Who did pioneer biological warfare? With the progress of state-of-the-art industries, such as biotechnology, aviation or chemistry, one may reasonably think that it is a modern, 21st-century invention. Well, think again. From poisoned wells to mustard gas, that warfare practice is almost as old as war itself! Grab your gas masks, as we wander across the most contagious battlefields.
Biological warfare encompasses all warfare techniques that feature biological agents – germs, toxins, plants, bugs, venom – to provoke death. For a long time, man has tried to harness bacteria to send them to the frontline; it proved a redoubtable weapon, since armors or fortifications are no shield to pathogens.
In Ancient times, Scythian archers would spread terror in the steppes of Central Asia. Their recipe for success? They used to dip their arrows into blood or manure, or just stick them into some not much fresh (and usually plagued with disease) cadaver before firing them. A wound would thus have more potential to get infected… Ancient Greeks usually dropped decaying animal carcasses into wells to cut fresh water supply. So did Romans and Persians. That method proved successful over a long period, and even adapted itself to medieval habits: in 1495, knee-deep into the ferocious Italian Wars, French soldiers were offered wine – which they gratefully accepted – although it had been mixed with leprous blood…
Meanwhile, humankind pioneered entomological warfare, which involves… bugs. Do creepy crawlies frighten you? Then just imagine the terror of a medieval assailant, storming his way to the top of a rampart, receiving a buzzing beehive on the head. Bees rank amongst the very first insects to be used on warfare purposes. As always, recipes vary considering geographical locations: in Middle-Eastern provinces, soldiers would throw scorpion-infested jars on their enemies.
However, one of the most memorable episodes of this budding biological warfare was staged on the muddy banks of the Black Sea, in the 14th century. At the time, strains of plague (Yersinia pestis) travelled across Central Asia – either in the pockets of nomadic Mongolian merchants, or in the remote, mountainous villages of China. The thriving European population had not yet experienced the damages of such an epidemic: bodies eaten up by necrosis, painful buboes popping up, extreme fever, vomiting… The Old Continent, still bogged down in the Hundred Years’ War, did not know what was to come.
Back to the Black Sea, then. Since the early 13th century, the harbor of Kaffa (today Feodosia, Crimea) had been a Genoese trading post. Italian merchants regularly stopped by to fill their purses and sell exotic supplies. Not surprisingly, Kaffa was one of the most flourishing slave markets of the continent… The financial gains may explain why the Golden Horde armies, led by Jani Beg, swept across Crimea and laid siege to the harbor town in 1345. However, those soldiers carried the Black Death with them, and their bodies fell massively before the fortifications… Meanwhile, the besieged Italians received help and fresh food by boat – the siege could not prevent naval restocking.
Invaders thus adapted their strategy: instead of waiting for the plague to kill every Tatar soldier, they decided to share the burden with the Italians. And Jani Beg, leader of the Golden Horde, ordered that cadavers of plague victims be thrown over the ramparts and into the city walls! Quickly, thousands of decaying bodies piled up in the streets of Kaffa, forcing both Genoese traders and soldiers to retreat. The journey was not pleasant, however, as plague symptoms kept showing up among the crews. Back to Sicily, months later, they introduced the Black Death into Europe – with the consequences that we know.
Between 1347 and 1351, the pandemic claimed the lives of roughly one European out of three.
Obviously, the causes of the epidemic are various: contagious merchants across the Silk Road, infected rats and fleas aboard commercial ships in the Mediterranean… One does not simply link the most devastating scourge of medieval times to a cadaver-throwing catapult. However the first steps towards biological warfare were taken at Kaffa. With more to come: mustard gas, mycotoxins, chlorine, potato beetles, anthrax… Improvement of laboratory research and aviation made it more efficient and devastating, in full sight of the Geneva Conventions. The Kaffa episode also proved – again! – that soldiers may be useful on the battlefield, even after death.
- Mark Wheelis, “Biological Warfare at the 1346 Siege of Caffa” (2002), Emerging Infectious Diseases, 8(9), 971-975.
- Amy Stewart, Wicked Bugs: The Louse That Conquered Napoleon’s Army & Other Diabolical Insects (2011), Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.
- Jeanne Guillemin, Biological Weapons: From the Invention of State-sponsored Programs to Contemporary Bioterrorism (2006), Columbia University Press.
- Vincent Gourdon, “Arrivée de la Peste Noire en Méditerranée”, Encyclopaedia Universalis.
- T. Debord, P. Binder, J. Salomon, R. Roué, « Les armes biologiques », Topique, 2002/4 (n°81), p. 93-101.
- Collectif, Les pires décisions de l’Histoire de France (2015), éd. Larousse.