Between 1347 and 1350, the Black Death raged through Medieval Europe. Historians and biologists have traced the origins of this deadly pandemic to the remote steppes of Central Asia. Plague had certainly erupted there by 1331 but how exactly did it spread from East to West?
After ravaging Central Asia, the plague descended on China, India and Persia. In China alone, the plague killed around half of the human population. Despite such destruction, commercial activities continued unabated. This meant that the traders, their vessels and the rats aboard became the agents of infection. As they travelled along the established trade routes of the medieval world, they unwittingly carried the plague with them.
The Golden Horde
It is with little wonder then that the plague continued to spread, reaching Southern Russia sometime between 1345 and 1346. Here lay the Mongol-ruled territory known as the Golden Horde, comprising much of Eastern Europe and bordering the Black Sea on the south. According to the Arab writer, Ibn al-Wardi, the Black Death devastated many of the towns and villages throughout the Golden Horde, especially during October and November of 1346. From here, he says, it spread to the Crimea and Byzantium
For several years, the Mongols had allowed a group of merchants from Genoa to control Kaffa, a bustling seaport on the Crimean Peninsula. This was highly advantageous for the Mongols as it provided a direct link to Italy’s largest commercial centre and encouraged trade across all corners of their vast empire. Tensions and disagreements, however, were a common feature of this commercial relationship, arising primarily from their religious differences; the Italians were devoutly Christian and the Mongols had been practising Muslims since the 1200s.
In 1343, in the Crimean town of Tana, these tensions were transformed into violence after a fight between locals and Italians left one Muslim dead. Faced with the threat of execution by the Mongols, the Italians fled the city and headed to Kaffa. Here they were given sanctuary but it was not long before the Mongols caught up with them. What the Mongols had not anticipated, however, was that the people of Kaffa would refuse to let them in. In the face of such insolence, the Mongols had only one choice – they would lay siege to the city.
‘This Pestilential Disease’
In 1345-6, while laying siege to the city of Kaffa, the Mongol army became infected with the Black Death. Gabriele de’ Mussi tells us what happened next:
“Whereupon the Tartars (Mongols), worn out by this pestilential disease, and falling on all sides as if thunderstruck, and seeing that they were perishing hopelessly, ordered the corpses to be placed upon their engines and thrown into the city of Kaffa. Accordingly were the bodies of the dead hurled over the walls, so that the Christians were not able to hide or protect themselves from this danger, although they carried away as many as possible and threw them into the sea.”
Many modern scholars have argued that the Black Death could not have spread through contact with infected corpses. Instead, they argue that rats carrying Yersinia Pestis were somehow able to enter the city. Either way, the siege of Kaffa was to prove fatal for these Italian merchants – and for the rest of Western Europe.
In the summer of 1347, the Italian merchants headed to their ships and the fled the city of Kaffa. En route, however, the Italians stopped at Constantinople, inadvertently infecting the city. Thousands of people were killed, including Andronikos, the son of the Greek Emperor, John VI Cantacuzenos. Those who were able fled the city, many not realising that they were already infected. By the autumn, the western coast of Asia Minor was experiencing the full force of the Black Death and it would not be long before returned home to infect their native Italy.