Key point: As widespread and deadly as it was, the plague never became a permanent resident of Europe.
More than six centuries ago, disaster struck the people of Europe. A deadly plague, traveling west along trade routes from Central Asia, struck the continent with such force it wiped out entire villages and killed as many as twenty-five million people. The “Black Death,” as it was called, not only depopulated Europe but set the stage for profound societal change.
The disease that was later called the “Black Death” is thought to have originated on the steppes of Central Asia, gradually brought westward along trade routes. The first appearance of the plague in Europe was at Genoa in October 1347. One hypothesis is that Italian traders caught the plague during the Mongol siege of the Crimean city of Caffa, where the attackers allegedly hurled the bodies of plague victims over the city walls. The traders fled the city, returning to Genoa with the disease. Within months, 60 percent of the city population was dead.
The Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio lived through the first wave of plague that swept through nearby Florence in 1348. The city made extensive preparations to avoid the disease, including refusing to let the plague-stricken enter the city. Regardless, the disease manifested itself that spring, almost certainly due to the warmer weather, and increasing rat and flea activity.
Boccaccio described a world where ignorance about the plague and how to combat it spread death and paranoia. People thought that merely touching the clothing of the deceased was enough to contract plague, and shunned contact with even friends and family to avoid even the chance of contracting it. City dwellers walked through the streets sniffing perfumes to avoid the smell of the dead and the dying. The plague killed the infected so fast they died in the streets, while other died at home, unnoticed, until the smell of their decaying corpses alerted their neighbors.