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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On a Surprising Reticence

The people of Tournai bury victims of the Black Death, c. 1353 (ms. 13076 - 13077 fol. 24v) Public Domain

With the current outbreak of the corona virus - COVID-19, it is interesting to note how attitudes range between fear bordering on hysteria and total apathy. For those in the first category, a rapidly growing camp, it should be kept in mind that the current death toll as I write is less than 3,000, and in all likelihood the whole thing will blow over without reaching pandemic proportions (I hope I won't regret having made this prediction). With modern medicine and a better understanding of how disease spreads and what measures can be taken to prevent that, there is certainly no reason to expect a repeat of anything on the scale of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic that, coming on the tail end of the disastrous first World War with its 20-22 million dead, caused an additional estimated 40-100 million deaths, or the Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century that was responsible for a possible 57 to 200 million fatalities. Those were disasters that would have been impossible to be unconcerned about. And yet, with regard to the outbreak of the Black Death, in the Crusader kingdom of Cyprus there is a strange and remarkable silence in contemporary sources.

The plague struck the kingdom in the late summer of 1347, possibly somewhat earlier. However, evidence on the spread of the disease and its impact on the island is surprisingly sparse. There are no contemporary narratives. The German pilgrim, Ludolf of Suchem arrived on the island between 1336-41, so the author of one of the most substantial pilgrimage accounts of those years just missed the event, no doubt encountering it when he got home. Even the later chroniclers that discuss the period have very little to say. The anonymous author of the text known as the Chronicle of Amadi, for example, with remarkable ennui states that in 1348 "God sent a great plague to Cyprus on account of which one third of the people lost their lives."[1] That is all he has to say, and other writers are no more informative. They give no details, no descriptions, no comments on what this disaster meant to the surviving citizens. It might well be a minor mishap for all the emotion or indeed attention they paid to it. Other types of sources need to be regarded. Archaeology might supply some information, but has done little so far. From funerary slabs from Nicosia the plague appears to have peaked in the spring of 1348. A fourteenth century gospel gives a daily death toll of one of the cities, possibly Nicosia or Famagusta, at 50 [2] (by comparison, the daily death toll for the entire world in the current corona epidemic is, for February 27, 58). In 1394, nearly half a century after the outbreak of 1347, Nicolas Martoni, a notary from Campania, found almost a third of the city of Famagusta uninhabited and the houses destroyed, though he seems to have placed the responsibility for this on the Genoese occupiers of the city rather than on the plague. [3] The traveller, Orient d'Anglure who visited Cyprus the following year found Limassol similarly "for the most part uninhabited" which he too blamed on the Genoese. [4]

Modern writers have tried, no more successfully than the early sources, to deal with the numbers of casualties in the Cyprus plague. Johannes Nohl wrote that Cyprus, like Iceland was "depopulated to the last inhabitant", an obvious folly.[5] He was not the first to claim this. The eighteenth century French orientalist, Joseph Deguignes and the nineteenth century German physician and medical writer, Justus Friedrich Karl Hecker had the same to say.[6] More seriously, certainly more cautiously, the British numismatist George Hill, author of the accomplished four-volume History of Cyprus (Cambridge, 1940-52), estimated that the plague caused the deaths of a half to two thirds of the island's population [7] but that too is not really very informative.

Interestingly, the Greek historian Nicephorus Gregoras (c. 1295–1360) noted that it was not only men and women who were affected by the Black Death, but also dogs, horses and other domestic animals as well as birds and rats. [8] Whether or not that was the case, the effects of the loss of life on the island, as elsewhere, must have been devastating and long-lasting.

1. Nicholas Coureas and Peter Edbury, transl., The Chronicle of Amadi, Nicosia, 2015, p. 371, no. 805.

2. Tassos Papacostas, "Manuscript Notes and the Black Death in Rural Cyprus", in Clare Teresa M Shawcross and Ida Toth, eds., Reading in the Byzantine Empire and Beyond, Cambridge, 2018, pp. 135, 136.

3. Claude Delaval Cobham, trans., Excerpta Cypria. Materials for a History of Cyprus, Cambridge, 1908, p. 22.

4. Ibid., p. 28.

5. Johannes Nohl, The Black Death: A Chronicle of the Plague , trans. C.H. Clark, Yardley Pennsylvania, 1926, p. 40.

6. Papacostas, Ibid., p. 137.

7. George Hill, A History of Cyprus, vol. 2 Cambridge 2010, p. 307.

8. Philip Ziegler, The Black Death, New York, 1969, p. 111.

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Feb 28, 2020

The fact that the plague occurred on an island made it more likely that the disease was contained; had it spread well beyond Cyprus there might have been less apathy. There has also been a reported case of a pet dog contracting COVID-19, so let's see where that goes. Meanwhile, I do hope your positive outlook holds up, Adrian!

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