Black Death

John Florens | Apr 7, 2024

Table of Content


The Black Death (or Black Pestilence from Latin Atra mors) was the second plague pandemic in history, which peaked in 1346-1353, and repeated outbreaks continued until the 19th century. Tens of millions of people became victims of the disease: according to various estimates, from 30% to 60% of Europe's population died of the disease.

In all likelihood, the pandemic began in Central or East Asia. Thus, in 1338-1339 there was an upsurge of deaths from the Black Death near Lake Issyk-Kul on the territory of modern Kyrgyzstan. In all likelihood, the plague came to Europe from the northern coast of the Caspian Sea, from where the disease spread to most of Eurasia and North Africa.

The infectious agent was the plague bacillus Yersinia pestis, as confirmed by genetic studies of the remains of pandemic victims; however, some researchers have advanced alternative theories about the nature of the black death.

The ineffectiveness of medieval medicine and religious institutions in fighting the plague contributed to the revival of pagan cults and superstitions, persecution of potential "poisoners" and "plague distributors", and a surge of religious fanaticism and religious intolerance. The Black Death left an enormous mark on European history, affecting the economy, psychology, culture and even the genetic makeup of the population.

Most European contemporaries described the disease by the word pestilentia (in some languages the expressions "great" or "sudden death" were used). In Russian chronicles the bubonic form of the disease is called "pestilentia", and the pulmonary form is called "pestilentia karkota".

The expression "black death" (lat. atra mors) was originally used in a figurative sense and was not associated with the symptoms of the plague. The plague epidemic was first described as such in Seneca's tragedy Oedipus. With respect to the epidemic of the fourteenth century, the expression "black death" (lat. mors nigra) is first found in a poem published in 1350 by the Parisian astrologer Simon Covinsky. The Venetian poet Giacomo Ruffini, describing an outbreak of plague in 1556, calls it "black disease, monster of darkness" (lat. atra lues, Monstra nigrantis). Cardinal Francis Gasquet in 1908 suggested that the name "black death" was attached to the fourteenth-century epidemic at the instigation of the Dutch historian Johannes Pontan, who claimed in 1631 that it was "called atra mors because of its symptoms". However, the name did not become widespread until the 19th century, as it was used in popular history textbooks by Elizabeth Penrose and in the monograph Der schwarze Tod im vierzehnten Jahrhundert (German for "The Black Death in the 14th Century") by the German doctor Justus Gecker, who attributed its origin to blackened skin, with reference to Pontan.

The name "Black Death" is also attributed to the fact that the corpses of those who died in the epidemic of 1346-1351 quickly turned black and looked as if "charred", which horrified contemporaries.

Climate factor

The 14th century was a time of global cooling, replacing the warm and humid climatic optimum of the 8th-13th centuries. The climate change in Eurasia was particularly abrupt. The reasons that caused this phenomenon have not been precisely established so far, but among them are most often cited a reduced solar activity, which is assumed to have reached its minimum at the end of the 17th century, as well as complex interactions between atmospheric circulation and the Gulf Stream in the North Atlantic.

Like the Justinian plague eight centuries earlier, the Black Death was preceded by numerous cataclysms. Documents and chronicles of the time bear witness to the devastating drought and ensuing famine in Central China, the locust invasion in Henan Province, and then the hurricanes and torrential rains which struck Hanbalik (now Beijing) in 1333. All this, according to scientists, led to a large-scale migration of small rodents (mice, rats and others) closer to human habitats, as well as to their large overcrowding, which eventually caused the spread of the epidemic.

Europe's climate became not only cold but also unstable; periods of high humidity alternated with drought, and the vegetative period of plants was shortened. While the years 1300-1309 were warm and excessively dry, the weather turned cold and damp in 1312-1322, heavy rainfall from 1314 destroyed the crops to the roots, which led to the great famine of 1315-1317. The lack of food in Europe was felt until 1325. Continuous malnutrition, leading to a general weakening of the immune system, inevitably resulted in epidemics, pellagra and xerophthalmia were rampant in Europe.

Socio-economic factor

In addition to environmental factors, a number of socio-economic factors contributed to the spread of the plague. Epidemics and famine were joined by military disasters: in France, the war, later called the Hundred Years' War, raged. In Italy, the Guelphs and the Ghibellines continued to feud among themselves; in Spain, there were internal conflicts and civil wars; the Mongol-Tatar yoke was established over part of Eastern Europe. Vagrancy, poverty and large numbers of refugees from war-torn areas, the movement of huge armies and lively trade are considered by researchers to be important factors that contributed to the rapid spread of the pandemic. A sufficiently high population density was a prerequisite for the maintenance of the epidemic. In the cities squeezed on all sides by fortress walls, behind which during the siege took refuge also the population of the suburbs, the population density was much higher than the minimum required to maintain the epidemic. The overcrowding of people, who often had to huddle together in one room or, at best, in one house, with their complete ignorance of the rules of disease prevention, was also a significant factor in the development of the pandemic.

Increased population density creates favorable conditions for many infectious diseases. Indeed, at the end of the twelfth century, smallpox "woke up" after a long absence and reached its peak shortly before the coming of the plague. At that time, smallpox epidemics swept Lombardy, Holland, France and Germany. Smallpox was joined by leprosy, which spread so disastrously that the church was forced to provide special asylums (leprosariums), which were called lazaretti in Italian. In spite of this, the population continued to grow and soon became victims of the plague.

There was also an easily realized mechanism of transmission. Parasitizing fleas on humans (and not only the plague flea Xenopsylla cheopis, but also the human flea Pulex irritans, which is also capable of transmitting plague) was apparently also a common phenomenon.

A huge number of rats (sufficient to form synanthropic pockets of plague) undoubtedly played a role, as well as such close contact with them that one of the "plague writings" of the time (Lékařské knížky of Kršišťany of Prachatice) gives a special recipe for "if a rat pinches or wets your face".

As for personal hygiene, the situation was complicated by the fact that since the Early Middle Ages, especially in monastic circles, a practice called alousia in Latin has been widespread. Alousia represented a conscious renunciation of the pleasures of life and a punishment of the sinful body by depriving it of the essentials, part of which was washing. In fact, it meant a commitment to especially long periods of fasting and prayer, as well as a long-term and sometimes lifelong renunciation of immersion in water-though during the High Middle Ages the number of those who followed it gradually began to diminish. According to the same beliefs, care for the body was considered sinful, and excessive washing and the contemplation of one's own naked body associated with it was considered tempting. "Those who are bodily healthy and especially those who are young in age should wash as infrequently as possible," Saint Benedict warned of the danger. St. Agnes, according to some versions, did not wash a single time during her conscious life.

In addition, the sanitary condition of the cities, by today's standards, was appalling. Narrow streets were littered with trash, which was dumped on the sidewalk directly from houses. When it began to obstruct traffic, the king or lord would order it removed, kept clean for a few days, and then it would start again. The sewage was often poured out of the windows into a ditch dug along the street, and the statutes of some cities (such as Paris) made it obligatory for the owners to warn passersby three times by shouting "Beware!". The same ditch was used to drain the blood from the slaughterhouses, and all of this ended up in the nearby river, from which water was drawn for drinking and cooking.

There are different opinions as to where the hotbed that caused the epidemic was located. Researcher Philip Slavin suggested that the disease originated in the Tien Shan. And, for example, Christopher Atwood mentions McNeill's hypothesis that the epidemic was triggered by the Mongols conquering Yunnan (southwestern China) because the rodent vectors originated from the slopes of the Himalayas.

Kelly suggests that the second plague started in one of the natural hotbeds in the Gobi desert near the present Mongolian-Chinese border, where tarbagans, pika, and other representatives of rodents and hares were forced to leave their usual places due to starvation provoked by drought and increased aridity and move closer to human habitation. An epizootic broke out among the overcrowded animals; the situation was also complicated by the fact that the Mongols considered marmot meat (which is found in the mountains and steppes, but not in the Gobi) a delicacy, marmot fur was also highly valued, and therefore the animals were constantly hunted. Under such conditions, contamination was inevitable, and the flywheel of the epidemic was set in motion around 1320.

The plague could also have been carried by Mongol armies and traders along the Great Silk Road. Because the route through the Gobi lay to the East, the pandemic initially struck China, where in 1331, according to Chinese sources, Hebei province was particularly affected, with 90 percent of the inhabitants dying from it. The clearer documentary evidence dates back to 1330, when chroniclers begin to mention a kind of "pestilence". Christopher Atwood considers the first appearance of the plague a series of epidemics that swept Henan Province beginning in 1313, and the outbreak of 1331 killed 90% of the population.

It is believed that it is about Mongolia that the Arab historian al-Maqrizi tells when he mentions the pestilence "which raged in six months of horse travel from Tabriz... and three hundred tribes perished for no clear reason in their winter and summer camps... and sixteen representatives of the khan's family died together with the Great Khan and six of his children. Therefore China was utterly depopulated, while India suffered far less.

The khan in question may have been 28-year-old Tuk-Temur, who died in September 1332 (his eldest son and heir Aratnadar had died a year earlier, and his minor successor Irindjibal in early December 1332). His predecessor Esun Temur died four years earlier, on 15 August 1328, also from some illness. With a certain degree of assumption historians consider him one of the first victims of the Black Death. However, Sinologists usually do not make conclusions about the causes of these sudden deaths.

No later than 1335, along with merchant caravans, the plague reached India. Ibn al-Wardi also confirms that for the first fifteen years the plague was rampant in the East and only after that it reached Europe. He also gives some specifics about its spread through India, saying that "Sindh was affected" - that is, according to John Ebert's interpretation, the lower Indus and the northwest of the country, close to the present-day Pakistani border. The epidemic wiped out the army of Sultan Muhammad Tughluq, presumably near Deoghiri; the Sultan himself fell ill, but recovered. The Cambridge History of India associates this epidemic with cholera; S. Scott and C. Duncan believe it was the plague.

The situation with the Black Death in the eastern countries is complicated by the fact that, speaking of the "pestilence" or "epidemic disease," the ancient chronicles do not name it and, as a rule, do not contain information by which it is possible to understand the nature of its course. In particular, the Chinese epidemiologist Wu Liangde who compiled a list of 223 epidemics that hit China since 242 B.C. turned out to be unable to determine precisely what disease was in question. Precise medical descriptions corresponding to the bubonic plague appear, in his opinion, in a single medical treatise, which refers to the epidemic of 1641-1642. The spread of the Black Death in Asia remains understudied at the beginning of the 21st century, to the point that there are skeptics who argue that Asia was not at all or was only very slightly affected by the epidemic. Modern molecular genetic techniques have solved this problem. To date (2013), paleobiologists have published 43 separate studies of material taken from nearly 40 plague graves or grave pits and several hundred individuals, which in all cases have yielded positive identification of the bacterium Yersinia Pessis.

Vietnam and Korea apparently escaped the plague. Japan, which was also spared by the epidemic, was terrified. It is known that by imperial order an expedition was sent to China to gather as much information as possible about the new plague and to learn how to deal with it. For Europe, however, what was happening there remained a distant, disturbing rumor in which reality was lavishly colored by imagination. Thus, the Avignon musician Louis Heilingen wrote to friends about what he had learned from Eastern merchants.

The Florentine merchant Matteo Villani, nephew of the historian Giovanni Villani, reports in his Continuation of the New Chronicle, or History of Florence, compiled by his famous uncle who died of the plague:

The epidemic had a period of "forerunners. Between 1100 and 1200, plague epidemics occurred in India, Central Asia and China, but the plague also penetrated into Syria and Egypt. The population of Egypt was particularly hard hit, which lost more than a million people in the epidemic. But despite the fact that the participants of the fifth crusade reached the most plague-ridden areas in Egypt, it did not lead to a large-scale epidemic in Europe at that time.

