The First Wave of the Black Death: The Plague in Sicily

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: THE BLACK DEATH: THE WORLD'S MOST DEVASTATING PLAGUE

By Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D., Purdue University

The island of Sicily is perfectly positioned as a trading center. Sailors and merchants heading home from the East would stop off in Sicily to drop off goods and resupply before the final leg of their sea voyage home. And this is how Sicily became one of the entry points for the spread of the Black Death in Europe.

The painting shows Genoese ships and sailors.
Genoese sailors docking at Sicily brought the plague with them, as they traveled back home from the East. (Image: Quinto Cenni/Public domain)

Michele da Piazza’s Account

Through Sicily goods and people might move north to the Italian Peninsula; west toward France and Iberia; east toward Eastern Europe and Russia, and toward what we today call the Middle East; and south toward North Africa. And according to a Franciscan friar named Michele da Piazza, it was the arrival of the Genoese that brought the plague to Sicily and ravaged that island in the earliest days of the first wave.

While Michele is given to hyperbole and a desire to make biblical allusions—for example, he numbers the Genoese ships putting in to the harbor at Messina on Sicily as 12, a mythical number that most scholars think is there just because of its symbolic power—Michele also gives us some details that indicate his account is mostly grounded in reality.

He describes the telltale buboes that erupt on the bodies of those infected. But he also says that anyone who even spoke to one of these sailors couldn’t help but be infected. If that’s true, then it’s possible there was something else happening here other than just bubonic plague.

This is a transcript from the video series The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Plague Spreads in Sicily

Once the people of Messina realized what was happening, they expelled the sailors and their ships, but it was obviously too late. As people started falling ill, there was an increase in confession and will-writing. In the space of a month, we go from a couple of wills being written to dozens.

And Michele’s account relates details that become all too familiar when you study the Black Death—parents refusing to care for sick children; friends abandoning their neighbors so that the dead bodies just stayed in the houses; and mass graves being dug. Even thieves were afraid to enter the homes of the wealthy dead, because they were sure that to cross that threshold meant certain death.

Learn more about whether the plague really did cause the Black Death.

The Mendicant Monks of the Medieval Society

A fresco of a Franciscan monk.
The Franciscan and Dominican friars in Sicily died as they ministered to the plague sufferers. (Image: Memmo di Filippuccio/ Public domain)

Two groups that did their best to offer comfort were the brothers in the Franciscan and Dominican orders. These were mendicant orders—meaning that they wandered or, more simply, that they were deeply engaged with the world and not sitting behind monastery walls.

But that didn’t mean that they were completely free of attachments or had no home base. Medieval society was really not comfortable with the idea of people simply wandering freely from place to place.

So early on in the development of the Franciscans and Dominicans, the Church essentially stipulated that there needed to be some sort of motherhouse or a priory that served as a base from which mendicant friars issued out, and to which they would presumably return.

The Monks Succumb to the Plague

While the numbers of people residing in such a place at any one time would thus fluctuate much more than, say, at a more conventional monastery or abbey, the plague still hit these foundations in noticeable ways.

As Michele da Piazza tells it:

The Franciscans and Dominicans, and others who were willing to visit the sick to hear their confession and impose penance, died in such large numbers that their priories were all but deserted.

Fleeing from Messina

Now, even though the theory of germ transmission didn’t exist yet, medieval people were just as intelligent as modern people. Once they saw what was happening, they logically figured that they should try and get away from Messina and the disease.

Many left their homes and camped out in the vineyards around the city, and some crossed the island to the cities of Catania, Syracusa, and Calabria. But of course, what was happening by all accounts is that they were bringing the disease with them. As Michele tells us:

But what did this resort to flight avail them, given that the illness, already carried within them, was consuming their bodies? Of those who fled, some collapsed in the roadway, in fields, on the seashore, at sea, in the huts of Mascali, in woods, in ditches, and in all manner of unlikely places.

One Duke Giovanni was so terrified that he started living the life of a wanderer. He roamed through the woods and wild, uninhabited places, roaming here and there, never staying more than a couple nights in one place, seeking out abandoned churches or other structures to house him. But finally, the plague caught up to him at the Church of Sant’Andrea, where he died and was buried in April 1348.

Learn more about Europe on the verge of the plague.

The End of the Plague in Sicily

The duke’s death marks the end of the first wave in Sicily. It had arrived in September 1347, burned its way across the island, and then finally started to peter out in April of the next year. Along the way, it took out religious leaders, government officials, and easily up to half of the general population.

But the most important thing to note here is that it did not stay contained in Sicily. Historians estimate that at the very end of 1347 or early in 1348, the plague crossed the Strait of Messina and entered the Italian Peninsula. This would be one of the four major bridgeheads from which the plague would gain entrance into Italy. The plague would radiate inward, and what happened in Sicily would repeat itself in what we think of today as Italy proper.

Common Questions about the Black Death in Sicily

Q: How did the Black Death come to Sicily?

The island of Sicily is perfectly positioned as a trading center. Sailors and merchants who were heading home from the East would stop off in Sicily to drop off goods and resupply before the final leg of their sea voyage home. And this is how Sicily became one of the entry points for the spread of the Black Death in Europe.

Q: What did Michele da Piazza report about the beginning of plague in Sicily?

According to Michele da Piazza, it was the arrival of the Genoese that brought the plague to Sicily and ravaged that island in the earliest days of the first wave.

Q: Why were the Franciscan and Dominican friars affected by the Black Death?

The Franciscans and Dominicans left the priory to bring comfort to the ill and dying, to hear their confession and impose penance. Then they themselves were struck down by the Black Death, and died in large numbers.

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