The Ports of Entry of the First Wave of the Black Death into Europe

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

By Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D., Purdue University

According to tradition, and the contemporary chronicler Gabriele de’ Mussi, it was Genoese and Venetians fleeing the city of Caffa in the mid-14th century who brought the plague to the Italian Peninsula, and from there, to all of Western Europe. Is it true that the Black Death entered Europe through multiple entry points?

Image showing European merchants returning from Asia.
European merchants returning from trading missions in Asia were among those who introduced the Black Death to Europe. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

The Spread of the Plague from Caffa and Constantinople

In 1346, at the port city of Caffa on the Black Sea, a Mongol army laid siege to the stronghold of Genoese merchants from the part of Europe that we today think of as Italy. When plague ravaged the attacking forces, their leaders came up with a novel way to both dispose of the corpses and make one last desperate salvo in their bid to take the city—they catapulted the corpses over the city walls. The merchants fleeing the siege were thought to be the ones who brought the plague to Europe.

While it is true that the siege of Caffa is memorable as one of the first and most incredible instances of biological warfare in history, it’s most likely not the case that this was the single entry point by which the Black Death made its way into Western Europe.

The great city of Constantinople, at the crossroads of East and West, was already suffering from a serious outbreak of plague that had most likely made it there from Hubei province in China, where most scholars think the 14th-century outbreak of plague originated.

From these and other major trade centers, the plague moved by water across the Mediterranean and by land along caravan routes. Refugees from Caffa may indeed have brought the plague home with them, but they were not the only ones carrying the disease westward.

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.

A Hopscotch Progression

While many people imagine that the plague started in the East, in China, and then worked its way slowly west over land, that’s only partially true. Yes, the plague was moving along overland trade routes, but it was doing that much more slowly than it was moving along sea routes.

Part of what made the plague so devastating is that when it moved over water, it was hopscotching far ahead of the overland progression of the Black Death. And what this meant is that there were multiple bridgeheads, or entrance points, which allowed the plague access to a particular region, and which made it almost impossible to escape its ravages.

By late 1347, the port cities of Genoa, Venice, Messina, Marseille, and others were hard hit by the Black Death; in a matter of months, the sickness had radiated out from those areas as the first wave of the Black Death was cresting in Western Europe.

Painting of Dubrovnik identifying it as 'Ragusa'.
Dubrovnik, or Ragusa, was one of the territories of Venice, and was one of the many sources of the plague in Europe. (Image: archivo de estado de ragusa/Public domain)

While it was the port cities in Italy that were the initial sources of infection, we need to remember that many islands of the Dalmatian coast, along with the cities of Dubrovnik and Split—which were then called Ragusa and Spalato—were actually the property of the city-state of Venice. And the plague very early on moved into the port city of Marseille, which gave it a way into France. From Sicily, the plague didn’t just cross the Strait of Messina to the mainland; it also infected Corsica, Elba, and Sardinia.

Learn more about the epidemiology of plague.

The Many Tentacles of the Plague

What we know is that in 1346, the plague shows up in the area on the northeast coast of the Black Sea; and then in early 1347, radiates north, south, and southwest—its most important point of infection at this time being the area around Constantinople, which was a center of trade, commerce, politics, and religion.

In other words, if the Black Death were sentient, it could not have strategized better as to where it wanted to be when it kicked things into high gear. As far as infection of Europe in late 1347 goes, there are key hotspots which are all entry points or bridgeheads that allowed for the plague to start ravaging the mainland.

You can imagine the infection progression in this way: there’s this Black Death octopus-like sea monster in the Mediterranean Sea, and it’s lolling around upside down, with its head resting just above the North African coast.

And in 1347, it reaches out with its tentacles, in a kind of generally northerly direction to touch and infect Greece, the islands of Crete and Cyprus, Dubrovnik, Split, Venice, Sicily, Sardinia and the islands around it, then Pisa, Genoa, Marseille, and Mallorca. And also, one of its tentacles reaches kind of lazily over to the southeast and hits Alexandria in Egypt.

Learn more about the plague’s horrific impact at Marseille.

Pinpricks of the Plague

So even though we often talk about the various waves of plague, it’s important to keep in mind that in the initial phase in 1347, it’s more like pinpricks on the geography of Europe—making multiple little entry points by which the plague will get a foothold, start to progress inward in multiple directions, and then those waves of infection would crash into each other, creating massive devastation.

However, there were a few exceptions to that movement. Cities like Milan, and Liège, and Nuremberg managed to remain plague-free islands in a sea of disease and suffering for quite some time. But again, those are exceptions. For most of the medieval European world, the Black Death was inexorable, inescapable, and impossible to defend against.

Common Questions about the Entry of the Black Death into Europe

Q: Why is Caffa often said to be the source of the plague in Europe?

In 1346, a Mongol army laid siege to Caffa, the stronghold of Genoese merchants. When plague ravaged the attacking forces, their leaders catapulted the corpses over the city walls. The merchants fleeing the siege were thought to be the ones who brought the plague to Europe.

Q: What was the land route for the plague?

Constantinople, at the crossroads of East and West, suffered from a serious outbreak of plague that had most likely made it there from Hubei province in China, where most scholars think the 14th century outbreak of plague originated. From these and other major trade centers, the plague moved by land along caravan routes.

Q: Why was the water route of the plague so devastating?

Part of what made the plague so devastating is that when it moved over water, it was hopscotching far ahead of the overland progression of the Black Death. There were multiple entrance points which allowed the plague access to a particular region, and which made it almost impossible to escape its ravages.

Keep Reading
The Commercial Revolution in Medieval Europe
The Making of Constantinople: Constantine’s “New Rome”
Late Antiquity: Barbarian Invasion or Settlement?