people's houses, doing only those things which pleased them. This they could easily do because everyone felt doomed and had abandoned his

A plague victim reveals
the telltale buboe on
his leg. From a
14th century illumination
property, so that most houses became common property and any stranger who went in made use of them as if he had owned them. And with all this bestial behaviour, they avoided the sick as much as possible.

In this suffering and misery of our city, the authority of human and divine laws almost disappeared, for, like other men, the ministers and the executors of the laws were all dead or sick or shut up with their families, so that no duties were carried out. Every man was therefore able to do as he pleased.

Many others adopted a course of life midway between the two just described. They did not restrict their victuals so much as the former, nor allow themselves to be drunken and dissolute like the latter, but satisfied their appetites moderately. They did not shut themselves up, but went about, carrying flowers or scented herbs or perfumes in their hands, in the belief that it was an excellent thing to comfort the brain with such odours for the whole air was infected with the smell of dead bodies, of sick persons and medicines.

Others again held a still more cruel opinion, which they thought would keep them safe. They said that the only medicine against the plague-stricken was to go right away from them. Men and women, convinced of this and caring about nothing but themselves, abandoned their own city, their own houses, their dwellings, their relatives, their property, and went abroad or at least to the country round Florence, as if God's wrath in punishing men's wickedness with this plague would not follow them but strike only those who remained within the walls of the city, or as if they thought nobody in the city would remain alive and that its last hour had come."

The Breakdown of Social Order

Thus, a multitude of sick men and women were left without any care, except from the charity of friends (but these were few), or the greed, of servants, though not many of these could be had even for high wages, Moreover, most of them were coarse-minded men and women, who did little more than bring the sick what they asked for or watch over them when they were dying. And very often these servants lost their lives and their earnings. Since the sick were thus abandoned by neighbours, relatives and friends, while servants were scarce, a habit sprang up which had never been heard of before. Beautiful and noble women, when they fell sick, did not scruple to take a young or old man-servant, whoever he might be, and with no sort of shame, expose every part of their bodies to these men as if they had been women, for they were compelled by the necessity of their sickness to do so. This, perhaps, was a cause of looser morals in those women who survived."

"The plight of the lower and most of the middle classes was even more pitiful to behold. Most of them remained in their houses, either through poverty or in hopes of safety, and fell sick by thousands. Since they received no care and attention, almost all of them died. Many ended their lives in the streets both at night and during the day and many others who died in their houses were only known to be dead because the neighbours smelled their decaying bodies. Dead bodies filled every corner. Most of them were treated in the same manner by the survivors, who were more

Citizens of Tournai bury plague victims. These are
fortunate to have coffins. Most victims
were interred in mass graves
concerned to get rid of their rotting bodies than moved by charity towards the dead. With the aid of porters, if they could get them, they carried the bodies out of the houses and laid them at the door where every morning quantities of the dead might be seen. They then were laid on biers or, as these were often lacking, on tables.

Such was the multitude of corpses brought to the churches every day and almost every hour that there was not enough consecrated ground to give them burial, especially since they wanted to bury each person in the family grave, according to the old custom. Although the cemeteries were full they were forced to dig huge trenches, where they buried the bodies by hundreds. Here they stowed them away like bales in the hold of a ship and covered them with a little earth, until the whole trench was full."

Boccaccio, Giovanni, The Decameron vol. I (translated by Richard Aldington illustrated by Jean de Bosschere) (1930) Gottfried, Robert, The Black Death (1983).

How Medieval People Tried to Dance Away the Plague

It was a warm June day in 1374 in the medieval town of Aix-Ia-Chapelle, present-day Aachen, Germany, when the dancing started. It was the holy feast of St. John the Baptist, which aligns with the pagan celebration of Midsummer during the summer solstice. Traditionally, St. John’s Day was a day of rest and worship for the quiet town of Aache n.

This was not to be the case in 1374. It began with a small group, maybe a dozen or so people. All at once, they began to flail their limbs. Some screamed or hooted. Others moved about as if in a trance.

More and more townspeople joined in the erratic dance. Serfs, nobles, men, women, old and young—all took part in the “dancing plague” of Aachen. Some took up instruments like the stringed vielle, pipes or drums . As sociologist Robert Bartholomew notes , the afflicted sometimes even employed musicians to play. Other times music was played in the hopes of curing victims from their dancing hell. As Justus Friedrich Karl Hecker describes in his book, The Black Death and the Dancing Mania , the victims would take hands forming giant undulating circles, spinning round and round in ever-quickening loops. They’d yell, calling out to God or Satan or both. Their movements were haphazard, even epileptic. For hours and hours, the townspeople danced without rest or food or water.

