The Crimean port of Caffa had been besieged by an army of Mongols under the command of General Janiberg for three years.
Then the Black Death arrived and the besieging soldiers began to die like flies. General Janiberg had a bright idea. He would catapult his dead soldiers over the city walls.
And so he did. The plague-ridden corpses flew through the air, over the walls and rained down on the stricken town. And soon the populace of Caffa sickened and died.
The last few alive escaped by sea, arriving in Messina with most of the ship’s crew dead. Within days the people of Messina started to die too.
Ships of dead men became a common sight on the seas surrounding Europe.
It was the beginning of the greatest pandemic the world has ever known. Half the population of Europe — some 75 to 100 million — died in four years.
The dead lay unburied in the street because there was no one left to dig the graves.
Those that were buried were dug up again to be eaten by starving dogs.
There was only one cure known to 14th century medicine. Wearing a scary mask. It didn’t prove effective in halting the progress of the disease.
In this atmosphere a young man of 20 called Bernadine turned up at the hospital Santa Maria della Scala in Siena and offered to help. Santa Maria della Scala was not like hospitals of today. It was more of a religious institution: in the place of antibiotics and saline drips they had a fragment of the Virgin Mary’s girdle, and a nail from Jesus’ cross.
Working in a hospital during a time of plague was the most dangerous job in the world.
No no one could quite believe Bernadine wanted to work there.
‘What jobs are vacant?’ he said, and they replied, ‘All of them.’
He worked tirelessly ministering to the sick, and managed to work there for half a year and not die. After that, no doubt in need of some light relief, he invented advertising.
It wasn’t called that then, in fact, it didn’t have a name.
He wandered the land preaching, and in order to better convey his teachings he boiled them down to short pithy headlines and had these printed on placards held aloft for the crowd to read. Since the common people had never seen clickbait before it proved remarkably effective. Crowds came from all over Italy and filled the market places to hear him speak.
St Bernadine did not disappoint them. He was a great storyteller and knew what people wanted, then as now: Scandal.
He inveighed against gambling, witchcraft, adultery, incest, sodomy and usury.
If it was fun, he was against it.
Saint Bernadine also invented the Bonfires of the Vanities, which gave rise five centuries later to the novel called Wall Street by Tom Wolf and the movie starring Michael Douglas. The original Bonfires of the Vanities were pyres upon which the crowds were exhorted to throw their mirrors, high-heeled shoes, perfumes, locks of false hair, cards, dice and chessmen.
The Church authorities became alarmed. They called this ‘Devil’s work’ and denounced it as a profane, new devotion which exposed the people to the danger of idolatry. But at some point they must have changed their view.
The Pope offered Bernadine a job as the Patron Saint of Advertising.
‘What’s advertising?’ he said.
‘It’s something to do with those placards you hold up. We love them, we think they’re the Cat’s Pyjamas. It doesn’t start for another 500 years so you can sit on your backside and do nothing.’
‘I’ll take it.’
The Blessed Saint Bernadine of Siena is also the Patron Saint of gambling and respiratory problems.