October 1347. Twelve Genoese galleys arrived at the port of Messina, in Sicily. From there they disembarked, not only the sailors, but an invisible and terrifying traveler. So terrible that, if they had known, the port authorities would not have hesitated for a single moment to send the twelve ships and their respective crews to the bottom of the sea .
Nothing is known about these ships: neither where they came from, nor if they carried any cargo or if Messina was their final destination. The only thing certain is that a deadly and microscopic passenger came down from there: the bacterium Yersinia pestis . In this nondescript way, the Black Death landed in Europe.
Historians suspect that the galleys came from the Genoese city of Caffa on the Crimean peninsula . It is also unclear how the disease got there, although it is suspected that it was brought by the Mongols of the Golden Horde (a Mongolian state that encompassed parts of present-day Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan) from India. They laid siege to the city and are said to have launched plague-infected corpses into the city using catapults. But such an explanation has a drawback: the plague is not contracted by contact with the dead .
Nor is it possible to know if this ghostly and deadly passenger went down to Messina with the rats and fleas or if the unfortunate sailors were already suffering from it. The only certain thing is that in a few days the plague settled down with firm roots in the unfortunate city. His fate was sealed.
the plague spreads
The citizens of Messina could do nothing but force the ill-fated sailors to board their ships and sail them out of port quickly. The deluded Sicilians believed that in this way they would get rid of evil. Big mistake. The only thing they achieved was that the plague, the black death , spread throughout the Mediterranean.
With hundreds of victims every day and believing that the slightest contact with a sick person caused contagion, panic spread throughout the city. The few leaders who could have taken some kind of measures to, at least, mitigate the danger were among the first to die. The people of Messina fled their doomed city inland, into the fields and vineyards of southern Sicily. In their desperation they thought that isolation would save them, but what they did was spread death throughout the island .
When the first victims arrived in the nearby city of Catania, they were admitted to hospitals and treated with exquisite care. But when they realized the magnitude of the disaster , very strict immigration laws were enacted . The fear was such that no Catano even dared to speak to a Messin.
But it was already late. Death had settled peacefully in their homes. The plague was preparing to jump to the mainland. And no one was safe.
of unknown origin
The black plague, bubonic plague or black death has been one of the most devastating pandemics in the history of mankind. For 400 years we had it in Europe, but the most terrible peak happened between 1347 and 1353, which killed more than a third of the European population . It is estimated that some 25 million people died from plague in Europe alone along with another 40 to 60 million in Africa and Asia.
Yersinia pestis is a Gram negative bacillus: it receives this name because it does not stain dark blue but a faint pink when Gram’s stain is applied, used in microbiology to see bacteria more clearly under a microscope. It lives peacefully on rodents such as rats, squirrels, gerbils, and mice, and is transmitted between them using fleas . The path is simple: the flea carries the infection from one rat to another and from the rat jumps to the human being. Once inside us, it lodges in the lymph nodes in the armpit or groin, which become inflamed, increase in size and end up suppurating until they form the fateful “buboes”. Luckily for medieval Europeans, bubonic plague is not transmitted between people but if the bacteria reaches the lung it can become pneumonic or respiratory plague, which is transmitted between people due to the aerosols we emit when breathing, as happens with the coronavirus. Both are two killer diseases: if left untreated, bubonic plague kills half of those infected and pneumonic plague 100%. Laugh at the 1-3% attributed to coronavirus.
Where he came from? Nobody knows for sure. It is believed that it appeared in the Gobi desert to reach China between 1331 or 1334. From there it went to India, then to Russia and through trade routes it reached the Mediterranean ports of Europe, where it persisted for 400 years until its disappearance. As in many epidemics that have devastated the planet, its origin and its disappearance are a mystery.
Horrox, R. (1994) The black death, Manchester University Press