The Silk Road: Trade and the Black Death in Europe

By: The Scribe on Monday, April 4, 2011

In the 1300’s, Asia and Europe were in the grip of one of the most terrifying illnesses ever: the Black Death. The Black Death (or the bubonic plague as it is often known today) swept through towns and villages and killed millions of people in a relatively short period of time. It started in Asia and China in about 1346 CE but had spread to Europe less than one year later. Sicily was the first city in Europe to report infection. The first reported cases were reported in October of 1347 CE.

Buboses, a clear symptom of the bubonic plagueFor someone infected with the plague, the suffering was horrible. It usually began with a headache. The infected person was usually exhausted and unable to move around much. Often, their back would hurt and they vomited. Their arms and legs would ache. Then, they would develop red spots and swellings on their body. The swellings, called buboses, would turn black and split open and the victim would begin to experience internal bleeding. The plague was easy to spread and entire families would become infected in a very short period of time.

Other forms of the plague accompanied the bubonic plague. Some people suffered from the pneumonic plague which was spread via coughing or sneezing. They had different symptoms but the outcome was the same: almost inevitable death.

By today’s standards, a disease (especially an incredibly contagious one like the plague) can spread internationally in only a few hours. Now, one infected person can simply hop on a plane and hop from country to country bringing illness and even death with them in a relatively short time. This was simply not the case back in the 1300’s. That being said, although it was incredibly easy to contract the plague, the speed at which it spread was terrifying. After all, in the 1300’s, travel took an exceedingly long time.

In the 1300s, trade was conducted between Asia and Europe along what is known as the Silk Road. This was a combination of roads and sea routes that made it easy to transport goods such as silk and spices from producers in Asia to the eager markets in Europe. Accompanying the goods along their journey were rats. Rats have fleas and it was these fleas that helped spread the plague from victim to victim.

In 1347, the siege of Caffa took place. This was a trading post manned by Genoese merchants by Turkish soldiers. The Turks were suffering from the plague and took advantage of a unique and devastating weapon. Using siege machines, they flung bodies of individuals who had succumbed to the plague over the walls. This broke the siege. The Genoese fled, but took the plague with them back to Europe.An illustration showing plague victims

There, the effect was devastating. People were falling ill and dying at an alarming rate. Their bodies and the bodies of those who were not yet dead were flung into open pits instead of being buried properly. Houses were boarded up and burned with individuals still inside. Everywhere, people prayed to God to save them. Slowly, Europe and Asia recover even though it claimed a third to a half of Europe’s population before it was through.


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