One can´t help but wonder about the crew aboard those twelve Genoese galleys that anchored up at Messina in Sicily on that October day in 1347. Those that were still alive must have seen their shipmates dying in horrifying agony, covered with black moulds. Did they know they would die too? Maybe. Did they know what they were part in bringing to Europe? Not likely.
But they brought the first wave of what in England came to be known as “The Great Pestilence” or “The Great Mortality” (the name Black Death wasn´t used in England until the 1820´s*). The Plague quickly spread across Sicily, and only three months later, in January 1348, a new shipment of death arrived in Europe, this time it was galleys coming from Caffa (today belonging to Ukraine/Crimea under the name of Feodosia), a town on the coast of the Black Sea which at the time was under the control of the Republic of Venice. They arrived in Venice and Genoa, but one of the galleys were later expelled from Italy only to arrive in Marseille. The Great Mortality had established itself on the European mainland, striking England in June 1348.
The seventh year after it began, it came to England and first began in the towns and ports joining on the seacoasts, in Dorsetshire, where, as in other counties, it made the country quite void of inhabitants so that there were almost none left alive.
… But at length it came to Gloucester, yea even to Oxford and to London, and finally it spread over all England and so wasted the people that scarce the tenth person of any sort was left alive.
Geoffrey the Baker, Chronicon Angliae
The disease originated in Central Asia and moving on through Kurdistan and India along the so called Silk Road and had most likely reached modern day Crimea in 1343. It has long been considered and indisputable fact that it was rats on the ships who spread the plague through fleas which, when their hosts died and stopped supplying them with blood, moved on to humans. This has been contested during the past few years after the finding of a mass grave in central London which had been used to bury victims of the plague. But I will return to this, possibly in a separate post.
The Great Mortality entered England at a port in Dorset, in the shape of a sailor arriving in Weymouth from Gascony. When autumn arrived, the plague had reached London and a year, in the summer of 1349 later it covered the entire country, only to die out in December that same year, In other words, it was short, but it was devastating and the estimate that 50 percent of the country´s population died in this first wave of The Great Mortality is widely accepted.
The text higher up in the post refers to the return of the plague in the early 1360´s, when another 20 percent of the English population is believed to have died. The process was incredibly swift for the individual, and there is a quote saying that the victims could be having lunch together with his or her family and dinner with the ancestors.
The symptoms was that the assumed bacteria through flea bites (assuming this theory of how the disease is the correct one) entered the lymphatic system, travelling to the lymph nodes where the bacteria multiplied and caused swelling called buboes, which would appear like a large blister, usually in the armpit, on the neck or in the groin. Three or four days later the bacteria would enter the blood stream and affect internal organs such as the spleen and the lungs after which the patient would die within a few days. There is also another strain of the plague and both these may have been at work during the Great Mortality. This one is airborne and enter the lungs of the victim directly and spread from person to person.
The Great Mortality had deep impact on the English society on a number of levels, and I will go into each and every one of them on the upcoming days, I mean, why not spend Easter in the company of the Great Mortality?
*Danish and Swedish chroniclers had referred to the plague as “black” about a century earlier, but it´s believed that this had nothing to do with the progress of the disease or the skin colour of the victim towards the end, but as a reference to times being black and gloomy during the Great Mortality.
Sources: Britain Express / http://www.britainexpress.com/History/medieval/black-death.htm
The Black Death, 1347, George Deaux, Weybright and Talley, New York, 1969
The Black Death – Rosemary Horrox, 1994