No matter how bad the present Chinese virus pandemic gets, it will ultimately pale in comparison to the deadliest plague in human history.
So cheer up. It could be worse and just seven centuries ago, it sure was.
The year was 1347. The Mongol siege of the Crimean port city of Caffa on the Black Sea collapsed from within: A devastating disease the invaders brought unwittingly from China killed them in droves and sapped the morale of those it spared. Before the dispirited Mongols retreated, they engaged in one last assault. Deploying their wooden catapults, they hurled the bodies of their dead over the walls and into the city in what was likely the first example of biological warfare in human history.
A half century earlier, Caffa had been purchased from the Mongols by merchants and shippers from the Republic of Genoa in present-day Italy. They turned it into a thriving trade center and home to one of the world’s biggest slave markets of the day, until relations with the Mongols deteriorated into open warfare.
When the bodies of plague victims landed within their walls, the people of Caffa escaped by boat and sailed to Genoa, Venice and Pisa—along with the disease and the rats and fleas that served as its primary carriers. In a matter of weeks, the Italian peninsula became the new epicenter of a contagion known as Bubonic Plague or the Black Death. It would eventually wipe out about a third of Europe’s human population.
A plague that starts in China leads to an outbreak in Italy, followed by the rest of the continent. There’s a familiar ring to that.
Historian Robert S. Gottfried tells us that the Black Death arrived in London in late September 1348. London was England’s largest town, though it was home to a mere 50,000 people crowded into a single, unsanitary square mile. The plague’s toll was staggering in its dimensions. According to Gottfried,
Scheduled to convene in Westminster in autumn 1349, Parliament never assembled. The Black Death lingered until late spring 1350 and killed between 35% and 40% of London’s population—a figure that some scholars would raise as high as 50%. Since London offered excellent opportunities for social and economic advancement, and was a magnet for immigrants, its population probably began to rise as soon as the plague had subsided. Still, the city would not have 50,000 people again until early in the sixteenth century.
This outbreak in the late Middle Ages was unequaled in its ferocity but it was neither the first instance of Bubonic Plague nor would it be the last. In the Byzantine Empire of the 6th Century, the same disease killed between 25 and 50 million people. After the 14th Century pandemic, it reappeared again in the 19th Century, though we had learned enough about medicine by then to minimize the toll. Parts of India experienced local flare-ups of it as recently as the 1990s.
In all health emergencies, the people who take risks themselves to care for the sick are the real heroes. So while I’m thankful our current crisis is minor compared to history’s worst, I’m most appreciative of the courageous health professionals who are helping us all get through it.
(Lawrence W. Reed, a resident of Newnan, is president emeritus of the Foundation for Economic Education. He writes about exceptional people, including many from his book, “Real Heroes: Inspiring True Stories of Courage, Character and Conviction.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)