Biological Warfare at the Siege of Caffa

I. After reading the assigned text, please respond to the following questions.Responses must be uploaded by the due date listed on the reading schedule.

1)    The author of this text is interested in the transmission of the Black Death into the city of Caffa. What are some possible explanations for how the people of Caffa became infected with this disease?

2)    In writing on the siege of Caffa, the author relies on the account provided by Gabrielle de Mussis.  What are some reasons that historians might be skeptical of de Mussis’s description of the siege?

3)    How did the Black Death spread westward through the Mediterranean to cities such as Constantinople, Venice, and Marseilles?
practice reflects in part the scarcity of machines capable of hurling such
A massive loads.
The siege of Caffa (1.346) and the 14th century ‘Black Death’
Oniy a few years after the siege of Thun I’Eveq ue came that of Caffa, the ioca~
tion of the best known account of early bio1ogical warfare: the alleged catapulv
ing of plague cadavers into the fortified Genoese city of Caffa by the Mongol
forces besieging it in 1346. The incident was reported by an Italian, Gabriele
de’ Mussi,” who probably based his narrative on eyewitness accounts of sur-
vivors of the attack who fled Caffa and, in so doing, contributed to the trans-
mission of plague from the Crimea to Mediterranean seaports.
Caffa (now Feodosia) was a Genoese seaport on the Crimean coast, founded
about 1266.20 It was of consideiable economic importance as a link between the
Mediterranean maritime trade and the overland caravans to the Far East, and the
river trade up the Don and Volga rivers to Moscow. In the mid~l4th century it
was a thriving, cosmopolitan city of. probably more than 50 000 inhabitants. lt
had been destroyed in 1.308 after a siege by forces of the Golden Horde
Khanatez‘ (in which Caffa was situated) and was consequently heavily fortified
(with two concentric walls) when it was reestablished six years later?
H’ostilities broke out again in 1.343 in the Venetian trading city Tana (now
Azov) to the east, forcing the Italian merchants there to flee to Caffa, which was
in turn besieged by a Kipchakfl army in the service of Janibeg, Kahn of the
Golden Horde. Although the siege was relentless, Genoese maritime hegemony
allowed the city to be provisioned, and the siege was lifted after one year, only
to be reimposed in 1345. The latter siege lasted until plague hit the Mongol
forces, probably in mid» or late 134-6.
The origin of plague in the Crimea is obscure. Plague is a rodent disease, en-
demic among the marmots and ground squirrels of the Eurasian steppes and
elsewhere. Human epidemics are normally the result: of transmission from wild
to commensal rodents (most importantly in Eurasia, the black rat), and thence to
humans via flea bites.” it is generally thought that the 14th century epidemic
originated in Asia, perhaps as far east as Mongolia, and was brought to the
Crimea by traders or Mongol troop movements. However, recent scholarship
9 Horrox, R. (ed), The Black Dear/z (Manchester University Press: Manchester, 1994), pp. Ill-«26: and
Wheelis, M. L. “The narrative of Gabriele de’ Mussi, the siege of Caffa, and the origins of the 14th cen-
tury European Black Death’, manuscript in preparation.
20 However, a city named Kafa predated Caffa at the same or a nearby site for several centuries.
Vasiiiev, A. A., The Goths in [he Crimea (Mediaeval Academy of America: Cambridge, Mass, l936).
2] The most westerly of the 4 Mongol nations run by descendants of Genghis Khan.
22 Howorth, H. History offlze Mongols, From the 9m. to the 19th Century, Vol. 2 (Burt Franklin:
New York, 1880}, p. 1079.
23 The Kipchak were a nomadic Turkic tribe of southern Russia largely subjugated by the Mongols.
24′ Bercovier, H. and Mollaret, H. H., ‘Yersinia’, eds N. R. Krieg and J. G. Holt, Bergeys Manual of
Systematic Bacteriology (Williams and Wilkins: Baltimore, Md, i984), pp. 498-506; Biraben, J.-N.,
‘Current medical and epidemiological views on plague’, ed. L. P. S. E. Board, The Plague Reconsidered:
A New Look at its Origins and. Effects in. 1 6m and 17m Century England {Local Population Studies: Mat»
lock, Derbyshire. 1977), pp. 25-36; Boyce, J. M., ‘Yersinia species’, eds G. l… Mandel], R. G. Douglas, Jr
and J. E. Bennett, Principles and Pracrice (gflnfeczious Disease (John Wiley and Sons: New York, 198$),
pp. 1296-601; Gutman, L. T., ‘Yersinia’, eds W. K. .loklik er at, Zinsser illit‘rrobioiogy (Appleton
Lange: Norwalk, Conn, 1992), pp. 584-94; Pollitzer, R., Plague (World Health. Organization: Geneva,
I954); and ‘l‘wigg, G., The Black Dear/z: A Biological
l4 BIOLOGECAL AND TOXIN WEAPONS
suggests a less exotic origin: it may have originated in the spring of 1346 in the
rodent populations of the grasslands north of the Black Sea, perhaps around
Tana, spreading from this focus south-west to the Crimea, and east to the
Caspian Sea.25
Regardless of its origin, its effect on the hostilities at Caffa was dramatic:
But behold, the whole [Mongol] army was affected by a disease which overrun the
I‘artarsZG and killed thousands upon thousands every day. It was as though arrows were
raining down from heaven to strike and crush the Tartars’ arrogance. All medical
advice and attention was useless; the Tartars died as soon as the signs of disease
appeared on their bodies: swellings in the armpit or groin caused by coagulating
humours, followed by a putrid fever.
The dying Tartars, stunned and stupefied by the immensity of the disaster brought
about by the disease, and realising that they had no hope of escape, lost interest in the
siege. But they ordered corpses to be placed in catapults and lobbed into the city in the
hope that the intolerable stench would kill everyone inside. What seemed like moun-
tains 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. 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.”
The Mongols abandoned the siege, but plague spread westward in a stepwise
fashion along established maritime trade routes: Caffa in 1346; Constantinople
in spring 1347; Messina in October l347: and Genoa, Venice and Marseilles in
January 1348.
While it is nearly certain that refugees from Caffa contributed to the spread of
plague, it is less certain that the plague within the walls of Caffa was the result
of biological attack. Most seriously, de’ Mussi’s account is second-hand and
not corroborated by Others. It is thus possible that the biological attack never
took place. However, de’ Mussi appears to have been a reasonably careful wit-
ness and scribe, and he certainly would have had access to a number of eyewit-
nesses to the siege.
If the attack actually took place as described, it could easily have been the
means by which plague was transmitted to the city. Certainly infected human or
rodent fleas would have been carried by fresh cadavers. Probably more impor-
tant, plague is transmissible by the handling of infected tissue (probably
through small cuts or abrasions in the skin). The defenders at Calla would have
been working under stressful conditions, many of them probably with cuts,
abrasions or other wounds resulting from the continued hostilities, and they
were handling large numbers of badly mangled recent disease fatalities.
The numbers of cadavers hurled into the city could well have been in the
thousands. The Mongols were skilled siege warriors, even organizing their cen-
sus of conquered lands to identify tradesmen with strategically important skills
25 Norris, J., ‘Easr or west? The geographic origin of the Black Death‘, Bully/in of the History of
Medicine, vol. 51 (1977), pp. 1-24.
26 The term Tartar (or Tatar)

