Concierto De La Muerte: Act 2
We opened this series with the rise and fall of Rome, the emergence of the Byzantine Empire, the proliferation of trade on the Silk Road and ACT 1 of the first outbreak of the Concierto De La Morte...
Let's continue the story of man and the plague and learn how one changed the other...
A Tangent To Break The Initial Blight
Here’s a funny turn of events: as I was researching for this blog article, I realized that there were tons and tons of material about the black death and I've been focused on delivering what I believe to be precise information. Yes, much of it is bleak, but weren't all of mankind's brightest moments preceded by its darkest hours?
Let's fast forward to 14th century Europe...
Act 2: The Shroud That Covered Europe - nay, the Entire World - The Black Death
It's worth noting that in 14th century Europe, part of what is now known as the dark ages and the bleakest time in human history - was followed by the Renaissance. But for now, let's not allow the deaths of two hundred million people to be in vain by telling their story.
In what is now northern Europe, new technological innovations such as the heavy plow and, a new way to cultivate the land by recycling three patches of it to allow for the soil to refresh its nitrogen known as, the three-field system was not as effective in yielding fresh supply of wheat and grain. These innovations were effective in the Mediterranean, which means inland they had poor, clay-like soil. Sadly, this means less food.
Food shortage and skyrocketing living expenses were a fact of life for as long as a century before the plague. Wheat, oats, hay, and consequently livestock, were all in short supply, and their scarcity resulted in abject starvation and malnutrition. The result was a mounting human vulnerability to disease and illness due to weakened immune systems.
Let's pause our view of Europe for a moment and look East. In Central Asia, in what is now Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, a succession of natural disasters and other epidemics swept throughout the land leaving dozens dead in its wake. Not wanting to be left out of the kill-all-humans party, the vector of the disease, the same fleas that caused Justinian's plague or maybe a close relative of it, started chipping away at the foot of the people that inhabited the region, infecting them with the plague.
Recent archaeological excavations on the shores of Issyk-Kul, a lake in what is now Kyrgyzstan, show that a Nestorian Christian trading community settling in the area was ravaged by the plague sometime between 1338 and 1339. Issyk-Kul was a major Silk Road depot and has sometimes - albeit unproven - been cited as the origin point for the Black Death. It certainly is prime habitat for marmots, which are known to carry a virulent form of the plague.
Evidence suggests that squirrels, rabbits, and chipmunks in the Tian-Sham region of Uzbekistan were vectors for the disease-carrying fleas as well, but most experts now believe they were carried by rodents.
These rodents, living, festering and scurrying about in the Caravanserais of Central Asia -where many merchants flock and trade wares - would hitch rides on the caravans of these same merchants; traveling throughout the silk road. To the east, they will bring the plague to a once plague ravished China, while to the west they'll start a chain of events that will lead to the annihilation of 70% of Europe's population.
Scientists, historical-zoologists, and some historical-pathologists believe the rats chose to move out of their natural habitats in Central Asia to escape the increasing average temperature and humidity caused by the near end of a minor ice age. The rodents who stayed behind would eventually die due to climate change.
Let's follow the rats' journey to the east.
As the Mongol empire was ravaging lands that were uncooperative, while ensuring trade and prosperity in those that were, a widespread disaster was occurring in China during 1353 to 1354. Chinese accounts of the untold disaster, caused by the disease - that is the plague - record a spread to eight distinct areas, on what is now: Hubei, Jiangxi, Shanxi, Hunan, Guangdong, Guangxi, Henan, and Suiyuan, throughout the Mongol and Chinese empires.
During this destruction of apocalyptic proportions, historical and pathological evidence suggest that 4 out of 10 people in China died. Mass burials were done and several burial pits dating back to this period were unearthed in massive graveyards across the Chinese areas affected. Interestingly, not only were the plague's genome evident in the bodies, but also an older form of the anthrax disease.
It would seem that it was not just the plague that's killing everybody.
Ibn al-Wardi, a Syrian writer who would later die of the plague in 1348, recorded that the Black Death came out of "The Land of Darkness," or Central Asia. From there, it spread to China, India, the Caspian Sea and "land of the Uzbeks,". From there, it spread to Persia and the Mediterranean. It is unknown where the "Land of Darkness" is, it is assumed that it is, in fact, Central Asia as the Mongols of the land prohibit access to their more remote areas to travelers being protective of their original settlements - being that the nature gods they worship are linked to the land they came from.
It's worth noting that their open outlook toward religion is what gave them the ideal point of view that allowed them to accept men of a different race, color, religion, and ethnicity into their empire and helped them conquer the majority of the known world at the time.
Now let us follow the lowly rat to the west.
Sometime in 1347 and onwards, the Mongol horde started venturing further west in order to acquire more territory pushing as far west pass the Black Sea's northern borders. During this time, merchants and traders from the Caravanserais of Central Asia would frequent these areas going up to the Mongol encampments in what is now the Crimea.
Together with merchants that bring trade and goods to these warriors were soldiers sent from Central Asia, to help continue the Mongol siege of an Italian trading outpost on the northern shores of the Black Sea, Kaffa. Unfortunately for the men in the front lines, these reserves did not only bring supplies, equipment, and gear - but more sinisterly, the plague.
An Italian lawyer, Gabriele de Mussis, recorded what happened next: "The whole army was affected by a disease which overran the [Mongols] and killed thousands upon thousands every day."
Mongol soldiers began dying off, soon enough only 2 out of 10 soldiers would survive. The remaining will eventually retreat, back to the steppes of Central Asia but before they do, they would come up with a deadly parting gift to their friends behind the wall.
A Mongol general, or the equivalent, would order his man to place the rotting corpses of their fallen soldiers onto the cusps of their ballistae. His plan was to hurl the diseased bodies over the ramparts. The smell, would hopefully, kill the surviving defenders - or probably he was hoping that whatever killed his men would decimate everyone inside the port outpost as well.
This would be considered as the first instance of a tactical biological implement being used in battle. The next recorded instance would be in our contemporary times, over five hundred years later. The massive population loss and terror caused by the plague destabilized Mongolian governments from the Golden Horde in Russia to the Yuan Dynasty in China. The Mongol ruler of the Ilkhanate Empire in the Middle East died of the disease along with six of his sons.
Not wanting to be infected themselves, many of the Genoese merchants who were besieged together with the citizens of Kaffa, found a way to set sail back to Genoa in present-day Italy. This would take them on a course pass Anatolia and through the islands of Syracuse.
Let's pause the story for a moment and contemplate on our world's situation today.
Just as the plague used the world's connectedness, via shipping and trade, as the jumping board for it's menacing devastation - Covid-19 uses our current technology to wreak havoc... may be not on the same scale of death as the plague has, but...
May be much worse... after all, there are far worse fates than deah.
For next week's installment, we'll continue the travels of man and the plague in this Concierto of death.
Watch out for the next installment on Monday, April 24, 2020.