Biological warfare at the 1346 siege of Caffa

Emerg Infect Dis. 2002 Sep;8(9):971-5. doi: 10.3201/eid0809.010536.


On the basis of a 14th-century account by the Genoese Gabriele de' Mussi, the Black Death is widely believed to have reached Europe from the Crimea as the result of a biological warfare attack. This is not only of great historical interest but also relevant to current efforts to evaluate the threat of military or terrorist use of biological weapons. Based on published translations of the de' Mussi manuscript, other 14th-century accounts of the Black Death, and secondary scholarly literature, I conclude that the claim that biological warfare was used at Caffa is plausible and provides the best explanation of the entry of plague into the city. This theory is consistent with the technology of the times and with contemporary notions of disease causation; however, the entry of plague into Europe from the Crimea likely occurred independent of this event.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Warfare / history*
  • Disease Outbreaks / history*
  • Europe / epidemiology
  • History, Medieval
  • Humans
  • Literature, Medieval / history
  • Middle East / epidemiology
  • Plague / epidemiology
  • Plague / history*
  • Plague / transmission