Medieval Era Mass Destruction

4 July 2013 by Annelie Wendeberg, posted in Biological Warfare

1347 - 1351: The Black Death crawls through Europe. The origins of the pandemic can be traced back to the Crimean peninsula, with one incident of germ warfare catching the eye as a potential catalyst: The siege of Kaffa.


Spreading of the bubonic plague pandemic. (Source: Wikimedia, Roger_Zenner)


1346, Crimea: The city of Kaffa is under siege by the Mongol army led by Janibeg, last Khan of the Golden Horde. His soldiers are coming down with the bubonic plague, the army is devastated. Janibeg is about to retreat. In his last effort, he orders all corpses to be catapulted over the city walls.

Welcome to Air Kaffa! Stow your plague-infested fleas in your trouser pockets and hold on to your buboes - otherwise they’ll surely explode when you plop down on the streets.

Thousands of corpses come flying into the city of Kaffa, citizens toss them into the sea, scrub the streets to get rid of stench and disease. Any small cut on their hands, arms, or legs, welcomes infection with the liquid oozing from burst plague buboes. The fleas hop off any freshly deceased soldier, happy to find so many new hosts. Soon, the amount of shattered bodies is overwhelming. The besieged are fleeing in terror and turn into a swarm of bubonic plague vectors, travelling along a network of old trading routes into Europe.

Within a year, the people of Kaffa sail across the Black Sea to Constantinople, then across the Mediterranean Sea to Sicily, Corsica, Sardinia, Venice, and Marseilles. If passengers weren’t allowed to disembark because they showed symptoms of the bubonic plague, rats surely did leave the ship, and with them, fleas.

The bubonic plague germ Yersinia pestis is a smart little shitter. It forms a plug in the flea’s upper digestive tract, forcing the animal to bite repeatedly without being able to suck blood. The hungry fleas switch hosts often, all the while regurgitating thousands of Yersinia pestist bacteria into the blood stream of bitten men, women, and children.

By 1350, Yersinia pestis had spread through all of Europe, taking roughly half the European population to the grave.


Sources and interesting stuff:

The history of biological warfare

Biological Warfare at the 1346 Siege of Caffa

Six-Legged Soldiers

A draft genome of Yersinia pestis from victims of the Black Death

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