Did the Black Death spread via biological warfare?

Mongol siege"At first, strange stories began to come out of the distant parts of China. Travelers told about a mysterious illness that killed almost everyone who caught it."

For Benjamin’s history lessons, we use Susan Wise Bauer’s Story of the World series. We’re in volume 2, the Middle Ages. And as you can probably guess from the opening quotation, we’ve just read about the Black Death of the 14th century.

Barbara Tuchman goes into the history of the Plague quite a bit in A Distant Mirror so I thought I knew the major details, but our homeschooling text tells a story I’d never heard before of how the Black Death came to Europe:

People who lived near the Black Sea began to grow sick. In the villages and plains nearby, hundreds died. An old story tells us that the villagers blamed foreign merchants from Italy for bringing the sickness. They gathered into an army and drove the Italian merchants into the city of Caffa, at the edge of the Black Sea.

The people of Caffa (and the Italian merchants) barred the gates and fought back. So the attackers put the dead bodies of those who had died from the sickness into catapults and hurled them over the walls. Soon illness broke out in Caffa as well. The Italian merchants panicked! They ran from Caffa, boarded their ships, and sailed back home to Italy. But by the time they got there, almost everyone on board the ships was sick — or dead. The people of Italy refused to let them come ashore. But despite this, the sickness soon appeared on land. It spread through Italy, up into Europe, across the sea to England, and down into North Africa. Millions of people died.

"Biological Warfare at the 1346 Siege of Caffa," an article from the US Center for Disease Control’s website confirms the first part of the story:

On the basis of a 14th-century account by the Genoese Gabriele de’ Mussi, the Black Death is widely believed to have reached Europe from the Crimea as the result of a biological warfare attack. This is not only of great historical interest but also relevant to current efforts to evaluate the threat of military or terrorist use of biological weapons. Based on published translations of the de’ Mussi manuscript, other 14th-century accounts of the Black Death, and secondary scholarly literature, I conclude that the claim that biological warfare was used at Caffa is plausible and provides the best explanation of the entry of plague into the city.

Biologist Mark Wheelis, the author of the CDC article, denies the second part, at least in its most important detail:

This theory is consistent with the technology of the times and with contemporary notions of disease causation; however, the entry of plague into Europe from the Crimea likely occurred independent of this event.

I find Wheelis’s reasoning pretty compelling: if the Plague had come to Italy from Genoese sailors fleeing the siege of Caffa, it should have reached Western Europe earlier than it did. Wheelis believes that, while disease may have entered the West from Caffa, it followed multiple overland routes before arriving by sea.

A Distant MirrorYet almost everywhere else I look online, the Caffa story is given as the origin. It reminds me of this wonderful passage from A Distant Mirror:

It may be taken as axiomatic that any statement of fact about the Middle Ages may (and probably will) be met by a statement of the opposite or a different version. Women outnumbered men because men were killed off in the wars; men outnumbered women because women died in childbirth. Common people were familiar with the Bible; common people were unfamiliar with the Bible. Nobles were tax exempt; no, they were not tax exempt. French peasants were filthy and foul-smelling and lived on bread and onions; French peasants ate pork, fowl, and game and enjoyed frequent baths in the village bathhouses. The list could be extended indefinitely.


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