Reintroduction or European reservoir? – a key question for possible effects of 14th c. landscape history on the Black Death

A new article deals with the question of reintroductions of the Black Death from Asia and the role of reservoirs of Yersinia pestis in Europe. A database of historically recorded outbreaks of the plague is correlated with climate data from Central Asia as the main reservoir of the plague. As there is a correlation between climate change and outbreaks of the plague in Europe 15± 1 y, the authors see a mechanism starting with a situation, “when
the climate subsequently becomes less favorable, it facilitates the collapse of plague-infected rodent populations, forcing their fleas to find alternative hosts.” Such alternative hosts could be camels, which “are known to become infected relatively easy from infected fleas in plague foci, and can transmit the disease to humans.” Trading with caravans could transport the plague “across ∼4,000 km from the mountains of western Central Asia to the coast of the Black Sea”. The authors compare the transport rate of ∼333–400 km per year with that of the thrd pandemic in China ( ca 123 km per year) and the Black Death in Europe, which is however much faster (1330 km per year).

According to this model the plague of 1348/49 is in fact a reintroduction from Asia. This is remarkable, when thinking of the effect of landscape changes in Central Europe, which in fact created a situation, when anthropogenic alterations of the landscape provided a situation which had the potential to cause extrem weather, soil erosion and effects on rodents’ population. If there was no European reservoir of yersinia pestis at that time in Europe, the risk of an anthropogenic factor in the outbreak of the Black Death is significantly smaller (comp. Yersinia pestis – the missing ecological and historical dimension. Archaeologik [10.11.2011]. Attempting to take an ecological perspective on the Black Death is an important step also for a better understanding of the 14th c. crisis.

Boris V. Schmid; Ulf Büntgen; W. Ryan Easterday; Christian Ginzler; Lars Walløe; Barbara Bramanti; Nils Chr. Stenseth, Climate-driven introduction of the Black Death and successive plague reintroductions into Europe. PNAS Published online before print February 23, 2015 –  doi: 10.1073/pnas.1412887112

with supplements:

Authors’ abstract
The Black Death, originating in Asia, arrived in the Mediterranean harbors of Europe in 1347 CE, via the land and sea trade routes of the ancient Silk Road system. This epidemic marked the start of the second plague pandemic, which lasted in Europe until the early 19th century. This pandemic is generally understood as the consequence of a singular introduction of Yersinia pestis, after which the disease established itself in European rodents over four centuries. To locate these putative plague reservoirs, we studied the climate fluctuations that preceded regional plague epidemics, based on a dataset of 7,711 georeferenced historical plague outbreaks and 15 annually resolved tree-ring records from Europe and Asia. We provide evidence for repeated climate-driven reintroductions of the bacterium into European harbors from reservoirs in Asia, with a delay of 15 ± 1 y. Our analysis finds no support for the existence of permanent plague reservoirs in medieval Europe.

Looters at a mass burial in France

According to recent press releases we face an increasing number of mass burials all over Europe (recently we had press releases on Ellwangen, Barcelona and London). Currentky there are rescue excavations at Toulouse in France. Around 150 corpses have been found, by now contributed to an outbreak of the plague in 1378.

Several of the skulls have been stolen from the excavation. Looting of archaeological sites is an increasing problem not only in the Near East. In Toulouse the looting of skulls may seriously affect the scientific value of the anthropological data for the analysis of demography, nutrition and the effects of the Black Death.


Mass Burial in Ellwangen

The BlackDeathNetwork is not only in medieval mass burials, but here is another new discovery, dating to the 16th century from Ellwangen in eastern Baden-Württemberg, Germany.

Rescue excavations in the center of the town Ellwangen brought a burial with around 50 deads.  DNA analysis, realized by the Tübingen research group of Johannes Krause, revealed DNA of yersinia pestis.

By now there is only a short newspaper report in German:

Mass Burial in Barcelona

Media report about a mass burial in Barcelona:

It will be interesting to learn, how methodologically the burial has been dated between 1348 and 1375.

Factors and hypothetical interactions during the late medieval crisis

Ecological Approaches in Medieval Rural Archaeology

  • R. Schreg, Ecological Approaches in Medieval Rural Archaeology. European Journal of Archaeology 17(1), 2014, 83-119
    DOI 10.1179/1461957113Y.0000000045

    [There is currently no Open Access, sorry!].

In recent years, scientific methods of bio- and geoarchaeology have become increasingly important for archaeological research. Political changes since the 1990s have reshaped the archaeological community. At the same time environmental topics have gained importance in modern society, but the debate lacks an historical understanding. Regarding medieval rural archaeology, we need to ask how this influences our archaeological research on medieval settlements, and how ecological approaches fit into the self-concept of medieval archaeology as a primarily historical discipline. Based mainly on a background in German medieval archaeology, this article calls attention to more complex ecological research questions. Medieval village formation and the late medieval crisis are taken as examples to sketch some hypotheses and research questions. The perspective of a village ecosystem helps bring together economic aspects, human ecology and environmental history. There are several implications for archaeological theory as well as for archaeological practice. Traditional approaches from landscape archaeology are insufficient to understand the changes within village ecosystems. We need to consider social aspects and subjective recognition of the environment by past humans as a crucial part of human–nature interaction. Use of the perspective of village ecosystems as a theoretical background offers a way to examine individual historical case studies with close attention to human agency. Thinking in terms of human ecology and environmental history raises awareness of some interrelations that are crucial to understanding past societies and cultural change. (Abstract)

The article takes the late medieval crisis as an example for the complexity of interaction and proposes to understand the Black Death within the framework of human ecology.

