Real Life Horrors: Out of the Steppes of Asia

A black boil behind the ear, or in the armpit, or in the Bubonic+plague Real Life Horrors: Out of the Steppes of Asiagroin. Fever. Aching joints.  Violent pains in the chest. Vomiting and spitting  blood. A pestial odor coming from the body and breath. Black pustules all over the body. Gangrenous inflammation of the throat and lungs. Gangrenous inflammation of the extremities.

Once the boil, the bubo, appears, expect to live four to eight more days. In agony. The mortality rate is 60%.

If the disease is in its pneumonic form, add a wracking, continual cough to spread the bloody spittle over a wider range, and cut two to four days off the previous estimate. The mortality rate is 90-95%.

If in its septicemic form, you may have less than half an hour, which at least means you suffer for a lesser amount of time. Mortality rate: 100%.

That, my friends, is the Black Plague. Toss in famine, flagellants, pogroms, widespread and fatal epidemics in cattle and pigs, massive disruptions in trade, various wars and the general filthiness that was the norm in 14th century Europe and you have one of the great horror stories of world black death 400x300 Real Life Horrors: Out of the Steppes of Asiahistory. Combining the 14th century plague with the numbers from various resurgences up to the 19th century, it is estimated that the disease has killed 200 million people in total. That’s almost two-thirds the current population of the United States.

There’s some controversy over whether or not the 14th century disease that killed upwards of 75 million people worldwide over the course of thirty-some-odd years was actually plague or a virulent hemmorhagic fever; the various symptoms described in contemporary manuscripts and the alarming efficiency of the disease is different from modern outbreaks of bubonic plague. But I’m not going to settle that issue here. What is generally agreed on is that the disease the Medieval world called the Great Mortality originated somewhere on the steppes of Asia in roughly 1320. Following trade routes to the west, the disease traveled relatively slowly until it arrived in Messina, in October, 1347. Genoese trade ships put into port and disgorged their cargo of spices, silks, infected sailors and disease-carrying rats. The effect was immediate. The authorities closed the ports, but it was too late Several other ships, denied landing, sailed on to spread the disease in other ports.

The European climate was ideal for the plague. Years of inordinately heavy rains had led to widespread famine and rocketing food prices; population growth had exceeded society’s ability to sustain itself; and curiously, the Medieval superstition against cats, the idea that they were agents of the devil, had led to massacres of the feline population; when the rats arrived, their natural predatory enemies were in short supply.

The Mortality, now established in more densely populated Europe, spread quickly, often traveling as fast as two miles a day. Word of mouth might announce the coming of the pestilence as much as two months in advance, but where were people going acral gangrene due to plague 400x265 Real Life Horrors: Out of the Steppes of Asiato go exactly, especially given the widespread poverty? As many as 200,00 towns and villages were wiped out completely in the four-year reign of terror.

Prayer and church ritual were helpless against it; quack cures sprang up and died away as quickly as the victims. Theories abounded. One such was that the cause of the plague was ‘corrupt air”, and that the “best antidote to bad air was more bad air.”; thus, villagers could be seen hunkering down around the communal latrines, inhaling the foul air as a preventive measure.

John Kelly, in his book, The Great Mortality*, describes what life might have been like in an infected city:

“As the death toll mounted, the streets would have filled with feral animals feeding on human remains, drunken soldiers looting and raping, old women dragging corpses through the rubble, and burning building spewing jets of flame and smoke into the There would have been swarms of rodents with staggering gaits and a strange bloody froth around their snouts, piles of bodies stacked like cordwood in public squares, and in every eye, a look of wild panic or dull resignation.”

The Black Death completed its first tour of Europe by 1351, having made a scythe shaped sweep across the European continent and England before disappearing back into the Russian wilderness. But outbreaks continued to occur up until the 19th century.

When it finally abated, as the remaining population surveyed the ruins of civilization, a kind of hysterical reaction set in. People went nuts, partying, wearing bright and ostentatious clothing, and of course, that ultimate declaration of defiance, fornicating in graveyards.

*Kelly’s book deals directly with the history of the Black Death, but A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman, subtitled “Life in the Calamitous 14th Century” puts it in greater perspective, as part of a long series of 14th century disasters, both environmental and man-made.


  1. Grumpy old Medivalist

    “the general filthiness that was the norm in 14th century Europe ”
    Even with the unusual (pre-plauge) population pressure, I doubt they were that much more filthy than any other pre-industrial society.

    “and curiously, the Medieval superstition against cats, the idea that they were agents of the devil, had led to massacres of the feline population; when the rats arrived, their natural predatory enemies were in short supply.”

