By Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D., Purdue University
Sometime around 1346, the Black Death’s journey began and first made its presence known on the borders of the northwest shores of the Caspian Sea. From there, it made a hesitant push northward into what we think of today as Russia, but any more progress in that direction was stalled by 1348.
Russia in the Waiting Line for a Great Epidemic
Instead of pushing towards Russia, the plague picked up a serious head of steam moving south and west in a clockwise direction, devastating most of Italy, France, Spain, England, and Ireland. Barcelona was particularly hit hard, as were Valencia and Roussillon.
The Kingdom of Granada, the last of the major Muslim territories on the Iberian Peninsula, also suffered major losses, as did Lisbon, in what is today Portugal. The plague reached Sweden by 1349, and, then, continued the loop in 1350 by pushing further into Scandinavia and from there south through the Baltic states into what we think of today as Germany.
This is a transcript from the video series The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Holy Roman Empire and Its City-States
At this time, some of these territories and those adjacent—including the modern-day Netherlands, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, and the territory known as Bohemia—were considered part of the entity known as the Holy Roman Empire.
More or less an artificial construct, especially as we move from the medieval into the modern world, the Holy Roman Empire was a loose confederation of territories, and within and adjacent to its borders were numerous free and independent city-states. But we can use this term as a kind of shorthand to describe this region of Europe in the 14th century.
Learn more about how the Black Death transformed the world.
The Black Death’s Journey made Easier
The spread of infection was made all the worse by the fact that this territory had a huge system of navigable rivers and port cities, and as we know by now, where do rats like to hang out? On the waterfront.
The goods that were being transported along these networks were of the sort that fleas might hang out in for some time. Also, back in the 13th century, trade along these routes had been made easier, and tariffs, and so forth, had been standardized by the formation of what would become known as the Hanseatic League, which would become a confederation of city-states that worked together to secure their common economic interests.
Alas, this spirit of cooperation would often prove to be fatal as it allowed for easier movement of goods and people among infected locales, especially along the rivers Rhine, Elbe, Vistula, Oder, and many other waterways and their tributaries.
Learn more about later plague outbreaks.
The Black Death Loops back towards Russia
Compared to other European regions, especially Italy, France, and England, texts discussing the Black Death in German and its dialects tend to be sparse and also rather succinct in their discussions of what was happening.
At the same time, however, as far as we can tell, the devastating impact was pretty much the same as throughout the rest of the medieval world: mortality rates of around 50 percent, with all three forms of plague appearing.
Then, the Black Death turned east, pushing into Poland in 1351, hitting Russian territories from Kiev in the south and up the Dnieper River in 1352, and fully devastated Moscow by 1353, ending up almost back where it began.
Learn more about communities that survived the first wave.
Devastation Continued in the Medieval World
For a long time, historians were puzzled as to why the plague took such a long route to get to Russia. Russian chroniclers were fully aware of the epidemic raging to the south of them as early as 1348-1349, but they didn’t really feel its impact until 1353.
The best scholars can figure is that there was this lag of plague making its way into Russia via a northwest overland route because the Russian steppe was thinly populated, and the presence of the dreaded Mongol Golden Horde to the south meant that no one was really inclined to move in that direction.
And we can say that in 1353 the first wave of the plague had fully crested and burned itself out. While the plague would return again and again to the European world at least once or twice a generation, from 1353 onward, its virulence was greatly diminished. Never again would the medieval world see such a devastating event in such a short space of time.
Learn more about the Black Death’s political outcomes.
Rumors and Conspiracy Theories Made Things Worse
One thing that we have to remember is that by this point, most people were well aware that the plague was coming—it was just a matter of when, not if, the Great Pestilence showed up on their doorstep.
This knowledge led some desperate people to take preemptive action and to be willing to believe all kinds of rumors and conspiracy theories. The most infamous was the popular belief that the Jews were causing the illness by poisoning the wells of various towns.
In a series of horrifying atrocities that both recall the pogroms of the Crusades when they marched through the Rhineland two centuries previously—and which also anticipate the horrors of the 20th-century Holocaust—several communities, like Strasbourg and Bern, executed or expelled a large portion of their Jewish community before the plague had even reached their town.
This particular brand of anti-Semitism didn’t tend to recur, however, since even though all their Jews were exiled or dead, these towns still were some of the hardest hit by the plague, and there was no one left to serve as a scapegoat when the Great Mortality made its appearance.
Common Questions about an Overview of the Black Death’s Journey Through Europe
The Hanseatic League was basically a formation of city-states that standardized trade routes and tariffs, and this made travel via these routes easier. This, however, also made the Black Death’s journey easier.
Even though Russian scholars at the time were aware of the Black Death’s journey throughout Europe, they felt its blow four or five years later. It was probably because people were not that interested in moving in the direction of the Mongol Golden Horde.
The most infamous was the popular belief that the Jews were causing the illness by poisoning the wells of various towns. This, unfortunately, led to people executing or expelling large groups of Jews from their communities.