Origins of the Bubonic Plague Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

In the first stage of the Black Death, much of Asia may have been ravaged by the bubonic plague.

Summary of Event

Outbreaks of bubonic plague have their origins in wild rodent colonies that scientists call plague reservoirs. Fleas that feed on the blood of these rodents ingest and pass along a bacterium (bacillus) known as Yersinia pestis. This can be lethal to rodents under certain conditions, but in a stable reservoir, the bacilli survives in a state that is not as lethal as it can be, or the rodents develop immunity or resistance to the effects of the bacillus. In this situation, the animal disease caused by Y. pestis is called enzootic. [kw]Origins of the Bubonic Plague (c. 1320) [kw]Bubonic Plague, Origins of the (c. 1320) [kw]Plague, Origins of the Bubonic (c. 1320) Bubonic plague Central Asia;c. 1320: Origins of the Bubonic Plague[2670] China;c. 1320: Origins of the Bubonic Plague[2670] Middle East;c. 1320: Origins of the Bubonic Plague[2670] Egypt;c. 1320: Origins of the Bubonic Plague[2670] Health and medicine;c. 1320: Origins of the Bubonic Plague[2670] Djanibeg

The bacillus is passed along to people when they come into contact with the reservoir, as sometimes happens with hikers in the American Southwest. It can also happen when a rodent population is disturbed and forced to migrate because of natural events such as floods or wildfires. These wild rodents may mix with household rats, creating an epizootic situation, in which the nonimmune or nonresistant animals die off in large numbers as the rodents’s fleas inject the bacillus into their new hosts. Fleas seek new hosts among the human population with which the household rats—usually of the species Rattus rattus—share habitation.

In trying to explain the Black Death that broke out in the Near East, Europe, and North Africa in 1347, scientists and historians have long been seeking the original disturbed plague reservoir. There is no consensus on the matter, but there are three main schools of thought. One school places it in far northern India, in the foothills of the Himalayas; from there it is said to have traveled south and east to China, and westward into western Asia, Africa, and Europe. A second position places the reservoir in southeastern Russia, having moved there from northern Iraq and Kurdistan. Once located along the major trade routes from China to the Islamic world, the infected rodent and flea populations joined people and traveled with them in all directions. The third position locates the reservoir in the Gobi desert between China and Mongolia. The disease would have been carried south and then westward across Central Asia. Proponents of this explanation point to the current plague reservoirs in the Gobi and to the fact that the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) ruled China and maintained regular contact with its western cousins in the Golden Horde. The image of a lone post-rider carrying a stowaway rat in his food sack and spreading the disease as he went is absurd: Large, lumbering trains of wagons accompanying traveling troops or merchants are much more likely to have harbored rats and their fleas.

China China;epidemics in clearly was struck by some major pestilence in the early fourteenth century, though the nature of the disease or diseases involved is by no means clear. In a translated list published by William McNeill, epidemics are listed in Hopei—but only Hopei—for the years 1320, 1321, and 1323. Chinese chronicles report both civil war and a major epidemic in Hopei in 1331 in which two-thirds (or perhaps 90 percent, according to McNeill’s list) of the population perished. The Chinese imperial encyclopedia Gu jin du shu ji cheng, compiled in 1726, provides a list of 234 nonspecific epidemics in China between 37 and 1718, including some for the years 1344, 1345, 1352, and 1356-1363. The Chinese word for epidemic is yi and for major epidemic dayi, but no researcher has yet found conclusive—or even suggestive—evidence that any of these outbreaks was bubonic plague.

In book 51 of the Yuan shi, the imperial chronicle of the Yuan Dynasty, the writer indicates that epidemics occurred during summer and fall, 1345, and the following year. The record is clear, however, on the string of especially severe winters in the early fourteenth century, as well as unusually frequent floods, droughts, and famines. Many people were uprooted and migrated, seeking relief. These conditions seem perfect for the induction of the bacillus into the human population and for its spread along trade and migration routes. In addition, medieval Western physicians and chroniclers, both Christian and Muslim, often placed the Black Death’s origins in Cathay, an older name for China, and sometimes mention merchants coming from Asia as their sources of information. Some also reported natural calamities and “signs” in East Asia that may indeed have had an impact on plague reservoirs.





