Death Ships: Everything About The Ships That Brought The Plague To Europe
The Plague in Marseille, 1726, engraving.
Pandemics don't just appear out of thin air. That's why social distancing is so important: The further we stay away from other people, the lower the chance we have of coming into contact with deadly germs. This is doubly true during a pandemic and doubly-doubly true in the Middle Ages. After all, these days, with the Amazons and the Instacarts, avoiding other people is fairly easy. Way back when, however, if the merchant ships didn't get all up in your harbor, you weren't eating (at least, not as well). Unfortunately, they also sometimes killed you. Such was the case of the merchant ships who brought the bubonic plague to Europe, A.K.A. the Death Ships of the Great Plague.
Trade between Europe and the East was well established by the 1300s. (penn.museum)
International Trade In The Middle Ages
International trade was a booming business in the Middle Ages. Businessmen in Italy, Spain, and Turkey had established suppliers of goods such as spices, silk, perfume, and salt from places as far away as India, China, and Arabia. Merchant ships sailed from port to port in the Mediterranean Sea, around Africa, and beyond, while overland routes took traders and merchants through the Middle East and into India and China. More than ever before in human history, people could interact across vast distances.
The bubonic plague spread through rats and fleas. (pbs.org)
How The Plague Was Spread
The bubonic plague spreads through contact with body fluids. Most commonly in the Middle Ages, fleas bit infected animals, like rats, and then bit humans, infecting them with the disease. From there, "plague pneumonia" was the term used to describe how the disease spread from person to person via contaminated droplets coughed or sneezed into the air, especially in close quarters. Sailing ships provided ideal breeding ground for the Plague: Sailors were living in cramped quarters, and rats and mice were a common sight on ships, as were the fleas that lived on them. At each port of call, some of the vermin left the ships with the cargo, and other vermin hopped on board.
Merchant ships helped quickly spread the Plague. (theravenreport.com)
The First Of The Death Ships
Thanks to meticulous record keeping, we know the exact date that the Black Death touched European soil. It was in October 1347, when a fleet of a dozen merchant ships from the Black Sea approached the port city of Messina in Sicily. As was the habit of the time, the people of the town flocked to the docks to see what goods the ships had brought and hear the news from other areas. In this case, however, the townsfolk discovered a gruesome sight: Nearly everyone on all the ships had died, and the few sailors who hadn't yet succumbed were clinging to life. All of them were covered with oozing black boils. The port officials of Sicily were quick to recognize this as a deadly contagious disease and ordered the "death ships" to leave port immediately, but it was too late.
Incoming ships were quarantined in harbors. (historic-uk.com)
Death Ships In England
Not even a year later, one of the first Death Ships arrived in England. The sailors aboard a merchant ship from Gascony landed alive in Dorset, England in June 1348, but they had begun to exhibit symptoms. As the ailing men (and, most likely, the rats aboard the ship) started to infect the people of Weymouth, some residents who were symptom-free tried to escape the Plague by fleeing the city. Unfortunately, it was too late for them, and to make matters worse, they carried the disease to the outlying villages where they sought refuge. Within a few months, the Black Death had spread to London and the rest of England.
A rudderless ship arrived in Bergen, Norway with a dead crew. (medium.com)
The Black Death In Norway
The economy of medieval England was reliant on trade, even with a deadly pandemic going on. Authorities recognized that ships arriving in various ports could be spreading the disease, so they quarantined ships for several weeks before they were allowed to dock. In that time, however, the sailors aboard could succumb to the illness, or the ships could arrive in port with a dead crew. This is what happened in Norway in 1349. A merchant ship with a cargo of wool departed from England en route to Scandinavia, but it never made it to its intended port. During the voyage, the sailors all fell ill, and one by one, they died. Unmanned, the ship floundered in the North Sea until it ran aground in Norway. Although all the human occupants of the Death Ship had passed away, others were still alive: the rats. The infected rats, and the fleas upon their backs, spread the illness through Norway and the rest of Scandinavia.
Rats left the quarantined ships and swam to shore. (sciencehistory.com)
Rats Can Swim
Medieval authorities had the right idea when they initiated quarantine procedures, but their plan had a flaw. It turns out rats are good swimmers. In fact, they can survive for days, swimming out in the water. Rats on quarantined vessels eventually got impatient and swam to shore, bringing the dreaded Plague with them. At that time, however, no one connected the Black Plague to rats and fleas. Despite the good intentions of those who imposed quarantines, they had underestimated the rats. People always do.