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The Black Death in Greece and the Byzantine Empire

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A depiction of people burying victims of the Black Death in Tournai by Pierart Dou Tielt in 1353. Credit: Public Domain

In the fourteenth century, the Black Death spread rapidly throughout Asia and Europe, including in Greece and across the Byzantine empire.

The Black Death is the most fatal pandemic ever recorded, as an estimated 75 to 200 million people died from the plague across Europe, Asia, and North Africa from 1346 to 1353.

The pestilence is believed to have killed 30 to 60 percent of Europe’s population and one third of the population of the Middle East.

The plague caused an unimaginable loss of life, particularly in Europe

The massive loss of life in Europe impacted the continent for centuries. It was not until the sixteenth century that the continent’s population reached the level it was before the onset of the Black Death.

Although it was never quite as deadly as the outbreak in the Middle Ages, the plague resurfaced periodically in Europe until the 19th century, most notably during the 17th century.

The pandemic is linked to the bacterium Yersina pestis, or Y. pestis, which is spread by fleas. The bacterium Y. pestis can cause three types of plague in human beings: bubonic, septicemic, and pneumonic.

The bubonic version of the plague is the one most associated with the black death. It leaves sufferers intolerant to light, feverish, vomiting blood, and fatigued. It causes headaches, delirium, and pain in the limbs. Most notably, it’s also linked to buboes, or swollen lymph nodes, often in the groin and armpits.

Most people, around 80 percent, who contracted the bubonic plague would die within two to seven days of infection.

The septicemic and pneumonic versions of the plague were more fatal than the bubonic plague and were spread either through a flea bite or through contact with airborne droplets from an infected person. About 90 percent of people who contract the pneumonic plague, which affects the lungs, die. It causes an acute cough, and sufferers cough up blood.

The septicemic plague has a mortality rate of almost 100 percent, as it is an infection of the blood. As progression of the septicemic plague is so quick, patients tended to die within a day or even hours of initial infection.

Scientists have conducted DNA testing on the skeletons of plague victims from across Europe and Asia and have confirmed that the bacterium Y. pestis was present in all of them. However, it is impossible to tell which form the plague took in each patient by analyzing DNA, so it is not currently known which, if any, version of the Black Death was most common at the time.

The plague still exists to this day, but has nearly been eradicated in much of the world due to modern medicine. Currently, with antibiotic treatment, the mortality rate of the bubonic plague is at 11%. DNA analysis of the modern Y. pestis bacterium shows that it is a descendant of the older Y. pestis bacterium that caused the plague.

The Black Death likely has its origins in Asia, where changes in climate led to migrations among rodent species that harbored fleas infected with Y. pestis. Although this is the most widely-accepted theory, it is disputed by some scholars.

Black Death first recorded in Crimea, rapidly made its way throughout Byzantine Empire

Although its origins are disputed, the first historical record of the plague is from the Crimean Peninsula in the Black Sea in the year 1347.

Historical records indicate that the Black Death nearly destroyed the army of Jani Beg, the Khan of the Golden Horde, as he was besieging the Genoese port of Kaffa in Crimea at the time.

Rather than admitting defeat due to the plague, Jani Beg threw the infected corpses into the town to infect his enemies.

Due to the highly infectious nature of the plague, residents of the town were quickly infected. As it was a port town, the plague soon spread throughout the world, but first to Mediterranean ports in Italy, North Africa, Spain, and Constantinople. From there, the disease soon spread to the rest of Europe.

Infected fleas likely latched onto rats which were omnipresent in ships docked in ports across the world. Along with the ships’ cargo, infected fleas and rats were transported to countless locations.

After its initial introduction to Europe in the mid 14th century, the Black Plague made repeated appearances throughout the continent, as it was likely reintroduced to the continent by travelers from Central Asia.

This is due to the fact that there were periods during which the plague would seemingly die out, only to re-emerge years later.

The plague spread throughout all of Europe, and Greece, much of which was part of the Byzantine Empire at the time, was not spared.

According to a paper published by Costas Tsiamis, Effie Poulakou-Rebelakou, Athanassios Tsakris, and Eleni Petridou in the Italian medical journal “Infezmed,” Byzantine chroniclers did not keep detailed records regarding the impact of the Black Plague on Greece and the Byzantine Empire.

Despite this, a total of 61 reports of the Black Death, nine of which amounted to major epidemic waves, were recorded in the Byzantine Empire during the period of 1347 to 1453.

Out of all of the regions in the Byzantine Empire, the capital city of Constantinople, now Istanbul, and the Ionian and Aegean islands, then controlled by Venice, were the most heavily impacted by the plague, likely due to heavy trading.

According to Greek scholars, “scientific ignorance of the nature of the disease, a turbulent period of warfare and an organized maritime network seem to have contributed to the spread” of the Black Death in Greece and the Byzantine Empire.

While there are countless sources from Western Europe that are dedicated almost exclusively to the impact of the plague on their countries, sources from Greece tended to include the plague in passages about other contemporary historical events.

Most notably, the Byzantine Empire was in the midst of a significant decline in geographical, political, and cultural influence during the period that the plague struck, so many sources were focused on the crumbling of the Empire, along with the plague.

The decline of the empire, stunning military defeats, and massive natural disasters such as earthquakes, coupled with the plague, caused many people in Greece and across the Byzantine Empire to believe that they “were doomed by God,” the scholars write.

This feeling was not limited to Greece or the Byzantine Empire, however, as people across Europe feared that the Black Death was sent by God and a sign of the end  times.

As mentioned previously, Constantinople was one of the first cities hit by the plague after it was first officially recorded in Crimea in 1347. According to the writings of former Byzantine Emperor and monk John VI Kantakouzenos, who is an invaluable source of information on life in that particular time period, the Black Death was incredibly destructive in Constantinople.

In his writings, Kantakouzenos describes the rapid pace at which the plague ripped through the Byzantine capital, and how people of all ages and social status were infected by the pestilence.

According to Kantakouzenos, who mainly described symptoms that align with the pneumonic version of the plague, there were not many instances of communicable diseases in Constantinople in the period before the arrival of the Black Death.

Out of every region and city in Greece and across the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople was the one most affected by the plague, research from Greek scholars shows. This reflects “the view of historians that capitals were always vulnerable to the disease because of extensive trade,” they write.

Black Death hit Greece through trade routes and port cities

After hitting Constantinople, the plague made its way throughout many locations in Greece, particularly in Crete, Thessaloniki, Rhodes, and throughout the Peloponnese.

Venetian ports on the Greek islands, the Peloponnese, and the island of Cyprus were particularly impacted.

Intense periods of infection lasted for many years in much of Greece and the Byzantine Empire. In Constantinople, the Black Death was widespread until 1364, and the situation did not begin to improve in the Peloponnese and Crete until a whole year later.

As in the rest of the world, however, many places in Greece experienced waves of the Black Death – periods of increased infection followed by an absence of the plague.

The last recorded instance of the Black Death in Byzantine Constantinople dates to 1441, but resurgences of the plague in Greece date all the way up until 1450, meaning that the plague was present in the region for over a century.

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