The discovery by researcher Daniel Abramowich Chwolson of three Nestorian Christian tombstones dating from 1338 to 1339 along the shore of Lake Issyk Kul, near the Kyrgyzstan-China border, added weight to the Chinese connection. Some 330 headstones mark the graves of 650 people from this community who died between 1186 and 1349. In 1338 and 1339, 106 died: On three headstones covering ten corpses from these two years, the word translated from the Syriac as “plague” appears. Both the intensive mortality and use of the word for “plague” support the idea that the Black Death passed through this region, but from which direction? Further west Sarai on the lower Volga reported great mortalities in 1345 as did Astrakhan in the Volga delta the following year. About the same time, cities in Uzbekistan reported similar high death tolls. Further and swift movement could have been facilitated by the 1346 campaigns in Kirghiz (Kyrgyzstan) of Djanibeg Djanibeg , khan of the Golden Horde Golden Horde . In 1347, he led his army back to the Black Sea to besiege the colony of Italian merchants at Kaffa (Theodosia, now Feodosyia, Ukraine). As the famous story goes, Djanibeg used catapults to hurl plague-diseased corpses among the Italians, who then took flight by sea, taking the plague with them from the Black Sea into the Mediterranean. This story had its origins with the Italian notary Gabriele de’Mussis, who was long believed to have been part of the besieged colony. Because his membership in this colony has been disproved, his story has lost its following.


Assuming that the Chinese epidemics were indeed bubonic plague, their effects on China were profound. Students of China’s population claim that up to 25 percent of its people died between 1330 and 1390. The dislocations among populations within China created prime conditions for the rebellions and civil wars that brought Yuan rule to an abrupt end. Although civil wars, famines, and other natural disasters befell the Chinese during this period, the record makes it clear that epidemics also played a major role in the social and political changes of the fourteenth century.

To the west, pestilence plagued the Golden Horde and eventually moved into the Middle East and North Africa. The superior records of this region clearly outline the terrible effects of the pestilence and its movement from one urban center to another. Constantinople seems to have been hit first, in the fall of 1347, with ships soon carrying the disease south to Alexandria, Egypt, and westward through the Aegean to Italy and Europe. Caravans carried it to Trebizond and across Asia Minor. Throughout these regions, death tolls were staggering, with urban averages perhaps as high as 50 percent. In Egypt, the Mamlūk rulers were hit especially hard as villages in the countryside were depopulated and their aristocracy was devastated. The Black Death was in full swing.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cantor, Norman. In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World It Made. New York: Harper, 2000. Recent overview of the plague and its effects, including possibilities of extraterrestrial origin.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dols, Michael W. The Black Death in the Middle East. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977. The standard work in English on the plague in the Islamic world.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gottfried, Robert S. The Black Death: Natural and Human Disaster in Medieval Europe. New York: Free Press, 1983. Of particular interest is Chapter 3, “The Plague’s Beginnings.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McNeill, William. Plagues and Peoples. Rev. ed. New York: Anchor Books, 1998. Classic work that places this epidemic in the context of world history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Naphy, William G., and Andrew Spicer. The Black Death and the History of Plagues, 1345-1730. Stroud, Gloucester, England: Tempus, 2001. Well-illustrated coverage of the plague across four centuries, with an up-to-date discussion of its possible origins in the Gobi Desert.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Norris, J. “East or West? The Geographic Origin of the Black Death.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 51 (1977): 1-24. Challenges East or Central Asian origins of plague and locates its origin in the southern Ukraine.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Twigg, Graham. The Black Death: A Biological Reappraisal. New York: Schocken Books, 1985. Biologist builds case against the notion that the Black Death really was the bubonic plague.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ziegler, Philip. The Black Death. New York: Harper and Row, 1969. Remains best overview of the fourteenth century outbreak. Introductory material on plague’s origins is dated, but critical and useful.

Categories: History