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Digital Subscriptions > History Revealed > January 2018 > The Black Death

The Black Death

It left millions dead, communities ripped apart and survivors learning to live with death. Gavin Mortimer traces how the terrible pestilence ravaged the world
PUNISHMENT SENT FROM ON HIGH? Once the Black Death hit, populations would be obliterated at frightening speed – leaving those left to wonder what they had done to deserve God’s wrath
ALAMY X1, GETTY X2
Boils were a sign of the Black Death and, despite various methods, doctors could do nothing for the afflicted
ALAMY X1, GETTY X2

Two ships arrived at the small Dorset port of Melcombe on a June day in 1348. For the local people, their arrival was nothing out of the ordinary. They, like many in England, had heard rumours of a terrible pestilence ravaging Europe, but that did not mean it had to concern them. Such faraway places were beyond their imagination, separated by a sea most had never journeyed across. Instead, the people of Melcombe were more interested in preparing for the Feast of St John the Baptist, one of the oldest of the Christian festivals, marked with bonfires and an open-air feast of roasted meat, bread, cheese and beer.

STENCH OF DEATH

But when the two trading vessels, one of them registered in Bristol, docked at the Melcombe port, they contained more than just spices and wine. At least one of the sailors, a man from Gascony in the south-west of France, walked down the gangplank carrying the dreaded plague. Within two years, an estimated one-third of the 4.2 million people of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales had succumbed to what the survivors called the Black Death.

It is now believed that the mass-killer originated in the east of Kyrgyzstan, central Asia, in the late 1330s. Traders unknowingly carried it along the Silk Road, either east into China or south towards India. As travel was slow at the time, it took time for the plague to spread initially, but once it struck it went to work quickly, killing the infected in a matter of days.

By 1346, word had reached Europe. People gossiped in markets and taverns, talking about painful boils as large as apples growing under arms and in the groins of the doomed. Then the talk went on to how the boils would turn black and the stench they emitted. The stench of imminent death.

Those in the midst of the suffering looked for someone to blame. In Crimea, where 85,000 people died in 1346, the Tartars pointed an accusing finger at the Christian merchants from Genoa. They besieged the Christians in their trading post on the coastal town of Kaffa and resorted to biological warfare, firing plague-riddled corpses over the walls with giant catapults. The Christians fled aboard their galleys, sailing across the (appropriately named) Black Sea into the Mediterranean. With them went the plague.

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About History Revealed

Imagine, if you can, a mystery bug appearing out of nowhere – one with no cure or treatment and that kills nearly everyone infected in just a matter of days. !en consider one-in-three people in Britain being struck down by it over the course of two years. Unthinkable, isn’t it? And yet that’s exactly what happened halfway through the 14th century. Where did this killer plague, Black Death, come from? How did it spread? And what was it like to live through these unutterable days? We reveal all from page 28. But don’t worry, it’s not all doom and gloom to see in the new year, as we celebrate some of history’s greatest pioneers this issue, from the extraordinary salvagers of Henry VIII’s favourite ship, the Mary Rose (p46", to those magnificent men who took their flying machines into the skies (p56", to the remarkable women whose mathematical genius allowed the US to send men to the Moon (p69". We’ve also given the magazine a bit of a spring clean, taking all your comments on board, and introduced a few new regular features. I hope you like what we’ve done – do write in and let us know. Happy new Year!