Introduction – Herbert J. Mattie

I am an independent art historian and exhibition curator in Leiden, the Netherlands. Since I curated an exhibition about epidemics through history in 2001, visual imagery of the plague has my special interest. Within this discipline, the depictions of masked plague doctors are a niche subject that, although marginal by itself, has close ties to many aspects of the plague.

Contrary to a widely held belief, most historians now assume that a plague doctor in a full-body suit that included facial covering, was at most a very exceptional phenomenon. There are no reliable written sources that support the existence of a beak-shaped mask.
This leaves us with art-historical questions about visual, cultural, and historical influences and backgrounds, that can be summarized as: how can we interpret the iconology of the plague doctor images from the 17th and 18th century?

Naturally, this topic cannot be discussed without also considering their relationship to historical reality; therefore, a substantial part of my research has moved in that direction. It is interesting to note that plague doctor images have become so ubiquitous that they tend to block our view on the medical PPE that has been used through the ages, and, in a broader sense, on conceptions about contagion and protective measures in the early modern period.

In 2022 I made a small pop-up exhibition in the context of the Leiden – European City of Science event, I hope to develop this further into a larger exhibition about plague imagery and PPE in general.
In the meantime I run a website about the same subject, under the title  ‘Doctor Schnabel’s Plague Museum’.
I recently published an article about the earliest sources that mention a plague suit in the Journal for the History of Medicine and Health.

Herbert J. Mattie

Art historian and artist in The Netherlands. Exhibition curator, imagery of the plague, crossroads of arts and sciences.

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The Complete History of Plague in Norway, 1348-1654

I would like to mention to the members of the BDN my recently appeared book &nbsp;&nbsp;<em>The Complete History of Plague in Norway, 1348-1654. The Second Pandemic</em>. 2022. The Cambridge Scholars Publishing. It contains 160 pages (pp. 106-265) specifically on the Black Death. <a href=””></a>

I use the term the Black Death in the specific meaning of the disastrous initial pandemic of 1348-1353. on which I published a second much augmented and updated edition of my 2004 book  in 2021.

Never been there? Rain and Floods in July 2021 and July 1342

Central Europe has seen devastating rains and floods during july 2021. Politicians in Germany labeled them as “never seen before“.

Interviews with concerned people, who lost their belongings, their houses or even relatives, often expressed the idea that floods like they happened in the Eifel and Ardennes mountains were not possible.

July 2021

Since mid-July, heavy rain has caused severe damage in various regions of Central Europe.  Houses, highways and railway lines, but also houses and huge fields of land were torn away.  Small rivulets swelled into mighty rivers.  As of July 21, 2021, there are more than 170 fatalities in Germany, around 200 in all European countries.  In contrast to the many floods on the large rivers Rhine, Danube or Elbe, it is now rather smaller rivers such as Kyll, Erft, Ahr or Zinn and Aich that have swelled up in a very short time due to regional heavy rain.  In Erftstadt there were huge ravines, in Berchtesgadener Land there were mudslides.  Houses and streets were washed away.

The meteorological low called Bernd brought enormous amounts of rain, up to 250 l / m² within 24 hours.  Normal in Germany is around 85 l / m² in July.  The low pressure area remained stable over Central Europe for about a week and shoveled warm and humid air over the Eastern Alps to Central Europe. It constantly brought showers and thunderstorms, which repeatedly caused extreme weather.


July 1342

When looking at July 1342 we learn that there was already a somehow comparable situation. In 1342, as in 2021, there were ravines, mudslides and enormous floods, as it is proven by written and archaeological sources. For example, the chronicle of the bishops of Mainz dating to the 15th century and written in Eberbach monastery describes the situation as follows:

Also in the year 1342 there was at the feast of John the Baptist (June 24th) and for several weeks (…) a great flood not only of heavy rain, but also breaking out of the interior of mountains, valleys and lands all around and flowing out. Thus in most provinces, and especially around the rivers Rhine and Main,  but also elsrwhere, vegetables, fruits, grass, buildings, animals and people were devastated in various pitiful ways. Cologne, Mayence and Frankfurt were largely under water, so that a man in the Mayence Cathedral was almost up to his belt, the large tower over the bridge at Frankfurt near the house of the Teutonic order, along with a part of the bridge was tumbled and completely swept away. There were also many horrors and losses in different parts of the world.

