It was, it seemed, the end of the world — and that was before the plague came. In the first decade of the 14th century, the climate was changing, and not for the good. “A physical chill settled on the 14th century at its very start, initiating the miseries to come,” Barbara W. Tuchman wrote in her 1978 book “A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century.” “The Baltic Sea froze over twice, 1303 and 1306-07; years followed of unseasonable cold, storms and rains, and a rise in the level of the Caspian Sea.” Known as the Little Ice Age, the shift in weather was mysterious in cause but clear in its devastating effects: Colder weather meant a curtailed growing season, which in turn meant less food, which in the last resort meant people starved to death.
Then came the rains, which in 1315 washed out what crops there were, and famine, Tuchman reported, “the dark horseman of the Apocalypse, became familiar to all. … Reports spread of people eating their own children, of the poor in Poland feeding on hanged bodies taken down from the gibbet.”
And then, at last, as if ice and cold and famine weren’t enough, came the bubonic plague. Rats were long believed to be the culprit, but the Black Death is now thought to have largely spread by fleas, lice and through the air — transmitted, in other words, from human to human. As Tuchman described it, the sailors who brought the contagion to Europe from the Black Sea in October 1347 “showed strange black swellings about the size of an egg or an apple in the armpits and groin. The swellings oozed blood and pus and were followed by spreading boils and black blotches on the skin from internal bleeding. The sick suffered severe pain and died quickly within five days of the first symptoms.” Soon the road from apparent infection to death shortened considerably. “These victims coughed and sweated heavily and died even more quickly, within three days or less, sometimes in 24 hours. … Depression and despair accompanied the physical symptoms, and before the end ‘death is seen seated on the face.’”