Biological Warfare at the 1346 Siege of Caffa

Mark Wheelis


Emerging Infectious Diseases. 2002;8(9) 

In This Article

Origin of the 14th-Century Pandemic

The disease that caused this catastrophic pandemic has, since Hecker,[6] generally been considered to have been plague, a zoonotic disease caused by the gram-negative bacterium Yersinia pestis, the principal reservoir for which is wild rodents.[7,8,9,10,11] The ultimate origin of the Black Death is uncertain -- China, Mongolia, India, central Asia, and southern Russia have all been suggested (see Norris[1] for a discussion of the various theories). Known 14th-century sources are of little help; they refer repeatedly to an eastern origin, but none of the reports is firsthand. Historians generally agree that the outbreak moved west out of the steppes north of the Black and Caspian Seas, and its spread through Europe and the Middle East is fairly well documented (Figure 1). However, despite more than a century of speculation about an ultimate origin further east, the requisite scholarship using Chinese and central Asian sources has yet to be done. In any event, the Crimea clearly played a pivotal role as the proximal source from which the Mediterranean Basin was infected.

Tentative chronology of the initial spread of plague in the mid-14th century.[12,13,14]


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