“No one to bury the dead”
The Black Death of 1346 to 1353 remains the worst single epidemic in human history. Read on for key facts and figures about the plague that swept through Europe killing millions.
Above: Danse Macabre (Dance of Death), 1493, by Michael Wolgemut (1434 – 1519).
75-200 million – the number of people across Europe and Asia believed to have perished in the pandemic.
450 million – the approximate world population prior to the Black Death.
350–375 million – the estimated global population after the pandemic.
4 years – the length of time the Black Death peaked in Europe.
40-50% – the estimated death toll in Europe.
70-80% – the estimated death toll in southern Europe (Spain, France and Italy), where the plague lasted for around four years consecutively.
20% – the estimated death toll in England and Germany.
Did You Know?
Scientists and historians have concluded that the plague probably broke out around Lake Issyk Kul, in the country known today as Kyrgyzstan, before spreading east to China and west to the Middle East and Europe.
1320s – the period that plague broke out in Mongolia and the Gobi Desert, before starting to spread east and west, initially overland.
300 – the number of tribes wiped out by plague within a three month period, in what may have been Mongolia or northern China, as recounted by Arab chronicler Muhammad Al-Maqrizi (1363/4–1442).
1331 – the year that a mysterious and deadly illness was recorded in the north east of China, in Hopei province.
90% – the percentage of the Hopei population who died from the disease.
1331–1353 – the years during which plague raged in China.
65% – one estimate of the proportion of the population of China killed by the plague.
120 million – the population of China in the 1330s.
90 million – the population of China in 1393.
Did You Know?
Some historians believe that a string of natural disasters in China in the 1330s – famine, floods, earthquakes, droughts – would have impacted not only the human population but the rodent population also. These rodents, within whom the plague bacillus was endemic, may then have migrated south into India and west into the area around Issyk Kul, taking the plague with them.
1338-39 – the years during which the plague broke out among communities living around Issyk Kul (the tenth largest lake in the world by volume, located in eastern Kyrgyzstan).
Above: Map showing the location (circled) of Issyk Kul in eastern Kyrgyzstan, the area where the Black Death is believed to have originated.
3 – the number of tombstones discovered near Issyk Kul that give the cause of death as plague.
1339 – the year that a husband and wife local to Lake Issyk are known to have died from the plague, recorded on one of the tombstones discovered in the area.
In the year of the hare. This is the grave of Kutluk. He died of the plague with his wife Magnu-Kelka – memorial on the tombstone (the year of the hare is 1300).
1345 – the year in which the Black Death, following trade routes, reached Sarai, the capital of the Golden Horde, on the banks of the Volga river.
15 years – the period of time that the plague raged in the east before spreading to Europe, according to the Arab scholar Ibn al-Wardi. Having taken this long to reach the Crimea, spreading overland, the disease would now become waterborne, spreading via ships along trade routes into Europe. Now the Black Death would spread wider, farther and faster than before.
1346 – the year the plague reached and spread through cities along the coast of the Caspian sea, south into Astrakhan and Azerbaijan, and west to the Crimea, a major trading area of importance to Muslim and Christian merchants alike.
85,000 – the number of people said to have died from plague in the Crimea in 1346. The Christians were blamed for the deaths and were attacked at Tana before retreating to Caffa (or Kaffa, present-day Feodosiya in the Crimea) on the Black Sea coast. Here they came under siege from the Mongol/Tartar army, under the command of Janibeg.
1347 – the year the plague spread to Caffa. Towards the end of the siege, with Tartar troops were dying from plague in great numbers, Janibeg carried out a final act of revenge. In an early form of biological warfare, he had the bodies of plague victims catapulted over the walls into Caffa. Caffa’s residents dumped bodies into the sea, but it was not enough to save the city, and the plague quickly spread
What seemed like mountains of dead were thrown into the city […] and soon the rotting corpses tainted the air and poisoned the water supply […] one infected man could carry the poison to others, and infect people and places with the disease by look alone. – Gabriele de Mussis (c. 1280 – c. 1356), describing the attack on Caffa.
Did You Know?
As the Genoese fled Caffa, heading out to sea, they unwittingly carried the disease with them, fleas having found their way into the cloth they carried or infesting the ships’ rats. Sailing toward either Europe or the Middle East, every ship was a potential carrier of the disease.
