When a mysterious lung disease first appeared in the Chinese metropolis of Wuhan just three months ago, the pandemic still seemed to many to be a term from distant history. The origin of the coronavirus was probably a wild animal at a market: a bat acted as a host, a pangolin as an intermediate host on the way of the virus into the human organism. The chain of infection is reminiscent of the outbreak of the plague in the Middle Ages. Possibly at that time the flea of a jumping mouse or another rodent transmitted the – bacterial – pathogen Yersinia pestis to a rat, from which it passed on to rat fleas and then to humans. These passed on the disease by droplet infection. The plague took its course, became a pandemic – and the greatest natural disaster of mankind.
Whether the plague originated in China or Central Asia is disputed, according to historian Alexander Berner. "What is certain, however, is that the disease spread over an increasingly large area via small-scale networks, but also via long-distance trade," he says.
Plague came to the Mediterranean via the Silk Road
These networks were part of the legendary Silk Road: a trade route that connected China with the Mediterranean Sea. Anthropologist and environmental historian Bernd Hermann traces the path thus: "From 1331 to 1346, the pathogen migrated westward, as evidenced by increased mortality in caravanserais. In 1346 he came to Astrakhan, the Volga and the Don. 1347 Kaffa was reached, a Genoese settlement at the Black Sea."And from there, Genoese continued to bring the plague to the Mediterranean with their ships fleeing from the Mongols. A year later she was in Marseilles, reached Venice and Pisa, and finally Moscow in 1353.
The already well-developed infrastructure and the increasing mobility of people in Europe made it easy for the Black Death to stretch its arm quickly and ever further. In addition, in the "Jubilee Year" of 1350, there were a great many pilgrims: Pope Clement VI. had promised them particularly effective indulgences if they would visit the holy places of Christianity. Within a few years, the plague was able to spread over a very large area and killed around 25 million people in Europe between 1346 and 1353 alone, a third of the population – and millions more in several outbreak waves in the following centuries. "Many people had to suffer it at least once in their lives," says Alexander Berner, an expert on the history of the plague who organized the exhibition "Plague! A search for traces" in the LWL Museum of Archaeology in Herne co-conceived.
Conspiracy theories made the rounds
At that time, natural science was still in its infancy, microbiology and virology did not yet exist. conspiracy theories made the rounds. One of the most terrible was directed against Jews, who were accused of poisoning wells. A completely different explanation was the miasma theory: According to this theory, bad air that caused illness, such as foul vapors from the earth, entered the body, where it triggered an imbalance in the bodily fluids. Moreover, the plague miasmas "caused an excess of blood and thus of moisture and heat, which in turn led to putrefaction that depressed the patients' hearts and poisoned the body," explains historian Katharina Wolff. The bad air itself was also attributed toxic properties: it entered the body as a poison, collected in the bumps of the plague and around the heart.
The plague could be passed on as a miasma – in this case through bad breathing air. To protect themselves, many people therefore used an early version of the mouthguard: some held sponges soaked in vinegar in front of their faces, others cloths filled with herbs.
A similar effect was felt by doctors in the 17th century. Protective clothing developed in the twentieth century. They wore a garment of pressed linen or goatskin, to which none easily adhered, and in front of the face a beaked mask filled with fragrant and at the same time protective substances. The device, up to 20 centimeters long, led to the designation of these plague doctors as "beak doctors".
Corona Tell me, you as a doctor: to vaccinate or not to vaccinate? Vivian Pasquet is a medical doctor. GEO editor. Currently, she is constantly asked by friends and colleagues whether she has been vaccinated against the coronavirus. The answer is simple – and complicated
Meetings were banned
Moreover, even at that time, attempts were made to contain the spread of the epidemic. Thus, the authorities advised against staying in large crowds, and even the markets that were so important for supplies were canceled in many places. "In most cities at the time, there were plague ordinances that laid down such measures," says historian Berner.
The ban on gatherings affected even religious events. During the outbreak of the plague in Moscow in 1770/71, many believers sought comfort and salvation at an icon with the image of the Mother of God at St. Barbara's Gate, next to which a box for donations was placed. Clergymen not recognized by the church held services there. Archbishop Ambrose, however, recognizing the danger posed by this mass event, initially prohibited it and then had the icon and donation box removed. The faithful did not put up with it. The "robbery of the Mother of God" led to looting, even to the murder of the archbishop. The events went down in history as the Moscow Pestrevolt.
Whole villages quarantined because of the plague
A few days ago, on 23. March, the small town of Neustadt am Rennsteig was quarantined, and the police and fire department sealed off all access roads. Similarly, also in Thuringia, during an outbreak of plague in 1681 to 1684, the village of Niederzimmern was affected. After the first people there died of the plague, the village was sealed off and forbidden to leave under threat of the death penalty – at all costs the plague was to be kept away from the city of Erfurt. The plan failed, between 10.000 and 16.000 people died of the disease there.
The quarantine was more successful in Eyam, a village in Derbyshire in central England. When the plague spread from London in 1665/66, residents decided to voluntarily isolate their disease-stricken town from the outside world. A boundary stone with six holes commemorates this period. To supply Eyam, merchants deposited their goods there and withdrew. The villagers made a choice – and paid on the spot, leaving their coins in the recesses of the stone. These were filled with vinegar to visibly cleanse the coins. For the people of Eyam, this plague outbreak ended in tragedy: According to tradition, only 83 of the 350 inhabitants survived. The plague, on the other hand, did not spread further northward.
Around 1340, the plague flared up in Central Asia. In 1346 it hits the Mongol Empire on the Volga, a year later Italy – and from there spreads across almost all of Europe
The way of the plague
The origin of the plague, which devastated Europe and parts of the Near East and North Africa from 1347 to 1353, has not yet been clarified. Some researchers suppose it in China, others at the Kyrgyz Lake Yssykkol or in a region north of the Caspian Sea.
What is certain is that the plague raged in 1346 in the Mongol Empire of the "Golden Horde", which stretched from the Black Sea to Siberia. warriors and merchants carry the plague north, south and west. 1346, it breaks out in an army that lays siege to the city of Caffa in Crimea.
In 1347, merchant ships bring the pathogen to Constantinople, Alexandria, Messina, Venice, Genoa and Marseille. From there, the plague reached Paris via Avignon and England by ship via Bordeaux.
The center of Europe is being gripped by the plague, as it were: From the south, it creeps along the Rhône and over the Alpine passes, reaching Strasbourg and Erfurt, for example, while at the same time it circles the continent by sea and attacks coastal cities on the North and Baltic Seas.
Also to Moscow the plague does not arrive from the southeast, but from the west. The reason for this detour is probably the less permeable border between the Russian principalities and the Golden Horde empire.
But death does not strike all of Europe. Some remote regions, but also metropolises such as Milan, Nuremberg or Prague are largely spared. Why the plague hardly rages there is unknown. The citizens of those cities are probably just lucky – at least initially. For later outbreaks in the 14.