The Siege of Kaffa and the Black Death

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.

Kaye Jones

Kaye is the author of 1066: History In An Hour, Charles Dickens: History In An Hour and Medieval Anarchy: History In An Hour.

See also The Black Death and Vampires and
The Black Death: Exposing the Myths

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 

The Black Death Vampires

The Black Death is undoubtedly one of the greatest natural disasters that has ever been recorded by the annals of history. It swept through Europe from the end of the 1340s and continued to reappear periodically until the end of the 18th century. Many questions continue to surround the Black Death, but an archaeological discovery on an island outside Venice adds a new dimension to how we view the Black Death today.

Lazzaretto Nuovo

Lazzaretto NuovoThe Lazzaretto Nuovo (pictured) is an island in the Venetian Lagoon just north of Venice. The island served as a lazaret (quarantine hospital) for plague victims, a function that is believed to have begun in 1468 and lasted until the 18th century. It is the younger of two lazarets that served Venice. The other was Lazzaretto Vecchio, which was established in 1403 and is the oldest plague lazaret in the world.

Following its service as a lazaret, Lazzaretto Nuovo served for a time as a military barracks before becoming a hotbed of archaeological activity.  During the Black Death, those who fell ill were sent to these lazarets where they faced a slim chance of recovery. The sick were tended to by the few who survived. Surviving the Black Death effectively inoculated one against falling ill again.

Those who did not survive were buried in mass graves, a grisly site uncovered in the past few years. Thousands of dead were buried on this tiny island.


Stories of vampires are common and include such famous interpretations as Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the recent Twilight craze by Stephenie Meyer. Images of vampires do not usually come to mind when discussing the Black Death. However, vampires were often associated with the Black Death throughout Europe. In Northern and Central Europe, vampires were thought to be bringers of plague. On the other hand, in Southern Europe, it was believed that the Black Death itself attracted vampires.

Vampires were one of many scapegoats of the Black Death. After death, the natural decaying process of the body causes certain physiological changes that were witnessed on a large scale during the time of the Black Death. For instance, hair and fingernails give the appearance of continued growth as skin tissue recedes. This was mistaken as a sign that the person was still living. Bacteria in the mouth would eat through the shrouds placed over the heads of the dead causing their teeth to become quite conspicuous. Blood would seep from the mouth during the bloating process. Adding these elements together was a recipe for vampire lore to spread.


SkullOne particular skeletal remain at Lazzaretto Nuovo is more eye-catching than perhaps any other skeletal remain at the site. This particular skeleton was uncovered with a brick shoved in its mouth. The brick did not end up there accidentally; it was placed there because this woman was believed to be a vampire. This technique of “killing” a vampire had been described in literature, but there had been no evidence to support it until this discovery. The skull dates to 1576 during an outbreak of the Black Death in Venice. The skull belonged to a woman between the ages of 61 and 71. It was believed that a vampire would eat its way out of a grave, thus a brick was placed in the vampire’s mouth to prevent it from reemerging.

Tales of vampires existed in Europe before the Black Death, but the overwhelming scale of the Black Death seems to have heightened belief in vampires. Vampires were supposed to be the result of improper burial and death without the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. Mass burials that resulted from the Black Death were common throughout Europe. Those who became ill were likely to not receive this last sacrament because it was simply not possible for clergy to reach every dying person, especially considering that the Black Death hit clergymen particularly hard.

So, it was during the time of the Black Death that many of our modern notions relating to vampires developed and the “Vampire of Venice” lends historical credence to what had been thought to be just a convention of literature from the time.

Sarah Jane Bodell

See also Black Death – lesser known facts