Then, when the sky finally darkened, they dispersed or collapsed. As Historian H. C. Erik Midelfort notes in his book, A History of Madness in Sixteenth-Century Germany , some never would rise again—dying from broken ribs or heart attacks. But, when the sun shined the next day, they took up their dance again. The dancing mania continued for several weeks.

Then, all at once, the dancing plague disappeared from Aachen. People returned to their homes, to their lives. Until, that is, the dancing plague spread to towns beyond Aachen, like that of Liege and Tongres in Belgium, to Utrecht in the Netherlands, to Strasbourg and Cologne in Germany. All along the Rhine, the dancing plague tormented unsuspecting townsfolk.

In his book A Time to Dance, a Time to Die: The Extraordinary Story of the Dancing Plague of 1518 , about the 1518 dancing plague in Strasbourg, France, historian John Waller cites everything from doctors’ notes to city council documents to sermons, all of which unequivocally refer to the dancing of the plague’s victims. They did not appear to be suffering from epilepsy or another convulsion-associated illness. The victims’ movements were, as Waller asserts in his book, rhythmic and very much dancing.

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One of the prevailing theories around the dancing plagues has to do with their timing. When the dancing plague struck Aachen, the devastation of the Black Death was still very fresh in peoples’ minds. During the 14th century, the Black Death is estimated to have killed somewhere between 25% and 50% of Europe’s population . The bacterium Yersinia pestis caused the illnesses associated with the Black Death. The septicaemic plague, the pneumonic plague, and most commonly the bubonic plague all resulted from exposure to Y. pestis. Aside from death, symptoms of the plagues included everything from purple skin to vomiting blood and fever, among other much more grotesque symptoms.

As you might imagine, the people who lived through the horror of the Black Death were questioning their reality and experiencing psychological distress. Death surrounded them. Entire families were decimated overnight. The dead lined the streets and were unceremoniously buried in mass graves. Indeed, there were many extreme reactions to the Black Death.

The Italian writer and chronicler Giovanni Boccaccio, who lived through the Black Death as it ravaged Florence, Italy, writes of such reactions among his neighbors. Some chose to “live temperately and avoid all excess…band[ing] together, and, dissociating themselves from all others, form[ing] communities in houses where there were no sick.” In other words, they isolated themselves from others in their homes in a medieval version of shelter-in-place. Many resorted to intense prayer and fasting in an effort to appease God. But Boccaccio also writes of people who did the opposite, people who would “ drink freely, frequent places of public resort, and take their pleasure with song and revel, sparing to satisfy no appetite, and to laugh and mock at no event. ”

While these two reactions seem to be on opposite ends of the spectrum, both can be linked to the religious fervor of the age, which the Black Death only exasperated. Religion often does quite well during hard times.

Monks and commoners alike considered the Black Death to be divine punishment for their sins. A Franciscan chronicler from Lubeck wrote of the Black Death being God’s retribution for the evil of humans and indicative of the end of times. The Arabic chronicler as-Sulak and the Swiss Franciscan monk John of Winterthur supported the Lubeck Franciscan’s ideas in their own writings during the period. God was unhappy with humanity, so he decided to flex a bit and show that he was the all-powerful one.

The belief that God sent down the Black Death as punishment begins to explain the range of reactions noted by Boccaccio, and even the dancing plague of Aachen in 1374. Because the Last Judgment was thought to be so imminent, people tended to have one of the two reactions Boccaccio lays out: (1) They became hyper-religious and repentant for their sins, or, (2) they figured they had far too many sins to count and might as well live it up. As the Greek historian and general Thucydides of Athens summed it up in his Plague of Athens, “ before [the plague] fell it was only reasonable to get some enjoyment out of life.” So went the thinking of the medievals who decided to go on a spree of imbibing and carousing. During a 1625 bout of the plague in London, poet George Wither echoed Boccaccio’s observation of peoples’ two extreme reactions writing:

Some streets had Churches full of people, weeping
Some others, Tavernes had, rude-revell keeping:
Within some houses Psalmes and Hymnes were sung
With raylings and loud scouldings others rung.

This wave of religiosity turned some people to blaming Satan and, by extension, satanic worship for the Black Death. There was a rise of witchcraft accusations and anti-Semitism during the period, as people looked to place blame on others for the plague’s devastation.

Some scholars believe this same religious zeal sparked the dancing plagues, including the weekslong disco in 1374 Aachen. Scholars Kevin Hetherington and Rolland Munro, in their book Ideas of Difference , refer to the “shared stress” of the Black Death and wars of the time. They theorize that it was this communal stress that caused the dancing plagues. Other scholars, like sociologist Robert Bartholomew, speculate that the dancing plagues were a sort of ecstatic ritual of a heretical religious sect. The historian John Waller believed the plagues were a “ mass psychogenic illness ,” a mass hysteria caused by the psychic distress of the Black Death.

