By Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D., Purdue University
In 1266, a group of Italian traders established a center of trade at Caffa, a port city on the Crimean Peninsula and entered into an agreement with the rulers of the area—the Mongols or the Golden Horde. However, relations between the Italian traders and the Mongols were often tense, leading to the event that first brought the plague to Europe.
In 1345, it had been two years since Mongol leader Jani Beg’s forces had laid siege to the city of Caffa after a clash with the Italian traders. At this point, Beg’s forces were ravaged by the plague.
But, before breaking the siege, and in an act of revenge, the Mongols loaded up their trebuchets with plague-infected corpses and launched them into the city.
The Plague Comes to Caffa
In his book Historia de Morbo, historian De’Mussi narrated how the population of Caffa first came in contact with the plague:
The dying Tartars, stunned and stupefied by the immensity of the disaster brought about by the disease, lost interest in the siege. But they ordered corpses to be placed in catapults and lobbed into the city in the hope that the intolerable stench would kill everyone inside. What seemed like mountains of dead were thrown into the city, and the Christians could not hide, or flee, or escape from them, although they dumped as many of the bodies as they could in the sea. And soon the rotting corpses tainted the air and poisoned the water supply. Moreover, one infected man could carry the poison to others, and infect people and places with the disease by look alone.
For the Caffa population, the use of plague-infected corpses as weapons was simply the last straw, and the survivors started leaving the city by the sea and returning to their hometowns.
This is a transcript from the video series The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Plague: God’s Vengeance
De’Mussi, like many of his contemporaries, believed this disease was a vengeance ordained by God:
We Genoese and Venetians bear the responsibility for revealing the judgments of God. Because we had been delayed by tragic events, and because among us were scarcely ten survivors from a thousand sailors, relations, kinsmen, and neighbors flocked to us from all sides. But to our anguish, we were carrying the darts of death. While they hugged and kissed us, we were spreading poison from our lips—even as we spoke.
A Detailed Account of the Plague
De’Mussi goes on to give several poignant descriptions of what life had been like in the city up to the time of his account. He talked about mass graves dug in colonnades and piazzas because there was no more burial room in the graveyards.
He also mentioned sick people abandoned by terrified family members and even priests who were afraid to administer last rites; healthy people recognizing there was no defense and making plans for their own deaths. And he also discussed a renewed turn to faith and prayers offered to particular intercessory saints.
Learn more about literary responses to the Black Death.
Plague: Biological Warfare?
Without a doubt, the siege of Caffa is a stunning story and, as Professor Mark Wheelis puts it, “the most spectacular incident of biological warfare ever”. But at the same time, it’s unlikely that this event was the sole means by which plague made its way into Western Europe.
We also have to remember that because there was no real understanding of germ transmission or the mechanism of infection, Jani Beg was probably trying to inflict more psychological than physical harm on the people inside the walls of the besieged city of Caffa.
At best, Jani Beg might have been hoping to sicken and demoralize the citizens by causing a miasma to infect the city. The word “miasma” was a medieval catch-all term to explain modes of infection, and it was believed that foul smells—like those emitted by corpses—could cause illness among a population.
Professor Wheelis thinks infection by catapulted corpses was possible, and it was likely that some of the refugees from Caffa brought the plague with them when they fled.
Learn more about the economics of the Black Death.
Plague: Several Points of Entry
However, Norwegian historian Ole Jorgen Benedictow, one of the foremost authorities on the Black Death, believes that eventually, the rodent population of the Mongol army somehow made it into Caffa, along with their fleas, and that’s what caused the outbreak.
Nevertheless, all scholars agree that Caffa was, at the very least, one of the first places that medieval Europeans had contact with what would become the Great Pestilence.
In any event, it’s also clear that the Black Death was coming into the medieval world by a variety of routes. Certainly, given the multiple trade routes that radiated out from it overland and by sea, the Italian Peninsula was ground zero for the infection.
But it’s not the case that Italy would have avoided the plague if Jani Beg had opted to burn his dead soldiers rather than turn them into projectiles. The plague was already raging in China, Russia, across the steppes of Asia Minor, etc., and it was only a matter of when—not if—the Black Death would rear its head in the medieval European world.
Common Questions about Caffa, the Black Death’s Port of Entry
According to the Italians, the plague was an act of God’s vengeance.
Some people consider the plague of 1345 an act of biological warfare. But, since there was no real understanding of germ transmission or infection mechanism, the Mongols were probably trying to inflict more psychological than physical harm.
Some researchers argue that the plague was transmitted into Caffa through the projection of infected corpses by catapult. However, others, like the Norwegian historian Ole Jorgen Benedictow, believe that this scenario is actually unlikely, and the plague was transmitted through the rodent population that came with the Mongol army.