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Digital Subscriptions > History Revealed > December 2015 > Revealed: Black Death

Revealed: Black Death

One of the deadliest and most intense natural disasters in human history changed the face of Europe forever – but not all for the worse, writes Jonny Wilkes
By embracing death, as in this 1493 image created by Michael Wolgemut, people were able to face up to the plague
GETTY X2, TOPFOTO X1

THE ALMIGHTY PESTILENCE

Early in October 1347, a dozen trading galleys pulled into the Sicilian port of Messina at the end of a long voyage, which had begun far to the east in the Black Sea. After the ships had docked, it was immediately clear to the awaiting merchants at the island’s harbour that something was very wrong. Aboard, they discovered that many of the sailors had perished on the journey, while the few remaining survivors were themselves at death’s door – they were coughing up blood, racked with pain and with oozing boils on their bodies. The Black Death had arrived in Europe.

This account of the first infection comes from the chronicle of Franciscan friar Michael of Piazza, who described the living crew of the ships as having “sickness clinging to their very bones”. Over the next few years, that sickness would spread at a terrifying rate across Europe, ravaging cities and countryside, rich and poor, young and old; tearing apart the fabric of every society; and killing (at a very conservative estimate) some 25 million people. With most believing it to be the wrath of God punishing them for their sins, it seemed the very existence of human civilisation was about to splutter and die.

This 14th-century chapel window from Canterbury Cathedral shows people’s fear of the plague

“We see death coming into our midst like black smoke, a plague which cuts off the young, a rootless phantom which has no mercy or fair countenance.”Welsh poet Jeuan Gethin, died of the Black Death in 1349

DISEASE BREEDING GROUND

Conditions in 14th-century Europe were ripe for a pandemic like the Black Death to take hold. The plague may have originated in Asia – there were accounts of outbreaks in China, India and Persia before 1347 – but it was able to move quickly along trading routes, notably via the Silk Road and by sea. “The development of long-distance trade by galleys and cogs from the late 1200s was crucial to the plague’s spread,” a rms Black Death historian Ole Jorgen Benedictow. With distant lands more closely connected, by the time traders knew they were carrying a disease, it was already too late.

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The Roman occupation of Britain changed the course of our history – building cities, roads and great walls, pacifying tribes and creating a unified economy. But how and why did they come to invade, and why did their mission ultimately fail? PLUS The Black Death: The terror of medieval Europe Stalin: the brutal regime of Britain’s WWII ally Prohibition: when America was dying for a drink Coco Chanel: the ultimate rags to riches story The 10 wealthiest people ever The King and Mrs Simpson: Edward VIII’s abdication The Wright Brothers Boston Tea Party The Cold War Death on the Lusitania And much, much more!
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