Some decades earlier the Mongol khanate had converted to Islam and the presence of Christians, or trade with them, was no longer tolerated. As a result the Silk Road caravan routes between China and Europe were cut off.
For the same reason the Black Death did not spread from the east through Russia towards western Europe, but stopped abruptly on the Mongol border with the Russian principalities. In the autumn of , plague broke out among the besiegers and from them penetrated into the town.
When spring arrived, the Italians fled on their ships. And the Black Death slipped unnoticed on board and sailed with them. The extent of the contagious power of the Black Death has been almost mystifying. The central explanation lies within characteristic features of medieval society in a dynamic phase of modernisation heralding the transformation from a medieval to early modern European society. Early industrial market-economic and capitalistic developments had advanced more than is often assumed, especially in northern Italy and Flanders. New, larger types of ship carried great quantities of goods over extensive trade networks that linked Venice and Genoa with Constantinople and the Crimea, Alexandria and Tunis, London and Bruges.
In London and Bruges the Italian trading system was linked to the busy shipping lines of the German Hanseatic League in the Nordic countries and the Baltic area, with large broad-bellied ships called cogs. The strong increase in population in Europe in the High Middle Ages meant that the prevailing agricultural technology was inadequate for further expansion.
To accommodate the growth, forests were cleared and mountain villages settled wherever it was possible for people to eke out a living. People had to opt for a more one-sided husbandry, particularly in animals, to create a surplus that could be traded for staples such as salt and iron, grain or flour.
These settlements operated within a busy trading network running from coasts to mountain villages. And with tradesmen and goods, contagious diseases reached even the most remote and isolated hamlets. Most people believed plague and mass illness to be a punishment from God for their sins.
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Of particular importance was the sudden appearance of the plague over vast distances, due to its rapid transportation by ship. Ships travelled at an average speed of around 40km a day which today seems quite slow. However, this speed meant that the Black Death easily moved km in a fortnight by ship: spreading, in contemporary terms, with astonishing speed and unpredictability.
By land, the average spread was much slower: up to 2km per day along the busiest highways or roads and about 0. As already noted, the pace of spread slowed strongly during the winter and stopped completely in mountain areas such as the Alps and the northerly parts of Europe. Yet, the Black Death often rapidly established two or more fronts and conquered countries by advancing from various quarters. The epidemic broke loose in early July. In North Africa and the Middle East, it started around September 1st, having arrived in Alexandria with ship transport from Constantinople.
Its spread from Constantinople to European Mediterranean commercial hubs also started in the autumn of It reached Marseilles by about the second week of September, probably with a ship from the city. Then the Italian merchants appear to have left Constantinople several months later and arrived in their home towns of Genoa and Venice with plague on board, some time in November.
The spread out of Pisa is characterized by a number of metastatic leaps. These great commercial cities also functioned as bridgeheads from where the disease conquered Europe. In Mediterranean Europe, Marseilles functioned as the first great centre of spread.
En route to Spain, the Black Death also struck out from the city of Narbonne north-westwards along the main road to the commercial centre of Bordeaux on the Atlantic coast, which by the end of March had become a critical new centre of spread. Thus, two northern plague fronts were opened less than two months after the disease had invaded southern Spain. Another plague ship sailed from Bordeaux, northwards to Rouen in Normandy where it arrived at the end of April. There, in June, a further plague front moved westwards towards Brittany, south-eastwards towards Paris and northwards in the direction of the Low Countries.
The significance of ships in the rapid transmission of contagion is underscored by the fact that at the time the Black Death landed in Weymouth it was still in an early phase in Italy. From Weymouth, the Black Death spread not only inland, but also in new metastatic leaps by ships, which in some cases must have travelled earlier than the recognized outbreaks of the epidemic: Bristol was contaminated in June, as were the coastal towns of the Pale in Ireland; London was contaminated in early August since the epidemic outbreak drew comment at the end of September.
Commercial seaport towns like Colchester and Harwich must have been contaminated at about the same time. From these the Black Death spread inland. The early arrival of the Black Death in England and the rapid spread to its southeastern regions shaped much of the pattern of spread in Northern Europe. The plague must have arrived in Oslo in the autumn of , and must have come with a ship from south-eastern England, which had lively commercial contacts with Norway.
