• The First Contact of the Western European World and the Plague: in the middle ages, Italy was far from united; the peninsula was divided between many city states each with their own interests, militaries, and economies. Fast forward through a bunch of politicking, and the Genoese, one such Italian city-state, was in this off and on conflict with the Mongol Empire. This conflict escalated until the city of Kafka was assaulted– the Mongols, in what some historians have called ‘history’s greatest act of biological warfare,’ catapulted disease-ridden (plague-ridden) corpses into the city.
  • Key Passage from a local medieval Italian history book (DeMoussi): “O God, see how the heathen tartar races pouring together from all sides, suddenly infested the city of Kafka and sudden besieged the trapped Christians there for almost three years. But behold, the whole army was infected by a disease that overran the Tartars and killed thousands upon thousands every day. All medical advice and attention was useless. The Tartars died as soon as the signs of disease appeared on their bodies. Swellings in the armpit or groin caused by coulgulating humors followed by a putrid fever.”
  • DeMoussi recounts that those who fled the city and returned home brought back with them the plague with community after community falling victim. DeMoussi describes this as an akin to a shadow or clime.
  • Though Kafka was one of the first, if not the first instance of contact that the medieval world had with the plague, modern historians do not see it as the most likely candidate for how the pestilence spread. Many believe that the rampaging Golden Horde was a likely culprit (among other culprits).
  • Recap: in 1346 plague activity was happening to the Northwest of the Caspian Sea and the Northeast of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. It struck Kafka and then in 1347 the area around Constantinople was badly hit; many traders had likely unwittingly spread the plague in the trading travels. Sailors from the Peninsula likely brought it into the European world; looking at historical maps, one can clearly see how port cities were hit hardest and how the infection spread out from those infected port cities. In 1347 the Black Death appears on Crete, Cyprus, in Southern Greece, and in Alexandria in Egypt. Many places in Italy were infected as were major ports in France. In 1348 the plague then spread inland. The rest is history.
  • How did the crews of these ships survive if they were carrying plague? Historian’s best guess is that due to the diversity of the ships, the rate of infection was slow, especially with soldiers protecting the goods which would have been the principal source of infection. If it was the bubonic variant, then it was possible people survived.


  1. What other examples of biological warfare (and warfare in general) later inspired vast outbreaks of disease and social disaster?
  2. Part of the history of how the plague was spread was that people were unwittingly infected or brought the infection with them while fleeing warzones; is this particularly relevant today in an age of refugees fleeing conflict in the Middle East or is it different?

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