Factors and hypothetical interactions during the late medieval crisis

Factors and hypothetical interactions during the late medieval crisis




Black Death in the Media

Black Death today

Belfast Telegraph (21.1.2014): Bubonic plague strain could return –

Gizmodo (28.1.2014): Plague DNA Found in Ancient Tooth Suggests Black Death Isn’t Dead Yet –

The Atlantic (11.4.2014): Avoiding the Black Plague Today –

Decoded Science (6.4.2014): Digging up the Black Death: What Caused the Black Plague, and Are We In Danger? –

New finds in London

The Guardian (29.3.2014): Black death skeletons reveal pitiful life of 14th-century Londoners –

Reuters (30.3.2014): British experts say they have found London’s lost Black Death graves –

DNA studies

International Business Times (22.4.2014): Black Death DNA Mapped to Discover Bubonic Plague Evolution –

Digital journal 825.4.2014): Scientists create Black Death family tree –


MedicalNewsToday (7.5.2014): Were medieval Britons more resilient to disease following the black death? –

The conversation (8.4.2014): No, the Black Death did not create more jobs for women –

Various links from our facebook group

I just collected the links from recent posts in our facebook-group.

Obviously the plague is for most colleagues here the most interesting aspect. However, I would like to emphasize, that we intend to understand the 14th century crisis within a wider context of social, economic and environmental history. – I would be glad, if we could have more contributions also for this broader perspective. It is not necessary to have elaborated scientific articles here. Short references / links to recent publications, own research or conferences may help to have the BlackDeath Network as a plattform of interdisciplinary exchange.

re: Livestock size change in the 14th century

For a little while now, I have been interested in identifying and explaining changes in the size of domestic livestock in the 14th century. This research was originally inspired by my analysis of the animal remains from Dudley Castle, West Midlands, UK, which revealed a statistically-significant increase in the size of cattle, sheep, pig, and even chicken, between two phases of occupation (1262-1321 and 1321-1397). These changes were much earlier than those documented at other sites (mostly 15th-17th century), and I interpreted them  within the context of altered tenurial and agricultural practices in the wake of the Black Death: Thomas, R. 2005. Zooarchaeology, improvement and the British Agricultural Revolution. International Journal of Historical Archaeology 9 (2): 71-88.

Since then, a number of additional sites have provided evidence of livestock size change in the 14th century – seemingly adding weight to this idea. Just recently, however, I have completed a collaborative project exploring size change in domestic livestock in medieval and early modern England, using data from London: Thomas, R., Holmes, M., and Morris, J. 2013. “So bigge as bigge may be”: tracking size and shape change in domestic livestock in London (AD 1220-1900). Journal of Archaeological Science 40 (8): 3309-3325.

In this study, we analysed 7966 individual cattle, sheep, pig and chicken bone measurements from 105 sites excavated in London dating to the period AD 1220–1900 and multiple episodes of size change were identified. The earliest evidence for size change in cattle and sheep occurs in the early 14th century: this is earlier than any previously documented instance of livestock size increase in the medieval period. The fact that only cattle and sheep witness size increase is interesting, given the major outbreaks of disease affecting these animals in the first quarter of the 14th century: sheep murrain was epidemic between 1314 and 1316, while a panzootic in cattle occurred between 1319 and 1322. Given the timing of the size increases and the fact that only cattle and
sheep are affected, re-stocking policies might be an obvious explanation. However, selective breeding from larger animals was probably not the cause: there is no zooarchaeological evidence for large livestock elsewhere in England and Wales in this period and the large-scale transnational cattle trade did not commence until the late 15th century. Perhaps, a temporary relative increase in mean size may have
occurred in the archaeological (death) assemblage, because of relatively lower slaughter rates of female cattle following the pestilence. This might be explained by the
fact that the slaughtering of females, which survived the panzootic, might have been delayed, to re-populate the herds; consequently, survivors were used for a longer period than would have normally been the case. Alternatively, the larger size of cattle and sheep may reflect the actions of natural selection. It is entirely conceivable that smaller, weaker animals were more susceptible to malnutrition and ultimately mortality, while the larger, healthier animals survived to perpetuate their genes.

At the moment I am fairly open about the most likely explanation, but I would welcome any thoughts if you have any.

Environmental damages in 14th century Southwest Germany

An interesting new study proves extreme  gullying in a landscape in Southwestern Germany.  By now there have been little indications that 1342 St. Magdalen’s flood had impact also on settlement landscapes in Southwest Germany.

Today this landscape – the southwestern Schönbuch natural park north of Tübingen – is completely forrested, but it must have been a rather open landscape vulnerable to erosion in the 14th century. In neighbouring settlements there are various indication for rural industries. There need for firing wood may have been an important factor for deforestation and environmental risk. A blog-post at Archaeologik discusses the archaeological evidence of settlement activity.

Documents from the town of  Esslingen, less than 30 km northwest of the gullies indicate that in fact rains in summer 1342 also affected the Neckar region (

erosion gully in the southwestern Schönbuch forest northwest of Tübingen. Todya the landscape is completely forrested with little traces of medieval settlement.
(Foto: R. Schreg, 2013)

Introduction – Alison Atkin

I am a second-year PhD student at the University of Sheffield, in England.  The aim of my PhD project is to apply new theory and methods recently developed in palaeodemography to gain a deeper understanding of mass fatality incidents.  The current focus of this project is identifying the ‘lost’ plague victims from Medieval England.

Using a multi-disciplinary approach, combining demographic data from archaeological examples, along with evidence from contemporary documentary sources, my research project aims to identify episodes of mass mortality as a result of the Black Death in Medieval England, which to date have been mis- or un-identified in the archaeological record – and to discuss changes to burial practices and funerary rights during and after the Black Death.

y.p. genomes

Just a notice of two posts at Contagions, dealing with recent papers on y.p. genomes:

and at Bones don’t lie: