The Great Mortality, by John Kelly

The plague that travelled in a glance
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The first Europeans exposed to the Black Death welcomed it. In the spring of 1347, Caffa, a Genoese trading colony on the Black Sea, was under siege from a Tartar army. When the plague began to kill the besiegers the Genoese took this as a stroke of luck, if not divine intervention. Luck or divine intervention turned, as the Tartar commander, Khan Janibeg, began to catapult the corpses of his men into Caffa. Soon everyone was too sick to fight and just wanted to go home, taking the Black Death with them.

The first Europeans exposed to the Black Death welcomed it. In the spring of 1347, Caffa, a Genoese trading colony on the Black Sea, was under siege from a Tartar army. When the plague began to kill the besiegers the Genoese took this as a stroke of luck, if not divine intervention. Luck or divine intervention turned, as the Tartar commander, Khan Janibeg, began to catapult the corpses of his men into Caffa. Soon everyone was too sick to fight and just wanted to go home, taking the Black Death with them.

Janibeg still enjoys a reputation as the founder of biological warfare, and it is thanks to those who have improved this craft that we now have a scientific understanding of the disease which in less than a decade halved the population of China, and spread as far as the Viking colonies in Greenland: the Japanese General Shiro Ishii, for example, whose ground-breaking work with bed-bugs brought plague to the Chinese city of Changteh during World War Two, to the admiration of his peers. John Kelly, a historian of science and human behaviour draws on the rotten 20th century to illuminate the ghastly 14th.

The root of plague, the bacillus Yersinia pestis, lives on fleas, which live on rodents, and is not normally native in Europe. The 14th century was far from normal, a period of rotten weather, bad harvests and total warfare. With death, war and famine on the loose, pestilence found a ready host community. The experience of Cyprus forms a near perfect microcosm for the entire continent. In the summer of 1347 an earthquake shook the island. This was followed by a tsunami. Through freak conditions the tsunami released a pocket of undersea gas, probably methane, which suffocated those who had not been crushed. Then the Genoese arrived. Their confidence in the natural order of things severely undermined, the Cypriots began a massacre of their Arab slaves.

The arrival of the plague in the north of England two years later was heralded by an earthquake which shook York minister. Another omen was the death of Siamese twins in Hull, who were as famous for their singing voices as for their unusual condition. By coincidence, as the Black Death swept through England, the sheep, who outnumbered the human population, also succumbed to a disease, probably liver fluke, and died by the thousand. An opportunistic Scottish army massed on the border to exploit England's weakness. They caught the plague and many died, but enough survived to take the plague home with them.

To travel from the Crimea to the Orkneys within three years is an astonishing speed for Y. pestis to travel. In Asia it usually spreads at a rate of a mile per decade. The strain which caused the Black Death was unusually virulent, probably pneumonic as well as bubonic, although some communities suffered both varieties one after the other. Pneumonic plague is airborne, carried in coughs and sneezes, and unhappily causes its victims to cough quite a lot during the 24 hours it takes to kill them. It seemed to some that the plague could travel in a glance and to catch the eye of an infected stranger was enough to doom you. Another theory was that the disease was spread by a Jewish conspiracy to poison wells. Dreadful massacres of Jewish communities followed. Lepers, who wandered Europe in bands during this period, were also looked on with suspicion.

Yet considering how tumultuous public order was during the 14th century, the social fabric held together well. Twentieth-century theoreticians of thermonuclear war estimated that a 50 per cent death rate should destroy a society. Although the Black Death was often stronger than family bonds, and caused parents to abandon infected children, and vice versa, society held together. To Kelly the heroes of the Black Death were the emerging middle class of notaries who stayed at their desks, settling estates and drawing up wills and holding off chaos. Such men kept the plague chronicles which give us the day-to-day details of the Black Death. Many end in mid-sentence.

Did the Black Death change anything? It is natural in a book of this scope that the author will have to make sweeping statements which will cause the well-informed to grit their teeth. Kelly is a fair-minded and reliable guide, with a gift for providing racy and vivid background for those who know nothing of the Middle Ages.

He closes with a convincing rebuttal of those who claim the Black Death was not plague but another unknown disease. He is perhaps at his most contentious in the brief summing up of how the Black Death changed Europe, because it is not clear that it changed anything. All the trends he identifies were established before the plague arrived. It is astonishing that such a catastrophe could have no lasting effect on anything but, as Khan Janibeg knew, life is what you make of it.

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