WHERE AND HOW DID THE PLAGUE SPREAD?
The Black Death is the term that historians use to describe the spread of the bubonic plague. It is believed that the plague first began in Central Asia and spread to Europe through vast trade routes such as the Silk Road. Historians studying the spread of the plague discovered that the disease was spread by fleas that are commonly found on rodents such as rats and mice. As such, it is now understood that the plague spread via trade routes as the rodents travelled in caravans and on merchant ships. For instance, the first example of the plague arriving in Europe dates from 1347 when a Genoese merchant ship arrived in Sicily. The merchants on the ship were suffering from the effects of the plague, which included: flu-like symptoms, black and painful lumps that oozed blood and pus, and vomiting. The traders had just returned from a port city on the Crimean Peninsula in the Black Sea. While there they had encountered Mongol raiders which they supposedly received the disease from.
Shortly after its arrival in Sicily the plague spread throughout the rest of Europe. For example, in January of 1348, there was a major outbreak of the disease in Pisa, Italy which then allowed the disease to spread to Northern Italy. From there it travelled along trade routes and on trading ships to other regions of Europe, such as: France, England, Germany, Spain, Portugal and Russia. For instance, the plague arrived in Russia in 1351. The only European communities that seemed to withstand the wrath of the plague were ones which relied less on trade with their neighbors, thus limiting their exposure to other groups of people.
The lack of medical understanding during the time is evidenced by the remedies or cures that people believed would work. For instance, some believed that the plague was spread by “bad air” and thought that they could cleanse the air with the burning of incense. This belief led to doctors of the period wearing strange outfits with masks that looked like the beak of a bird. Believing that the plague was spread through the air, the doctors would fill the nose area of the mask with incense in order to overpower the “bad air”. However, it also served to mask the smell of death, which was a common reality due to the large number of dead.
While many focus on the effects of the initial outbreak of the plague, it is important to understand that the plague swept through Europe several times over hundreds of years. For instance, it reappeared across Europe at least six times in just over 50 years after first arriving in 1347. In fact, some historians have noted that Europe was impacted in some part by the plague every year until the 17th century. Each time the plague swept through it ravaged the area and left large portions of the population dead. This continual crisis left Europe (and other areas) with several different impacts.