or centuries, humanity had been fighting an invisible enemy. Along with natural disasters, famines and wars, small microscopic lives (microbes, bacilli, bacteria, viruses) have punctuated the pages of history, devastating vast territories and endangering the existence of peoples. The recent influenza pandemic, with two branches: avian and swine, shows that humans have not yet won the war. Although medicine has evolved a great deal in the last century, tiny enemies have the ability to adapt and “crack” our remedies.
Life’s most destructive weapon
The plague can be considered the most destructive disease that has ever affected mankind. The history of plague pandemics is difficult to reconstruct, but from the distant past, we have had a few descriptions of the symptoms. It is difficult today to say whether it was the plague or other diseases. Ancient Egypt, the Far East, ancient Greece, imperial Rome, and Byzantium were swept by waves of pandemics.
Information about the plague first appeared in the Bible, and the Greek historian Thucydides recalls a pandemic from as long as 430 BC which struck Greek cities and killed one-third of Athens’ population, including its great ruler Pericle.
The Antonina plague hit the Roman Empire in 165 AC, and the Byzantine Empire, by two devastating epidemics, in the years 541–542 AC, in the time of Justinian I and another one in 588 AC. The historian, Procopius of Caesarea, writes, states in “The Secret History”, that 10,000 people died in Constantinople daily, the city losing half its population when the plague reached its peak.
The city of Caffa (today Feodosia, in Ukraine) had the reputation of being the “gateway” to the bubonic plague in Europe, the city through which “black death” entered the continent. This happened in 1334 when the Mongols, bearers of the disease, besieged Caffa.
An uncontrollable force
The middle of the 14th century inaugurates a long series of plague pandemics that have haunted Europe, the East, and North Africa for almost five centuries. The first outbreaks appear in 1330 in Central Asia, breaking into India and East China, then heading west through the Middle East to North Africa.
In 1334, the Mongols besieged Caffa in Crimea, owned by the Genoese, and the conflict broke out due to trade misunderstandings. During the siege, the Mongols begin to die from the plague, and their rulers make the decision to catapult the bodies over walls into the fortress. The siege was lifted, but the epidemic had erupted in the city. Later, the Genoese galleries brought the plague to Italy (1347), from where it had spread throughout Europe.
For decades, in the West, poor harvests had been obtained, leading to long periods of famine. The Great Plague (the Black Plume or the Bubonic Plume) will find a weakened European population living in miserable conditions. In turn, Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, England, Germany, Poland, and Russia face the epidemic hard. The medieval historian Froissart estimates that one-third of Europe’s population disappeared during the first wave of the pandemic, ending in 1351.
Until the eighteenth century, in Western Europe and Eastern Europe, the plague would occur at regular intervals, with almost every decade occurring with epidemic outbreaks. Thus, in France, there were 24 main occurrences between 1437–1536 and another 12 outbursts, between 1536 and 1670.
Some epidemics covered the whole of Europe, such as Smallpox in 1576–1585 and in 1628–1631. The last one takes place in Marseille in 1720. The biggest tribute is given by the cities Florence where 50% of the 110,000 inhabitants die (1338), Hamburg, which lost 66% of the population between 1343 and 1357, Paris, which lost 40,000 people in 1450. And in Naples (1656), half of the 450,000 inhabitants die.
Finally, the latest epidemic in Marseille makes 50,000 victims out of its 100,000 inhabitants. Nor is England exempt from the deadly disease. In 1665, a terrible epidemic broke out, accounting for one-sixth of the kingdom’s population, of which 68,000 in London alone. The city is “saved” by a devastating fire that broke out in 1666, leading to the disappearance of rats which were the main cause of the epidemic.
Prejudice the plague
The writings of the time offer a grim picture of the societies affected by the plague. Crazy people take unnecessary measures such as letters and coins sprinkled with vinegar. Houses are disinfected with perfume and dust, city dwellers walk down the street with a bird-shaped mask, with their beaks filled with aromatic plants and spices to relieve the odor which drove people nuts. All this was because a medieval prejudice considered that birds spread the plague.
Some measures were wrong. In London, all dogs and cats were killed, so rat colonies proliferate, which decreased the chances of the plague spreading. The remedies prescribed by doctors were primitive, the sick being needlessly tormented. Daniel Defoe reports in the “Journal of the Year of Plague” how doctors believed they would overcome the disease if they managed to cauterize purulent swelling (blisters) and recalcitrant tumors. He says some bubbles were so strong that they could not be opened with an instrument, so they were cauterized which caused many patients to suffer in tremendous pain.
In London, 200,000 people had to leave the city and wander the surrounding forests with no sleep, no food, and no water, only clothes on them. Those who remained have barricaded themselves in houses, boarded the windows and doors with wood planks, and tried to isolate themselves. If one of the family members became ill, then he or she was quickly isolated, and when the victim died, the corpse was taken out the window with ropes, from where it was taken with hooks, put in strollers, and taken to the common graves.
In the face of these disasters, people had only one explanation, that the plague is a divine punishment for the sins of men. The plague is transposed like a rain of arrows thrown by God upon sinners. Other images evoke a child clinging to the frozen breast of the mother’s body (like the one above). What is the most valuable lesson to learn from all of this is that humankind has always managed to survive, even if the losses were high.
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