1347 – the year in which the pestilence, spreading via the trade routes of the Mediterranean, reached the sea ports of Constantinople, Alexandria, and Cyprus. To the west, the ports of Messina, Genoa, Florence, Pisa and Venice were also struck. From these entry points the plague could now spread inland, carried via overland trading routes.
October 1347 – the month the plague arrived in Europe, at the Port of Messina in northern Sicily.
The Plague in Italy
12 – the number of Genoese trading ships commonly believed to have brought the plague to Messina.
33% – the percentage of the population of Sicily who are estimated to have died within the first year of the plague reaching the island.
Did You Know?
The appearance of the plague in Italy in 1348 was seen by many as just another act of punishment by God. In 1309 the papacy had abandoned Rome and relocated to Avignon. More recently, earthquakes had recently struck in Rome, Pisa, Bologna, Padua, Venice and Naples. Prolonged rains in 1345 (incessant for six months) lead to food shortages in 1346 and 1347, as sowing became near impossible. Food costs soared, the economy fractured, and political infighting raged.
The entire human race wallowing in the mire of manifold wickedness. – Gabriele de Mussis (c. 1280 – c. 1356)
200% – the approximate increase in the cost of wheat in Italy in early 1347.
4,000 – the number of people who died from malnutrition in just one city (Florentine) that year.
January 1348 – the month the plague arrived at the port of Genoa, in northern Italy.
3 – the number of galleys that arrived in Genoa, whose plague-infected crew spread the disease to the locals.
…they were expelled from that port with flaming arrows and
diverse engines of war, because anyone who dared touch them or have any business dealings with them immediately died. – Louis Sanctus, recounting the driving away of the three Genoese ships, in a letter dated 27 April 1348
January 1348 – the month the plague reached Venice, the Italian island city.
Did You Know?
In a futile attempt to stop the spread of the plague, all ships wishing to enter Venice were searched, and set on fire if they were found to have either foreigners or bodies on board.
40 – the number of days that vessels looking to dock in Venice were initially impounded (the word ‘quarantine’ has its origins in the French ‘quarante’, meaning forty).
5 feet – the minimum depth at which the corpses of plague victims were buried, with uninhabited islands in Venetian waters used as cemeteries.
Fathers and mothers refused to nurse and assist their own children, as though they did not belong to them. – Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375), The Decameron.
600 – the number of people dying each day in Venice, by the summer.
Did You Know?
The victims of the plague were commonly buried in large pits, “layer upon layer just [like] cheese on lasagne” (Marchione di Coppo Stefani, Florence)
120-150,000 – the estimated population of Venice prior to the plague.
72-90,000 – the estimated number of these who died.
60% – the estimated percentage of the Ventian population who perished.
February 1348 – the month the plague entered northern Italy, probably via the port of Pisa.
600 – the number of people said to be dying each day at the peak of the outbreak in Venice.
20 March 1348 – the date on which the Great Council was convened, and decided to open new burial sites to try and cope with the dead.
No one could be found to bury the dead for money or for friendship […] and there were so many dead throughout the city who were so sparsely covered with earth that the dogs dragged them out and devoured their bodies. – Agnolo di Tura (14th century)
March 1348 – the month the plague reached Florence.
120,000 – the approximate population of Florence prior to the Black Death.
50,000 – the approximate population of Florence by 1351.
02 May 1348 – the date that the Council in Pistoia decreed that townsfolk could not travel to places affected by plague, and that no one already visiting those areas were to be allowed back.
23 May 1348 – the date these restrictions on travel were overturned, as by then it was too late and Pistoia was as plague-ridden as anywhere else.
16 – the number of men appointed as gravediggers in Pistoia (on 04 June 1348). They were the only people allowed to bury the dead.
April 1348 – the month plague appeared in Orvieto, 80 miles from Florence.
12,000 – the population of Orvieto.
50% – the percentage of the population who died.
3 months – the period within which these deaths occurred.
7 – the number of men elected to the town’s council in June 1348.
5 – the number of these Councillors who died within the next few months (two of them by 23 July, the other three by 7 August).
3 months – the length of time the court houses in Siena were closed down (on 02 June 1348) as a temporary measure whilst the plague raged about.
Touching their garments, or any foode whereon the sicke person fed, or any thing else used in his service, seemed to transferre the disease from the sicke to the sound, in very rare and miraculous manner. – Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375), The Decameron.
August 1348 – the month the plague reached Rome.
Did You Know?
