One day in October 1347, twelve Genova galleys docked at Messina, in Sicily, on their way back from an expedition to the Mediterranean ports of the East. On board, they carried death.
The sailors on these boats were ill. Strange black growths, the size of an egg or an apple, were growing in their groins or under their arms. Blood and pus oozed from them. Soon, their skins were covered in black patches, symptoms of internal haemorrhaging. Scarcely five days later, they were dead, in terrible suffering. They were buried, but it was too late: three months hadn’t passed since the arrival of the fatal ships, before there was talk of the “end of the world”. The black death had invaded the streets of Messina… A chronicler of the time, Michel de Piazza, has described these first days of the black plague:
“Those who were contaminated felt themselves penetrated by pain throughout their whole body, as if it were being mined. Then on their thighs, or at the top of their arms, a furuncle, roughly the size of a lentil, that people called anthrax, developed. This infected the body, and penetrated it to the point that the patient suffered violent vomittings of blood. This vomitting of blood continued without stopping for three days without anyone being able to cure it, then the patient died. And not only did all those who had been in contact with them die, but also those who had touched or used an object having belonged to them.”
Other symptoms appeared – continuous fever, blood-spitting, an excruciating cough, sweating… The old images of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastien who, for several centuries, had been the saint invoked to protect from the plague, evoked the horror that the spectacle of these sufferings inspired in those who saw it.
Pulmonary manifestations announced an even faster death: the plague, in this case, killed in a few hours. It was said that a person could go to bed completely healthy, and die in his sleep; it was also said that some doctors, who had contracted the illness at their patient’s bedside, died before they did. For the French doctor Simon de Covino, it was as if just one patient was able “to infect the whole world”.
And a deep depression always accompanied the illness. Death, it seemed, was “written on the face”, and well before the death itself. Frightened by the repugnant symptoms – pus mixed with blood seeping through the skin, dejections with unsupportable odours -, and by a sudden and painful death, the population asked vain questions about the cause of this hecatomb. And anguish spread like the illness.
The plague came from the Orient; those who travelled knew that. For years, merchants and captains had been talking about great hecatombs in the cities of India and China. The plague, by the way, persisted in Asia until 1375, causing the death of 50 million people.
The epidemic had followed the caravans coming from faraway China, and touched the merchant towns, one by one, as the camels passed through them. It arrived in Astrakhan in 1346, then spread via the Volga and the Don, before arriving in Crimea in 1347. The town of Caffa (formerly the Greek Theodosia, and today’s Feodossia) was at the time under seige by the Tartars. But their army having been decimated by the illness, Khan Djani Bek decided to raise the seige, but not without firstly gratifying the inhabitants of Caffa with a horrible souvenir: he had some of the bodies of people dead from the plague catapulted over the town’s ramparts to, in his own words, “stink out the Christians”. From there, the plague arrived at Constantinople, then the Greek islands… On the sea, the epidemic travelled fast… So, one fine day, the Genova galleys, returning from Caffa, arrived at Messina.
At the beginning of the following year, two merchant ships left Messina for Pisa. They transported with them the germ of the terrible illness, which then spread throughout the whole of Tuscany. A first foyer erupted in France on 1st November 1348, when Genova sailors, who had been refused access to their own country, landed in Marseille. The plague provoked the death of 50 to 70% of the inhabitants. From there, the epidemic spread to the other towns of Languedoc – Avignon, Montpellier, Narbonne, Carcassonne, Toulouse -, as well as Spain. From June, Bordeaux, Lyon and Paris were contaminated; then came the turn of Burgundy, Normandy, and the south of England. Simultaneously, the illness also developed in the East, in Germany, in Poland, in Hungary, arriving in Russia in 1352. The infection lasted, generally, four to six months then disappeared. However, it resisted in the big cities, the insalubrity of the habitations allowing it to propagate. Smothered during the Winter of 1349, the pandemic reappeared in the Spring for another six months. It then touched regions which had, up until then, been spared: Scandanavia and Greenland, in particular.
Examples of massive mortalities abound: in Erfurt alone, in 1350, gigantic trenches had to be dug for more than 12,000 cadavers… It was said that 20 million people – one third of all Europeans – had died. The exact number of deceases is, in fact, very difficult to establish. The archives of the time give an apocalyptic vision of the epidemic, but furnish very little numbered information. Information is sporadic and very often limited to one town or one region. In Avignon, still inhabited by Pope Clement VI although the cardinals had refused to remain, 400 people per day died. The cemeteries overflowing, bodies were thrown into the Rhone, then common graves were dug. But these, like the ones in London, rapidly became too small. Witnesses said:
“There were not enough living to bury the dead”.
Therefore, the bodies were abandoned at the doors of the houses, or left to rot in the streets. Sometimes, as well, buried too carelessly, they were devoured by dogs.
To be continued.