Michelle Isenhoff

The Nestorian Trading Community and the Start of the Black Death

This is the third in a 4-part series about the research that went into Taylor Davis and the Quest for the Immortal Blade, book three in the Taylor Davis trilogy.

The Black Death outbreak of the fourteenth century features heavily in my final Taylor Davis book. Over a course of approximately 15-20 years, the pandemic followed the trade routes and devastated populations and economies around the world. To illustrate the vast depopulation caused by the Plague, a Chinese census from 1200 AD totals 120 million people. A 1339 AD census shows only 65 million.

Historians have several theories about when and where the Black Death started. One of these cites a Nestorian trading community on the shores of Lake Issyk Kul as the source of the outbreak, which is the primary reason I set so much of my novel in Kyrgyzstan. Two cemeteries associated with this settlement have 1338-9 gravestones that bear inscriptions citing “death through pestilence”, referring to the Plague. In addition, records from the settlement, which usually averaged four deaths per year, indicate that number jumped to over 100 dead in that two-year period.

Other historians claim China was the origin of the plague, and from what I found out in my research, Chinese records do seem to predate the events in Kyrgyzstan. It also makes sense that the plague would have arrived at sites along the Silk Road trading routes from elsewhere, not originate on them. Even so, I go with the Issyk Kul origin theory in my story. One of the supernatural beings on Taylor’s team (who would have been around in the fourteenth century) claims that the plague began at the Nestorian community around 1338. They’re onsite in Kyrgyzstan and it works great for the story, so I took a bit of license with historical fact. (And since I’m confessing, I’ll also admit I placed the Nestorian community–for which I could not find a precise location–on the northeast shore of Issyk Kul, which was actually the location of the monastery in my last post.)

To set the historical record straight, and because I find it so fascinating, here’s a more accurate picture of what we know about the spread of the Black Death:

1331: An outbreak in Yuan Empire hastened the end of Mongol rule over China. This is the earliest reference I found.

1334: Plague killed 90% of the population of China’s Hebei Province. Deaths totaled over 5 million.

1335: The Mongol ruler of Persia, Abu Said, died of plague. It marked the beginning of end of Mongol rule in Persia, where 30% of the population died.

1338-9: The Nestorian Christian trading post on Issyk Kul was ravaged by plague.

1339: Plague reaches Talas, Kazakhstan, a major city on the Silk Road.

1345: 2000 dying daily in Damascus.

1347: The Mongol army that was holding Kaffa (on the Black Sea) in siege was ravaged by plague. Bodies were catapulted into city to spread it there (according to Italian lawyer, Gabriled Massis). Refugees fled to (and spread the disease to) Genoa.

1347: Plague reaches Italy, which was particularly hard hit, losing 75-80% of its population. Tax records in Florence indicate that 80% of the city’s population died within four months in 1348.

1347-1351: Plague peaks in Europe, killing 40-60% of the population.

1349: Plague reaches Mecca, on the Arabian peninsula. The Middle East averaged death tolls of about 1/3.

1351: After 20 years, plague deaths finally diminish.

A few more fun (or not-so-fun) facts:

Bubonic plague killed not only humans, but dogs, cats, cows, sheep, pigs, and chickens, making it impossible to escape the disease even when one fled the cities.

Because of massive depopulation, wages soared.

Plague was seen as judgment by God. Religious fervor flourished, as did fanaticism. Minorities were often blamed and targeted, particularly gypsies, Jews, and foreigners. Those with skin conditions, often known collectively as lepers, were singled out and exterminated.

It took 200 years for population levels to recover.

Bubonic plague persists to this day, still lingering in rodent populations and spread by flea bites. A handful of cases are diagnosed in humans every year. However, as the bacteria that causes the illness responds well to modern treatments, deaths are rare. There is virtually no chance that the Black Death of the fourteenth century will repeat.

Read the second post in this series: A Lost Armenian Monastery and the Bones of Saint Matthew.

The Nestorian Trading Community and the Start of the Black Death

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