Catapulted Death: Can a Flying Corpse Distribute the Plague?
Matthew J. Broughton
In the 1340’s, plague came to the Black Sea. In typical human fashion, blame was assigned to a convenient target: foreigners. The Genoese had an established counting house and trading port that processed the goods moving westward to the Mediterranean. There had long been a tense truce between the Genoese Christians and the local Mongols. As tensions rose, a fight broke out in a nearby town and someone died in the tussle. The order was given to oust the Genoese. They were chased back to their stronghold at Kaffa and besieged by the Mongols. The Genoese had the sea to their backs and the locals had no navy, so the siege failed and the encamped army dispersed.
Two years later the siege was renewed and that is when things got ugly. The Mongol troops living in the squalor of their makeshift encampment began to die in startling proportions of a resurgence of the plague. The army began to lose its resolve yet again. It was thought that the Genoese were safe and healthy in their stronghold, partly due to their religious beliefs, and the dying army was bitter for this. They wanted the enemy to see how horrible a fate had befallen them and hoped to transmit the death inside the walls.
Limited historical evidence suggests that the army used catapults to hurl their dead over the walls of the city upon the besieged residents and this directly lead to the spread of infection and the successful ousting of the Genoese. Fleeing Genoese who were able to leave by sea took the plague with them back to Italy. It is also proposed that this was the start of the Black Death of 1347-1350 in Europe. Could this have happened? Did the corpse missiles work? Was this the start of germ biowarfare and the primary cause of the Black Death?
Several questions need to be addressed if this theory of how plague moved from the Black Sea to Italy is deemed credible. The first aspect of this question removes the importance of the rest of the argument. Were the Genoese healthy at the time of the plague outbreak around Kaffa? Even though the Genoese were holed up in their walled city, the rats most likely had free issue to come and go over and under the walls at night. Catapults or not, if the plague was in the camps outside the walls, it was inside the walls as well. So the thoughts of the besieging army, that those inside the walls were well, were wrong. When the siege began anew the second time, which probably coincided with the onset of the area plague, Genoese residents fled back to Italy—by ship. All ships with food cargo had pests, and the likelihood that these cargo rats brought the plague to the ports of Italy seems high. Trade ships traveled the area all the time. If plague was in the shipping routes, it was destined for distribution by the commerce of trade, regardless of the events at Kaffa.
Next we come to the issue of who was going to hurl the bodies. In medieval times artillerymen were contractors. They were not slaves or conscripts, but valued employees. It was believed in that time that the disease was transmitted through the air around the dead and dying. No healthy soldier was going to voluntarily retrieve, haul, load, and fire a rotting corpse of his comrade emitting all of the putrid smells and fluids of the plague. This leads to the conclusion that this might have been a myth generated as part of the propaganda of warfare or the embellished memories of horrible days gone by amplified by time.
Then comes the issue of whether a dead body can transmit plague. With our current understanding of the zoonotic cycle of bubonic plague transmission, it seems highly unlikely that dead bodies could vector plague. As the temperature of a corpse falls, fleas leave the body. If direct bite transmission for the fleas was to happen, the window of contagiousness would be small, as most or all of the fleas would have jumped ship. There is a chance that there was fluid transfer to those inside the walls. There is the possibility that the speed and force of impact of a flung body is enough to cause splatter. Estimates show that a 200 lb. object could be thrown more than 100 yards. If a body strikes a stone wall or street at that high a speed it is feasible that liquid amounts of bacteria could contact victims near the point of impact, and those given the task of removing and dumping the bodies back over the wall would certainly get quite messy. Undoubtedly the rats found the scraps of this mess tasty and this would have helped to boost their population inside the walls, which would have had a great effect on the transmission of plague.
Did bodies fly through the air with the greatest of ease? Did these bodies start the Black Death of Europe? It seems unlikely that this is how things happened. Rats would have moved freely through the walled city of Kaffa, and the fleeing people probably took those rats with them in their ships’ cargo. This most likely is how the plague came to the Genoese and to Italy and ultimately the rest of Europe.
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