The great city of Constantinople was the great trading hub where east met west in the 14th century and it was probably at this nexus where the plague which scholars believe originated in 1346 in the Chinese province of Hubei, found its way onto vessels which carried it to port cities like Genoa, Venice, Marseille and Messina in 1347. The latter, part of Italy today, may well have been the first entry point of Europe for the black rats carrying the infected fleas. Some DNA studies on plague skeletons suggest that another likely carrier may have been the giant gerbil along overland trade routes. Rats did not migrate in winter but gerbils did, making a “perfect storm” of conditions favorable to a zoonotic invasion.
Another factor worth noting is the global warming which had doubled agricultural output and encouraged population growth along with a concentration of people in urban areas in the preceding decades. Grain storage and transport hit a peak with an attendant explosion of rodent populations.
The first wave of plague manifested itself in three different forms. The bubonic as mentioned in Part I, characterized by the appearance of growths called buboes near lymph nodes under the armpit, in the groin or on the throat; the pneumonic which destroyed lung function and was most contagious, and the septicemic which invaded the circulatory system and prevented blood from clotting normally causing death by bleeding. It is believed that up to 20% of the bubonic victims may have survived the attack, those with the pneumonia died painfully over several days, and those afflicted with massive bleeding expired within 24 hours. (Of the latter some chroniclers recorded “well at breakfast, sick by lunch and dead by dinner”.)
Widespread panic grew as it became apparent that this new killer could be seen coming, could not be stopped and was untreatable. Consecrated cemeteries could not deal with the mounting piles of daily dead and mass burials became commonplace. The only “medical treatment” of the day encouraged induced bleeding which was hardly welcomed by the victims already at risk of bleeding to death internally. At first members of the clergy responded with home visits designed to bring comfort to their suffering “flock”. Whether a bishop or an assistant deaconess, the plague was no respecter of rank or high office, and the clergy was soon reduced by the same percentages as any other segment of the population. Church leaders however were quick to lay blame for the plague to the sinful nature of “man”. The idea that the people themselves had brought the anger of God upon all the lands, a belief that most people were quick to embrace became the mandated subject of special masses held as often as three times each week, along with fasting and self-flagellation events. When the reigning Pope himself died of the plague despite a level of self quarantine and protective measures intrinsic in his accommodations, the message was clear that even the robes of high office were no protection.
At the opposite end of the reaction scale were many who said “oh what the heck, we’re going to die anyway, let’s have a party!” So there were great gatherings of people who took great joy in practicing every kind of human depravity and licentiousness.
Thinking in terms of percentages and the consequences of a great “die off”, one will realize that while there were plenty of serfs, a good many born to the noble class, and the church still a powerful entity, there would not have been an endless supply of farriers, stone masons, coopers, thatchers, millers , butchers, wagon-masters and just plain fixer-uppers. The entire cast system along with the economic worth of tradespeople were about to be turned on their heads.
Not only that, but the journey toward the rise of Protestantism and the age of a Renaissance had been set in motion.NEXT WEEK: LOOKING FOR SOMEONE TO BLAME