1338-1339, Lake Issyk-Kul. Lake Issyk-Kul is considered the turning point from which the plague began its journey to the West, where at the end of the 19th century the Russian archaeologist Daniel Khvolson noticed that the number of grave stones in the local Nestorian community, dating from 1338 to 1339, was catastrophically high. On one of these tombstones, which still exists today, Hvolson was able to read the inscription, "Here rests Kutluk. He died of the plague, along with his wife Magna-Kelka". Later on, this interpretation has been questioned, and it was pointed out that the name of the disease should rather be understood as "pestilence," which could mean any infectious disease, but the coincidence of dates indicates that it was very likely the plague, which spread westward from here. This hypothesis was confirmed by a genetic study published in Nature in 2022. The cause of death of those who died between 1338 and 1339 was indeed Yersinia pestis.

1340-1341, Central Asia. For the next few years, there are no precise data on the advance of the plague westward. It is assumed that its outbreaks occurred in Balasagun in 1340, then Talas in 1341, and finally Samarkand.

October-November 1346, the Golden Horde. In 1346 the plague has appeared in the lower reaches of Don and Volga, having devastated capital of Golden Horde khans Saraj and nearby cities. The annalistic arch of 1497 in the record for 6854 from creation of the world (1346 from Nativity of the Christ) contains the information on the strong sea:

According to the Norwegian historian Ole Benediktov, the plague could not spread to the north and west because of the mutual hostility established between the Golden Horde and their tributaries. The epidemic stopped in the Don and Volga steppes, and thus the northern neighbors of the Horde were not affected. But the plague had an open southern route. Divided into two arms, one of which, according to Persian sources, together with merchant caravans, which provided a very convenient means of travel for plague rats and fleas, stretched to the Middle East through the lower Volga and the Caucasian ridge, while the second reached the Crimean peninsula by sea.

There is also a more material explanation. According to Russian historian Yuri Loschitz, the plague was brought to Europe along with "live goods," which the Genoese bought from the Tatars and sold throughout the Mediterranean, and with it they spread the plague.

1346, Crimean Peninsula. Together with merchant ships the plague penetrated into the Crimea, where, according to the Arab historian Ibn al-Wardi (who, in turn, drew information from merchants who traded on the Crimean Peninsula), 85 thousand people died from it, "not counting those whom we do not know".

All European chronicles of the time agree that the plague was brought to Europe by the Genoese ships that traded throughout the Mediterranean. There is an eyewitness account of how this happened, by the Genoese notary Gabriele de' Mussi (Polish), which many scholars, however, consider doubtful. In 1346 he was in a Genoese faction in Caffa, besieged by the troops of the Golden Horde Khan Dzhanibek. According to de Mussy, after a plague broke out in the Mongol army, the khan ordered catapults to throw the corpses of those who had died of the disease into Kaffa, where the epidemic immediately began. The siege ended with nothing, as the army, weakened by the disease, was forced to retreat, while the Genoese ships continued to sail from Kaffa, spreading the plague further to all the Mediterranean ports.

The de Mussy manuscript, now in the library of the University of Wroclaw, was first published in 1842. The work is undated, but the time when it was written can easily be ascertained from the events described. Presently some researchers question the information contained in the manuscript, supposing, first, that de Mussy was guided by the then understanding of the spread of disease through the smell as miasma, and the plague, perhaps, penetrated the fortress with rat fleas, or, as suggested by Michael Supotnicki, Mussy, having returned to Italy and found there the beginning of the epidemic, mistakenly connected it with the return of the Genoese ships. However, the hypothesis of "biological warfare of Janibek Khan" had its defenders. For example, an English microbiologist Mark Willis in turn points out that under those conditions, the besieging army was located far enough from the city at a safe distance from the arrows and shells of the enemy, while rats do not like to go far from their holes. He also draws attention to the potential for infection from a corpse through small wounds and abrasions on the skin to which the gravediggers may have been exposed.

Spring 1347, Constantinople. The next outbreak of the disease occurred in Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, where the Genoese faction was located in one of its suburbs, Pere. One of the victims of the plague was the thirteen-year-old Andronicus, the youngest son of Emperor John Cantacuzin. The emperor himself left in his "History" an account of the epidemic in the city and the further spread of the disease on the coast of Anatolia, the islands of the Aegean Sea and the Balkans. The Byzantine historian Nicephorus Grigora wrote of a "grave plague-like disease" from which "in most houses all the inhabitants died at once". According to the Venetians, 90% of the city's population died out, and although historians consider this figure to be an exaggeration, the death rate in the city was very high indeed.

Spring-Summer 1347, Middle East. The plague began to spread in Mesopotamia, Persia, and in September of that year appeared in Trebizond. The disease was carried by refugees from epidemic-ridden Constantinople, with those fleeing from Transcaucasia moving toward them. The plague was also carried by merchant caravans. At that time the speed of its movement decreased considerably, covering about 100 km a year; the plague managed to reach the Anatolian mountains in the west only two years later, where its further advance was stopped by the sea.

Autumn 1347, Alexandria. The Egyptian historian Al-Makrizi tells in detail about the arrival to the harbor of Alexandria of a ship from Constantinople, on which of 32 merchants and 300 people of the ship's crew and slaves only 40 sailors, 4 merchants and one slave managed to survive, "who died immediately in the port". Along with them came the plague, and further up the Nile, reaching Aswan in February 1349, during which time the country was utterly devastated. The Sahara Desert became an insurmountable barrier to the plague rats and fleas in their further advance south.

The pestilence spread to Greece, Bulgaria and western Romania (then part of the Hungarian kingdom), as far as Poland, and into Cyprus, where the epidemic was compounded by the tsunami. The Cypriots, desperate for fear of revolt, massacred the entire Muslim population of the island, many of the attackers briefly surviving their victims.

October 1347, Messina. Although the Genoese chronicles remain completely silent about the spread of the plague in southern Italy, the region suffered from it no less than others. The Sicilian historian Fra (ital.) (rus. Michele de Piazza (fr.) (rus.) in his "Secular History" tells in detail about the arrival in the port of Messina of 12 Genoese galleys, bringing with them the "deadly plague". This number, however, varies, some mentioning "three ships laden with spices," others four, "with a crew of infected sailors," returning from the Crimea. According to de Piazza, "the corpses were left lying in the houses, and no priest, no relative - whether a son, a father, or someone close to them - dared enter: the gravediggers were promised large sums of money to take out and bury the dead. The houses of the dead stood unlocked with all the treasures, money and jewels; if anyone wished to enter there, no one blocked his way." The Genoese were soon driven out, but that could not change anything.

Autumn 1347, Catania. The population of perishing Messina tried to flee in panic, and, according to the same de Piazza, many died on the road. The survivors reached Catania, where a far from hospitable reception awaited them. The inhabitants, who had heard about the pestilence, refused to deal with the refugees, avoided them and even refused food and water. This did not save them, however, and the city soon died out almost completely. "What to say of Catania, a city now erased from memory?"  - de Piazza wrote. The plague continued to spread from here across the island, with Syracuse, Sciacca, and Agrigento severely affected. The city of Trapani was literally depopulated, becoming "orphaned after the death of its citizens. One of the last victims of the epidemic was Giovanni Randazzo, "the cowardly Duke of Sicily", who unsuccessfully tried to hide from the infection in the castle of St. Andrea. In all, Sicily lost about a third of its population; after the plague receded a year later, the island was literally littered with corpses.

October 1347, Genoa. The Genoese ships expelled from Messina attempted to return home, but the people of Genoa, who had already heard of the danger, drove them out to sea with lit arrows and catapults. Thus Genoa managed to delay the beginning of the epidemic for two months.

November 1, 1347, Marseilles. At the beginning of November, some 20 plague-stricken ships were already sailing the Mediterranean and Adriatic, spreading the disease to all the ports where they anchored at least briefly. Part of the Genoese squadron found shelter in Marseilles, spreading the plague in the hospitable city, and was expelled for the third time, to disappear permanently into the sea with its dead crew. Marseilles lost nearly half its population, but earned a reputation as one of the very few places where citizens of the Jewish faith were not persecuted and could count on a refuge from the rabid mobs.

December 1347, Genoa. According to the chronicles, an epidemic began in Genoa on December 31, 1347. According to modern calculations, 80 to 90 thousand people died in the city, but the exact figure remains unknown. At the same time, people from the following islands became victims of the plague: Sardinia, Corsica, Malta and Elba.

January 1348, Venice. Effective administrative countermeasures managed to keep Venice out of chaos, but they could not stop the plague. According to various estimates, about 60% of the city's population died.

January 1348, Avignon. Chronicles indicate that the plague killed nearly 80% of the population of Avignon, the seat of the pope. Modern historians, believing this figure to be an exaggeration, believe that the plague killed about 50% of Avignonians. In any case, the death toll was so high that there was not enough land to bury the bodies. Pope Clement VI was forced to consecrate the river where the corpses of the dead were dumped from carts. Among others, the victim of the plague of Avignon was Laura, the lover and muse of Francesco Petrarch.

December 1347-March 1348, Mallorca. It is assumed that the plague was brought to Mallorca by a ship from Marseilles or Montpellier, the exact date of its arrival is uncertain. The name of the first victim on the island is known: one Guillem Brass, a fisherman from the village of Alli in Alcudia. The plague devastated the island.

January-March 1348, Italian counties. The plague was also introduced into Tuscany by the Genoese. From then on, the plague left the ports, where it was still rampant, and began to advance inland. The first city in its path was Pisa, the next was Pistoia, where a council was urgently organized to supervise public health on the model of the Venetian one. The corpses were ordered to be buried in tightly capped coffins, the graves to be dug at least half a meter deep. To avoid spreading panic, funeral services, funeral clothes and bell ringing were forbidden. But here, too, the class characteristic of the Middle Ages came into play - all these orders "by no means applied to knights, doctors of law, judges and doctors of medicine, to whom all honor may be conferred at the will of their heirs". Perugia, Siena and Orvieto tried not to notice the spread of the epidemic, hoping that their common fate would pass them by - but, as it turned out, in vain. According to contemporaries, the death rate in Orvieto was up to 90%; modern researchers, considering this figure exaggerated, nevertheless believe that about half the population died out of the plague.

March 1348, Florence. The local chronicler Baldassare Bonaiuti, a younger contemporary of Bocaccio, reports that the disease came to the city in March 1348 and did not cease until September, killing not only many people but also pets. Doctors did not know how to deal with it, and frightened townspeople left their infected loved ones in abandoned houses. Churches were littered with the dead, mass graves were dug everywhere, in which bodies were placed in layers. Prices for food, medicine, candles, and funeral services rose. Trade and craft guilds ceased, taverns and workshops were closed, and only churches and pharmacies remained open, whose abbots and owners, along with gravediggers, became considerably richer. The total number of those who died of the epidemic, counted in October 1348 by order of Bishop Angelo Acciaioli (Ital.) (Rus.) and the priors, was 96,000.

March 1348, Spain. According to historians, the plague entered Spain in two ways - through Basque villages in the Pyrenees and in the usual way, through the ports of Barcelona and Valencia. By early 1348 the epidemic had spread across the peninsula, and Queen Eleanor of Aragon died from it. King Alfonso XI the Just of Castile died of the disease in his camp during the siege of Gibraltar in March 1350.

Spring 1348, southern and eastern Mediterranean. The Alexandrian plague appeared in Gaza, from where it spread to Syria and Palestine. Damascus lost almost half of its population, while the entire Arab East lost 30-40% of its population. Ibn Battuta, who described the plague in those places, said that Muslims held processions and fasted to appease the wrath of Allah. Huge numbers of pilgrims poured into Mecca, bringing the plague with them to the Arabian Peninsula. While Medina, the second most important city associated with the name of the Prophet, was unaffected by the epidemic for unknown reasons, Mecca was severely affected by the disease, with many residents and students of the local madrasahs dying in the city. Such a calamity that occurred in the main religious center of Islam left Muslims in turmoil. In search of a solution, they, like their Christian neighbors, accused Meccan Jews of incurring Allah's wrath by their very presence in the holy city.

