The Black Death, which is believed to have originated on the Mongolian steppes, was a catastrophic outbreak of bubonic plague that resulted in an estimated 25 million deaths across Europe alone. Caused by bacteria transmitted to humans by rat-borne fleas, the contagion spread from the site of the bite to a lymph node (often in the groin or under the arm) where it swelled into a painful bubo (hence the name). The contagion incubated for three to five days before symptoms were apparent, and then within a further three–five days 80 per cent of the victims had died. The disease was first introduced to Europe by Mongols, who attacked an Italian merchants’ trading station in Crimea in 1346 and from there it was brought west by Italian ships, which disembarked at Sicily, and spread steadily northwards.
A Lethal Commodity
The extensive trade networks of the Medieval period, which penetrated to all corners of Europe by sea and land (with the exception of remote Iceland and Finland, which the plague did not reach), were a highly effective means of transmitting the disease. Ships and maritime routes were the most lethal carriers, because they bypassed natural barriers, such as mountains. Agricultural villages, often with relatively high population densities, were located on the trade networks, ensuring the disease took hold in both urban and rural areas. In the case of mountainous areas, for example around Milan, and remote areas with reduced outside trade, such as Poland, the Black Death’s impact was significantly less prevalent. Casimir the Great also quarantined the borders of Poland, which greatly reduced infection from outsiders.
The Pestilence Reaches Britain
The plague arrived in the British Isles, via a Gascon sailor, in Melcombe in Dorset in June 1348. The first city to witness its ‘grievous ornament’, the telltale black pustules or ‘buboes’, would be Bristol. London’s outbreak coincided with Candlemas (1 November); by the following July it had reached Durham. On hearing of the pestilence ravaging England, the Scots decided to take advantage, amassing an army in Selkirk Forest on the Scottish borders in autumn 1349. Unwittingly, their camp was a perfect breeding ground for the plague, and as they fled back north they carried the infection with them, devastating Edinburgh and the Scottish Lowlands. In mainland Britain, only the sparsely populated Highlands and the mountain fastness of Snowdonia seemed to escape the plague.
Waiting for Death to Come…
On Europe’s periphery, Ireland was a late recipient of the Black Death. It arrived first in the port of Drogheda in August 1348, but spread rapidly: soon, a 100 a day were dying in Dublin. It also entered the country through the southern ports of Waterford, Cork, New Ross and Wexford, and was most devastating in urban areas; the dispersed farmsteads of the rural Irish native population may have provided a measure of protection against contagion. Friar John Clyn, writing in Kilkenny, wrote ‘many died of boils, abscesses and pustules. Others died in frenzy, brought on by an affliction of the head, or vomiting blood’. His record was made ‘waiting among the dead for death to come’. And it did; the entire population of Kilkenny appears to have been exterminated, including Friar John. By 1350, the plague had run its course, but its depredations left Norman hegemony vitiated and vulnerable.
A lack of scientific understanding mixed with widespread superstition at the time provided ideal conditions for the spread of the disease. Most people believed that the plague was a punishment from God for their sins and confronted the plague with a sense of fatalism. Some Europeans turned against minority groups – Jews, foreigners, friars, beggars – in the belief that they were responsible for transmitting the disease. In February 1349 the citizens of Strasbourg massacred 2,000 Jews; many Jews moved east during this period to the more welcoming regions of Poland and Russia. It is now believed that the plague killed between 30–60 per cent of Europe’s population. This devastating pandemic brought religious, social and economic upheaval in its wake, and it took 200 years for population levels to recover.