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Waller, along with psychopathologist Jan Dirk Bloom and Bartholomew, all have discussed the theory that a biological agent may have been responsible for the dancing plagues. Namely, that victims of the various dancing plagues may have suffered from ergot poisoning. Ergot, a fungus that can affect rye during wet periods, can cause spasms and hallucination when ingested. But, as Waller and Bartholomew both point out, ergot poisoning cannot explain why victims danced, or why the dancing plagues were so widespread . Whatever the cause, many scholars agree that the Black Death and the dancing plagues are inextricably linked.

But the dancing plagues aren’t the only form of dance the Black Death inspired. Following the devastation of the Black Death, art and allegorical literature took up the theme of dance as well. As early as 1424, we find artistic renderings of the Danse Macabre, also known as the Dance of Death. In the Danse Macabre, Death, depicted as a dancing skeleton, leads people from all walks of life in a final, fatal dance to the grave. Despite one’s wealth or power or lack of either, all must join in the Danse Macabre.

The earliest known depiction of the Danse Macabre is, very fittingly, in a cemetery. It was a fresco in the Cemetery of the Holy Innocents’s charnel house in Paris. It wouldn’t have been a very quiet cemetery with only clergy and mourners within its walls. The cemetery was in a busy part of the city, neighboring a market. The Cemetery of the Holy Innocents would’ve been a place to gather, maybe even chomp down on a baguette. Many people, from all walks of life, would’ve recognized the allegorical fresco as a satirical reminder that you only live once.

Art historian Elina Gertsman has documented the popularity of the Danse Macabre as depictions of the allegory spread throughout Europe. From France, the Dance of Death made its way into cemeteries, churches, and various facades across Switzerland, England, Germany, Italy, and throughout Eastern Europe. The famed artist Hans Holbein the Younger made a series of prints on the subject in the 1520s, and the dancing skeletons of the Danse Macabre can still be found today on everything from Saturday Night Live to off-Broadway stages.

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In addition to the Danse Macabre and the dancing plagues, the Black Death also influenced another dance form to rise in popularity: the ritualistic dances of the flagellants. As medieval historian David Herlihy explains in his book, The Black Death and the Transformation of the West , during the Black Death, bands of people would march into town behind a leader. When they’d reach the town’s central square, their leader would preach about repentance to anyone who would listen. The marchers would sing hymns while performing a “ritual dance.” Then, at the height of the performance, they’d strike a pose representing some form of sin—murder, adultery, perjury, etc.—after which, they’d strip to the waist and beat themselves with whips in repentance. Right there, in the middle of town, in front of a bunch of strangers. Then, they’d put their clothes back on and march to the next town to repeat their performance.

These public flagellation shows became so widespread that in 1348 Pope Clement VI tried to prohibit them. Unfortunately for Clement, the movement had already taken off. As Robert Lerner references in his article, “The Black Death and Western European Eschatological Mentalities” , the flagellants performed their ritual to inspire others to repent before the end of the world came with the Last Judgment. Many believed that the Black Death was indicative of the end of days. Soon enough, God would be sitting on his throne deciding who was going to be allowed to hang out in his home in the clouds. The flagellants believed they were harbingers of the new era that would follow the Black Death. In a way, they were right.

The dancing plagues, the Danse Macabre, and the flagellants were all reactions to the massive upheaval caused by the Black Death. With as much as half of Europe’s population wiped out, a shift was inevitable. Herlihy, in his book , calls the Black Death “the great watershed” in the history of Western Europe. The British historian Denys Hays even ties the devastation of the Black Death to the birth of the Italian Renaissance in his book, The Italian Renaissance in Its Historical Background . After the Black Death, many of the systems medieval Europe relied upon were totally and completely upended.

Take feudalism. Because so many people, especially poorer serfs who worked the land, had died during the plague, those who remained could negotiate better pay. They figured their work was worth more than the military protection traditionally provided to them by their lord. They were right. As environmental historian Jason W. Moore writes in his article, “ The Crisis of Feudalism ,” the Black Death didn’t only spell the end of feudalism, but also ushered in a new era of capitalism.