Spring 1348, Bordeaux. In the spring of 1348 the plague began in Bordeaux, where the youngest daughter of King Edward III, Princess Joanna, who at the time was on her way to Spain to marry Prince Pedro of Castile, died of the disease.

June 1348, Paris. According to Raymond di Vinario, in June an unusually bright star rose in the western part of the Paris sky, seen as a portent of the plague. King Philip VI chose to leave the city, but the "grumpy queen" Jeanne of Burgundy did not survive the epidemic; Bonne of Luxembourg, wife of the dauphin John, also died of the plague. The University of Paris lost many professors, so the requirements for new applicants had to be reduced. In July the plague spread along the northern coast of the country.

July-August 1348, Southwest England. According to a source known as the Chronicle of the Grey Friar, the gateway to the plague was the port town of Melcombe, where the first cases were recorded on July 7, "on the feast of St. Thomas the Martyr." According to other sources, Southampton and Bristol were the first to be infected, with dates ranging from late June to mid-August. The ships that brought the Black Death are believed to have arrived from Calais, where hostilities had been taking place shortly before. The English were returning with rich trophies (as the chronicler noted, "there was hardly a single woman who was not dressed in French dress"), and it is likely that the plague bacillus arrived on the island in one of these dresses.

As in France, the plague was blamed on unbridled fashion, particularly overly revealing women's dresses, so tight that they had to put fox tails under their skirts at the back to avoid looking too provocative. According to one legend, a cavalcade of such dagger-wielding horsewomen, brightly and scandalously dressed, called down the wrath of God on the heads of the English. Right during the feast, a thunderstorm broke out with squalls of wind, lightning, and thunder, after which a plague in the form of a virgin or an old man in black (or red) garb appeared on the islands.

July 1348. The plague penetrated Rouen, where "there was no place to bury the dead," swept Normandy and appeared in Tournai, the last city on the Flemish frontier. Then it also penetrated Schleswig-Holstein, Jutland, and Dalmatia.

Autumn 1348, London. The plague spread across the British Isles from west to east and north. Beginning in summer, it had already approached the capital by September. King Edward III, who had so far steadfastly kept the people from pillaging and panic and kept officials from fleeing (the country had courts, Parliament and regular taxes), finally broke down and fled to one of his country estates, claiming sacred relics. His last command before leaving was to cancel the winter parliamentary session of 1349. The higher clergy fled after the king, arousing the indignation of the people, who felt abandoned to their fate; it subsequently happened that fleeing bishops were beaten and locked up in churches as punishment.

In England, the plague was marked by, among other things, a massive loss of livestock. The reasons for this phenomenon are unknown. According to one version, the disease also affected the animals, or perhaps left unattended herds were struck by foot-and-mouth disease or anthrax. The country was brutally devastated; according to contemporary estimates, about a thousand villages were depopulated. In Poole, more than a hundred years after the epidemic, there were still so many empty houses that King Henry VIII had to order their repopulation.

December 1348, Scotland. The Scots, being long-time enemies of the English, had for some time watched their calamities with satisfaction. But when they gathered in the Selkirk Forest to ravage the English frontier lands, the disease spread to them as well. Soon the plague spread to the mountains and valleys of Scotland itself. The English chronicler noted that "their joy turned to lamentation when the sword of the Lord ... came upon them fiercely and unexpectedly, afflicting them no less than the English with pustules and pimples. Although the highlands were less affected by the disease, the epidemic cost the country one-third of its population. In January 1349 the plague appeared in Wales.

December 1348, Navarre. The "Spanish" plague and the "French" plague met on the territory of the Kingdom of Navarre. Only 15 of 212 local communities in Pamplona and Sanguez (most of them populations of small villages) were unaffected by the epidemic.

Early 1349, Ireland. The epidemic entered Ireland with an infected ship from Bristol, and took over the island in a short time. It is believed that the Black Death played into the hands of the local population, killing most of the invading Englishmen in the strongholds, while the Irish in the villages and highlands were largely unaffected. This assertion, however, is disputed by many scholars.

1349, Scandinavia. The plague first appeared in Bergen, Norway, where, according to legend, it was carried on one of the English ships carrying a cargo of wool for sale. This ship, full of corpses, happened to be not far from the coast and caught the eye of the locals, who were not squeamish about "coastal law. Once on board, they seized a cargo of wool, after which the disease spread to Scandinavia. From Norway, the disease spread to Sweden and then to the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Hungary.

1349. Having struck the eastern Mediterranean, Mecca, and Persia, the plague reached Baghdad.

In 1350 the black plague flag was raised over Polish cities. King Casimir III succeeded in keeping the people from excesses against "outsiders," so many Jews fleeing from the pogroms fled to Poland.

1352, Pskov. According to the Nikonov Chronicle, "there was a great pestilence in Pskov and in all the land of Pskov, then death came quickly: a man was covered with blood, and the third day he died, and there were dead everywhere". Further annals inform us that the priests had no time to bury the dead. During the night around twenty or thirty corpses were brought to the church, so they had to put five or ten bodies into one grave and bury them all at the same time. The Pskovites, horrified by what was happening, begged Archbishop Vasily of Novgorod for help. He responded to appeals and appeared in the city, but on his return he died on the River Uze on 3 June.

1353, Moscow. The 36-year-old Grand Duke Simeon the Proud died. Even before his death he had buried two young sons. Simeon's younger brother Prince Ivan ascended the throne. In Glukhov, according to the annals, not a single survivor remained. The disease also devastated Smolensk, Kiev, Chernigov, Suzdal, and finally, descending to the South, disappeared into the Wild Field.

About 1351-1353, the northern islands. From Norway, the plague reached Iceland as well. However, there is no consensus among researchers about Iceland. While Neifi unambiguously identifies Iceland among the countries affected by the plague, Ole Benediktov proves on the basis of Icelandic documents of that time that there was no plague on the island.

After devastating the Shetland, Orkney and Faroe Islands and reaching the tip of the Scandinavian Peninsula in the east and Greenland in the west, the plague began to wane. In Greenland the epidemic dealt the local colony a blow from which it could no longer recover and gradually fell into disrepair and desolation.

Certain regions of France and Navarre, as well as Finland and the Kingdom of Bohemia, were not affected by the second pandemic for unknown reasons, although these areas were subsequently struck by a new epidemic in 1360-1363 and were affected later, during numerous returns of bubonic plague.

There are no exact figures both on the population in general in the Middle Ages and on mortality from the Black Death and subsequent returns of the epidemic, although many quantitative estimates of contemporaries concerning individual regions and cities have survived, which allows us to estimate the approximate number of victims of the epidemic. For example, the English chronicler of St. Albans, Thomas Walsingham, claimed that the plague killed "nearly half of all mankind.

According to the Cambridge World History of Disease, researchers generally agree on numbers between 30% and 50% when estimating mortality in Europe and the Middle East. Central Italy, southern France, eastern England, and Scandinavia were hardest hit by the pandemic; relatively few victims (less than 20 percent) were in Milan, the Czech Republic, and parts of the Netherlands, none at all in Nuremberg. "The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Paleopathology" gives an estimate of the proportion of deaths at 25% of the world population, or more than 60 million people, including a third of Europe's population (15-25 million), 30-50% of England's, two-thirds of Norway and Iceland's deaths, up to three-quarters in Paris and Venice.

If we talk about Western Europe, W. Neifi notes that the first calculation of the number of victims of the epidemic was carried out by order of Pope Clement VI and showed the number of 23.84 million people - 31% of the European population. British historian Philip Ziegler in his work published in 1969 estimated the mortality from the epidemic in Europe to be about one-third of the population, which amounted to 20 to 25 million people.

In his study published in 1941, the demographer Boris Urlanis noted that the high mortality rate was primarily characteristic of cities rather than the countryside, and the 30-40% mortality rate for the urban population gives a seventh to eighth of the population for Europe and a twentieth for Russia.

The authors of the works on epidemiology (S. Martin and W. Neifi) point out that between 1331 and 1351 the epidemic killed about half of the Chinese population, while another 15% were killed by natural disasters. However, Sinologists who refer to census data do not generally note such a tremendous loss of population. They emphasize that the population of Northern China, which was predominantly affected by epidemics, had already by the beginning of the 14th century noticeably decreased compared to the population of Southern China, and they attribute the relatively high mortality in the second to third quarter of the 14th century more to famine than to epidemics.

The Black Death was an epidemic disaster, but it did not depopulate Europe or the world as a whole. Immediately after the end of the pandemic, there was a population explosion in Europe, Europe's population began to grow (see figure), and this growth, despite subsequent plague epidemics, continued uninterruptedly for several centuries, until the demographic transition.

The plague is caused by the Gram-negative bacterium Yersinia pestis, named after its discoverer, Alexander Jersen. The plague bacillus can persist in sputum for up to 10 days. On linen and clothing stained with patient's secretions, it persists for weeks, as the mucus and protein protect it from the deleterious effects of drying. In the corpses of animals and people who have died of plague, it survives from early autumn to winter. Low temperatures, freezing and thawing do not destroy the pathogen. High temperatures, sunlight, and drying are devastating for Y. pestis. Heating to 60°С kills the microorganism after 1 hour, and to 100°С after several minutes. It is sensitive to various chemical disinfectants.

The natural vector of plague is the flea Xenopsylla cheopis, nowadays parasitic on rodents, but in the Middle Ages it was also widespread on humans. The flea can become infected with plague both by the bite of a sick animal and by the bite of a person suffering from the septic form of plague, when plague bacteriemia develops. Without modern treatment, plague is almost always fatal, and in the terminal period of the disease any form of plague turns septic. Therefore, the source of infection in the Middle Ages could have been any sick person.

The human flea Pulex irritans, which does not pass on rats and other rodents but is also capable of transmitting plague from person to person, could also be included in the circulation of plague pathogens.

The mechanism of human infection is as follows: In the pre-stomach of an infected flea, the plague bacteria multiply in such numbers that they form literally a plug (a so-called "block"), closing the lumen of the esophagus, forcing the infected flea to regurgitate a mucous bacterial mass into the wound formed by the bite. In addition, it has been observed that an infested flea, because it is difficult to swallow and gets into the stomach much less than usual, is forced to bite more often and to drink blood with greater exasperation. One flea can infest up to 11 hosts in a short period of time.

A "plague block" in an infected flea Xenopsylla cheopis does not form immediately, but after 8 to 24 days. During this time, the flea could change several hosts (without infecting them) or, crammed into luggage or a saddlebag, reach the next caravanserai, where it found a new host, and the epidemic took another step, advancing at a rate of about 4 km a day.

The natural host of the plague flea, the black rat, is also highly hardy and agile and is able to travel long distances in the food supplies of the advancing army, forage or food of traders, to run from house to house, and to exchange parasites with the local rat population, thus continuing the baton of disease.

In modern science

The incubation period in plague varies from a few hours to 9 days.

Taking into account the mode of infection, localization and spread of the disease, the following clinical forms of plague are distinguished: cutaneous, bubonic, primary pneumonic, primary-septic, intestinal, secondary-septic and cutaneous-arterial. The last two forms are rare nowadays, while in medieval epidemics, when practically every case of plague ended in death, on the contrary, they are frequent.

