Sunday, 17 March 2013

Plague routes

This week I have found myself staring at photographs in the press of a perfectly round, very deep and ominously black pit. At the bottom a row of human skeletons.

It’s probably a plague pit discovered during the building of a cross-London rail link, going back to the arrival of the Black Death in London in 1348. Paleoepidemiologists – it’s a new job to me – are hoping to extract sufficient  DNA material from bone samples to determine the cause of death.

Because I wrote something about the origins of the Black Death in my book about Venice, I found myself thinking back to the winter of 1344, when a large Mongol army was beseiging the Genoese fortress of Kaffa on the Crimean peninsula. The attackers failed to take the fort – its walls were thick and Mongol siege equipment evidently wasn’t up to the job. As they sat outside the walls the Mongols mysteriously started to die. A contemporary chronicler recorded what happened next:

‘Disease seized and struck down the whole Tatar army. Every day unknown thousands perished . . . they died as soon as the symptoms appeared on their bodies, the result of coagulating humours in their groins and armpits followed by putrid fever. All medical advice and help was useless. The Tatars, exhausted, astonished and completely demoralised by the appalling catastrophe and virulent disease, realised that there was no hope of avoiding death . . . and ordered the corpses to be loaded into their catapults and flung into Caffa, so that the enemy might be wiped out by the terrible stench. It appears that huge piles of dead were hurled inside, and the Christians could neither hide, flee nor escape from these corpses, which they tried to dump in the sea, as many as they could. The air soon became completely infected and the water supply was poisoned by rotting corpses.’

When the siege failed, the Genoese (and Venetians) sailed away, carrying the Black Death with them so efficiently that it had ringed the western world within a couple of years, spreading down the maritime trade routes of Europe – ships were the engines of globalization in all its forms:

 Maybe now it’s the plane. This week scientists recorded tremors of a modern pandemic threat: the Sars virus killed a man in London who had taken the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. Where humans meet in large numbers the potential for interactions are uncontrollable. The great flu pandemic of 1918 that killed more people than the First World War (perhaps 50 to 100 million) was efficiently spread across Europe by the large troop concentrations in camps in Belgium and Northern France. Let’s hope the epidemiologists don’t let anything lethal escape from the sub-soil of London.

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