(Item anno domini MCCCXLII circa festum Johannis Baptiste et deinceps per plures ebdomodas temporibus reverendissimi patris et domini domini supradicti archiepiscopi factum est diluvium magnum nun solum ex pluvia nimia, sed ex occultis montium, vallium et terre universalis meatibus erumpens et emanans, supereffluenter et adeo per plurimas provincias et maxime circa Renum et Mogonum fluvios ac alibi omniquaque in frugibus, fructibus, feno, edificiis, pecoribus et heu pluribus hominibus multiformiter et miserabiliter devastavit. Insuper maxima pars civitatum precipue Colonia, Maguncia, Franckfurt [in medio fuerant aquarum,ita quod in maiori ecclesia Maguntina stetit fere usque ad cingulum hominis et turrim magnam super ponte Franckfurt] apud domum Theutoricorum cum parte pontis diruit penitus et evertit, preterea plurima horribilia et dampnosa evenerunt in variis mundi provinciis..)

(Cronica de episcopis Moguntii. in: Ernst Zais: Beiträge zur Geschichte des Erzstifts Mainz. (Wiesbaden 1880), 12. –


The city of Frankfurt was almost completely under water, the residents fled to a neighboring hill, where – according to a late chronicle (Leisner 1706, 532) – emergency accommodation made of wood and straw was built. In Sachsenhausen near Frankfurt  “due to the great violence at the Stein-Werck in Sachsenhausen, a hole opened up next to grassland of the Teutonic Order, around hundred shoes in length, fifty in width and 20 in depth, there was a lot of stone and wood in it” (Leisner 1706, 533).

The database tambora provides a collection of historical reports on past weather events, records including some entries for July 21, 1342. Information on historical source criticism and detailed citation of the sources is somewhat sparse in this database initiated by natural scientists. The majority of the information on 1342 comes from relatively late chronicles, often not until the 17th century, for which it remains unclear how reliable their information is in detail. In general, the chronicles contain entries such as

“On July 21st, 1342 heavy showers occurred and the approaching waters caused huge damage especially in the big cities Frankfurt, Würzburg, Nuremberg, Bamberg,  Erfurt, Regensburg  etc. and destroyed even the most impressive bridges there.”

A.C. 1342 den 21. Julij fielen grosse Wolckenbrüche / und thaten die anlaufffende Wasser / sonderlich in den großen Städten / zu Frankfurt/ Würzburg/ Nürnberg/ Bamberg/ Erffurt/ Regenspurg/etc. gewaltigen Schaden / riessen daselbst die stattlichsten Brücken ein /”

(Aldenberger 1615 via


flood marks at Würzburg town hall
High water marks at the town hall in Würzburg, above the stamp for 1342, which was later transferred
(Foto: Roland.h.bueb [CC BY 3.0] via WikimediaCommons)

These examples show how sparse the information in general remains. We have little information on the extent of the damages and the number of victims remains unclear. Estimates of at least 6,000 deaths provide in the best case a rough idea. However, chronical texts focus on the major rivers and cities. A geographical analysis, where the thunderstorms happened is not without problems. The high water levels on the rivers often reflect the water runoff, but not the regions of the storm. These are hardly known in the written sources – but geo- and landscape archaeology reveals traces of storms from the 14th century.

Flash floods in low mountain ranges 

(Geo-) archaeological research in low mozntain ranges like Sölling, Spessart, Schönbuch near Tübingen or in Upper Franconia near Kronach and Bamberg show how enormous masses of water have torn deep ravines in settlements and farmland. (Geo-) archaeological research in low mountain ranges like Sölling, Spessart, Schönbuch near Tübingen or in Upper Franconia near Kronach and Bamberg show traces of  enormous masses of water that have torn deep ravines in settlements and farmland.

