Daily Archives: 13 November 2006

Dids Rats or Catapulted Cadavers Bring Plague to Caffa?

[In 1346] one Russian chronicle speaks of the plague arriving on the western shore of the Caspian Sea and attacking several nearby cities and towns, including Sarai, capital of the Mongol Principality of the Golden Horde and home to the busiest slave market on the steppe. A year later, while Sarai buried its dead, the pestilence lurched the final few hundred miles westward across the Don and Volga to the Crimea, came up behind the Tartar army in the hills above Caffa, and bit it in the back of the neck.

The Genoese, who imagined that God was born in Genoa, greeted the plague’s arrival with prayers of thanksgiving. The Almighty had dispatched a heavenly host of warrior angels to slay the infidel Mongols with golden arrows, they told one another. However, in de’ Mussis’s account of events, it is Khan Janibeg who commands the heavenly host at Caffa. “Stunned and stupefied” by the arrival of the plague, the notary says that the Tartars “ordered corpses to be placed in catapults and lobbed into the city in hopes that the intolerable stench would kill everyone inside…. Soon rotting corpses tainted the air …, poisoned the water supply, and the stench was so overwhelming that hardly one man in several thousand was in a position to flee the remains of the Tartar army.”

On the basis of de’ Mussis’s account, Janibeg has been proclaimed the father of biological warfare by several generations of historians, but the notary may have invented some of the more lurid details of his story to resolve an inconvenient theological dilemma. Self-evidently—to Christians, at least—the plague attacked the Tartars because they were pagans, but why did the disease then turn on the Italian defenders? Historian Ole Benedictow thinks de’ Mussis may have fabricated the catapults and flying Mongols to explain this more theologically sensitive part of the story—God did not abandon the gallant Genoese, they were smitten by a skyful of infected Tartar corpses, which, not co-incidentally, was just the kind of devious trick good Christians would expect of a heathen people. Like most historians, Professor Benedictow believes the plague moved into the port the way the disease usually moves into human populations—through infected rats.* “What the besieged would not notice and could not prevent was that plague-infected rodents found their way through the crevices in the walls or between the gates and the gateways,” says the professor….

* Khan Janibeg does have one stout modern defender, Mark Wheelis, a professor of microbiology at the University of California. The professor notes that in a recent series of 284 plague cases, 20 percent of the infections came from direct contact—that is, the victim touched an object contaminated with the plague bacillus, Y. pestis. “Such transmissions,” he says, “would have been especially likely at Caffa, where cadavers would have been badly mangled by being hurled, and many of the defenders probably had cut or abraded hands from coping with the bombardment.” Professor Wheelis also thinks the rat scenario favored by many historians ignores a crucial feature of medieval siege warfare. To stay out of arrow and artillery range, besiegers often camped a kilometer (six-tenths of a mile) away from an enemy stronghold—normally beyond the range of the sedentary rat, who rarely ventures more than thirty or forty meters from its nest. (Mark Wheelis, “Biological Warfare at the 1346 Siege of Caffa,” Emerging Infectious Diseases 8, No. 9 [2002]:971–75.)

SOURCE: The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time, by John Kelly (Harper Perennial, 2006), pp. 8-9

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Filed under disease, Eastern Europe, Mongolia

Ukraine Remembers While Russia Forgets

In an essay posted on Maidan, a Ukrainian civic action site, Ivan Ampilogov contrasts The Power of Memory in Russia and Ukraine.

We can say that the anti-empire tradition of Soviet dissidents has suffered defeat in the mass consciousness of contemporary Russian, while in Ukraine it can take on new meaning.

In Solzhenitsyn’s novel “The First Circle”, the author writes about camp prisoners, their future and at the same time about the future of the whole country. “Years will pass, and all these people, now oppressed, indignant, despairing and choking with rage will go to their graves, others will become weak, flabby, while a third group will forget it all, renounce it, with relief burying their prison past and a fourth will be turned around, and they’ll even say that it was all reasonable, and not ruthless – and maybe none of them will get around to reminding today’s executioners what they did to the human heart!” In contemporary Russia the idea that the terror was “reasonable” or “required” is gaining ever greater influence, most often they prefer not to remember it at all….

Over recent years many Ukrainians have become convinced that their country is freer than Russia, that their democratic institutions are much more developed and that at the end of the day, the Ukrainian state is more humane or, more accurately, less inhuman than Putin’s regime. The level of freedom both of Ukrainian, and of Russian society can be measured by the weakening or strengthening of the enforcement structures of the state – against its citizens. A Ukrainian feels that living without an omnipresent and all-powerful secret police is possible and very comfortable, whereas Russians loudly declare their attachment to unlimited power of the state and their readiness to endure its police, both secret and open. Modern Ukrainians do not face any dilemma of whether to forget the fate of their grandfathers who were left to rot in labour camps, or the fate of their parents frightened to talk with foreigners – and to forget who made their life like that – or to feel redundant in that colony of fervent patriots which Russia is once again becoming.

In contemporary Ukraine, at least two general groups are implacable opponents of the re-emerging Russian imperial spirit, being able to speak about themselves as victims of Soviet Russia – the descendents of Ukrainian nationalists and the Crimean Tatars. The link between the Crimean Tatar dissidents and the Ukrainian nationalists was strong back in the times of their common struggle with the Soviet regime.

via A Step at a Time

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