The Black Death – a deliberate plot to wipe out the West?

The citizens of Tournai bury their dead during the Black Death

The citizens of Tournai bury their dead during the Black Death

The Black Death was the most devastating pandemic in human history, killing 75 million people worldwide between 1346 and 1353 and 30-60% of Europe’s total population. Is it really conceivable that the Black Death was part of a heinous and deliberate plot to wipe out the West?

Black Death conspiracy theories were popular even at the time. Rumours spread that the Black Death was a Jewish conspiracy to wipe out Christianity. This was partly because Jews had been isolated in ghettos so in some places were less affected. Nonsense, of course, but in those days everything that happened in the world was looked at through the lens of religion. As soon as the Jewish conspiracy theories took hold, terrible massacres started occurring across Europe. These included the Valentine’s Day Massacre in Strasbourg in 1349, when 900 Jews were burned alive.

The Black Death was so named because of the black swellings or ‘buboes’ that appeared on the body. Today scientists generally believe that it was caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis and that it spread from Central Asia to Europe via India, along the Silk Road trade route. The disease travelled on ships teeming with black rats, themselves riddled with Yersinia pestis-infected fleas.

But of course, nobody knew that back then. Yet there is a modern conspiracy theory that the Black Death was spread to Europe deliberately by the rulers of India, who banded together to unleash a devastating biological attack. An attack that would clear the way for an invasion.

In today’s world, this doesn’t sound too improbable. We live under constant threat of biological and chemical attacks by terrorist organisations determined to wipe out the West. But in the 1300s, nobody knew what a germ was and people assumed that the Black Death was something to do with bad air (or the Jews).

However, the theory goes that the Indians knew a little more about the plague than the rest of us…

Why was India untouched by the Black Death?

Stanford University Liberal Arts scholar L. Anandavalli says that there is no evidence that the Black Death struck India in the 14th century. Why is this? How could it spread via India if it never actually affected India?

Well, the theory is that the rulers of India – feeling that their Western trading partners were taking advantage of them – devised a plan to annihilate them. They had heard about a plague having hit China, the rumour being that it was spread by infected rats. The Indian rulers carefully sourced rats thought to be infected and placed them on ships bound for the port cities of the Mediterranean. Once the plague had devastated the Western nations, India would march an army into Europe to conquer it.

A truly terrifying supposition. However, while the Black Death did cause massive social, religious and economic upheaval throughout Europe, that Indian army never turned up.

If all this sounds far-fetched, that’s because it’s nothing but conjecture. Conjecture that’s arisen from the fact that we know the plague arrived in Europe from Asia, and we know that India mysteriously escaped the pandemic that rocked the rest of the world. It’s probably also fuelled by modern ideas and concerns about biological warfare.

The Black Death in Europe was triggered by a biological attack

Even if there was no big Indian conspiracy to wipe out the West, there is another more supported theory that the Black Death in Europe was the inadvertent result of a targeted biological attack.

It’s said that when the Mongolian army lay siege to the city of Kaffa in the Crimea in 1346, a number of them were afflicted with the plague. They decided to use this to their advantage by catapulting infected corpses over the city walls to infect the inhabitants. The Genoese traders fled and unwittingly brought the plague by ship to Sicily and Southern Europe – and it spread from there.

A plaque in Weymouth, Dorset

A plaque in Weymouth, Dorset

Some modern scholars have argued that the Black Death could not have spread via infected corpses. Nevertheless, the Siege of Kaffa is considered one of the earliest examples of biological warfare. If this really is how the Black Death spread to Europe in the late 1340s, that Mongolian army has 50 million deaths to answer for.

Next week: has the world’s most popular Christmas movie proved that Elvis is alive?

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