Reconstruction of the moving flood peak of the July flood 1342 in the catchment area of the river Main after Bauch 2019 . (base map: BerndH [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons, map content bycontent by Martin Bauch via Bauch 2019, gullying added by gullying added by R. Schreg [CC BY-SA 3.0] )

The deserted village of Winnefeld is located in Südsölling, one of the large forest areas in Lower Saxony. To this day, the church ruins mark the location of the former village, not far from the medieval town of Nienover and the Corvey monastery. The settlement extended along the upper course of Reiherbach creek over a length of more than 1.5 km. After an earlier use of the area in the Carolingian era, the village seems to have been re-established with the development of the country in the region. The late Romanesque village church was built in the second half of the 12th century. To the east of the church there is a dent in the terrain, in which, as well as in the narrow flood plain of the Reiherbach to the south, evidence of a severe runoff event in the 14th century was found in geoarchaeological studies. In a period of a few hours to a few days, box-shaped gorges tore here, whereby at the end of the event a huge body of rubble and gravel was deposited, in which thousands of ceramic fragments, brick fragments and metal parts were discovered. The dent east of the church probably marks the course of a former road, “which was torn by the runoff of the heavy rain along its entire length over a width of 15m and a depth of 2.5-2.8m. The runoff widened the floodplain of the Reiherbach considerably, several buildings with inventory were torn away. ” Archaeologically, the ceramic finds can be used to date the event to the period from 1320 to before 1400 AD. Soon afterwards the settlement was abandoned (Bork et al. 2011; Beyer 2008; Stephan 2007).

The deserted village of Winnefeld is located in southern Sölling, one of the large forest areas in Lower Saxony. To this day, the church ruins mark the location of the former village, not far from the medieval town of Nienover and Corvey monastery. The settlement extended along the upper Reiherbach creek over a length of more than 1.5 km. After a period of early medieval land use the village was probably re-established during the regional colonisation period in the 11th/12th c. The late Romanesque village church was built in the second half of the 12th century. In a topographical dent east of the church as well as in the narrow flood plain of the Reiherbach to the south, there is geoarchaeological evidence of a severe runoff event in the 14th century. In a period of a few hours to a few days, box-shaped gorges were washed out and were refilled at the end of the event with huge sediments of rubble and gravel including thousands of ceramic fragments, brick fragments and metal parts. The dent east of the church probably marks the course of a former road, “which was torn by the runoff of the heavy rain along its entire length over a width of 15m and a depth of 2.5-2.8m. The runoff widened the floodplain of the Reiherbach considerably, several buildings with inventory were torn away” (Bork et al. 2011, 232). Archaeologically, the ceramic finds can be used to date the event to the period from 1320 to before 1400 AD. Soon afterwards the settlement was abandoned (Bork et al. 2011; Beyer 2008; Stephan 2007).

church ruins at Winnefeld
Village church in the deserted settlement of Winnefeld in Sölling. The village was abandoned after heavy rain events
(photo: Jan Stubenitzky (Dehio) [CC BY SA 3.0] via WikimediaCommons)

The Kirschgraben is located in the southern Spessart near Höllhammer, which belongs to the municipality of Heimbuchenthal. From the west, the Kirschgraben flows into the narrow Elsava valley, which is further narrowed here by an alluvial fan. In 2008 the alluvial fan was examined with a larger excavator. The central sediment layer was an almost 2 m thick deposit which, in addition to sand, contained coarse material consisting of angular, elongated sandstones. The stones were torn up in the gorge, they were up to 140 cm in size and weighed up to 650 kg. A huge flood must have run down through the Kirschgraben here. Ceramic finds here also date back to the 14th century (Bork et al. 2011).

In 2013, on the occasion of heavy rain in the Tübingen and Reutlingen area, an erosion channel in the Schönbuch was the subject of a blog post in Archaeologik blog (Schreg 28,2.2013). Studies by the University of Stuttgart were able to use radiocarbon samples to date the gullying to the middle of the 14th century (Beckenbach et al. 2013).