The outbreak of the Black Death in Norway took place before the disease had managed to penetrate southern Germany, again illustrating the great importance of transportation by ship and the relative slowness of spread by land. The outbreak in Oslo was soon stopped by the advent of winter weather, but it broke out again in the early spring. Soon it spread out of Oslo along the main roads inland and on both sides of the Oslofjord. The opening of the second plague front was the reason that all Norway could be conquered in the course of It disappeared completely with the advent of winter, the last victims died at the turn of the year.
Again ship transport played a crucial role, this time primarily by Hanseatic ships fleeing homewards from their trading station in Oslo with goods acquired during the winter. On their way the seaport of Halmstad close to the Sound was apparently contaminated in early July. However, the voyage homewards to the Hanseatic cities on the Baltic Sea had started significantly earlier. A ship that left Oslo at the beginning of June would probably sail through the Sound around June 20th and reach Elbing in the second half of July, in time to unleash an epidemic outbreak around August 24th. Other ships that returned at the end of the shipping season in the autumn from the trading stations in Oslo or Bergen, brought the Black Death to a number of other Hanseatic cities both on the Baltic Sea and the North Sea.
The advent of winter stopped the outbreaks initially as had happened elsewhere, but contagion was spread with goods to commercial towns and cities deep into northern Germany. In the spring of , a northern German plague front was formed that spread southwards and met the plague front which in the summer of had formed in southern Germany with importation of contagion from Austria and Switzerland. Napoleon did not succeed in conquering Russia. Hitler did not succeed. But the Black Death did. It entered the territory of the city state of Novgorod in the late autumn of and reached the town of Pskov just before the winter set in and temporarily suppressed the epidemic; thus the full outbreak did not start until the early spring of In Novgorod itself, the Black Death broke out in mid-August.
In , Moscow was ravaged, and the disease also reached the border with the Golden Horde, this time from the west, where it petered out. Iceland and Finland are the only regions that, we know with certainty, avoided the Black Death because they had tiny populations with minimal contact abroad.
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It seems unlikely that any other region was so lucky. How many people were affected? Knowledge of general mortality is crucial to all discussions of the social and historical impact of the plague. Studies of mortality among ordinary populations are far more useful, therefore, than studies of special social groups, whether monastic communities, parish priests or social elites.
However, up to there were only a few studies of mortality among ordinary people, so the basis for this assessment was weak. From , a great number of mortality studies from various parts of Europe were published. These have been collated and it is now clear that the earlier estimates of mortality need to be doubled. No suitable sources for the study of mortality have been found in the Muslim countries that were ravaged. When the Black Death spread through Italy in late , some ports began turning away ships suspected of coming from infected areas.
This period was extended to 40 days some years later - hence the term quarantine. Further regulations established remote cemeteries for plague victims who in turn were collected, transported and buried in accordance with defined rules. But these measures were too little, too late. Plague took hold and Venetians died in their tens of thousands.
Other Italian cities tried similar measures. Further inland, in May the northern city of Pistoia introduced wide-ranging laws affecting many aspects of daily life.
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Restrictions on imports and exports, travel, market trading and funerals were all brought in, but again to no effect. But by contrast, another northern city, Milan, avoided a major outbreak. Whether this was due to control measures taken by city authorities, including sealing up three houses with the occupants inside after plague was discovered there, is debatable. The Milanese authorities could certainly be firm.
From they decreed that all future plague victims and those nursing them would be isolated in a designated pesthouse built outside the city walls.
The Black Death
And yet other communities did nothing, either in preparation as plague approached or in confronting it on arrival. Only slowly were the type of regulations set by Venice, Milan and other cities taken up elsewhere as plague returned time and time again. This took place very slowly in the case of Britain, which remained ill prepared for the Great Plague of Add text to my collection. There are 22 related objects. View all related objects. All Glossary terms.
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The Black Death and early public health measures. Lead mortuary crosses, England, s and s View Object.