    Thats an 21-century superstition, you know (or to be more precise, Fakelore). Its part of a general body of misinformation associated with the “Medival” (more accuratly, renneissance & reformation-period) witch-hunts.

  2. lovecraf

    Didn’t mean to single out Europe; I think I’ve been places in the contemporary world that could give the Medieval world a run for its money.

    The cat issue is something I picked up in my reading. The Great Mortality directly states that; A Distant Mirror doesn’t go so far, but tells of a popular game where peasants tied a cat to a post and stoned it to death. Great fun, I guess.

  3. Ali S.

    Actually, that idea of cats is truthful in parts. When the feline population were unfairly maligned and targeted by the Anti-Witchcraft groups the rat population and the fleas that they carried – which in turn carried the plague in their systems spread like wild fire. But most cats were targeted in the large city areas and not so much in the rural areas as farmers needed them to control the mouse population.

  4. Lars

    The problem is that the plague was airborn – not rats. There was no action of that sort against cats. In Denmark we played cat piñata once each year up until 1800s. People was pulled the heads of geese in riding contests. That does not mean that geese or cats were in short supply. Today spaniards still have bull fights. Bulls aren’t in short supply either.

    It is fake-lore.

    The witch hunt took place in the 1500s after the Reformation – to some extent as a consequrence of the Reformation, actually. So even if they had been hunting cats during the witch hunt, it would not apply to something that happenede a coupple of houndred years earlier.

  5. Grumpy old Medivalist

    Ah yes, good old John Kelly:
    “Imagine a shopping mall where everyone shouts, no one washes, front teeth are uncommon and the shopping music is provided by the slaughterhouse up the road.”
    Shouting aside (everyone being Catholic back then) thats just insane.
    If you have been to the third world, you may have noticed poor people try to wash, & tend to have lots of street entertainment, in spite of not having fancy machinery-in the latter case, actually because of not having it.
    Theres a reason Ms. Tuchman (whose perspective is considered somewhat solipistic nowadays, but even so) diverges from him.
    I have been trying to track down the “cat genocide” sources myself for some time now: have yet to find any evidence whatsoever.
    Remigius, for example, is far more concerned with demonic goats (+, by the way, disproving the existance of Wilbur Whately). The reports of various papal bulls condemming cat-owners to death is mere John Kellyism. I have yet to see any mention of it in medival or renaissance litterature; or even any record of the various legal complications involved in burning peoples private property (cats are usefull pest controllers, after all).
    There are, indeed, phenomena such as the Belgian “Kattenstoet” (“Death of Cats”)
    Or the Danish “Slaa katten af Toenden” (“Hit the Cat in The Barrel”) Easter festival (wich “Lars” seems to be referring to), but they were directed at the excess feline population-& the Kattenstoet, at least, is obviously post-medival.
    Proper household cats were protected by medival law-such as that of Hywel The Good. They even have a patron saint-St. Getrude of Nivelles (in her aspect as a sminthea).

  6. lovecraf

    Demonic goats! Kattenstoet! Hywell the Good (which presupposes a Hywel the Bad, or at least, the You-Can-Never-Tell-With-That-Guy?)
    But I wouldn’t count Wilbur Whately out just yet, not on the word of someone named Remigius. Thanks for all the info. I’m a cat person myself (meaning I like cats, not the I transform) and it eases my mind to know that stoneings of cats weren’t a day to day occurrence.

  7. Grumpy old Medivalist

    After all, cats have value! (unless they have overbred & become feral pests themselves, of course).
    That sort of thing is saved for festive ritual occasions. (St. Gertrude would plauge one with rats otherwise-but not if the other saints have you covered).
    - As is the throwing of goats from Spanish church towers
    (Hmph, typical-note how recent the ritual actually is).

    There may very well be a Hywel the Bad, or more accuratly, a legend about him-that would be very 13-cent. Cymri bard.
    He should propably keep out of Ulthar.

    Poor Dr. Armitage ended up forming much the same opinion of Remy, Im afraid:(

  8. Grumpy old Medivalist

    Ah yes, theres Hywel the Bad-
    Idwall the Greats grandson!

  9. Xaeromancer

    Strangely, Black Death (the disease, not the vodka) is easily cured with antibiotics. If an outbreak happened today, it would be one of those “wacky” news items. It wouldn’t exactly be swine flu.

    Even more strangely, it managed to kill enough people so as to reduce the global temperature by 1 degree Celsius; when their entire village was wiped out, and the forest overtook the buildings. Now that is carbon fixing.