Erosion gully at Neue Brücke in Schönbuch forest close to Tübingen.
(Foto: R. Schreg, 2013)

An erosion gully west of Friesen near Kronach in Upper Franconia, close to a medieval deserted settlement was examined in detail. First erosion events can be dated to the Roman Iron Age. Another phase of erosion belongs to the early Middle Ages, but intensive soil erosion occurred in the 14th century. “In the first half of the 14th century two intense heavy rain events caused the complete erosion of the soil and exposed the underlying weathering bedrock. After the abandonment of the settlement in the middle of the 14th century, soil formation took place under a forest” (Dotterweich 2003, 28).

Wolfsgraben close to Dörfleins north of Bamberg
(Foto: R. Schreg, 20.7.2021)

North of Bamberg near Kemmern is the narrow gorge of Wolfsgraben. Written sources indicate “that the catchment area of ​​the Wolfsgraben was used for viticulture at the latest from the High Middle Ages. Extreme heavy rain events in the first half of the 14th century led to intensive runoff in the Wolfsgraben, eroding older (high medieval) colluvia and ripping a gully system up to five meters deep and 400 to 500 meters long  along the valley floor. During or shortly after this event, coarse-sand colluvia were deposited along the basis of the gully. In the area of ​​slope undercuts landslides occurred” (Dotterweich 2003, 35; cf. Schmitt 2003). Before the late Middle Ages, there was a relatively gentle notch here, which may be very old, as it is indicated by washouts on rocks at the top of today’s gorge. Today it is a deep, but also partially filled gorge that looks romantic and adventurous at first glance, but is actually a testimony to a devastating heavy rain event.

There are other examples further north, for example in the Wolfsschlucht near Pritzenhagen/ Oberbarnim, Brandenburg (Bork 2006). In the foothills of the Alps, there are currently no relevant findings – possibly only due to insufficient research.

Floods in the Eifel mountains

In the volcanic maar lakes of the Eifel, soil scientists from Mainz university have examined extensive drill cores from the lake deposits (Sirocko et al. 2009). In these lakes with rather small catchment areas sediments were deposited seasonally. They formed even thin layers, which often allow an annual resolution. In several core samples in the Ulmener Maar, in the Holzmaar, and in the Schalkenmehrener Maar the regular sedimentation is interrupted in the mid 14th century by a layer, which is many times thicker than the others. This indicates a massive heavy rain event, washing soil from the surrounding slopes in the lake. In some cases, even larger stones were also washed into the middle of the maar.

Geoscientists from Mainz drilling for core samples on the Holzmaar in the Eifel region
(Foto: R. Schreg 2007)

The dating to 1342 of these sediments is somewhat positivistic, as it assumes that the 1342 event was so severe that no other point in time can be considered for such stratification. This interpretation has a lot of probability in itself, as numerous radiocarbon dates and the annual sedimentation allow the chronology  to be narrowed down. In specific cases it is difficult to clearly relate such findings to the Magdalen flood in July 1342. The situation at Friesen with two flood events suggests that we are dealing with a phase of several rains and floods. This is also shown by the written sources that mention such summer floods during the 14th c. several times, even if none of them reached nearly similar water levels. At a specific location it is therefore possible that we trace another rain event, with high precipitation at one spot, but less devastating in a more regional perspective. Because Friesen, Wolfsgraben near Bamberg and Kirschgraben in the Spessart mountain are all situated in one big region, they may represent one single heavy rain weather, probably the one registered in written documents for 1342, but this is not for sure.

However geoarchaeological research showed that such gullying is closely connected with phases of intensive land use that increases water runoffs (Dotterweich 2003; Bork 2006). Especially the clearance of forests and an intensification of agricultural practice result in a higher risk of soil erosion. High medieval colonisation, village formation and the Introduction of the open field system were important factors and preconditions for the disastrous Magdalen flood.

The ecological background of 1342 thunderstorms

As already said, there are similarities and differences between July 2021 and July 1342. To what extent is it now possible to draw further conclusions from this? – for dealing with the flood risk today on the one hand and for understanding the situation in 1342 on the other?