The pathogen enters through skin lesions due to a bite from a flea or a plague-stricken animal, through mucous membranes or by airborne droplets. It then reaches the lymph nodes, where it begins to multiply rapidly. The disease begins suddenly: severe headache, high fever with chills, the face is hyperemic, then it turns dark, dark circles appear under the eyes. A bubo (enlarged inflamed lymph node) appears on the second day of the disease.

Pneumonic plague is the most dangerous form of the disease. It can occur either as a complication of bubonic plague or by airborne infection. The disease also develops violently. A person with pneumonic plague is extremely dangerous to others because he or she releases a large number of pathogens in his or her sputum.

The bubonic form of plague develops when the pathogen enters the blood through the skin. At the first protective border (in regional lymph nodes) it is captured by leukocytes. Plague bacilli are adapted to multiply in phagocytes. As a result, the lymph nodes lose their protective function, becoming a "germ factory". The lymph node itself develops an acute inflammatory process, which involves its capsule and surrounding tissues. As a result, on the second day of the disease formed a large painful seal - a primary buboes. Lymphogenically, the pathogens can penetrate into the nearest lymph nodes, forming secondary first-order buboes.

From the buboes, which have lost their ability to contain the infection, the pathogens enter the blood - a transient bacteremia develops, which, among other things, makes possible the infection of fleas that bite the patient and the formation of epidemic chains of the type "man - flea - man". The plague bacilli that break down in the blood release toxins that cause severe intoxication, up to infectious-toxic shock. Against the background of transient bacteremia, the pathogen may be carried to distant lymph nodes with the formation of secondary buboes of the second order. Disruption of blood clotting factors due to the substances excreted by the bacteria contributes to bleeding, the formation of hematomas with a dark purple color.

Primary septic plague also develops when the pathogen enters the blood through the skin, but when the virulence of the pathogen is high and

Particularly dangerous is damage to the lungs. Microbes and their toxins destroy the walls of the alveoli. The patient begins to spread the plague pathogen by airborne droplets. Primary pneumonic plague is caused by the airborne route of infection, and is characterized by the fact that the primary process develops in the alveoli. Rapid development of respiratory failure is characteristic of the clinical picture.

Each of the clinical forms of plague has its own peculiarities. Professor Braude describes the behavior and appearance of a bubonic plague patient in the first days of the disease:

The face of a plague patient received the Latin name facies pestica, by analogy with the term facies Hippocratica (Hippocratic mask), referring to the face of a dying person.

When the pathogen enters the blood (from the buboes or in the primary-septic form of plague), hemorrhages on the skin and mucous membranes appear in a few hours after the onset of the disease.

In the descriptions of the fourteenth century

A description of the condition of the plague patients at the time of the second epidemic has come down to us in the same manuscript of de Mussy, the "Histories" of John Cantacuzin, Nicephorus Gregory, Dionysius Collet, the Arab historian Ibn al-Khatib, De Guineas, Boccaccio, and other contemporaries.

According to them, the plague manifested itself first in a "continuous fever" (febris continuae). The patients were highly irritable, thrashing, and delirious. Extant sources tell of "patients screaming frantically out of windows": as John Kelly suggests, the infection also affected the central nervous system. Excitement was replaced by feelings of oppression, fear and longing, and pains in the heart region. The patients' breathing was short and intermittent, often changing to coughing with hemoptysis or sputum. The urine and feces were stained black, the blood darkened to black, the tongue dried out and also covered with a black plaque. Black and blue spots (petechiae), buboes, carbuncles appeared on the body. The contemporaries were especially struck by the heavy odor emanating from those who were ill.

Some authors also speak of hemoptysis, which was seen as a sign of imminent death. Scholiak especially noted this symptom, calling the Black Death a "plague with hemoptysis.

In many cases the plague had a bubonic form caused by a bite of an infected flea. In particular, it was characteristic of the Crimea, where de Mussy described the course of the disease as beginning with stabbing pains, then fever, and finally the appearance of hard buboes in the groin and under the arms. The next stage was "putrid fever," accompanied by headache and confusion, with "tumors" (carbuncles) appearing on the chest.

Similar symptoms were present in the Italian cities of the plague, but here the above were accompanied by nasal bleeding and fistulas. The Italians do not mention hemoptysis - the exception is the only manuscript known thanks to Ludovico Muratori.

In England, the plague more often manifested itself in the pneumonic form, with hemoptysis and bloody vomiting, and the patient, as a rule, died within two days. The same is noted in Norwegian chronicles, Russian chroniclers talk about black spots on the skin and pulmonary bleeding.

In France, according to Scholiak's records, the plague manifested itself in both forms - in the first period of its spread (two months) mainly in the pneumonic form, the patient died on the third day, in the second - in the bubonic form, and the time of life increased to five days.

The medieval people were particularly horrified by the primary-septic plague that was characteristic of Constantinople. The plague was particularly horrifying to medieval people, as was the primary-septic plague characteristic of Constantinople.

Russian annals speak of the property and signs of the disease in this way:

The State of Medicine in the Middle Ages

At the time of the Black Death, medicine in Christian Europe was in deep decline. This was largely due to the primitive-religious approach to all areas of knowledge. Even at one of the major medieval universities, the University of Paris, medicine was considered a secondary science, as it was concerned with "curing the mortal body. This is illustrated, among other things, by an anonymous thirteenth-century allegorical poem about "The Wedding of the Seven Arts and the Seven Virtues." In this work, Lady Grammar marries off her daughters Dialectics, Geometry, Music, Rhetoric and Theology, after which Lady Physics (then the name of medicine) comes to her and also asks for a husband, receiving an unequivocal reply from Grammar: "You are not from our family. I can't help you.

A certain manual of the time, the author of which remains unknown, made it obligatory for the physician, upon entering a house, to ask the relatives of a sick person whether he had confessed and received the holy sacrament. If this was not done, the sick person had to perform his religious duty immediately, or at least promise to do so, for salvation of the soul was considered more important than salvation of the body.

Surgery was considered too dirty a craft, which church rules did not allow a priest, even one with medical education, to practice, which meant in real life a clear separation in Europe between the professions of the physician (physician) who studied ancient medicine at university and the less learned practicing surgeon (surgeon), who almost always belonged to different workshops. The anatomy of the dead was never forbidden, but only really spread from the 14th and 15th centuries, the theoretical study of anatomy according to the books of Galen remained predominant.

Talented physicians risked constant exposure to the Inquisition, but the corrupt part of the clergy was particularly outraged by the fact that doctors enjoyed the authority and respect of the powerful, diverting rewards and favors to themselves. One physician of the time wrote:

Hypotheses about the causes of the plague and proposed preventive measures

As for the science of epidemic diseases of that time, there were two main trends. The first, associated with the name of one of the last atomists of antiquity, Lucretius Carus, believed that they were caused by some invisible to the eye "seeds of disease", or the smallest pathogenic "cattle" (Marcus Barron), which penetrated into the body of a healthy person through contact with a sick person. This doctrine, later called the doctrine of contagion (i.e., "contamination"), was further developed in those days already after van Leeuwenhoek's discovery. As a preventive measure against plague, the contagionists suggested isolation of the sick and long quarantines: "As far as possible, one should carefully avoid public disputes, so that people would not breathe on each other and one person could not infect several. So, one should remain alone and not meet people who come from places where the air is poisoned."

However, the presence or absence of invisible "plague cattle" seemed quite speculative; all the more attractive for doctors of that time was the theory of "miasmas" created by great ancient minds - Hippocrates and Galen - and later developed by the "sheikh of doctors" Avicenna. In brief, the essence of the theory can be reduced to poisoning of the organism with a certain poisonous substance ("pneuma") emitted from the Earth interior. It was based on a sensible observation that the fumes of marshes and other "unhealthy places" are destructive for people, and certain diseases are tied to certain geographical locations. Hence, according to "miasmatics", the wind is able to carry poisonous vapors over vast distances, and the poison can both keep in the air and poison the water, food and household items. The secondary source of miasmas is a sick or dead body, which was "confirmed" during the plague epidemic by a heavy odor accompanying the disease and the stench of corpses. However, even here doctors differed in their understanding of where the poisonous vapors came from. While the ancients did not hesitate to attribute them to "telluric" (i.e. soil) secretions, normally harmless, which are transformed into deadly poison by marsh decay, in the Middle Ages there were opinions on a cosmic influence on the occurrence of "miasmas", with the planet Saturn, identified with the apocalyptic rider-Death, as the main culprit. According to the "miasmatics," the tidal influence of the planet awakens the poisonous vapors of the marshes.

The presence of the miasma was determined by smell, but there were diametrically opposed opinions as to what type the smell of the plague should be. For example, there are memories of "a wind carrying a smell as if from a rose garden", after which, of course, an epidemic broke out in the nearest town. But much more often the plague was attributed to pungent and severe odors, for example, in Italy it was believed that an enormous whale washed ashore by the waves and "spreading an intolerable stench around".

Several simple remedies were suggested to combat the epidemic:

The doctors recommended abstaining from consuming domestic and wild waterfowl, eating soups and broths, staying awake after dawn, and finally abstaining from intimate contact with women, and (bearing in mind that "like attracts like") abstaining from thoughts of death and fear of the epidemic and keeping one's spirits upbeat at all costs.


The best minds of the Middle Ages were not mistaken about the possibility of curing plague patients. The arsenal of the medieval physician, including plant- or animal-based medicines and surgical instruments, was utterly powerless against the epidemic. The "father of French surgery," Guy de Choliac, called the plague a "degrading disease" against which the medical profession had nothing to offer. The Franco-Italian physician Raymond Chalain di Vinario noted, not without bitter cynicism, that "he cannot condemn doctors who refuse to help the plague-stricken, for no one is willing to follow his patient. Moreover, as the epidemic intensified and the fear of the plague grew, more and more physicians also tried to find salvation by fleeing, although this can also be contrasted with genuine instances of devotion to their work. For example, Scholiak, according to his own confession, was only deterred from fleeing by "fear of ignominy"; di Vinario, against his own advice, remained in place and died of the plague in 1360.

The clinical picture of the plague, from the point of view of fourteenth-century medicine, looked as follows: the miasmas, having penetrated the body, give birth in the heart area to a bubo or boil filled with poison, which then, having burst, poisons the blood.

Attempts at treatment, though extremely ineffective, were nevertheless made. Choliac opened plague buboes and cauterized them with a red-hot poker. The plague, understood as poisoning, was treated with the antidotes existing at the time, in particular "French teriac"; dried skins of toads and lizards, which, according to the popular belief of the time, could draw poison from blood, were applied to the buboes; precious stones, in particular, emeralds ground into powder, were used for the same purpose.

In XIV century when science was still closely intertwined with magic and occultism, and many apothecary recipes were made by rules of "sympathy", that is imaginary connection of human body with those or other objects, having acted on which it was allegedly possible to treat a disease, there were numerous cases of charlatanism or sincere delusion leading to the most ridiculous results. For example, supporters of "sympathetic magic" tried to "pull" a disease out of the body with the help of strong magnets. The results of such "treatment" are unknown, but they were hardly satisfactory.

It seemed most sensible to support the patient's strength with good nutrition and fortifying means and to wait for the body itself to overcome the disease. But there were few cases of recovery during the Black Death epidemic, and almost all of them occurred at the end of the epidemic.

Plague Doctors

Under these circumstances, the lords or towns paid for the services of special "plague doctors," whose duty it was to remain in the town until the end of the epidemic and to treat those who fell victim to it. As a rule, this thankless and extremely dangerous job was taken by mediocre physicians, unable to find better ones for themselves, or by young medical graduates who tried to make a name and fortune for themselves in a quick but extremely risky way.

The first plague doctors are believed to have been hired by Pope Clement VI, after which the practice began to spread throughout Europe.

