20th Century's Deadliest Disasters
20th Century’s Deadliest Disasters

20th Century’s Deadliest Disasters

Khalid Elhassan - October 26, 2020

20th Century’s Deadliest Disasters
The Silk Road helped spread Justinian’s Plague. YouTube

2. Black Rats Carried the Plague Across the World of Late Antiquity

The strain of Yersinia pestis bacterium responsible for Justinian’s Plague originated near Central Asia, near the border between modern China and Kyrgyzstan. Like the Black Death, Justinian’s Plague was mainly bubonic, felling its victims with all the bubonic plague’s tragic horrors. It first struck China and northern India, made its way via trade routes to the Great Lakes region of Africa, then down the Nile to Egypt.

20th Century’s Deadliest Disasters
A ship rat. Jaya Pest Control

Like the Black Death, Justinian’s Plague was transmitted by infected fleas carried by black rats. Egypt was the Byzantine Empire’s granary, and from its seaports, ships laden with grain – and also rats hosting infected fleas – sailed across the Mediterranean. From Egypt, the plague rapidly spread to the rest of the Middle East, the Eastern Mediterranean, and Constantinople, which served as both capital and commercial center for the Byzantine Empire. From Constantinople, the plague swiftly spread through the rest of Europe.

20th Century’s Deadliest Disasters
Plague victims. Brooklyn College Library

1. Justinian’s Plague Ended the Classical Age, and Kick Started the Feudal Era

Justinian’s Plague hit Europe hard: an estimated 40% to 50% of the continent’s population perished during the pandemic’s tragic course and aftermath. However, not all parts of Europe were equally hard-hit. The plague followed the established trade routes, so ports and cities got the worst of it. By contrast, the countryside and the parts of Europe of the established trade routes got off relatively lightly.

20th Century’s Deadliest Disasters
Justinian’s Plague. Art Station

That uneven death toll, heavy in the cities and relatively light in the countryside, transitioned Europe out of what was left of the Classical Age, and ushered in the Feudal Era. The Classical Age had been marked by a significant urban culture. Justinian’s Plague – on top of Justinian’s many wars – put paid to that, devastating the cities and an economy built around sustaining urban life. The center of power shifted from the cities to the countryside, and rural strongmen emerged as the founders of feudalism. One era and way of life ended, and another one began.

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Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Cantor, Norman F. – In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World it Made (2002)

Cracked – 6 Historical Tragedies That Were Way Worse Than You Thought

Crawford, Dorothy – Deadly Companions: How Microbes Shaped Our History (2018)

History Collection – Historic Disasters That Were Way Worse Than People Think

Devastating Disasters – Yellow River Flood, China, 1887 AD

Disaster History – Central China Flood, 1931

Encyclopedia Britannica – Huang He Floods

Encyclopedia Britannica – Tangshan Earthquake of 1976

History Collection – Unusual Historic Crises and Calamities

Facts and Details – Yellow River

Flood List – Central China Flood, 1931

Hurricane Science – 1839 Coringa Cyclone

Live Science – Mount Vesuvius & Pompeii: Facts & History

Live Science – What Was the Black Death?

History Collection – 16 Dreadful Details about the Black Plague

McNeil, William H. – Plagues and People (1976)

National Geographic, September, 2007 – Vesuvius, Asleep for Now

New York Times, September 15th, 1996 – China’s Endless Task to Stem Centuries of Floods

Rosen, William – Justinian’s Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe (2007)

History Collection – Seven Deadliest Plagues in History

Sigurosson, Haraldur, and Carey, Steven – The Eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79 (2002)

Time Magazine, October 15th, 1956 – Science: Man of Pompeii

Wikipedia – 1976 Tangshan Earthquake

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