To Europeans in the mid-1300s, the end of the world seemed to have come. First, widespread crop failures brought famine and starvation. Then plague and war ravaged populations. Europe eventually recovered from these disasters. Still, the upheavals of the 1300s and 1400s marked the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the early modern age.
This medieval illustration shows a man dying of the plague. Boils erupting all over the body was a sign that the plague would likely claim more victims because the disease spread through contact.
In the autumn of 1347, a fleet of Genoese trading ships loaded with grain left the Black Sea port of Caffa and set sail for Messina, Sicily. By midvoyage, sailors were falling sick and dying. Soon after the ships tied up at Messina, townspeople, too, began to fall sick and die.
Within months, the disease that Europeans called the Black Death was raging through Italy. By 1348, it had reached Spain and France. From there, it ravaged the rest of Europe. One in three people died—a death rate worse than in any war in history.
The deadly illness was bubonic plague, a disease spread by fleas carried on rats. In the pre-modern world, rats infested ships, towns, and even the homes of the rich and powerful. Bubonic plague had broken out before in Europe, Asia, and North Africa but had subsided. One strain of the disease, though, had survived in Mongolia.