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The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Timeby John Kelly
Feodosiya sits on the eastern coast of the crimea, a rectangular spit of land where the Eurasian steppe stops to dip its toe into the Black Sea. Today the city is a rusty wasteland of post-Soviet decay. But in the Middle Ages, when Feodosiya was called Caffa and a Genoese proconsul sat in a white palace above the harbor, the city was one of the fastest-growing ports in the medieval world. In 1266, when the Genoese first arrived in southern Russia, Caffa was a primitive fishing village tucked away far from the eyes of God and man on the dark side of the Crimea — a collection of windswept lean-tos set between an empty sea and a ring of low-rising hills. Eighty years later, seventy thousand to eighty thousand people coursed through Caffa's narrow streets, and a dozen different tongues echoed through its noisy markets. Thrusting church spires and towers crowded the busy skyline, while across the bustling town docks flowed Merdacaxi silks from Central Asia, sturgeon from the Don, slaves from the Ukraine, and timber and furs from the great Russian forests to the north. Surveying Caffa in 1340, a Muslim visitor declared it a handsome town of "beautiful markets with a worthy port in which I saw two hundred ships big and small."
It would be an exaggeration to say that the Genoese willed Caffa into existence, but not a large exaggeration. No city-state bestrode the age of city-states with a more operatic sense of destiny — none possessed a more fervent desire to cut a bella figura in the world — than Genoa. The city's galleys could be found in every port from London to the Black Sea, its merchants in every trading center from Aleppo (Syria) to Peking. The invincible courage and extraordinary seamanship of the Genoese mariner was legendary. Long before Christopher Columbus, there were the Vivaldi brothers, Ugolino and Vadino, who fell off the face of the earth laughing at death as they searched for a sea route to India. Venice, Genoa's great rival, might carp that she was "a city of sea without fish,...men without faith, and women without shame," but Genoese grandeur was impervious to such insults. In Caffa, Genoa built a monument to itself. The port's sunlit piazzas and fine stone houses, the lovely women who walked along its quays with the brocades of Persia on their backs and the perfumes of Arabia gracing their skin, were monuments to Genoese wealth, virtue, piety, and imperial glory.
As an Italian poet of the time noted,
Caffa's meteoric rise to international prominence also owed something to geography and economics. Between 1250 and 1350 the medieval world experienced an early burst of globalization, and Caffa, located at the southeastern edge of European Russia, was perfectly situated to exploit the new global economy. To the north, through a belt of dense forest, lay the most magnificent land route in the medieval world, the Eurasian steppe, a great green ribbon of rolling prairie, swaying high grass, and big sky that could deliver a traveler from the Crimea to China in eight to twelve months. To the west lay the teeming port of Constantinople, wealthiest city in Christendom, and beyond Constantinople, the slave markets of the Levant, where big-boned, blond Ukrainians fetched a handsome price at auction. Farther west lay Europe, where the tangy spices of Ceylon and Java and the sparkling diamonds of Golconda were in great demand. And between these great poles of the medieval world lay Caffa, with its "worthy port" and phalanx of mighty Russian rivers: the Volga and Don immediately to the east, the Dnieper to the west. In the first eight decades of Genoese rule the former fishing village doubled, tripled, and quadrupled in size. Then the population quadrupled a second, third, and fourth time; new neighborhoods and churches sprang up; six thousand new houses rose inside the city, and then an additional eleven thousand in the muddy flats beyond the town walls. Every year more ships arrived, and more fish and slaves and timber flowed across Caffa's wharves. On a fine spring evening in 1340, one can imagine the Genoese proconsul standing on his balcony, surveying the tall-masted ships bobbing on a twilight tide in the harbor, and thinking that Caffa would go on growing forever, that nothing would ever change, except that the city would grow ever bigger and wealthier. That dream, of course, was as fantastic a fairy tale in the fourteenth century as it is today. Explosive growth — and human hubris — always come with a price.
Before the arrival of the Genoese, Caffa's vulnerability to ecological disaster extended no farther than the few thousand meters of the Black Sea its fishermen fished and the half moon of sullen, windswept hills behind the city. By 1340 trade routes linked the port to places half a world away — places even the Genoese knew little about — and in some of the places strange and terrible things were happening. In the 1330s there were reports of tremendous environmental upheaval in China. Canton and Houkouang were said to have been lashed by cycles of torrential rain and parching drought, and in Honan mile-long swarms of locusts were reported to have blacked out the sun. Legend also has it that in this period, the earth under China gave way and whole villages disappeared into fissures and cracks in the ground. An earthquake is reported to have swallowed part of a city, Kingsai, then a mountain, Tsincheou, and in the mountains of Ki-ming-chan, to have torn open a hole large enough to create a new "lake a hundred leagues long." In Tche, it was said that 5 million people were killed in the upheavals. On the coast of the South China Sea, the ominous rumble of "subterranean thunder" was heard...
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