Hidden within the many folds of one of the medieval world’s biggest stories, are so many little stories that it is troubling to a serious columnist to have to leave so much “unspoken” in the interest of space, time and the ever-challenging economy of words on the mind of a story-teller part-timing as a writer. (Guilty!)
For instance, how many of us might have known that within that layer of sad history, the first use of biological warfare lay buried! Sometime around 1346, the plague arrived from Russia on the Crimean peninsula where Muslim armies were laying siege to the ancient city of Kaffa, a trading outpost for Genoese Christians joining east and west in very active trading ventures. For some time the Mongolian Golden Horde benefited from and so allowed this tenancy to exist. In 1345, relations broke down and fighting erupted, with the Mongols surrounding the city, at the same time their soldiers were being decimated by the great plague. The order came from the Tartar leaders to get rid of the dead by using their catapults to launch the accumulating bodies into the city. In fact t it was probably from vessels plying from Kaffa to Genoa that the Great Mortality spring-boarded into Europe proper.
Then, I was surprised to find just how many educated people of that day subscribed to the belief that plague outbreaks did not necessarily originate on earth but came from elsewhere. Modern scientists noting that the plague visited this world during the reign of Justinian in the 6th century asked the question where was Yersinia pestis “hiding” for all those years? Some noted present-day astrophysicists have proposed the theory of vertical transmission based on the possibility that meteoric “travelers” circulating between the inner planets of our solar system could indeed bring living forms of bacillus to our sphere.
Without doubt, the biggest “side story” worth exploring in this final column on The Great Pandemic involves the effort to blame an entire people for the death storm that took the lives of nearly half the population. It is hard to say whether it started with Christian church clergy, or among the local government leaders, but soon the “rumors” began to spread that the Jews were behind it; that they were poisoning the wells and water supplies of cities and villages across the land. In France, and Italy and Spain and – especially- in Germany, enraged citizens set about clearing their area of the Jews who were unloved to begin with. Pogroms aimed at Jewish minorities were nothing new in many parts of Europe and in Russia. Now open hostilities took place even in such cultural centers as Cologne where more than 25,000 Jews were slain in fighting. In other cities, rough wooden ghettoes were constructed, and after the region’s Jews were gathered inside, they were burned to the ground. Even in small villages, Jewish men, women and children would be burned in the public square
It is ironic that even back in those years it was “common knowledge” that Jews controlled banking, the money supply, and much of the business world. It was the same cry one heard in Nazi Germany following the end of WW I, and even in the New York City area in the dark economic days of the 1930s. I refer to it as an “irony” because Jews were forced into that field of endeavor by the very same people who later condemned them for being so good at it. In Medieval and even earlier times, money-lending was considered the lowest level of human endeavor, so in the Christian-dominated corridors of business Jews were assigned to occupy that rung of the societal ladder so that “righteous” citizens need not lower themselves to such duties.
As terrible as was The Great Plague itself, it is even more disturbing to be reminded that there have been pockets of senseless human behavior at the very moment when what humanity needed was a core of people committed to doing good even in the worst of times.