To protect against "miasmas", the plague doctors wore a beak mask, which later became famous (hence their nickname during the epidemic "beak doctors" (fr. docteurs à bec). The mask, initially covering only the face, but after the return of the plague in 1360, began to completely cover the head, was made of thick leather, with glasses for the eyes, and the beak was filled with flowers and herbs - rose petals, rosemary, laurel, incense, etc., to protect against plague "miasmas". In order not to suffocate, two small holes were made in the beak. The dense costume, usually black, was also made of leather or waxed cloth, and consisted of a long shirt down to the heels, pants and high boots, and a pair of gloves. The plague doctor took a long cane in his hands, which was used to keep his hands from touching the patient and, in addition, to disperse any curious onlookers in the street, if there were any. This predecessor of the modern plague suit did not always save lives, and many doctors died trying to help their patients.

As additional protection, the plague doctors were advised "a good sip of wine with spices"; as is usual in history, tragedy was accompanied by farce: a characteristic anecdote survives about a group of Königsberg doctors who, having overdone the disinfection plan somewhat, were arrested for drunken debauchery.

"The Venetians are like pigs; if you touch one, they will all huddle together and lash out at the offender," remarked the chronicler. Indeed, Venice, led by Doge Dandolo, was the first, and for a time the only European country that was able to organize its citizens to avoid the chaos and looting, and at the same time, as best it could, to counteract the rampant epidemic.

First of all, on March 20, 1348, by order of the council of Venice, a special sanitary commission of three Venetian nobles was organized in the city. The ships entering the harbor were ordered to be inspected, and if "hiding foreigners", plague patients or the dead were found, the ship was immediately burned. One of the islands in the Venetian Lagoon was set aside for burying the dead, and the graves were to be dug to a depth of at least one and a half meters. From April 3 until the end of the epidemic, day after day, special funeral teams had to sail through all the Venetian canals, shouting "Dead bodies!" and demanding that the population hand over their dead for burial. Special teams to collect corpses were required to visit all hospitals, almshouses, and simply to collect the dead in the streets, day after day. Any Venetian was entitled to the last vows of the local priest and burial on the plague island, named Lazaretto, John Kelly suggests, after the nearby church of St. Mary of Nazareth; Johannes Nola suggests, from the monks of St. Lazarus, who had been walking with the sick. It was also the place of the forty-day quarantine of those who came from the East or from plague-ridden places, where their goods were to remain for forty days - a period chosen in memory of Christ's forty days in the desert (hence the name "quarantine" - from the Italian quaranta, "forty").

To maintain order in the city, the wine trade was forbidden, all taverns and taverns were closed, any merchant caught red-handed lost his goods, and it was ordered to immediately knock out the bottoms of barrels and pour their contents directly into the canals. Gambling was forbidden, as was the production of dice (artisans, however, managed to circumvent this prohibition by shaping the dice into prayer rosary beads). Brothels were closed, and men were instructed either to send their lovers away immediately or to marry them just as immediately. To repopulate the desolate city, debt prisons were opened, debt payment laws were relaxed, and runaway debtors were promised forgiveness if they agreed to cover one-fifth of the required amount.

From August 7, to avoid possible panic, mourning clothes were forbidden and the old custom of displaying the coffin of the deceased at the doorstep, mourning with the whole family in front of passersby, was temporarily cancelled. Even as the epidemic reached its peak, with a death toll of 600 a day, Doge Andrea Dandolo and the Grand Council remained in place and continued to work. On July 10, officials who had fled the city were ordered to return to the city within the next eight days and resume work; those who disobeyed were threatened with dismissal. All these measures did have a positive effect on order in the city, and the experience of Venice was subsequently adopted by all European states.

The Catholic Church and the Plague

From the point of view of the Roman Catholic Church, the reasons for the epidemic were clear - punishment for human sins, a lack of love for one's neighbors, the pursuit of worldly temptations while completely forgetting spiritual matters. In 1347, with the outbreak of the epidemic, the church, followed by the people, were convinced that the end of the world was coming and that the prophecies of Christ and the apostles were coming true. War, famine, and disease were seen as the horsemen of the Apocalypse, and it was the plague that was to play the role of the rider, whose "horse is pale and his name is Death. They tried to fight the plague with prayers and processions, for example, the Swedish king, when the danger approached his capital, led a barefoot procession with his head uncovered, begging for an aversion. The churches were filled with believers. As the best remedy for those already sick or to avoid infection, the church recommended "the fear of God, for the Most High alone can ward off the plague miasmas. St. Sebastian was considered the patron saint of plague patients and was also associated with the belief that the plague was stopped in one of the towns when a chapel was built and consecrated in the local church, where a statue of this saint was erected.

The story was told by word of mouth that the donkey carrying the statue of the Holy Virgin to Messina, where the epidemic began, suddenly stopped and no effort was made to move it. Already at the beginning of the epidemic, when the people of Messina began to ask the Catanians to send them relics of Saint Agatha to save them from death, the Bishop of Catania, Gerardus Orto, agreed to do so, but his own parishioners resisted, threatening death if he decided to leave the city without protection. "What nonsense," resented Fra Michele, "If St. Agatha had wanted to go to Messina, she herself would have said so!" In the end, the warring parties came to a compromise, agreeing that the patriarch would sprinkle the holy water in which St. Agatha's cancer had been washed. As a result, the bishop himself died of the plague, while the disease continued to conquer more and more spaces.

Under such circumstances, the question of what caused God's wrath and how to propitiate the Almighty so that the pestilence would cease once and for all became vital. In 1348 the cause of the disaster was seen in the new fashion for boots with long, high-curved toes, which especially angered God.

The priests who took the last confession of the dying became frequent victims of the plague, so at the height of the epidemic it was no longer possible to find anyone in some cities who could administer the sacrament of Soboranization or recite the Requiem over the deceased. For fear of contagion, priests and monks also tried to protect themselves by refusing to approach the sick, instead serving them communion bread on a long-handled spoon through a special "plague hole" in the door, or performing the sacrament of Holy Communion with a stick and the end dipped in oil. However, there have also been cases of asceticism; according to tradition, the story of a hermit named Roch, who selflessly cared for the sick and was later canonized by the Catholic Church, falls in this period.

In 1350, at the height of the epidemic, Pope Clement VI declared another Holy Year with a special bull ordering angels to immediately deliver to heaven anyone who died on the road to Rome or on their way home. Indeed, Easter brought to Rome a crowd of about 1,200,000 pilgrims seeking protection from the plague and a million more at Pentecost, a plague that raged so violently that barely a tenth of them returned home. In one year alone, the Roman curia made an astronomical sum of 17 million florins from their donations, which prompted the wits of the time to crack a venomous joke: "God does not desire the death of a sinner. Let him live and pay on.

Pope Clement VI himself was at this time far away from plague-ridden Rome, in his palace in Avignon, on the advice of his personal physician, Guy de Choliac, who was well aware of the danger of infection, keeping a fire in two braziers to his right and left. Paying homage to the superstitions of the time, the pope did not part with the "magic" emerald inserted in his ring, "which, when turned towards the South, lessened the effect of the plague; when turned towards the East, it lessened the danger of contagion.

During the epidemic, churches and monasteries became fabulously rich; wishing to avoid death, parishioners gave their last, so that the heirs of the dead were left with crumbs, and some municipalities had to limit by decree the amount of voluntary donations. For fear of illness, however, the monks did not go out, and pilgrims were left to pile their offerings in front of the gate, from where they were picked up at night.

Grumbling grew among the people; disillusioned with the official church's ability to protect its "sheep" from the plague, the laity began to wonder if the sins of churchmen had provoked God's wrath. Stories of fornication, intrigue, and even murder occurring in monasteries, of priestly simony, were recalled and told aloud. These sentiments, which were extremely dangerous for the church, eventually led to powerful heretical movements of later times, notably the Flagellantine movement.


According to various accounts, the sect of the Flagellants arose in the mid-13th and 14th centuries, when news of another catastrophe or calamity caused religious ecstasy among the urban crowd, who sought through ascesis and mortification to obtain the mercy of the Creator and to end or prevent famine or epidemic, but either way, it is certain that during the Black Death this movement reached an unprecedented scale.

The Flagellants believed that a marble tablet had once fallen on the altar of St. Peter's Church in Jerusalem with a message from Christ himself, who, rebuking sinners for failing to observe Friday fasting and "holy Sunday," announced to them as punishment the beginning of a plague epidemic. God's wrath was so great that he intended to wipe mankind off the face of the earth altogether, but he softened, thanks to the entreaties of St. Dominic and St. Stephen, giving those who had gone astray one last chance. If mankind continued to persist, the heavenly letter reported, the next punishments would be the invasion of wild beasts and the raids of the pagans.

The members of the sect, driven by a common desire to subject their flesh to an ordeal comparable to that of Christ before his crucifixion, united in groups of up to several thousand, led by a single leader, and traveled from city to city, flooding into Switzerland and Germany, among others. Eyewitnesses describe them as monks dressed in black cloaks and hoods, with felt hats pulled low over their eyes and their backs "scarred and scabbed with gorey blood.

The religious fanaticism of the Flagellants, of course, could not stop the epidemic; moreover, it is known that they brought the plague with them to Strasbourg, which until that time had not yet been affected by the pestilence.

Like all religious fanatics of their time, the Flagellants, in every city in which they appeared, demanded the extermination of the Jews as "enemies of Christ," which already aroused the distrust and apprehension of Pope Clement VI - but far worse, from the perspective of the dominant Church, was that The scourging sect, being emphatically secular - not a single clergy member - claimed direct communion with God, rejecting the complicated rituals and hierarchy of Catholicism, preaching independently and just as arbitrarily accepting the sacrament of confession and absolution from one another.

Pope Clement was too clever and cautious to forbid flagellantism outright - thus risking causing revolt and hatred among the masses. And he acted wisely, placing them under the authority of the ecclesiastical hierarchs, ordering them to practice ascesis and self-torture exclusively on their own, at home, and only with the blessing of a personal confessor, after which Flagellantism, as a mass religious current, practically ceased to exist. Soon after the end of the epidemic, the sect, as an organized structure, disappeared completely.


A lesser known variety of fanatics, who tried to stop the plague by feats of faith, were the "clothed in white" (lat. albati), also known by their Italian name bianchi. They are sometimes thought of as a moderate part of the Flagellants.

According to the mythology of this sect, it all began when a certain peasant met Christ in a field, who, remaining unrecognized, asked him for bread. The peasant apologized, explaining that he had no more bread, but Christ asked him to look in his bag, where, to the owner's considerable surprise, the bread was found intact. Christ sent the farmer to the well to soak the bread in water. The farmer objected that there were no wells in the area, but obeyed nonetheless, and sure enough, the well appeared by itself in the place named. But Our Lady stood by the well, and she sent the peasant back, ordering him to tell Christ that "his mother forbids him to soak up bread." The peasant carried out the errand, to which Christ remarked that "his mother is always on the side of sinners," and explained that if the bread were soaked, the entire population of the earth would perish. But now he is ready to have mercy on the fallen, and asks that only one-third of the bread be soaked, which would lead to the death of one-third of the population of the Christian world. The peasant obeyed the order, after which an epidemic broke out, which can only be stopped by dressing in white, praying, and surrendering to fasting and penance.

Another version of the same legend told that a peasant was riding an ox and was suddenly transported by some miracle to a "distant place," where an angel with a book in his hand was waiting for him, ordering the peasant to preach about the need to repent and wear white robes. The rest of the instructions necessary to appease God's wrath were to be found in the book.

The Bianca marches in the cities drew crowds no smaller than those of their more radical counterparts. Dressed in white, with candles and crucifixes in their hands, they moved about singing prayers and psalms, praying for "mercy and peace," and the procession was always led by a woman walking between two small children.