The massive restructuring of society that followed the Black Death has become known more generally as the Renaissance. To this day, the Renaissance is seen as the turning point between the “past” and the beginning of our modern world . But, before the innovation and ingenuity of the Renaissance would’ve been possible, the people of the 14th century needed to process the atrocities of the Black Death.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about the dancing plagues, the Danse Macabre, and the flagellants. We don’t ultimately know for certain why the people of Aachen danced in 1374. We aren’t entirely sure how images of the Danse Macabre spread like wildfire throughout Europe in the 15th century. We can’t tell what went through the minds of the flagellants as they walked town to town to perform their ritual dance and then beat themselves with whips. We can assume that they needed some way to embody their pain. They needed to dance, beat, and paint it. And, as they did so, perhaps they could begin to process the horrors they had survived. Perhaps they could begin to heal.

Swift spread

In Europe the Black Death first appeared in the Mediterranean basin and spread to most of the corners of the continent in just a few years. But the initial outbreak is thought to have been in the Black Sea port of Caffa, now Feodosiya, on the Crimean Peninsula. In 1346 Caffa was an important commercial trading post run by Genoese merchants. That year it was besieged by the Mongol army, among whose ranks were a growing number of plague sufferers.

As the disease spread, one story has it, the Mongols deliberately hurled infested corpses over the walls. Even more likely is that the bacteria entered the city in fleas carried by the rats scampering between the siege lines. However it arrived, once the city realized it faced a plague epidemic, the Genoese merchants panicked and fled, carrying the sickness with them to Italy.

The Plague in Eastern Europe

Historians and scientists have puzzled about how the Black Death took such a firm hold over such a vast area in such a short time. Some have suggested that the main plague variant was pneumonic rather than bubonic because airborne transmission seems to support its rapid spread. However, pneumonic plague kills so quickly—in a few hours—that it actually spreads slowly because the host rarely lives long enough to infect many people.

Most evidence points to the Black Death being the main bubonic strain of plague, spread far and wide by flea-ridden rats on boats and fleas on the bodies and clothes of travelers. In an age of growing maritime trade, food and goods were carried ever longer distances from country to country, and the rats and their bacteria traveled with them—at an estimated 24 miles a day. The unceasing flow of sea, river, and road traffic between commercial centers spread the plague across huge distances in what is known as a “metastatic leap.” Big commercial cities were infected first, and from there the plague radiated to nearby towns and villages, from where it would spread into the countryside. The plague was also carried down the well-trodden paths of medieval pilgrims holy sites became additional epicenters of regional, national, and international propagation.

Even without such help the plague is estimated to have moved inland more than a mile a day in the right conditions. In very cold and dry areas it slowed to a stop, explaining why Iceland and Finland were among the few places to escape its ravages. A popular refrain in cities of the time ran: “Get out soon, quick and far, and the later you return, the better.” It was advice heeded by many who could afford to flee to the countryside. Yet this brought disastrous consequences. Evacuation did not necessarily save those fleeing, as some were already infected or traveling with plague carriers. However, it did help to spread the disease to new and ever more remote places as evacuees sought the safety of uninfected villages. (Archaeologists have discovered rural mass graves of Black Death victims.)

The Black Death: The Plague, 1331-1770

1331-34: Plague outbreak in Southwestern China spreads through Asia to the Mediterranean.

1345: Plague occurs in Volga River basin and spreads through Eastern and Central Europe eventually reaching Constantinople the main trade link between Europe and Asia.

1347: Black plague reaches Italy

Jan. 1348: Plague reaches Marseille, France

Nov. 1348: Plague reaches London

May 1349: Plague reaches Scotland, Wales and Ireland

1349: Scandinavia affected by the plague

1350: Uncharted Eastern Europe affected by plague

1382: Black plague returns to Europe, takes an especially heavy toll on Ireland

1647: Great plague of Seville

1665: Great plague of London

1666: The Plague in England up until the Great Fire of London that kills the rats carrying the disease

1679: Plague in Central Europe, small outbreak in England

1710-11: Outbreak of plague in Sweden and Finland

1720: Plague in Marseilles

1722: Defoe publishes A journal of the Plague Year, a fictional account of the London 1665 outbreak

1770: Plague in the Balkans lasts about 2 years

Note: While the plague spread through most of Western Europe, not all areas were uniformly devastated by the epidemic. Places with little trade were impacted far less than large ports.

©2017 John Martin Rare Book Room, Hardin Library for the Health Sciences, 600 Newton Road, Iowa City, IA 52242-1098
Image: Pieter Bruegel, The Triumph of Death (detail), c. 1562, oil on panel, 117 x 162 cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid

Acknowledgements to Alice M. Phillips for her work editing the original exhibit material and subsequent web design.

John Martin Rare Book Room

The nearly 6,500 volumes in the John Martin Rare Book Room are original works representing classic contributions to the history of the health sciences from the 15th through 21st Centuries. Also included are selected books, reprints, and journals dealing with the history of medicine at the University and in the State of Iowa.