‘O happy posterity, who will not experience such abysmal woe, and will look upon our testimony as a fable.’ Francesco Petrarch
Somewhere near the estuary of the Don,
with its mudflats and meanders, north
of the Sea of Azov, and somewhere
near the Volga Delta, with its pelicans
and flamingos, north of the Caspian,
on the steppe lands are black rats and fleas
and yersinia pestis. The rats
like human warmth, and the fleas can leap.
The Mongol khanate of the Golden Horde,
recently converted to Islam,
had closed the Silk Road for religious reasons.
Italian merchants in Kaffa, Crimea,
notwithstanding held their fort. The Mongols
besieged the Christians and, withered by the plague,
so it is said, threw the corpses of their dead
over the ramparts. The merchants decamped.
The bacterium was borne along trade routes –
in holds of ships and folds of clothing.
In eight years the Black Death killed fifty million.
There was collateral damage – in Strasburg
and all of Rhineland the burning of Jews.
It probably brought about the end
of the feudal system, and undermined
the Pope’s domination, making the world
free for capital, enterprise and invention –
like mariners’ astrolabes, matchlock guns,
the Atlantic Slave Trade.