But these distant forerunners of the Reformation also displeased the dominant church, for they directly reproached it for avarice, selfishness, and forgetting the commandments of God, for which God punished his people with an epidemic. The Bianchi demanded that the high priest voluntarily give up the throne, yielding it to the "poor pope," and with this demand their leader, who called himself John the Baptist, went to Rome, where, by order of the pope, he ended his life at the stake; the same fate awaited the second leader of the sect, who tried to rebel against the Holy See. The sect was officially banned.


If the sects of the Flagellants and the "clothed in white," for all their fanaticism, still consisted of sane people, choreomania, or obsession with dance, was most likely a typical mass psychosis, typical, however, of the Middle Ages.

The victims of choreomania for no apparent reason began to jump, shout, and make absurd movements that truly resembled a kind of frantic dance. Obsessed people gathered in crowds of up to several thousand people; it happened that spectators, up to a certain point simply watching what was happening, joined the dancing crowd themselves, unable to stop. The possessed would not be able to stop dancing on their own, and would often cover the distance to a neighboring town or village, screaming and jumping. Then they would fall to the ground in utter exhaustion and fall asleep on the spot.

After that, the psychosis sometimes ended, but sometimes it lasted for days or even weeks. The choreomaniacs were told off in churches, sprinkled with holy water, and sometimes, when all other means were exhausted, the city authorities hired musicians to play along with the frenetic dance, thereby bringing the choreomaniacs to sleep and exhaustion as quickly as possible.

Cases of this kind were known even before the Black Death epidemic, but if previously they had been isolated, after the Black Death epidemic choreomania took on a frightening scale, the jumping crowds numbering sometimes as many as several thousand people. It has been suggested that this is how the nervous turmoil and terror of the epidemic was expressed. Choreomania was rampant in Europe in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and then disappeared.

The attitude of external spectators to those possessed by choreomania was ambiguous, for example, medieval chronicles contain hints that these were professional beggars who received generous alms at the end of the performance, for which, in fact, everything was started. Other authors have tended to think of demonic possession, believing that exorcism was the only cure for such cases. Chronicles document cases of pregnant women indulging in mass dancing, or of many dancers dying or suffering from tics or limb tremors for the rest of their lives when the attack ended.

The real causes and mechanism of choreomania remain unknown to this day.

Folk superstitions related to the epidemic

In the disturbed imagination of people who waited to die day after day, ghosts, apparitions, and finally "signs" appeared in every most insignificant event. For example, there were accounts of a pillar of light in December 1347 that stood for an hour after sunset over the papal palace; some saw blood dripping from a freshly cut loaf of bread as a warning of trouble that was not long in coming. They blamed the coming of the plague on comets, which had been seen six times in Europe since 1300. Unbelievable things were already appearing to the disturbed imagination of the people during the epidemic - so Fra Michele Piazza, chronicler of the Sicilian plague, recounts with complete confidence the story of a black dog with a sword in its foreleg, which burst into the Messinian church and wrecked it, chopping into pieces the sacred vessels, candles and lamps on the altar. Disappointment in medicine and the official church's ability to stop the epidemic could not help but result in the common people's attempt to protect themselves with rituals that had their roots in pagan times.

So, in Slavic lands, naked women plowed around the village at night, and during the ritual no other inhabitants could leave their house. The Sámi used songs and incantations to send the plague to the "iron mountains", and for the convenience of movement it was equipped with horses and a carriage. The effigy representing the plague was burned, drowned, walled up, cursed and excommunicated in churches.

The plague was tried to ward off with amulets and spells, and the victims of such superstitions were even clergymen who secretly wore around their necks, along with a cross, silver balls filled with "liquid silver" - mercury, or sacks with arsenic. Fear of being killed by the plague led to popular superstitions penetrating even into the church, receiving official approval from the spiritual authorities - for example, in some French cities (e.g., Montpellier) a curious rite was practiced - a long thread measured the city wall, then this thread was used as a wick for a giant candle lit on the altar.

The plague was depicted as a blind old woman, sweeping the thresholds of houses where a family member was soon to die, a black rider, a giant covering the distance from village to village with one step, or even "two spirits - good and evil: the good knocked with a stick at the door, and how many times he knocked, so many people were to die", the plague was even seen - it was walking at weddings, pitying one or the other, promising them salvation. The plague moved on the shoulders of its hostage, forcing her to drag her through villages and towns.

And finally, it is assumed that it was during the great epidemic in the popular consciousness formed the image of the Pest Jungfrau (German, English Plague Maiden), which proved incredibly tenacious, echoes of these beliefs still existed even in the enlightened XVIII century. According to one of the versions recorded at that time, the Virgin Plague laid siege to a certain town, and anyone who carelessly opened a door or window, only to find a flying red scarf in the house, and soon the owner of the house died of the disease. Therefore, the inhabitants locked themselves up in their houses in terror and no longer dared to show their faces outside. The plague, however, proved to be patient and waited patiently until hunger and thirst compelled them to do so. Then a certain nobleman decided to sacrifice himself to save the others and, engraving the words "Jesus, Mary" on his sword, opened the door. A ghostly hand was seen through the door, followed by the edge of a red scarf. Undaunted, the brave man struck out at the hand; he soon died of illness along with his family, thus paying the price for his courage, but the wounded Plague chose to flee and has been wary of visiting the inhospitable city ever since.

Social environment

Stunned by the magnitude and destruction of the epidemic, which had, in the words of Johannes Nola, turned all of Europe into a vast Hiroshima, the general public could not believe that such a catastrophe could have a natural origin. The plague poison, in the form of some powder, or as it was more commonly believed, an ointment, must have been spread by a poisoner or poisoners, by which we mean some outcasts hostile to the bulk of the population.

In such fabrications, the towns and villages relied primarily on the Bible, where Moses scattered ashes in the air, after which Egypt was struck by the pestilence. The educated populace may have drawn such confidence from Roman history, when, during the Justinian plague, 129 people were found to have deliberately spread the disease and were executed.

In addition, the stampede from towns stricken by the disease created anarchy, panic, and mob rule. For fear of the disease, anyone who aroused the slightest suspicion was dragged by force to the infirmary, which, according to the chronicles of the time, was such a horrible place that many preferred to commit suicide to avoid being there. The epidemic of suicides, which increased as the infection spread, forced the authorities to pass special laws that threatened those who committed suicide to expose their corpses to the public. Along with the sick, the infirmary often admitted the healthy who were found in the same house as the diseased or dead, which in turn forced people to hide the sick and bury the corpses secretly. Sometimes wealthy people were dragged to the infirmary, wishing to lavish themselves in the empty houses, explaining the cries of the victim by the insanity of the illness.

Realizing that tomorrow might not come, many people indulged in gluttony and drunkenness, squandering money with women of easy virtue, further contributing to a rampant epidemic.

Gravediggers, recruited from convicts and galley slaves, who could be attracted to such work only by promises of pardon and money, rampaged through cities abandoned by the authorities, breaking into homes, killing and robbing. Young women, the sick, the dead, and the dying were sold to those who wished to commit violence, the corpses were dragged by the legs over the sidewalk, as was believed in those days, spattering blood on purpose, so that the epidemic, in which convicts felt unpunished, would last as long as possible. There were occasions when the sick were piled into the grave ditches along with the dead, buried alive and without regard for who might have survived.

Cases of deliberate contamination did occur, owing in the first place to the pernicious superstition of the time that one could get rid of the plague by "passing it on. Therefore the sick purposely shook hands in markets and churches, trying to touch or breathe in the face of as many people as possible. Some were in such a hurry to get rid of their enemies.

It has been suggested that the first ideas about the artificial origin of the plague arose in the face of the flight from the cities of the wealthy. But the rumor that the rich deliberately poisoned the poor (while the rich just as stubbornly accused the "beggars" of spreading the disease and thus trying to get back at them) did not last long, but was replaced by another rumor: popular opinion persistently accused three categories of population of artificial infection - devil worshipers, lepers and Jews, who had similarly "settled their scores" with the Christian population.

In the poisoning hysteria that swept Europe, the foreigner, the Muslim, the traveler, the drunk, the miscreant-anyone who drew attention to himself by his differences in dress, behavior, speech-could no longer feel safe, and if he was found in his possession what the crowd liked to think was plague ointment or powder, his fate was sealed.

Persecution of a "poisoner" sect

From the time of the Black Death, some churches have preserved bas-reliefs depicting a kneeling man praying to a demon. Indeed, it seemed to the disturbed imagination of the survivors of the catastrophe that the enemy of the human race was to blame for what had happened in the first place. Although the hysteria of the "plague ointment" unfolded fully during the epidemic of 1630, its beginnings can be traced back to the era of the Black Death.

The devil appeared in the cities in person - stories were told of a richly dressed "prince" in his fifties, with gray hair, who rode in a carriage pulled by black horses, luring in one resident and another, in the twinkling of an eye, taking him to his palace, where he tried to entice him with chests of treasure and the promise that he would keep the victim alive during the epidemic-in exchange for smearing a diabolical compound on church pews or on the walls and doors of houses.

We know about the composition of the hypothetical "plague ointment" from a later report of the Venerable Athanasius Kircher, who writes that it consisted of "aconite, arsenic and poisonous herbs, as well as other ingredients about which I dare not write. Desperate lords and city officials promised large rewards for catching the poisoners in the act, but as far as we know from extant documents, no such attempt succeeded. But several men were seized who were indiscriminately accused of making "plague ointments," confessing, through torture, that they took pleasure in their occupation "like hunters who caught game," and the victims of such plots were sent to the gallows or to the stake.

The only real basis for such rumors was probably the Luciferian sect that existed at the time. Disappointment in the faith and protest against the Christian God, who from their point of view was unable or unwilling to improve the earthly life of his adherents, led to the emergence of the legend of the usurpation of heaven, from which the "true God - Satan" was overthrown by treachery, who at the end of the world could regain his "rightful possession". However, there is no documented evidence of any direct involvement of the Luciferians in the spread of epidemics or even in the manufacture of the hypothetical ointment.

The defeats of the leprosariums

Leprosy, rampant in Europe in previous centuries, reached its peak in the thirteenth century. Based on biblical precepts to banish and abhor lepers (and probably out of fear of contagion), a funeral rite was performed over them by throwing earth on the sick with shovels, after which the person became an outcast and could only find shelter in a leper colony, begging for alms for a living.

The deliberate poisoning of wells as the cause of some evil or disease was not an invention of the times of the Black Death. This accusation was first made by the French authorities under Philip the Beautiful (1313), after which "all over the country," but especially in Poitou, Picardy, Flanders, there followed the destruction of leprosariums and the execution of the sick. As Johannes Nol believes, the real reason was the fear of contagion and the desire to get rid of the danger in the most radical way possible.

In 1321 the persecution of the lepers resumed. After accusing those "afflicted with the disease for their sins" of poisoning wells and preparing a revolt against Christians, they were arrested in France on April 16 and sent to the stake as early as the 27th, confiscating their property in favor of the king.

In 1348, in the search for the perpetrators of the Black Death, the lepers, or rather those who had survived the previous pogroms, or the population of leprosariums that had been added in the meantime, were once again remembered. The new persecutions were not so fierce because of the small number of victims and were carried out quite systematically only in the kingdom of Aragon. In Venice the leprosariums were smashed, it is believed, in order to make room for quarantine. The lepers were killed as accomplices of the Jews, who had been bought for gold and poisoned the water in order to annoy the Christians. According to one version, the four leaders, to whom the lepers of all Europe supposedly obeyed, got together and, at the instigation of the devil sent by the Jews, devised a plan to destroy the Christians, thus avenging their position, or to infect them all with leprosy. The Jews in turn seduced the lepers with promises of counts and royal crowns and succeeded in getting their way.

