Category Archives: Posts

Lepra in the Middle Ages

A new genetic study dealing with Lepra:
V. J. Schuenemann, P. Singh, T. A. Mendum, B. Krause-Kyora, G. Jäger et al., Genome-Wide Comparison of Medieval and Modern Mycobacterium leprae. Science (online 13.6.2013)

There have been several media reports in Germany. E.g. FAZ (19.6.2013)

Rainer Schreg

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

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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.

Another Black Death Burial Site in London

Rainer Schreg

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

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Rats cannot have been intermediate hosts for Yersinia pestis during medieval plague epidemics in Northern Europe

Journal of Archaeological Science

Volume 40, Issue 4, April 2013, Pages 1752–1759

Rats cannot have been intermediate hosts for Yersinia pestis during medieval plague epidemics in Northern Europe

  • a University Museum of Bergen, University of Bergen, Norway
  • b Department of Physiology, Institute of Basic Medical Sciences, University of Oslo, P.O. Box 1103 Blindern, N-0317 Oslo, Norway
http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jas.2012.12.007


Abstract

The commonly accepted understanding of modern human plague epidemics has been that plague is a disease of rodents that is transmitted to humans from black rats, with rat fleas as vectors. Historians have assumed that this transmission model is also valid for the Black Death and later medieval plague epidemics in Europe. Here we examine information on the geographical distribution and population density of the black rat (Rattus rattus) in Norway and other Nordic countries in medieval times. The study is based on older zoological literature and on bone samples from archaeological excavations. Only a few of the archaeological finds from medieval harbour towns in Norway contain rat bones. There are no finds of black rats from the many archaeological excavations in rural areas or from the inland town of Hamar. These results show that it is extremely unlikely that rats accounted for the spread of plague to rural areas in Norway. Archaeological evidence from other Nordic countries indicates that rats were uncommon there too, and were therefore unlikely to be responsible for the dissemination of human plague. We hypothesize that the mode of transmission during the historical plague epidemics was from human to human via an insect ectoparasite vector.


Michelle Ziegler — Biology and Public Health

I am an independent researcher interested in the natural history of Yersinia pestis. My training is in biology (MS) and biosecurity and disaster preparedness (MS). I’m interested in microbes from basic microbiology to public health and crisis management, and everything in between. My current focus is on keeping up with plague genomics and learning more about landscape epidemiology. I blog about my research at Contagions and you can find me on twitter @MZiegler3.

The Black Death Network

The 14th century AD 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 background.

An ecological perspective on a local or regional scale may help to understand the specific causes and effects. 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
– Medieval archaeology
– Zooarchaeology
– Archaeobotany and palynology
– Physical anthropology
– DNA studies
– Stable isotopes
– Geoarchaeology
– Entomology
– Dendrology
– Meteorology

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 background.

An ecological perspective on a local or regional scale may help to understand the specific causes and effects. 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 mainly based 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 specific local case studies.
Historical and medieval studies are crucial to understand perceptions and explanations of the plague and other 14th c.’s hazards by contemporaries.

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 reveal that significant changes in dietary identities and agricultural production occurred during the 14th century and 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 proved massive soil erosion during the 14th century. Probably especially 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 demand. This raises the question to what extent, for example, changes in land use in the Middle Ages had an influence on the risk of thunderstorms and heavy rain.

Some of these disciplines have contributed important research, however, others are just beginning. Basically it is to relate the knowledge of the different subjects together.
The Black Death Network grew out of a session of the Conference of the European Association of Achaeologists (together with Medieval Europe Research Conference MERC) 2012 in Helsinki, Finland.

Rainer Schreg

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

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