The Italian town of Genoa was one of the busiest ports in Europe. Ships sailed from Genoa to trade all over the Mediterranean and into the Black Sea. Some goods were even shipped around the coast of Spain and France to England. Merchants traded many goods from Asia such as spices, precious metals and silk. They didn’t know, however, that the plague had broken out in Asia and was fast spreading westwards.
Crews carrying goods back to Italy from Caffa took the plague with them. On some of the ships, every single member of the crew died at sea. When it became known that sailors on Genoese ships were suffering from the plague, Italian ports refused to allow them to enter. So they sailed to the southern coast of France instead.
Plague in Europe
In December 1347, the plague broke out in Marseilles. From there it spread rapidly all over France. Because people had no idea how the plague was carried, there was nothing to stop it spreading. Rich and poor alike fell victim to it. In some places, rich people were able to escape the plague for a while, by moving away from an infected area. But eventually there was nowhere left to run to: every city, town and village was affected.
Wherever the Black Death took hold, at least one person in four died in dreadful pain. Sometimes all the people in a village or a town were killed by the plague.
Plague in England
With the war continuing between France and England it was only a matter of time before the same disaster hit England. The chronicler Geoffrey the Baker described its progress:
“At first it carried off almost all the inhabitants of the seaports in Dorset, and then those living inland, and from there it raged so dreadfully through Dorset and Somerset as far a Bristol. The men of Gloucester refused to allow people from Bristol into their region, as they all thought that the breath of those who lived amongst people who died of plague was infectious.
But at last it attacked Gloucester, then Oxford and London, and finally the whole of England with such violence that scarcely one in ten of either sex was left alive. As there were not enough graveyards, fields were set aside for the burial of the dead.”
William Dene, a monk of Rochester, described the effect of the plague on one household:
“The Bishop of Rochester didn’t keep many servants or retainers. Yet he lost four priests, five gentlemen, ten serving men, seven young clerks, and six pages, so that not a soul remained to serve him in any post…
During the epidemic, many chaplains and paid clerics would serve only if they were paid excessive salaries … priests hurried off to places where they could get more money than in their own benefices … There was also so great a shortage of labourers and workmen of every kind in those days that more than a third of the land over the whole kingdom lay uncultivated.”