In the last days of the 1400s, a terrible epidemic swept through Europe. Men and women spiked sudden fevers. Their joints ached, and they broke out in rashes that ripened into bursting boils. Ulcers ate away at their faces, collapsing their noses and jaws, working down their throats and airways, making it impossible to eat or drink. Survivors were grossly disfigured. Unluckier victims died.
The infection sped across the borders of a politically fractured landscape, from France into Italy, on to Switzerland and Germany, and north to the British Isles, Scandinavia, and Russia. The Holy Roman Emperor declared it a punishment from God. “Nothing could be more serious than this curse, this barbarian poison,” an Italian historian wrote in 1495.