It was assured that a plague ointment was found from lepers, consisting of human blood, urine, and church guests. This mixture was sewn into sacks, with a stone for weight, to be secretly thrown into the wells. Another "witness" reported:

The extermination of the Jews

The victims were also Jews, of whom there were many in various European cities at that time.

The anti-Jewish pretext of the Black Death arose from a conspiracy theory that emerged during the war between the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire, which devastated and weakened both Germany and Italy, that the Jews, determined to promote the speedy death of their enemies, had gathered secretly in Toledo (their supreme leader was even called by name: Rabbi Jacob) and decided to kill the Christians with a poison prepared by witchcraft from the flesh and blood of an owl with a mixture of poisonous spiders ground into powder. Another version of the "recipe" included powder from the dried heart of a Christian, along with spiders, frogs and lizards. This "devil's compound" was then secretly sent out to all countries with categorical orders to pour it into wells and rivers. According to one version, a Saracen lord himself stood behind the Jewish leaders; according to another, they acted on their own initiative.

The letter of the Jews to the Emir, dated 1321, was allegedly hidden in a secret casket along with "treasures and cherished possessions" and was found during a search of the Jew Bananias in Anjou. The sheepskin parchment would not have caught the eye of those seeking it had not it bore a gold seal "19 florins in weight" bearing a crucifix and a Jew standing before it "in a pose so obscene that I am ashamed to describe it," noted Philip of Anjou, who reported the discovery. This document was obtained by torture from those arrested and then (translated into Latin) came down to us in a nineteenth-century list, its translation being as follows:

But if in 1321 the French Jews escaped expulsion, during the Black Death religious intolerance was already in full force. In 1349 the anti-Jewish hysteria began with the discovery of the body of a tortured boy nailed to a cross. This was seen as a travesty of the crucifixion, and the accusation fell on the Jews. The Jews were also accused of pricking with needles stolen from Christians until the Savior's blood began to drip from them.

The mad crowds in Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and Spain, given such "proof" of Jewish guilt and with the hope of defeating the epidemic, carried out bloody lynchings, sometimes with the encouragement or acquiescence of the authorities. No one was embarrassed by the fact that the epidemic was killing the inhabitants of Jewish quarters no less than the Christians. Jews were hanged and burned, and more than once, looters stole clothes and jewelry from the dead on their way to the place of execution. There were cases of molestation of the corpses of murdered or dead Jews (men, women, children and elders), who, as happened in one of the Prussian towns, were stuffed into barrels and thrown into the river or their bodies were left to be devoured by dogs and birds. Sometimes small children were left alive to be baptized and young and beautiful girls were left alive to become maidservants or concubines. The Norwegian king ordered the extermination of the Jews as a preventive measure when he learned that the plague was approaching the borders of his state.

There have been cases of Jews setting their own houses on fire and barricading the doors, burning with their households and all their possessions, shouting from the windows to the stunned crowd that they preferred death to forced baptism. Mothers with children in their arms threw themselves into the fires. The burning Jews mocked their persecutors and sang biblical psalms. Embarrassed by such courage in the face of death, their opponents declared such behavior to be interference and help from Satan.

At the same time, there were those who defended the Jews. The poet Giovanni Boccaccio, in his famous short story, likened the three Abrahamic religions to rings and concluded that in the eyes of the one God none could be favored. Pope Clement VI of Avignon threatened with a special bull to excommunicate murderers of Jews; the city authorities of Strasbourg declared their Jewish citizens immune by decree, although mass pogroms and murders did take place in that city.

It is believed that the upper classes, more educated and sophisticated in science, were well aware that such fabrications were in fact the product of the dark and ignorant common people, but preferred not to intervene-some out of a fanatical hatred for the "enemies of Christ," some out of fear of revolt, or a quite prosaic desire to get hold of the property of the executed.

It has also been suggested that the reason for the anti-Semitism was that Jews were denied assimilation because they were forbidden to join shops and guilds, leaving them with only two activities: medicine and commerce. Some Jews became rich by engaging in usury, thus arousing further envy. Also, the medical Jews knew Arabic better and were therefore familiar with the advanced Muslim medicine of the time, and were aware of the dangers of contaminated water. For this reason, the Jews preferred to dig wells in the Jewish quarter or take water from clean springs, avoiding rivers polluted by city refuse, which aroused further suspicion.

In the 1980s there were skeptics who doubted that the infectious agent of the Black Death was specifically the plague bacillus Y. pestis.

The Black Death: A Biological Reappraisal, by British zoologist Graeme Twigg, began the skepticism about the Black Death in his 1984 book The Black Death: A Biological Reappraisal, followed by The Biology of Plague Epidemics, by demographer Susan Scott and biologist Christopher Duncan.  The Biology of Plagues, co-authored with biologist Christopher Duncan and Black Death Transformed, by Samuel Cohn, professor of medieval studies at Glasgow University.

The deniers took for comparison the data of the Indian anti-plague commission on the third pandemic, which broke out at the end of the 19th century (1894-1930) and claimed the lives of five and a half million people in India. It was at this time that Alexander Jersen was able to isolate a pure culture of the plague microbe, and Paul-Louis Simongcept was able to develop the theory of the "rat and flea" mechanism of disease spread.

"The deniers have established the following:

However, while there was complete consensus that the Black Death was not the plague, the "deniers" differed sharply on what disease to propose instead as the cause of the epidemic. For example, Graham Twigg, the founder of the "new view of the Black Death problem," blamed the anthrax bacillus for the epidemic. However, anthrax does not develop buboes; only boils and ulcers can appear on the skin. Another difficulty was that, unlike plague, there were no documented cases of large anthrax epidemics.

Duncan and Scott proposed as an infectious agent a virus akin to Ebola hemorrhagic fever, whose symptoms are indeed somewhat similar to the pneumonic plague, and, bringing their theory to its logical conclusion, Duncan and Scott suggested that all pandemics of the so-called "plague" since 549 AD were caused by it.

But it was Professor Kohn who went the furthest, blaming the Black Death on some mysterious "disease X" that had disappeared without a trace by now.

However, the "traditionalists" managed to find a counter-argument to each of their opponents' claims.

For example, when asked about the difference in symptoms, it was noted that medieval chronicles sometimes contradict not only 19th century descriptions, but also each other, which is not surprising in conditions where there was no unified method of diagnosis and a unified language for compiling the history of diseases. For example, a "bubo" that appears in one author may be described by another as a "furuncle"; moreover, some of these descriptions have an artistic rather than a documentary character, as, for example, the classical description of the Florentine plague by Giovanni Boccaccio. There are also cases in which the author's descriptions of contemporary events were adapted to the model set forth by some authority; for example, Piazza is believed to have more than diligently imitated Thucydides in his description of the plague in Sicily.

The difference in the number of victims is explained by the unsanitary conditions that prevailed in medieval towns and villages; in addition, the plague came a relatively short time after the Great Famine of 1315-1317, when the effects of malnutrition had barely ceased to be felt in Europe.

As for rats, it is noted that the plague can be transmitted from person to person by fleas without the participation of rats, and not only by the "rat" flea, but also by other fleas parasitizing humans. There was no shortage of such fleas in the Middle Ages.

This also removes the question of climate. The rate at which the disease spread in modern times was slowed by effective preventive measures and numerous quarantines, while in the Middle Ages there was nothing of the kind yet.

In addition, it has been hypothesized that the Mongolian plague entered Europe in two stages - via Messina and via Marseilles, and that in the first case it was the "gopher" plague and in the second - the "rat" plague, which were somewhat different from each other. Russian biologist Mikhail Supotnitsky notes that at the time when medicine was still in its infancy, cases of diseases with outwardly similar symptoms, such as malaria, typhoid, etc., were sometimes confused with plague.

A group of French scientists led by Didier Raoul in the late 1990s examined the remains of victims of the disease taken from two "plague ditches" in southern France, one dating back to 1348-1350 and the other to a later time. In both cases, DNA from the bacterium Y. pestis, which was not present in the control samples from the remains of people who died of other causes at the same time. The results have been confirmed in several other laboratories in several countries. Thus, according to Didier Raoul, the debate on the etiology of the Black Death can be put to rest: its culprit, without a doubt, was the bacterium Y. pestis.

In October 2010, the journal PLoS Pathogens published a paper by Haensch et al. (2010), a multinational group that investigated the role of Yersinia pestis in the Black Death. The paper detailed new research that combined ancient DNA analysis and specific protein detection, which was used to detect DNA and protein signatures specific to Y. pestis in human skeletons from widespread mass graves in northern, central and southern Europe that have been archaeologically linked to the Black Death and subsequent epidemics. The authors concluded that this study, together with previous analyses in southern France and Germany, "ends the debate about the etiology of the Black Death and unequivocally demonstrates that Y. pestis was the causative agent of the epidemic plague that devastated Europe in the Middle Ages.

A study published in Nature proved that today's strains have a genome 99% identical to that found in the Black Death and the same level of virulence.

"The Black Death had significant demographic, social, economic, cultural and religious consequences, and even affected the genetic composition of Europe's population, changing the ratio of blood groups in the affected populations. When it comes to Eastern countries, the consequences of the plague had a serious impact on the Golden Horde, where the sharp decline in population led, among other things, to political instability, as well as technological and cultural regression.

William Neifi and Andrew Spicer estimate that the demographics of Europe did not finally stabilize until the early nineteenth century - thus the effects of the Black Death were felt for the next 400 years. Many villages emptied after the death or flight of their inhabitants, and the urban population dwindled as well. Some of the farmland fell into disrepair, to the point that wolves, breeding in great numbers, were found in great numbers even in the suburbs of Paris.

According to the French media historian Georges Duby, by 1390 the population of Normandy was only 43% of that at the beginning of the fourteenth century.

The epidemic caused the previously seemingly unshakable traditions to falter as the population shrank, and feudal relations took their first crack. Many workshops, which had been practically closed, where crafts were passed from father to son, now began to take in new people. In a similar way, the clergy, which had been considerably depleted during the epidemic, and the medical profession were forced to replenish their ranks, and women were drawn into the sphere of production because of the shortage of men.

The time after the plague was a true time of new ideas and an awakening of medieval consciousness. In the face of the great danger, medicine emerged from its centuries-long slumber and from that time on entered a new phase of its development. Moreover, the shortage of laborers allowed day laborers, hired laborers and a variety of servants to bargain with their employers, demanding better working conditions and higher wages. Survivors often found themselves in the position of wealthy heirs, receiving the lands and income of relatives who had passed away during the great epidemic. The lower classes immediately took advantage of this circumstance to secure for themselves a higher position and power. The Florentine Matteo Villani complained bitterly:

Because of the shortage of labor in agriculture, the structure of production gradually began to change; grain fields were increasingly turned into cattle pastures, where one or two shepherds could manage huge herds of cows and sheep. In the cities, the high cost of manual labor invariably led to a proliferation of attempts to mechanize production, which bore fruit in later times. Land prices and rents fell and usury rates fell.

At the same time, the second half of the fourteenth century was characterized by great inflation and high food prices (especially for bread, because as the number of workers in agriculture declined, so did production). The upper classes, feeling that power was slipping from their hands, tried to go on the offensive, so in 1351 the Parliament of England passed the Statute of Workers, which forbade paying wage laborers more than what was customary before the epidemic. Taxes were raised, and "luxury laws" were passed in an effort to maintain and secure the separation of estates, which became more and more blurred after the epidemic. Thus, the number of horses in a carriage, the length of women's plumes, the number of meals served, and even the number of mourners at funerals were restricted according to their position on the hierarchical ladder - but all attempts to ensure that such laws were actually enforced proved futile.