Historical comparison does not mean to equate processes or to hierarchize them. Comparisons are rather used heuristically (i.e. with the aim of finding a coherent path of research and adequate hypotheses, which can be tested) to analyze possible relationships. Therefore we cannot fill the gaps in our knowledge related to the 1342 event with information from 2021 or, the other way round, use 1342 data to make prognoses for the 21st century. Also, conclusions by analogy are only possible where sufficient similarities have been established to actually infer similar relationships of cause and effect , especially from situations which are distant in time. However, we may use comparisons as a start to build hypotheses for further research. But this is not yet reliable knowledge.

2021 and 1342 are similar in terms of phenomena, possibly also in terms of the role of human land use. However, the role of climate change is different, because the 14th c. marks the beginning of the Little Ice Age, while we are currently in an unprecedented phase of accelerated warming. Nevertheless: The 14th and 21st centuries are phases in which climate systems change and lead to various environmental crises: In addition to droughts and floods, there are also pandemics such as the plague or the Covid19 pandemic (which is comparatively well controlled thanks to a modern  scientific understanding).

The comparison between 2021 and 1342, however, raises a number of questions that – at least in part – may be clarified with archaeological research. Current debate on climate change refers more and more to the role of land cover: the capacity of trees for carbon dioxide storage, their role for cooling by water evaporation, their ability for lowering the water runoff and preventing soil erosion.  Furthermore, we start to recognize the importance of hedges in our landscapes, not only as a biotope for birds and insects, but also as a regulator for the micro climate, groundwater recharge and soil erosion.

Research questions

It is an important field of research to see what role these factors played in the 14th century, when for the last time floods happened similar to 2021. The crisis-ridden 14th century was preceded by a phase of growth and a certain prosperity, which saw an intensification of land use, which went hand in hand with a consolidation of rural villages and urbanisation. Probably these land use changes were crucial for the intensity of the floods, but also for the pandemics for livestock and humans during the 14th century including the Black Death.

We know from written and geographical evidence about the open field system, which characterises medieval agriculture in central Europe at least since the 12th/13th century. Peasants farmed the arable land in a coordinated way. Huge complexes of fields were cultivated in one year with the same crop and were also manured by herds of sheep or cattle commonly brought on the fallow land. The underlying principle of crop rotation was well known centuries before. What was new was the coordinated cultivation that allowed the peasants to abandon separating fences and hedges. The clearance of hedges is of high importance because they may have had ecological consequences. Due to little research efforts we still miss relevant data, which allow to verify these land use changes in sufficient details (cf. Schreg 2019).

However, without further research on the ecological evolution of medieval cultural landscapes we can only refer many to contemporary analogies. Therefore a comparison 1342-2021 carries the risk of a circular conclusion. It is therefore important to take a critical look at the historical sources.

So far, research focussed on the literary, chronical sources, while the documentary and archival sources, as for example court proceedings, contracts, or charters, have hardly been taken into account. An example for this kind of written evidence can be found among charters related to the town of Esslingen (Schreg 19.1.2013). In September 1342 the Augustinian monastery in Esslingen and the abbot of Kaisheim monastery, that owned some vineyards just above the Augustinians, were in a quarrel about the consequences of a landslide. This is the first evidence that 1342 rains also affected the Neckar valley.

Recently, Martin Bauch (2019) addressed the Magdalene Flood more systematically. He addressed three research tasks:

  1. Obtaining new details about the Magdalene Floods itself and on their socio-economic impact, especially with regard to supply crises and regulatory adaptation, based on the so far hardly used, non-narrative tradition
  2. The interconnection of historical sources with scientific data, wherever these can be supplemented or corrected; and not least with the aim of determining other natural extreme events that were previously overshadowed by the July flood of 1342.
  3. To discuss the relevance of extreme events for premodern infrastructure history and to use the  Magdalene flood, as an exemplary case study, to test whether the first medieval approaches for public precaution services were related to this extraordinary flood experience “(Bauch 2019, [5]).

A look at the non-literary tradition allows a much more differentiated picture of the flood events of July 1342. “The year 1342 was by no means exclusively characterized by floods or continuous precipitation – rather the extremes changed from the snowy and cold winter of 1341/42 to the early melting weather in February including snow melt and ice rushes, afterwards followed a long drought triggering urban fires, than extreme precipitation in July, which – as could be shown at least for the Lower Rhine – triggered long-lasting floods. In the following, the term Magdalene Flood will therefore be used in the awareness that we are actually dealing with several flood events in 1342/43, which must also be supplemented by a pronounced phase of drought in spring / early summer 1342 “(Bauch 2019, [12]).

