The Black Death Network

The 14th century was a profoundly tumultuous period in European history. Climatic deterioration in the first quarter of the century triggered harvest failures and human famine in a population that had already exceeded the carrying capacity of agricultural production. Human famine was compounded by the widespread loss of cattle and sheep as epizootics spread across the continent. In many parts of Europe, continuous warfare and the consequential increased burden of taxation further stretched agricultural production to breaking point. In the middle of the century the Black Death swept through Europe killing 30–60% of the population. These calamitous events had profound social and economic repercussions that resonated far beyond the immediate aftermath of the population crash in the late 1340s and early 1350s.

Understanding of the 14th-century crises needs:

  • a broad interdisciplinary approach, bringing together humanities and sciences;
  • a comparative approach to enable the examination of different landscapes with their distinct historical and ecological backgrounds.

An ecological perspective on a local or regional scale may help to understand the specific causes and effects. Furthermore, it may help to overcome deterministic interpretations and to deal with the complexities of the 14th centuries crises and the human responses to them.

Some of the disciplines involved are:

History

Currently our knowledge on the 14th-century crisis is based primarily on written evidence. Besides chronical reports of famines, plagues and weather extremes, there are also data on prices of grain for example, which may reflect not only local policy but also supraregional crop failure. To understand the crises we need detailed analysis of local case studies. Additionally, historical and medieval studies are crucial to help us understand contemporary perceptions and explanations of the plague and other 14th-century hazards.

Medieval archaeology

Already for some decades medieval archaeologists have been interested in the phenomenon of abandoned settlements, which have been in many cases connected with the 14th-century crises. However, to understand the changes in settlement pattern we need to broaden our perspective by looking more closely at existing settlements as well as land use patterns.

Zooarchaeology

In England and Germany, zooarchaeological evidence (the study of animal bones from archaeological sites) is beginning to document significant changes in dietary identities and agricultural production occurred during the 14th century, which testify to changes in the patterns of land-holding, land use practices, and rising living standards. Analysis of animal bones can also identify the distribution of the black rat (Rattus rattus).

Archaeobotany and palynology

Whereas in some landscapes reforestation during the late medieval period is visible in palynological (pollen) data , in many cases such evidence is missing. Quite often, the interest of palynological studies has instead focussed on prehistoric periods or has not produced data with the chonrological precision to explore environmental and climatic change in the 14th century. Archaeobotany (the study of macrobotanical remains) also has the potential to explore the changing nature of diet and land practice, although this remains an under-explored avenue of enquiry.

Physical anthropology

The analysis of human skeletal remains has proven potential to shed light on morbidity and mortality rates in populations before and after the Black Death, through the analysis of stature, stress indicators, and disease. The context of deposition also provides indications of how survivors dealt with mass mortality events, and in some cases it is possible to extract and detect the bacterial pathogen through aDNA analysis.

DNA studies

Ancient and modern DNA studies enable the detection of causative pathogens, when found in human skeletal remains, but also make the evolutionary history of germs, such as Yersinia pestis, possible to trace.

Stable isotopes

Analysis of stable isotopes of carbon and nitrogen from human and animal remains make it possible to track the changing nature of human and animal diet before and after the Black Death. Some stable isotopes, such as oxygen, can be used to detect climatic change, while others (e.g. strontium) have the potential to track the movement of people and livestock.

Geoarchaeology

The effects of heavy weather effects and land use practices can be detected through the analysis of soils and sediments. In many regions of western Central Europe geoarchaeology has indicated substantial soil erosion during the 14th century. To take just one example, the St. Mary Magdalene’s flood in July 1342 caused massive gullying.

Entomology

An analysis of preserved insect remains can help to detect micro-and macro-environmental changes. Furthermore it maybe possible to identify fleas, important for the spread of plague.

Dendrology

Analyzing tree rings allows detailed reconstructions of weather and climatic conditions. This is essential for the understanding of the 14th century as a transition period from the Medieval Warm Period to the Little Ice Age.

Meteorology

Meteorological expertise is especially important for understanding the causes and impact of extreme weather events of the 14th-century . This raises the question to what extent, for example, did changes in land use in the medieval period influence the risk of thunderstorms and heavy rain.

 Some of these disciplines have contributed important research, however, others are just beginning. The primary aim of this network – which emerged from a session held at the Conference of the European Association of Achaeologists (together with Medieval Europe Research Conference MERC) 2012 in Helsinki, Finland – is to connect scholarsworking on this shared theme, and encourage inter-disciplinary, trans-national research and knowledge exchange.

Rainer Schreg

archaeologist
researcher at Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum Mainz – lecturer at Tübingen university

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3 thoughts on “The Black Death Network

  1. obenedictow

    Dear all,

    My monograph The Black Death and Later Plague Epidemics in the Scandinavian Countries: Perspectives and Controversies, Berlin: De Greuter, pp. 736, has just appeared: it is published in hardcover edition and also on the Internet in the form of Open access, De Greuter Open, https://www.degruyter.com/viewbooktoc/product/212904 . The book provides much new work on the Black Death, but also translations of works that so far has not been available in English. It also contains several long chapters that relate thoroughly to questions and controversies with respect to the presence of black rats in the Nordic countries (pp. 395-451 with three maps), transmission and dissemination by human ectoparasites, and the early-phase transmission theory or hypothesis rather (as long its advocates cannot explain how pathogenic doses of plague bacteria in the foregut of fleas are moved into a new bite site against the strong stream of a new blood meal).
    This involves also the gathering together and presentation of all data on plague bacteraemia in rats and human beings to clarify their potential roles as sources of infection of feeding fleas and lice, the prevalence of bacteremia in rats and human beings measured as number of plague bacteria per mL (mm3) of blood, the volume of blood fleas or lice ingest (µL), and, thus, the potential role of human ectoparasites and rat fleas in the transmission and dissemination of plague bacteria. Finally, there is discussion of border values of Lethal Doses of transmission in the case of human beings and the presence and conditions for transmission of LDs of plague bacteria. There are also studies of the pattern, rhythm and seasonality of the spread of plague epidemics as reflections of and, thus, sources of information on the processes of transmission and dissemination.
    The introductory general chapter on plague contains also two specific subchapters that really are lengthy articles. In Chapter 1.5, all paleobiological data on finds of aDNA or F1 antigen of Y. pestis in putative plague graves are gathered together with a comprehensive presentation of the research history and achievements of the new discipline of paleobiology in plague-related research, pp. 73-99. Chapter 1.4, reverts to the topic of alternative theories of plague, in this case an epidemiological alternative, which so far has not been addressed seriously and critically: ‘Serious Plague History under Pressure: The Twelfth Theory of Historical Plague. Comments on the Recent paper “Climate-driven Introductions of the Black Death and Successive Plague Reintroductions into Europe”, pp. 35-72. The relevant points on the role of human ectoparasites in the epidemiology of plague are discussed in the chapters mentioned above.
    I will be grateful for all critical and supplementary reactions, which can come to good use now that my English publisher has asked me to write a 2nd edn. of my monograph on the Black Death and I am working on it to the hilt. This is also the case with respect to my previous monograph What Disease was Plague? On the Controversy over the Microbiological Identity of Plague Epidemics of the Past, Leiden: Brill , pp. 746.

    Happy New Year to all,

    Ole J. Benedictow
    Emeritus Professor,
    Department of History,
    University of Oslo

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  3. Chandra Berkan-Hozempa

    Was the germ Yersina pestis traces through dna? I hadnt quite realized how many fields of studies contributed to the knowledge we take for granted. This was really helpful, and I feel that when I go to do my own research has given me other methods and fields to take into consideration when looking for sources.

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