In response to the attempt to limit at such a cruel cost the acquired rights, the lower classes responded with armed uprisings - all over Europe there were riots against tax offices and against governments, brutally suppressed and yet permanently limited the claims of the upper classes and led to a fairly rapid disappearance of servitude and a mass transition from feudal to rental relations in the master's household. The growth of self-consciousness of the third estate, which began during the second pandemic, did not stop and found its full expression during the bourgeois revolutions.

Daron Adzhemoglu and James Robinson in Why Some Countries are Rich and Others Poor call the plague a "critical juncture" in European history. It led to a decrease in the number of peasants, a shortage of workers, and even cases of lords poaching peasants from each other, and it was at this point that the trajectories of Western and Eastern Europe began to diverge. Before the epidemic, serfdom in Western Europe was only slightly less onerous than in Eastern Europe: duties were slightly smaller, cities slightly larger and richer, and peasants slightly more cohesive because of greater population density and smaller average size of the feudal allotment. In Western Europe, peasants were able to take advantage (including through revolts) of the situation and greatly weaken feudal obligations, which soon led to the final abolition of serfdom, after which England and later other Western European countries embarked on the development of inclusive institutions. In the East, however, the peasants proved to be more tolerant of the new burdens and were worse organized, so the landowners were able to increase the feudal oppression and instead of weakening serfdom there happened the second edition of serfdom.

In the spiritual sphere the church's power over minds, almost unchallenged in earlier times, was also greatly shaken; accusations of greed and simony, the apparent helplessness of churchmen in fighting the plague, greatly weakened its power and awakened minds to the philosophy of the future - the heretical sects of the second pandemic were replaced by Lollards, Hussites, Wycliffe followers, and finally by the Reformation. On the other hand, the number of priests and monks declined by nearly 40 percent, and a huge number of churches were empty. In an effort to fill this gap, the higher clergy was forced to lower the requirements for candidates, placing younger than usual and largely ignorant contingents in positions. As a result of the epidemic, the educational level of the clergy, which had been high enough before the outbreak of the plague, has plummeted. Old superstitions, previously forbidden by the church, belief in conspiracies, the devil's intervention in daily life and witchcrafts were revived. It is worth recalling that the very notion of a coven was finally fixed in the minds of medieval man during the years of the Black Death.

During the next few centuries, the plague did not leave the European continent anymore; until the 15th century, epidemics broke out here and there every 6-12 years, and sometimes even more often. For example, in England in 1361 the "second plague" (pestis secunda) killed up to 20% of the population. In 1363, the "mountain plague" appeared in France, striking areas previously spared by the Black Death. The English epidemic of 1369-1371 killed 10-15% of those left behind. In 1369, the "third plague" (pestis tercia) broke out in England - after the end of the Black Death epidemic and until the end of the 14th century, the terrible disease visited the islands 6 times.

Between 1536 and 1670, the frequency of epidemics dropped to one every 15 years, killing about 2 million people in France alone over 70 years (1600-1670). Among them, 35,000 accounted for the "Great Plague in Lyon" of 1629-1632. In addition to those already listed, the known late plague epidemics include: the Italian epidemic of 1629-1631, the Great Plague of London (1665-1666), the Great Plague of Vienna (1679), the Great Plague of Marseilles in 1720-1722 and the plague in Moscow in 1771.

For the mentality of medieval man, the plague, destroying indiscriminately young and healthy people in the prime of life, death inexplicable, unpredictable, made a double impression.

The first approach, quite predictably religious, understood the plague as a punishment of mankind for its sins, and only the intercession of saints and the consolation of God's wrath by prayers and torture of the flesh could help mankind. In the minds of the masses, the epidemic took the form of "arrows" which an enraged God hurled at people - a theme which, following the plague epidemic, was manifested in art, in particular on the panel on the church altar in Göttingen, Germany (1424) God punishes people with arrows, seventeen of which have already hit their target. The Gozzoli fresco in San Gimignano, Italy (1464) depicts God the Father sending a poisoned arrow to the city. J. Delumo noted that plague arrows are depicted on the funerary stele at Moosburg (Church of St. Castulus, 1515), in Münster Cathedral, on a canvas by Veronese at Rouen, and in the Lando am der Isar church.

In seeking protection from God's wrath, believers quite traditionally sought the intercession of saints, creating a new tradition as they went along, since the plague had not visited the European continent since the Justinian epidemic, and therefore the question had not previously arisen. Saint Sebastian was chosen as one of the defenders against the epidemic, traditionally portrayed as being pierced by arrows. In addition, the image of St. Roch pointing to an open plague bubo on his left thigh became common. The second saint is unclear: traditionally his death is attributed to 1327 when Europe was not yet plague-ridden, an obvious contradiction in iconography. To overcome this, two hypotheses are proposed. The first is that the ulcer on the saint's thigh represents an abscess or furuncle, later identified by association with the plague buboes. The second suggests that the life of Saint Roch refers precisely to the time of the great epidemic and that he died of the plague while selflessly caring for the sick, while a mistake has crept into later sources. Finally, the Virgin was supposed to be the intercessor for sinners, who was also depicted with her heart pierced by spears or arrows as a sign of sorrow. Images of this type began to spread during and after the epidemic, sometimes combined with depictions of an angry deity - in particular, on a panel in the Göttingen altar, some sinners take refuge from God's arrows under the cover of the Virgin Mary.

One famous subject is the Dance of Death (La Danse Macabre) depicting dancing figures in the form of skeletons. Holbein the Younger's engraving survived 88 editions from 1830 to 1844. A common subject is where the plague is represented by the wrath of God, who strikes sinners with arrows. Peter Bruegel the Elder's painting, The Triumph of Death, depicts skeletons symbolizing the plague, which kills all life. Another echo of the plague is Death Playing Chess, a common subject in Northern European painting.

The Florentine plague was the backdrop for Giovanni Boccaccio's famous Decameron. Petrarch wrote about the plague in his famous poems to Laura, who died during an epidemic in Avignon. The troubadour Peyre Lunel de Montes described the plague in Toulouse in a cycle of mournful sirens called Meravilhar no-s devo pas las gens.

It is also supposed that the time of the Black Death dates back to the famous in England children's song-counting "Ring a Ring o' Roses". ("There are wreaths of roses on the neck, pockets full of bouquets, Hupchy-apchy! All fall to the ground") - although such an interpretation seems to be disputable.

There are also hypotheses linking the Black Death to the famous fairy tale story of the Hamelin rat-catcher: the city is overrun by hordes of rats, the citizens seek salvation, and to them comes the rat-catcher, who leads the rats out of town with a magic pipe and drowns them in the river, and when the citizens refuse to reward his favor, in the same way leads their children out of town. Thus, according to one interpretation, the children, picking up dead rats along the way, fall ill with the plague and die. However, it is difficult to accept this conjecture because of a discrepancy in dates - according to the Hamelin chronicle, the rat-catcher took the children away (the rats are not yet mentioned in this first version) in 1284, that is, more than fifty years before the epidemic. Instead of the Black Death to explain what happened researchers offer choreomania, manifestations of which were indeed recorded long before the epidemic.

Expressive descriptions of the plague in Norway appear in the final chapters of Sigrid Undset's trilogy Christine, Daughter of Lavrans, and in Russia in Dmitry Balashov's novel Simeon the Proud.

The Great Epidemic caught the attention of filmmakers and became the backdrop for The Seventh Seal (1957) by Ingmar Bergman, Flesh and Blood (1985) by Paul Verhoeven, The Devil's Breath (1993) by Paco Lucio, The Black Death (2010) by Christopher Smith and Witch Time (2011) by Dominique Seine. Reflected in the motion picture The Tale of a Wanderer (1983) by Alexander Mitta.

The 2019 computer game A Plague Tale: Innocence, developed by Asobo Studio, was released. The events of the game take place in 1349, when the Kingdom of France was struck by the Edwardian War and a plague epidemic. The main characters are a 15-year-old girl Amitia and her younger brother Hugo, who are pursued by the Inquisition. On their way, they must join forces with other orphans, avoiding both agents of the Holy See and the giant hordes of plague rats while using fire and light.

The Florentine Matteo Villani, who continued the "New Chronicle" of his brother, the famous local historian Giovanni Villani, who died of illness, reports:

"This year in the eastern countries, in Upper India, Cuttai and other coastal provinces of the Ocean, a plague began among people of all sexes and ages. The first sign of it was hemoptysis, and death came to some at once, to some on the second or third day, and some lasted longer. Those who cared for these unfortunates were immediately infected and became ill themselves and died within a short time. In doing so, most had a swelling in the groin, and many in the armpits of the right and left arms or other parts of the body, and almost always some kind of tumor appeared on the patient's body. This plague came intermittently and broke out in different nations, and within a year it had covered a third of the world, called Asia. Eventually it reached the peoples living by the Great Sea, on the shores of the Tyrrhenian Sea, in Syria and Turkey, near Egypt and on the coast of the Red Sea, in the north in Russia, in Greece, in Armenia and other countries. Then Italian galleys left the Great Sea, Syria and Romea, so as not to become infected and return home with their goods, but many of them were destined to perish at sea from the disease. When they sailed to Sicily, they negotiated with the locals and left them sick, with the consequence that the plague spread among the Sicilians as well...

His contemporary English Benedictine monk William Dean of Rochester tells in his annals:

"The people for the most part became worse, more exposed to every vice and more prone to sin and malice, thinking neither of death, nor of the past plague, nor of their own salvation... Priests, little appreciative of the sacrifice of the spirit of contrition, went where they could obtain greater stipends than in their own benefices, and so many benefices were left without priests. Day by day, the threat to the souls of clergy and laity alike increased... Laborers and skilled workers were imbued with the spirit of rebellion, so that neither king, law nor justice could restrain them... So great was the shortage of workers of all kinds that more than a third of the land remained uncultivated..."


  1. Black Death
  2. Чёрная смерть
  3. В переводе Ошерова: «Воды Стикса слились с сидонской струёй Алчно открыт чёрной смерти зев, И широко её распростёрты крыла»
  4. В то же время возник и упорно держался слух, что Иоанн запер жену в её комнатах и уморил голодом в наказание за измену с коннетаблем. Неизвестно, насколько эта версия событий соответствовала действительности и насколько к ней приложили руку англичане, желавшие подобным образом поставить под вопрос законнорождённость короля Карла V. В любом случае, после убедительных побед последнего, слух сошёл на нет и последствий не имел.
  5. Чёрный флаг, поднятый над самой высокой церковью города, был призван известить всех, желавших навестить город, о потенциальной угрозе. Традиция поднятия чёрного флага возникла именно во времена Чёрной смерти[94].
  6. Как обычно бывает в истории науки, миазматическая теория действительно работала в некоторых случаях, к примеру, прекрасно объясняя случаи отравления «болотным газом» — метаном. Но попытка распространить её на все в принципе «воздушные» заболевания оказалась обречена на неудачу.
  7. Сравните со старинным русским названием эпидемии — «поветрие».
  8. Jonathan Duhoux, 'La Peste noire et ses ravages: L’Europe décimée au XIVe siècle', 2015
  9. 'The Black Death: A History From Beginning to End', 2016
  10. ^ Pubblicata per la prima volta da Rosario Gregorio nel 1791 con il titolo di Historia Sicula.
  11. Verena J. Schuenemann, Kirsten I. Bos, S. DeWitte u. a.: Targeted enrichment of ancient pathogens yielding the pPCP1 plasmid of Yersinia pestis from victims of the Black Death. In: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. (PNAS), 20. September 2011, Band 108, Nr. 38, S. E746-E752, doi:10.1073/pnas.1105107108.
  12. a b Kirsten I. Bos, Verena J. Schuenemann, G. Brian Golding u. a.: A draft genome of „Yersinia pestis“ from victims of the Black Death. In: Nature, Band 478, 27. Oktober 2011, S. 506–510, doi:10.1038/nature10549, Online vom 12. Oktober 2011.

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