An intoxicated cargo arrives one bad day in a port city of about 100,000 inhabitants and of great importance. In less than a month, 300 people lose their lives daily in a fatal epidemic, by the end of it 10 percent of its population has died.
The origin of the plague pandemic is unknown, as are the methods to circumvent it. Men and women, children and the elderly, peasants and artisans, clergymen and gentlemen, all alike die, the most democratic event of their lives will be the end. There is no possible escape.
This is not the plot of a zombie story. The city is Valencia, in the Crown of Aragon, the year is 1348, the epidemic was called the Black Death. Only in an exercise of empathy, placing ourselves in the shoes of these medieval men, can we understand their attitude, their mentality or the decisions they made. Knowing the magnitude and characteristics of the catastrophe helps us put ourselves in their place.
Valencia or Aragon were not specific exceptions, in the mid-fourteenth century the plague ravaged Europe, in one of the greatest demographic catastrophes in history. Well known to the inhabitants of the Old World, they had already lived with it for several centuries and would still suffer from it for several more centuries. However, it had not manifested itself with such virulence since the time of Emperor Justinian in the 6th century. The plague succeeded in generating a greater fear than the queen of ancient evils, leprosy.
There is consensus among historians regarding the point of entry to Europe: Caffa, in Crimea. The Mongol army besieged the city and brought in its ranks something more deadly than its steel. The Mongols themselves have been said to dump infected corpses.
Actually, it is not necessary to appeal to some kind of primitive biological warfare, no wall can prevent the passage of rats and fleas. The Genoese merchants, alerted, fled in terror back to Italy. It was too late, the Mediterranean went from sea wall to bridge. In a year the entire West was doomed.
The roads of the black plague
In his time it was believed that the spread was airborne. The pestilences emitted by the corpses, the Greek medical tradition or the astrological superstitions pointed in that direction. Most likely, it carried the speed of the rats and the fleas that accompanied them. Until two weeks after the infection, the symptoms did not appear; In the next five days, death was certain.
In each infected port or city, a new source of spread was established. The flight from the cities brought the plague to the countryside, where the demographic effects were, if possible, more catastrophic. The main routes of commerce or pilgrimage became rivers of death. After the passage of the black plague, the temples dedicated to San Roque remained, seeking a divine intercession that did not always arrive.
The face of the disease
Today we believe that it was bubonic plague, but other options, such as Ebola or pulmonary anthrax, are not ruled out. The symptoms must have been quite overwhelming. From black spots that give it its name, to coughs, delusions or inflammations, they were warnings of an early death. In addition to contagion by air or animal, blood was also highly dangerous. The care of the sick thus became impossible, and they were sadly abandoned.
Hunger, orphanhood or loss of crops were the logical consequences of the demographic crisis. It is difficult to separate direct deaths from indirect deaths caused by this phenomenon.
“In the course of this plague they perished …”
-Giovanni Villani, unfinished phrase before dying as a result of the Plague-
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Human losses amounted to 50 or 60 percent in France, England, Italy or Spain; with even higher incidences in certain regions. Among the victims there were some illustrious people, such as Alfonso XI of Castile, who died while besieging Gibraltar. The outbreaks even reached a truce in the Hundred Years War.
Reactions to such a catastrophe were obviously chaotic. As was common at the time, the Jews soon acted as the scapegoat. Accused of poisoning the population, they were attacked by desperate mobs. In the face of social destructuring, conventions had little meaning. In time of the plague, prostitution and other vices increased, perhaps in desperate carpe diem . Apocalyptic piety also grew, the search for forgiveness of sins in the face of imminent death.
A curious economic consequence was the liberation of large amounts of land. Many of the peasants who did not die were able to access them. In a society on the brink of subsistence, the death of others brought a poisoned gift. The truth is that after the plague, the Renaissance would come.
1000 AD the year of the Apocalypse
Never in the history of Christianity was the Apocalypse so announced and feared as at the end of the first Millennium. His evidence never proved anything.