The Black Death may have begun when Mongol troops catapulted infected corpses over the city walls of the Crimean port city of Kaffa in 1346.
By early 1346, Mongol forces were already three years into their siege of the Crimean port city of Kaffa when their soldiers started coming down with a deadly disease. The sick fell ill quickly, suffering high fevers and grotesque inflammation, and vomiting blood before dying.
The disease’s origins were uncertain but it had likely followed the soldiers westward through Asia after first sweeping through China. Now in Kaffa, the Mongols quickly realized that the unknown disease was deadly.
Yet the Mongols were desperate to capture this valuable port after years of trying. So Mongol general Janibeg ordered his men to gather the infected corpses of their fallen comrades and catapult them over the walls of Kaffa in hopes of infecting the city’s population with the unknown sickness.
“What seemed like mountains of dead were thrown into the city, and the Christians could not hide or flee or escape from them, although they dumped as many of the bodies as they could in the sea,” Gabriele de’Mussi, an Italian notary who wrote an account of the siege, explained. “And soon the rotting corpses tainted the air and poisoned the water supply, and the stench was so overwhelming that hardly one in several thousand was in a position to flee the remains of the Tartar army.”
What’s more, de’Mussi described how people fleeing Kaffa seemed to spread this mysterious disease all throughout Europe:
“As it happened, among those who escaped from Caffa by boat were a few sailors who had been infected with the poisonous disease. Some boats were bound for Genoa, others went to Venice and to other Christian areas. When the sailors reached these places and mixed with the people there, it was as if they had brought evil spirits with them: every city, every settlement, every place was poisoned by the contagious pestilence, and their inhabitants, both men and women, died suddenly.”
He added: “And when one person had contracted the illness, he poisoned his whole family even as he fell and died, so that those preparing to bury his body were seized by death in the same way. Thus death entered through the windows, and as cities and towns were depopulated their inhabitants mourned their dead neighbours.”
That disease was the bubonic plague. And some scholars believe that this instance of early biological warfare was partly responsible for starting the Black Death, the deadliest pandemic in human history, which would kill as many as 200 million the years that followed.
Learn more about the origins of the Black Plague.