History and Geography

The geographic origins and full extent of the Black Death are still unclear. The earliest indisputable evidence locates it in 1346 in the cities of the Kip-chak Khanate of the Golden Horde, north and west of the Caspian Sea. Until recently, most historians have claimed, based on Arabic sources, that the epidemic originated somewhere to the east of the Caspian, in eastern Mongolia or Yunnan or Tibet, where plague is enzootic in various populations of wild rodents. From there it was supposed to have spread along the Mongol trade routes east to China, south to India, and west to the Kipchak Khanate, the Crimea, and Mediterranean. Recently, however, John Norris (1977) has contested this account, pointing out that the sources describing Chinese epidemics of the 1330s and 1340s and the inscriptions on the graves at Issyk Kul (1388-9), south of the Aral Sea, are too vague to allow us to identify the disease(s) in question as plague, and that there are no reliable records of Indian epidemics in the mid-fourteenth century. Although Norris's own theory that the Black Death originated to the south of the Caspian in Kurdistan or Iraq is highly speculative (Dols 1978; Norris 1978), he is certainly correct that much more work needs to be done with Chinese and Mongol sources before we can say anything definite about the course of the Black Death before 1346 and its eastern geography and chronology after that date.

The epidemic's westward trajectory, however, is well established. It reached the Crimea in the winter of 1346-7 and Constantinople shortly afterward. From there it followed two great, roughly circular paths. The first swirled counterclockwise south and east through the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. The Black Death reached lower Egypt in the autumn of 1347 and moved slowly up the Nile over the next 2 years. By early 1348, it had also hit Cyprus and Rhodes, and during the late spring and summer it moved through the cities of the Mediterranean littoral and Palestine - Gaza, Jerusalem, Damascus, Aleppo - and then east to Mecca, Armenia, and Baghdad, where it appeared in 1349.

The second circle described by the plague was greater in length and duration and moved clockwise, west and north and finally east again, through the western Mediterranean and Europe. According to Italian chroniclers, Genoese ships brought the disease to Sicily from the Black Sea in the autumn of 1347, at about the same time it appeared in Alexandria. From there it spread to Tunisia, the Italian mainland, and Provence. By the summer of 1348 it had moved westward into the Iberian peninsula and as far north as Paris and the ports of southern England. During 1349 it ravaged the rest of the British Isles and northern France, parts of the Low Countries and Norway, and southern and western Germany. In 1350 it was in northern and eastern Germany, Sweden, and the Baltics, and in 1351, in the eastern Baltics and northern Poland. During the following 2 years, it attacked Russia, reaching as far east as Moscow in the summer of 1353.

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