In October 1347, a Genoese fleet landed in the harbor of Messina, in northeast Sicily. Every member of its crew was dead or dying, afflicted with a mysterious disease from the East. Rumors of the pestilence had reached the major European seaports in previous months and the harbormasters quickly tried to quarantine the fleet, but to no avail. Rats from the ships carried the disease to Messina and its environs, where the pestilence spread: within 6 months, half the region’s population either died or fled. This fleet, together with others carrying pestilence along trade routes to ports throughout Eurasia and North Africa, formed the vanguard of the Black Death.
The Black Death is the greatest natural disaster in European history. It ravaged the Western world from 1347 to 1351, killing between 30% and 50% of Europe’s population, and causing or accelerating major political, social, economic, and cultural changes. Few, if any, historians would deny the Black Death an important role in European history, but there is much debate over the nature and timing of this role. Some consider the Black Death to be the major turning point in the transition from medieval to modern Europe, while others regard it as but a part of the general economic and moral crises of the time. The most compelling histories of the plague straddle this divide, acknowledging the fundamental problems in European society before 1347 while concluding that the Black Death, especially its cyclic reoccurrence, was the primary impetus for change.
Plague first struck Europe in 541, in an epidemic called Justinian’s Plague after the Byzantine emperor who ruled at the time of the outbreak. It began in Egypt,