The Black Death: Exposing the Myths and Lesser-Known Facts

As a medievalist, writes Kaye Jones, I thought my knowledge of this great pandemic was already pretty solid but I’ve come across some amazing, and often very surprising, myths and facts that have shaped both my perceptions of the Black Death era and the content of the book. Here’s a selection of my favourites…

  • The plague-causing bacterium, Yersinia Pestis, was first identified in 1894 by the Swiss-born bacteriologist, Alexandre Yersin. He discovered that this bacterium could be easily transmitted to humans via flea bites.
  • The term ‘Black Death’ used to describe the 14th century plague pandemic was not coined in the Middle Ages. The idea that the Black Death originated in the blackened flesh of its victims is, in fact, a popular misconception. In a poem composed around 1350, the Flemish astrologer, Simon de Covinus, described the great pestilence as the mors atra, (literally black or terrible death). For reasons unknown, sixteenth-century translators of the poem opted to use the word ‘black’, rather than ‘terrible’, and thus the famous phrase was born. In later years, the term ‘Black Death’ became a useful way of differentiating between the medieval plague and England’s modern counterpart, the Great Plague of 1665.
  • Poland was one of the few areas that somehow averted the full force of the Black Death in 1351. Some areas were able to completely avoid it. Historians believe its relative remoteness and sparse population were able to fend off a major outbreak.
  • The Black Death was used as an early form of germ warfare. While laying siege to a group of Genoese merchants inside the walls of the city of Kaffa, the Mongol army became infected with Black Death. Unable to penetrate the city walls, the Mongols began throwing over infected corpses in an attempt to infect their enemies and gain entrance. The Genoese threw the corpses into the sea and, in the summer of 1347, were able to flee the city and sail back to Italy.
  • When the Black Death hit the port city of Venice in 1348, the Great Council formed a prevention committee in an attempt to minimise its damage to the population.. They immediately closed down the city’s waters, isolating incoming ships, until they could be certain that its passengers were healthy.  They set the initial holding period for this purpose at 30 days but, when this was deemed too short, extended it to 40. The modern word ‘quarantine’ derives from the Italian phrase, quaranti giorni, used to describe this 40 day holding period.

Kaye Jones
See also Black Death and Vampires