Generation 468, 1340-1360. The plague years

For this generation, the civilised world centred around the Mediterranean Sea, from the kingdom of Granada in the west, through the city states of Italy to Constantinople and Damascus in the north and Cairo to the south. From there it stretched eastward through the islamic world to Baghdad and beyond to Persia, where the greatest astronomical observatory in the world, the Maragha observatory, had been in existence for a hundred years.

It was a world of fading glory, too. Granada in Spain was all that remained of the islamic kingdoms of al-Andalus, where a couple of hundred years  previously Corboba had been the largest and most vibrant city in Europe, attracting visitors from the barbarian lands  north of the Pyrenees to watch and marvel at the cultural mix of moslems, jews and christians there. Further east, the inhabitants of Constantinople still thought of themselves as Romans, inheritors of the empire from over a thousand years earlier. But the empire had gone and the city and a small area of land was all that remained. Further east still, Baghdad had been a centre of learning for many centuries, combining wisdom from India, Persia and Greece. It was sacked by the Mongols in 1258, and never really recovered.

New empires were rising, though. The Mameluke sultans in Cairo were descended from slaves from north of the Black  Sea who were brought in as soldiers and bodyguards. After halting the Mongol advance into Syria, one of them seized the throne to establish a new regime under which Cairo flourished. Ibn Khaldun was very impressed with it, as we saw in generation 469.

But the Mongols kept coming. In 1347 they attacked the trading posts north of the Black Sea. This area was controlled by traders from Genoa, and centred on the town of Caffa. From there they loaded grain and slaves for sale at ports in the Mediterranean. The Genoese traders fled to their galleys, taking with them some unintended cargo. Fleas in the bales of cloth and on the black rats in the holds of the escaping ships were infected with bubonic plague, which is endemic among rodents in some parts of the Mongol homeland.  The first city to feel the effect was Constantinople, after the ships docked at the Genoese port of Pera just outside the city, and the rats escaped. Many of the inhabitants who did not immediately succumb to the plague ran away, carrying the infection with them. A slave ship travelling from the Black Sea reached Alexandria, the port of Cairo, with most of its passengers dead of the plague when it arrived. Another Genoese ship  docked in Messina in Sicily, and brought the plague to the island. Within six years it had spread to most of Europe, from Ireland in the west to Russia in the east. China had already felt the effects of it, when the Mongols invaded a generation earlier.

It was devastating. If you lived in a town or city you either had the disease yourself or your family and friends did. It was usually fatal. The population of Europe did not recover to pre-plague levels until over a century later. And Europe was a different place afterwards, in unexpected ways.

Take the clothes people wore, for example.  Before the plague most people wore linen hose or breeches, a tunic and a straight overgarment, hanging from the shoulders. People wore the clothes appropriate to their profession and station in life.


Here is an example from the years before the  plague.

After the plague we find the clothes are more shaped and tailored. Men’s tunics get shorter and shorter, until there are complaints from the older generation about the lack of decency. Mens’ shoes have longer and longer toes. Some people think that the concept of ‘fashion’starts here.


This book image is from the late 14th century, after the plague.

In Florence, Giovanni Boccaccio wrote a book against the background of the plague. The Decameron is about a group of seven young women, most of whose families have died of the plague, who decide to escape from the city. They move to a house two miles away, with three young men as companions. While in the country house, they amuse themselves by taking turns to tell stories.

For example, one story is about a jewish man in Paris, whose christian friend urges him to convert. He decides to go to Rome to see for himself what the centre of christianity is like, before making a decision. The christian friend abandons hope on the spot, knowing the corruption and venality of the priesthood there. However, Abraham the jew has a different take on the situation after his trip. If christianity can flourish despite the moral morass of its representatives it is a powerful religion indeed. And so he converts.

The Decameron is the inspiration for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales a couple of generations later, but it is much less crude. These are educated young people, and their stories give a wry, knowing insight into their world. It was itself inspired by the arabic tradition of storytelling, with stories embedded within stories: one character tells a story in which another character tells another story – and so we go deeper and deeper. It is a tradition that we know through the A Thousand and One Nights, which was already centuries old at this time. But as we shall see, many European innovations can trace their inspiration to arabic civilisation.

And arabic civilisation was flourishing. Astronomers at the Maragha observatory in what is now northern Iran worked on a theory to explain observed movements of the heavenly bodies. Although the word ‘scientist’ had not been invented, these men were looking for a hypothesis to explain the observed facts and predict future celestial events. Maragha is between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea. Scholars from China and Constantinople came to work with the Arabic and Persian astronomers there.


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