the black plague in asia -- 12/12/19

Today's encore selection -- from Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford. In the 1300s, Europe's Black Plague brought death to 25 million people, by some estimates a third to a half of its population, and is one of the most famous episodes in history. But that plague had started in China just a few years earlier and killed more people in Asia -- perhaps as many as 40 million -- than in Europe:

"A person [with the plague] could appear healthy in the morning, but suddenly break into hot fever that rapidly gave way to chills accompanied by both vomiting and diarrhea. The bodies of individu­als who had only a short time earlier appeared active and robust suddenly and inexplicably broke down and began to dissolve before the horrified fam­ily observers. Blood began to ooze beneath the skin, which discolored the skin, lumps formed and oozed blood and pus in the groin. The lumps, sub­sequently called buboes from the Greek word for groin, then formed in the armpit and neck, and from them came the medical term for the disease: bubonic plague. When the lumps grew too large, they burst open. The lack of oxygen moving into the body and the dried blood beneath the skin made the person appear to turn black; from this dramatic symptom, the disease became known as the Black Death. After only a few agonizing days of tor­tured pain, the person usually died. In some victims, the disease attacked the lungs rather than the lymph nodes, and as the air in the lungs turned bloody and frothy, they drowned. As they died, they infected those around them by violent coughing, sneezing, and gasping.

"According to the most plausible, but not completely verifiable, accounts, the disease originated in the south of China, and Mongol warriors brought it north with them. The plague bacterium lives in fleas, which traveled on rats transported in shipments of food or other tribute taken from the south. ...

"In 1331, chroniclers recorded that 90 percent of the people of Hopei Province died. By 1351, China had reportedly lost between one-half and two-thirds of its population to the plague. The country had included some 123 million inhabitants at the beginning of the thirteenth century, but by the end of the fourteenth century the population dropped to as low as 65 million.

"China functioned as the manufacturing center of the Mongol World System, and as the goods poured out of China, the disease followed, seem­ingly spreading in all directions at once. Archaeological evidence of graves near trading posts indicates that by 1338 the plague crossed from China over the Tian Shan Mountains and wiped out a Christian trading community near lake Issyk Kul in Kyrgyzstan. The plague was an epidemic of commerce. The same Mongol roads and caravans that knitted together the Eurasian world of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries moved more than mere silk and spices. The roads and way stations set up by the Mongols for merchants also served as the inadvertent transfer points for the fleas and, thereby, for the dis­ease itself. With the luxurious fabrics, exotic flavors, and opulent jewels, the caravans brought the fleas that spread the plague from one camp to another, one village to another, one city to another, and one continent to another. If plague destroyed only a single, crucial station in a mountain pass or blocked one route through the desert, it potentially isolated a large region within the vast empire.

"Plague reached the capital of the Golden Horde at Sarai on the lower Volga in 1345. At this time, Yanibeg, the Kipchak khan, was preparing to lay siege to the Crimean port of Kaffa (modern-day Feodosija in Ukraine), a trading post established by merchants from Genoa primarily for the export of Russian slaves to Egypt. ... When the Genovese and other refugees fled the port by boat, they took the disease with them to Constantinople, from where it easily spread to Cairo in Egypt and to Messina in Sicily. If the city was the ideal home for the plague, the closed environment of the ship was the ideal incubator, a place where humans, rats, and fleas could mix inti­mately without the noxious presence of horses or fire, the two things that fleas most avoid. Freed from the comparatively slow movement on the trad­ing route, where the disease had to wait for precisely the right cart or cargo of goods, the plague spread with the speed of the wind in the sails. In 1348, it ravaged the cities of Italy, and by June of that year entered England. By the winter of 1350, the plague had crossed the North Atlantic from the Faeroe Islands on through Iceland and reached Greenland. It may have killed 60 percent of the settlers of Iceland, and the plague was probably the single most important factor in the final extinction of the struggling Viking colony in Greenland.

"In the sixty years from 1340 until 1400, according to some estimates, the population of Africa declined from 80 million to 68 million inhabitants, and Asia from 238 million to 201 million. The total world population ­including the Americas, where the plague did not strike for another two centuries -- fell from approximately 450 million to between 350 and 375 mil­lion inhabitants, a net loss of at least 75 million, or more than a million people a year for the remainder of the fourteenth century. As more evidence accumulates, scholarly research continues to push the losses higher. The population of Europe declined from around 75 million to 52 million. With a death toll of around 25 million the loss in the European continent alone was roughly the same as the total worldwide toll of AIDS in the twentieth century. For Europe in the fourteenth century, however, the figure repre­sented between a third and one-half of the total population. By compari­son, in the tremendous destruction of World War II in Europe, Great Britain lost less than 1 percent of its population, and France, the scene of much fighting, lost .5 percent of its population. German losses reached 9.1 percent. Widespread famine pushed the World War II death rates in Poland and Ukraine toward 19 percent, but even these remained well below the rates for the plague in the fourteenth century."



Jack Weatherford


Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World


Three Rivers Press


Copyright 2004 by Jack Weatherford


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