BIOLOGICAL WARFARE BEFORE l9 l 4 15
(e.g., carpenters, metalworkers and gunpowder makers), who could be drafted if
siege machines needed to be constructed anywhere in the realm.28 Their artillery
at Caffa was probably numerous and sophisticated. Fourteenth century accounts
agree on high mortality (30-«90 per cent of the susceptible population) for this
epidemic in crowded settings, such as a besieged city or the encampments of
the besiegers. Certainly thousands of disease fatalities among the Kipchak
forces is credible; a contemporary Arabic source estimates 85 000 plague
fatalities in the Caffa region in this epidemic.” Given the magnitude of the
mortuary problem, hurling machines may have been used for body disposal.
The cumulative potential for infection might thus have been quite high.
l‘here may have been other means of entry of plague into the city as well.
Although commensai rats do not normally venture far from their nests (less than
30 metres being common),3‘l it is still possible that the ranges of the rats inhabit~
ing the city and those inhabiting the Kipchak camps overlapped, allowing the
exchange of fleas between the two rat populations. lt is also possible that
defenders may have ventured outside the walls, on raids or to reclaim casual-
ties, and thereby ventured into the range of infected fleas. However, if the bio-
logical attack occurred as described by de’ Mussi, it provides a more plausible
mechanism for plague transmission that do these other possibilities.
The siege of Karlstein, 1422
Another instance of possible biological warfare was described by the 17th cen-
tury historian Antoine Varrilas, writing of the Bohemian heresy of John Hus
and the religious wars that it incited in eastern Europe.“ Varrilas wrote over
250 years after the events he described, from unnamed sources, and is not cor-
roborated. His credibility is thus low.
Hus was a popular Czech religious reformer who insisted, as did John Wyclif
before him, and Martin Luther and John Calvin afterwards, that access to God
was through faith, not the Church. He was burned at the stake in 1415 after
being tried before the Council of Constance for heresy. The martyring of Hus,
who was in Constance to defend himself under a safe conduct issued by Sigis-
mund, King of Hungary and Holy Roman Emperor, unified the Czechs and
incited open defiance of the Church. Defiance became outright revolt when in
1419 Wenceslas IV of Bohemia attempted to contain Hussitism by restricting it
to a few churches. Wenceslas died a few weeks later and the crown of Bohemia
passed to his brother Sigismund of Hungary, the betrayer of Hus. Czech nobles
rejected Sigismund when he refused their demand for religious freedom, and in
1,421 invited Alexander Witold, Grand Duke of Lithuania, to take the crown.
Witold was uncertain how to act because the crown was offered on condition
23 Allsen, T. T., Mongol Imperialism: The Grand Qan Me’ngke in China, Russia, and lite Lila/nit” Hindi,
125169 (University of California Press: Berkeley, Calif, 1987), p. 202.
29 Cited in Dols, M. W., The Black Death in Ilia ll/Iiddle

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