After 1355 Emperor John VI Cantacuzenos

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Upon arrival in Byzantium the Empress found Andronikos, the youngest born, dead from the invading plague, which, starting first from the Hyperborean Scythians [of southern Russia], attacked almost all the sea coasts of the world and killed most of their people. For it swept not only through Pontus, Thrace and Macedonia, but even Greece, Italy and all the islands, Egypt, Libya, Judea, and Syria, and spread throughout almost the entire world.

So incurable was the evil, that neither any regularity of life, nor any bodily strength could resist it. Strong and weak bodies were similarly carried away, and those best cared for died in the same manner as the poor. No other [major] disease of any kind presented itself that year. If someone had a previous illness he always succumbed to this disease and no physician's art was sufficient; neither did the disease take the same course in all persons, but the others, unable to resist, died the same day, a few even within the hour. Those who could resist for two or three days had a very violent fever at first, the disease in such cases attacking the head; they suffered from speechlessness and insensibility to all happenings and then appeared as if sunken into a deep sleep. Then, if from time to time they came to themselves, they wanted to speak but the tongue was hard to move and they uttered inarticulate sounds because the nerves around the back part of the head were dead; and they died suddenly. In others, the evil attacked not the head, but the lungs, and forthwith there was inflammation which produced very sharp pains in the chest.

Sputum suffused with blood was brought up, and disgusting and stinking breath from within. The throat and tongue, parched from the heat, were black and congested with blood. It made no difference if they drank much or little. Sleeplessness and weakness were established forever.

Abscesses formed on the upper and lower arms, in a few also in the maxillae, and in others on other parts of the body. In some they were large and in others small. Black blisters appeared. Some people broke out with black spots all over their bodies; in some they were few and very manifest; in others they were obscure and dense. Everyone died the same death from these symptoms. In some people all the symptoms appeared, in others more or fewer of them, and in no small number [of cases] even one of them was sufficient to provoke death. Those few who were able to escape from among the many who died, were no longer possessed by the same evil, but were safe. The disease did not attack twice in order to kill them.

Great abscesses were formed on the legs or the arms, from which, when cut, a large quantity of foul-smelling pus flowed and the disease was differentiated as that which discharged such annoying matter. Even many who were seized by all the symptoms unexpectedly recovered. There was no help from anywhere; if someone brought to another a remedy useful to himself, this became poison to the other patient. Some, by treating others, became infected with the disease. It created great destruction, and many homes were deserted by their inhabitants. Domestic animals died together with their masters. Most terrible was the discouragement. Whenever people felt sick there was no hope left for recovery, but by turning to despair, adding to their prostration and aggravating their sickness, they died at once. No words could express the nature of the disease. All that can be pointed out is that it had nothing in common with the everyday evils to which the nature of man is subject, but was something else sent by God to restore chastity. Many of the sick turned to better things in their minds, by being chastened, not only those who died, but also those who overcame the disease. They abstained from all vice during that time and they lived virtuously; many divided their property among the poor, even before they were attacked by the disease. If he ever felt himself seized, no one was so ruthless as not to show repentance of his faults and to appear before the judgment seat of God with the best chance of salvation, not believing that the soul was incurable or unhealed. Many died in Byzantium [Constantinople] then, and the king's [emperor's] son, Andronikos, was attacked and died the third day.

Source: Christos Bartsocas, "Two Fourteenth Century Greek Descriptions of the 'Black Death.' " Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 21

A Poetic Vision from Prague of the Origins of the Black Death (1348-52)

Heinrich von Mügeln was a poet at the imperial court in Prague. Paris-educated Emperor Charles IV had a strong interest in astrology and science, and Heinrich's poem, perhaps written with him in mind, certainly reflects this. The responsibility of the Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the House of Aquarius for pestilence outlined here has roots in Greco-Roman and Arabic medicine and scholastic science; the specific reference is to the celestial event reported in 1345. Neither the pestilence nor the "science" of astrology was considered proper poetic fare, but

Heinrich uniquely combines them in the German vernacular. Around 1350 Simon de Covino of Liege wrote De iudicio Solis, a much longer, fuller, and more complex treatment in Latin of the same astrological allegory.1 It remains unclear whether Heinrich's poem preceded this or was influenced by it. Where Simon clearly places his celestial characters under the ultimate authority of the Judeo-Christian Godhead, Heinrich does not, leaving the door open to interpretations of his work as being purely naturalistic.

DOCUMENT 2 "Wer wil nu wissen das" (c. 1349-55) Heinrich von Miigeln

Whoever wants to know whence the Great Death came, let him follow the manner of my poem: this will lead him on the right path. The sky has twelve signs, according to my knowledge, called the houses of the planets. Now Aquarius is a sign and the largest in Saturn's house, in which it finds distinction. This I pledge. If I speak falsely, may I burn!— for I have read this information.

When now Saturn was in his domicile, it happened that

Lord Jupiter sat linked with him in power and dignity.

Owing to the might of his house, Saturn took victory there, and pressed Lord Jupiter severely:

He injured creation, brought suffering to animals.

Saturn is cold and dry like the earth;

Jupiter the noble one is moist and warm.

In such a climate of enmity,

Saturn roused the ravages of death.

Now I speak in truth:

since Aquarius possessed the human form, so it had to transpire that humankind would suffer death.

If, however, their joining together had occurred in other signs—this I hear tell—

for instance, in Pisces, undoubtedly many fish would be dead.

Albumazar and Ptolemy2 ordained these rules; thus I'll let them stand here.

He who wants to refute them, that desire derives from a foolish heart.

Source: William McDonald, "Death in the Stars." Mediaevalia 5 (1979): pp. 89112.

An Explanation of How the Plague Worked: Corrupted Air (1348)

Andalusian (Spanish-Arab) physician Abi Gafar Ahmed ibn Ali ibn Khatimah of Almeria wrote one of the most straightforward medical tracts on the Plague of the fourteenth century, the Tahsil al-gharad al-qasid fi tafil al-marad alwafid (1348). In this excerpt he explains the way in which the air we breathe, which is a mixture of the element air plus other "accidental" substances, is corrupted by the Plague vapors and made fatal to people and animals. Water, too, can be "plague-stricken" and become poisonous. This notion of "corruption" was key to his understanding of the pestilence. He carries on a dialogue with a silent detractor, answering his objections as he builds his case. While not identical in detail to Christian medical works, Ibn Khatimah's is similar in many ways, reflecting both Christian and Muslim reliance on Greek sources, especially Hippocrates, Galen, and Aristotle. The modern reader finds much of this discussion to be not only incorrect, but also very strange; even so, it provided the theoretical basis on which many elements of medical practice and public policy were founded.

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