In Milan, people who became infected had their homes walled up, trapping them inside to die, along with anyone else in the house, whether sick or healthy. Food would be passed to those trapped inside using baskets lowered down on ropes.
100,000 – the approximate population of the Italian city of Milan, prior to the plague.
15,000 – the estimated number of these who died.
Did You Know?
The death rate in Milan was unusually low compared to other Italian states. To this day, no adequate explanation has been put forward as to why.
The Plague in France
Above: This burial pit excavated in Martigues, Marseille, France in 1998 contained around 200 human remains from a much later outbreak of plague, in 1720-21. Later research revealed evidence of Yersinia pestis, the bubonic plague bacillus.
9 – the number of years into the Hundred Year’s War between England and France (1337–1453) that the plague reached France.
November 1347 – the month one of these plague-infected ships landed at the French port of Marseille. Although the inhabitants drove the galley away when they realised what was happening (“men were infected without realising it and died suddenly”), it was too late to stop the disease taking hold.
56,000 – the number of victims in Marseille within the first month of the plague arriving.
1348 – the year the plague spread to Paris and Normandy, reaching these areas by the summer.
Did You Know?
In the plague-infected villages of Normandy, France, it was common practice to fly a black flag from the church tower, to warn travelers against approaching.
800 – the number of people reported to be dying everyday in Paris, by June 1348, according to the monks of Saint Denis.
50,000 – modern estimates of the death toll in Paris in the second half of 1348.
120,000 – the number of deaths in Avignon, then the seat of the Papacy, according to one contemporary chronicle.
21% – the death rate among Avignon’s wealthiest and best-housed population, the Papal Curia. The mortality rate among the poor of Avignon would have been significantly higher.
450 – the number of members of the Curia.
94 – the number of these who lost their lives.
Did You Know?
Pope Clement VI locked himself away in his chambers, refusing entry to anyone, before eventually escaping to his Rhône Valley castle.
78 – the number of bequests made to the parish church of St Germain l’Auxerrois in the eight years prior to the appearance of the Black Death (Easter 1340 to June 1348).
419 – the number of bequests made in the first nine months of the plague appearing, a rate around 40 times greater.
The Plague in Germany
Above: A depiction of victims of the Black Death from the Toggenburg Bible (1411).
2,000 – the number of deaths in Frankfurt-am-main during the first 72 days of the plague arriving.
6000 – the death toll in Mainz.
11,000 – the death toll in Munster.
12,000 – the death toll in Erfurt.
7,000 – the approximate number who died in Bremmen.
60% – the possible death toll in Bremmen and Hamburg.
Spring 1349 – the point the plague reached Vienna.
500 – the average number of deaths each day in Vienna.
960 – the peak number of deaths in a single day in Vienna, according to Sticker, historian.
170,000 – the estimated number of settlements throughout Germany, prior to the Black Death.
40,000 – the estimated number of settlements 100 hundred years later.
35% – the estimated mortality rate among members of the higher clergy in Germany, a much higher rate than elsewhere, where humble parish priests attended the dying. This suggests that, in Germany, members of the higher order were more dutiful in serving their flocks, coming into contact with the dying in a way that their more detached peers in other countries did not.
The Plague in Britain
June 1348 – the month the plague arrived in Britain.
Did You Know?
Historians generally believe that Melcombe Regis, a village near modern-day Weymouth on the south-west coast, is where the plague first appeared in England.
30-45% – the estimated mortality rate in England.
80-90% – the mortality rate in some English villages.
If people who fall sick cannot find a priest, then they should make a confession to each other – Bishop Ralph of Shrewsbury, suggesting a solution to the lack of priests (many of whom had died due to close contact with the infected).
August 1348 – the month the Black Death reached Bristol.
10,000 – the approximate population of Bristol at the time the plague struck.
Nearly the whole town was wiped out. It was as if sudden death had marked them down beforehand. Few lay sick for more than two or three days, or even for half a day. Cruel death took just two days to burst out all over a town – Henry Knighton, describing the arrival of the plague in Bristol.
September 1348 – the month the plague arrived in London.
60-100,000 – the approximate population of London at the time the Black Death arrived. Most lived in cramped, crowded and filthy conditions within the city walls.
25–50% – the estimate of the percentage of the population of London who died During the Black Death (between one-in-four and one-in-two people).
2,000 – the number of dead buried in one London cemetery over a two month period in early 1348 (02 February – 02 April).
