By James Hanley and Elizabeth Turner
Significance, Volume 7:2 (2010)
Introduction: In October 1347 a trading ship from the Crimea with its crew dead and dying drifted into a harbour in Sicily, and black rats leapt ashore. The European phase of the Black Death had begun. At the time they called it the Great Mortality, subsequently the “Great Pestilence” or the “Great Plague”. Today we call it the “Black Death” and consider it as perhaps the deadliest pandemic ever to have struck humanity.
In the countryside, peasants dropped dead in the ﬁelds; in towns, the sick died too fast for the living to bury. A monk in Ireland, the last survivor of his monastery and himself awaiting death, listed the names of those who had perished and left space at the end for his own name in the hope that a passing stranger would add it.
Tilled ﬁelds returned to wilderness for lack of men to farm them. Whole villages disappeared for ever from the map. To an awestruck mankind, it really did seem that the end of the world had come.
In trying to convey its horror to later generations the 14th-century historian Froissart, who usually conﬁned himself to describing the chivalrous exploits of knights in armour, summed it up simply and terrifyingly: “One-third of the world died”. He may have been underestimating.