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On this day

Smashed by the Black Death

In the autumn of 1347, twelve Genoese galleys with their grisly cargoes arrived in the port of Messina. There were stinking corpses on the decks of the harbored ships where the few survivors prayed aloud to God for forgiveness. The vessels were immediately expelled from the harbor but it was too late.

The first appearance of the Black Death is dated to March 20, 1345 by the scientists of the University of Paris. The infectious disease, caused by the bacteria called Yersinia pestis, mostly transferred by rat fleas, swept through Europe during the 14th century; an estimated 75 to 200 million people perished. Religious, social and economic changes were triggered by the killer epidemic that made a profound impact in the history of the continent. It required 150 years for the population of Europe, ravaged by the infection, to restore itself. The Black Death did not disappear for good since until the 19th century it had returned several times to the Old Continent.

In 1346 Tatars, besieging the Crimean port town of Kaffa, which was protected by Genoese soldiers, catapulted infected corpses into the city. Their devilish plan worked; the disease began to spread among the inhabitants. Next year Genoese merchants sailing home from Crimea launched the deadliest European plague that lasted from 1347 to 1353.

Within three years, the epidemic, starting from southern Europe spreading along the trade and shipping routes, overwhelmed Europe, then North Africa and the Middle East. The poor sanitary conditions of medieval towns – there were neither garbage collection nor sewer systems –boosted the number of infected people further. People did not know about the causes of the disease and could hardly explain the spread of plague either.

Some major port and market towns tried to introduce health-related measures such as setting up quarantine in order to protect people, but these were not observed consistently. Public morality was shaken by the epidemic; Christians interpreted the catastrophe as the punishment of God, others accused the Jews of poisoning the wells and thereby spreading the epidemic.

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