34 – the average number of burials this figure represents per day. This equates to one burial every 20 minutes, based on 10 hours available daylight at this time of year.
290 – the average number of deaths per day in London by late summer (June to September). This equates to 24 burials every single hour, or one burial every 2.4 minutes, based on 12 hours available daylight.
2 – the number of new graveyards opened up in East Smithfield, London in early 1349, in a desperate attempt to make space to bury the dead.
5 – the number of layers deep that bodies were buried in these new graves.
Did You Know?
Throughout Europe, doctors and priests were the two professions with the highest death rates, due to their close contact with plague victims. To medieval Europeans, to die without a blessing and the chance to confess was something to be feared. Under church rules, doctors visiting patients were not permitted to attend to them until the priest had completed his work.
490 – the number of skeletons exhumed from the East Smithfield mass burial site in London in 2007, as part of a study led by the University of Albany, NY. They found that the plague had a disproportionate impact upon people who were already malnourished or weak.
October 1348 – the month the plague arrived in Winchester.
Jan – Feb 1349 – the month the plague struck East Anglia.
4 – the number of people who died at the Christ Church Priory in Canterbury, where hygiene was better, rats better controlled, and a fresh water supply and good drainage available.
Men and women carried their own children on their shoulders to the church and threw them into a common pit. From these pits an appalling stench was given off. Scarcely anyone dared even to walk beside the cemeteries. – William Dene, monk, Rochester Cathedral.
April 1349 – the month the plague arrived in Wales.
July 1349 – the month the plague arrived in Ireland.
Spring 1350 – the approximate time the Black Death arrived in Scotland.
5,000 – the approximate number of Scots, preparing to invade England, who died when the Black Death reached them in the autumn of 1349. Those who did not immediately succumb to the plague headed home, spreading the disease into Scotland.
The Plague in Northern Europe
May 1349 – the month in which the plague entered Norway (appearing first in Bergen, carried aboard a British ship bringing wool to the country).
1350 – the year of the plague reached Sweden, Iceland, Greenland, Scotland, Orkney, Shetland and the Pharaohs.
God for the sins of men has struck the world with this great punishment of sudden death. By it, most of our countrymen are dead. – King Magnus II of Sweden (1317-74)
Did You Know?
The plague so decimated the Danish/Norwegian communities on Greenland, already beset by famines and the climate change of the ‘Little Ice Age’ (c.1300 – 1870), that they completely abandoned the island.
5 – the approximate number of years, from its appearance in the Crimea, that the plague took to spread across the Eurasian peninsula (first west, then north, east and south), returning almost to the point where it first appeared.
1352–1353 – the period the plague spread into Russia.
1361 – the year the plague reappeared in Europe.
Did You Know?
Children born after the previous outbreak were not immune to the plague and so died in disproportionate numbers. So many children and teenagers died that the disease is commonly referred to as the “Children’s Plague”.
Children and teenagers were generally the first to die, and then the elderly. – anonymous.
June 1361 – the month the plague reappeared in England.
Did You Know?
The plague reappeared on a number of occasions, with fresh outbreaks in 1379-83, 1389–93 and on into the 1400s. In 1563 a new outbreak in London led Queen Elizabeth I to move her court to Windsor Castle. People were banned from traveling from London to Windsor, and any who dared to do so were hanged.
The Third Pandemic
1894 – the year of the Third Pandemic, which broke out in Yunnan, China, before spreading to Hong Kong, India, and the rest of the world.
6,000,000 – the number of people killed in the Third Pandemic.
1900 – the year the plague of the Third Pandemic appeared in Britain, in Glasgow. By now it was weaker and killed relatively few people.
16 – the number of people killed in Glasgow.
1906 – the year that an outbreak occured in Suffolk, south-east England, although it was not identified as plague at first.
1910 – the year the disease afflicting people in Suffolk was identified as plague, after Yersinia pestis microorganisms were identified in the bodies of victims.
12 – the number of years the plague remained in Suffolk.
10-20 – the approximate number of victims in Suffolk.
The Plague Today
Many people are surprised to learn that the plague is still around today. For example, it is now endemic to wildlife in the western United States. Listen to ‘Borne in the USA’ from the abc.net.au Health Report, broadcast 31 August 2015:
74 – the number of deaths in the capital of Madagascar, Antananarivo, in late 2014 (more than 300 people were infected).