The Black Death skipped certain parts of Europe – and that could be a lesson for today’s coronavirus epidemic
06 March, 2020
Why were Milan, Poland and a few other places spared the worst of the Black Death?
Image: Andy85719 – CC BY-SA 3.0
Calm down, we’re not comparing COVID-19 to the Plague.
Well, not literally. But this map raises an interesting question: Why were some parts of Europe spared of the Black Death?
And can that tell us something about where the coronavirus will or won’t spread?
The Black Death was a ruthless killer – and, if you were lucky, a swift one. Its more fortunate victims “ate lunch with their friends, and dinner with their ancestors in paradise,” wrote Giovanni Boccaccio, who lived through the initial wave of the Plague as it struck Italy in the 1340s.
What does that have to do with the coronavirus? Not a whole lot, fortunately. Except that the brief of this little corner of the internet is to look for strange maps, and one map led to another.
The Plague was brought from China to Europe in the 1330s by rodents hitching rides with traders. The infection with the Yersinia pestis bacterium was typically transmitted to humans by fleabites. The Plague’s three manifestations were bubonic (causing painful swellings), septicemic (infecting the bloodstream) and pneumonic (choking off breathing, and transmittable via coughing). Left untreated – as was necessarily the case in the Middle Ages – bubonic plague had a mortality rate of about 50%, for the other two, it’s virtually 100%.
Bocaccio’s Italy was hit hard by the epidemic. Cities like Venice and Pisa lost three-quarters of their population.