In 1347, the first epidemic of the second plague pandemic struck Europe, marking the beginning of what we know as the Black Death, a complicated disease that wreaked havoc in Asia, Europe, and parts of Africa.
When the plague struck, medieval medical science, which was soon to undergo major upheaval, was structured around the three-tiered social and economic class system of the period. This system separated citizens into the nobility and church officials, the bourgeoisie or “middle class” merchants and workers, and the working peasantry. Doctors were most often trained and organized by the church or governing body, and, as such, took a rather mystical, and often inaccurate, approach to all disease – including plague. Considering this state of medicine, it is unsurprising that the peoples of Europe and Asia did not cooperate to organize a concerted anti-plague campaign.
Many barriers between peoples existed at the time, not the least of which was the manner in which doctors and surgeons were separated from their colleagues by their governments, with little or no international contact. Such lack of communication between members of the medical profession caused any useful knowledge about the plague to remain localized, reducing the opportunity for the dissemination of skills and techniques for quarantine, sanitation, and other areas important to halting the spread of disease.
In addition to the lack of professional interaction, different countries were separated not only by language barriers, but by major differences in religion which led to diffuse attitudes about dealing with the Black Death. While Christian governments encouraged flight as a method of – often unsuccessfully – avoiding the plague, their Muslim counterparts took the view that the disease was the will of God, and to flee would be useless. This, and other examples of religious differences, not to mention barriers in language, highlight the lack of tolerance during the period, which would naturally make international cooperation difficult.
Finally, during the 14th century, technology had not yet progressed to its modern level of ever-exponentially-increasing speed, making communication and work between countries in different parts of the world not just culturally and scientifically, but physically difficult. When it takes a ship weeks to travel from Spain to Turkey, it is impractical to suggest cooperation between these countries, or ones more separated, especially when a bout of pneumonic plague can spread and kill 30% of the population in a manner of months! Overall, there are a number of reasons that the governments of the 14th century were unable to mount a cooperative medical campaign against the Black Death, which, taken together, emphasize those aspects and facets of medieval culture which most encouraged the rampant spread of such disease.
Despite the lack of successful counter-disease measures, different regions of the world did indeed suffer different magnitudes of losses during the plague. A good example of this phenomenon is the broad range of death rates strictly within the British Isles. While some areas of the countryside suffered losses of a “mere” 30-35%, other regions were hit by 50+% death rates.
These comparisons can be made on a grander scale as well. Comparing situations throughout the Muslim world and Christendom, it becomes apparent that in fact, the Islamic peoples of the 14th century were hit just as hard by the Black Death. For example, many cities in the Mediterranean basin suffered particularly badly from the disease, probably as a result of heavy shipping traffic in these regions. While the Muslim world was hit first, as the plague spread from its roots in central and eastern Asia, the infected rats and fleas were soon exposed to the Southern European citizenry. The Muslim town of Antioch, for example, suffered mortality perhaps in excess of 50%, but as the plague reached the Christian towns of Florence and Sienna, these death rates were matched and exceeded. Throughout Christian Europe, perhaps the worst situations were in parts of Britain and Scandinavia, especially the colder regions in which deadly pneumonic plague spread easily. However, all told, a good 40-50% of the Muslim peoples in the world died by 1350, suggesting an equally terrible situation.
Indeed, cultural differences such as those between the peoples of Europe and Asia had little impact on the effects of plague. The second pandemic, and all its epidemics lasting until the end of the 14th century, hit most of Eurasia equally hard, due to a combination of environmental conditions that allowed the plague bacillus to propagate. Overall, the Muslim world fared no better than the Christians in the Black Death and the ensuing epidemics, and the devastating impact was seen throughout the world.