4 The Fourteenth Century Crisis and Southeast Asia
To overcome the crisis of the fourteenth century, Europe and Japan both turned to the sea and consequently experienced maritime Asia simultaneously. At the center of maritime Asia was the world largest archipelago: Southeast Asia.
(1) The Shared Fourteenth Century Crisis
The Black Death: Europe_s Population Reduced by One Third
The worst plague that struck Europe was the Black Death (bubonic plague) in the middle of the fourteenth century. The first Europeans to catch the Black Death are thought to have been Italian merchants who became infected with it when they were besieged by the Mongol army in the Crimean Peninsula in 1346. The disease was carried by ship over the Mediterranean Sea and spread inland from Venice, Genoa and other ports. The tragedy is vividly described in Boccaccio_s Decameron (1353):
In 1348 a deadly plague swept through the city of Florence. All attempts to prevent its spread proved useless. The pious entreaties of God-fearing people were of no avail. Both men and women developed hard tumors in their groins and armpits and were dead within three days after this first sign. There was no discrimination between the religious and secular worlds, and the authority of the law was completely powerless in its wake. The stench of the dead was everywhere. Countless corpses were carried out but there were never enough graves to bury them. Between March and July more than 100,000 people lost their lives inside the walls of Florence.
In 1348, the Black Death spread from Italy to France, sweeping through the Iberian Peninsula, Germany, and Poland, and finally making its way to Britain via the port of Dover. By the end of the next year, it had spread throughout Britain and into Scandinavia. The population of Europe was reduced by one third. The enormity of this calamity can be clearly grasped by comparing it with the death rate of soldiers in the World War Two. Of the Japanese regular army of 6,090,000, 1,020,000 died in the war, while 2,100,000 of the German army of 10,200,000 lost their lives. Even in the totally defeated nations of Japan and Germany, therefore, the death rate of soldiers in the regular army was about 20%. A death rate of one third of the whole population would result in a situation verging on complete panic. For the next 150 years, population growth in Europe was stagnant, labor was insufficient and the direct management of feudal domains proved difficult, resulting in the breakdown of the feudal system.
The Plague in the Middle East and China
According to Professor Dols, an expert on Middle Eastern history, one third of the population of the Middle East also died of plague in the fourteenth century. The American historian William McNeill, a reputed expert on the history of the bubonic plague, has argued that the Black Death originated with the Mongol invasion of Yunnan Province, where Mongol soldiers became infected with this endemic disease. The population of China, estimated to be about 123 million around 1200, had plunged by almost one half to an estimated 65 million by 1400. During a period of just two years in 1353-54 shortly before the final overthrow of the Mongol Empire in 1368, the Black Death is reported to have been particularly rampant throughout China, killing about two-thirds of the population.
Although the facts are uncertain due to the lack of written records, the Japanese pirates are said to have been active from the middle of the fourteenth century. They infested the seas every year from 1351 and their raids became more intense with each year. The fact that they seized people and food suggests and labor and food were in short supply in Japan as they were in Europe. The whole of the Eurasian continent thus faced an enormous crisis in the mid-fourteenth century.
The Medicinal Value of Pepper and Spices
To escape from the deadly plague, people needed medicine, and the medicines believed to be most effective were the pepper and spices produced in Southeast Asia.