On the Brink of Oblivion

Late in the year 1347 a new and terrible disease arrived in Europe from the Tartar regions north of Constantinople, carried first by Genoese merchants vainly fleeing from a pestilence that raced faster than war horses. It was said to have been introduced into the Genoese trading community at Caffa in the Crimea by a besieging Tartar army, who deliberately catapulted the infected corpses of their own dead across the city walls. Originating ten years or more before in the steppes of Asia, the plague had already decimated the populations of China, India, Transoxiana, Persia, and southern Rus- sia. By the spring of 1348 it had galloped through Italy and had reached the papal court in exile in the south of France at Avignon (where it was thought that as many as 62,000 died, and where Pope Clement VI ordered huge new graveyards to be conse- crated to hold the mounting piles of dead). By June it was in Paris, by November in southern Austria. That autumn the plague entered England simultaneously though the West Country seaports and through London. From there it spread at once to Ireland, by November it had reached Bergen, and so on to the rest of northwest Europe, Scandinavia, even remote Iceland.

Sufferers from the disease developed flu symptoms such as fever and shivering; blackened buboes or swellings appeared in the groin, neck, and armpits, charged with dark and vile-smelling pus. Many also suffered purple or red discolorations under the skin, internal bleeding, and bloody urine, diarrhea, or vomiting. Death seems often to have come from a pneumonia-like flooding of the lungs, and though sometimes delayed as much as eight days, could also occur very soon after the first appearance of infection—stories were told of doctors or priests ministering to the victims in the morning and being dead themselves by nightfall.

Historians are undecided about the precise scale of mortality. Until recently the consensus suggested something between one third and one half of the population of Europe. More recent studies, including those under review, are inclined to push the numbers higher. Medieval observers were in no doubt that this was the worst Visitation of God since the Flood, feared the imminent end of the world, and offered terrifyingly large estimates of the dead. The poet Boccaccio thought that 100,000 had succumbed in his native Florence alone (unlikely, since the city’s fourteenth-century population was almost certainly nearer 80,000!). But at the height of the infection as many as two hundred corpses a day were being collected for burial from the streets of London. In this as in so much else, England is the best-documented country in late-medieval Europe, and calculations based on sources such as manorial rent rolls, or statistics of clerics who took over livings vacated by death, suggest that at least half the population there may have died in the eighteen months after the arrival of the disease.

From the eye of the storm, it seemed possible that no one would be left to…

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