Assessing damages and victims of the Magdalene flood is difficult. There is some occasional information on the repairs of bridges and even hydraulic engineering projects. Bavarian historian Aventinus, for example, describes that 1345

“In lower Bavaria at Oberalteich the river Danube wanted to come closer to the monastery, biting away fields and grassland.  Probably ten following years a ditch was dug out. By the emperor’s effort neighbours had to help, paying more than 1000 pounds of Regensburg system. The Danube was thrown to the new ditch.” (Aventin 1886, 493).

In the years after 1342, numerous bridge construction activities can be documented, but often it remains unclear to what extent a destruction in 1342 was connected with them.

Weather postcast for July 1342

At first glance, the map of historical data related to 1342 shows a storm front that occurred between July 19th and July 25th moving from southeast to northwest across Germany. This led to the assumption of a so-called Vb weather situation, in which a water-saturated low pressure area above the Mediterranean passes east of the Alps to the north. The clouds do not rain out on the Alps, but bring masses of water to Central Europe. This is also the case with the Bernd low pressure area 2021, which led to first floods in northeastern Italy at the beginning of July. Contrary to what can be assumed for 1342, Bernd did not move slowly from southwest to northeast, but moved back and forth across Germany on a small scale. Here it came on July 10th to heavy rain in Lower Franconia, then on July 15th in the Eifel and on July 17th again further south on the edge of the Alps. In 2021 it was a so-called Central European trough position, which means that the low does not move, but rather remains over Central Europe for a longer period of time, bringing in cold air on the one hand and warm, moist air on the other. Such a weather situation is also conceivable for 1342, but the source situation is too thin (Herget et al. 2015). Doubts about the Vb weather situation in 1342 were expressed in particular because there is no evidence of heavy rain from the pre-Alpine region (Böhm 2011, 153).

Learning from 1342 

For this purpose we need to check for interconnections between the 14th c. crisis, settlement and land use change. Very probably agricultural intensification caused a removal of hedges which affected microclimate, water runoff, soil erosion and probably also the biotops of rodents. Human food supply became short and the health situation of people worsened. Geo- and bioarchaeological data as well as archaeogenetics and ecology will be important disciplines, but it is the task and expertise of archaeologists to identify the relevant sites and to provide well dated and contexted samples for further analysis. Archaeology has in theory many possibilities for contributing to a better understanding for 1342, by reconstructing the impact of mid 14th c. rains, by looking at ecological change regarding land use, rodents’ ecology, health conditions, biodiversity and soil erosion intensities. Especially regarding the 14th century more data on the field systems are needed to understand how changes of settlement and landscapes may be related to ecological consequences, which may have favoured the outbreak of the plague. Especially the effects of agriculture on hydrology, soils and biodiversity are maybe of high importance, as they also affected the rodents’ populations, which were a vector of the pandemy of the Black Death.

At the moment, however, the available sources are insufficient to prove that the flood in 1342 was caused by changes in land use – or to challenge this plausible hypothesis. There is some plausibility that population growth and urbanization led to the need for an increased agrarian production. Colonisation opened new land, but in the already densely settled regions the introduction of the open field system with a regulated crop rotation in three large field blocks made it possible to remove hedges and to turn the plough on the neighbouring fields. Crop rotation was practiced before, the new aspect is the coordination among the peasants.  Synchronised times of fallow, ploughing and yield made it possible to reduce unploughed strips and to gain more arable land within the cultural landscape. This has been considered a great innovation in medieval agriculture. In the mid-term there was an increase in yields, but in the long term there were several risks, which basically contributed to the 14th c. crisis.

The open field system must have resulted in an extensive restructuring of the landscape. Probably individual plots were redistributed and enclosures by hedges, fences and field walls were reorganised. A crop rotation practiced on individual plots made it necessary to enclose the fields at least during the fallow period, to prevent the husbandry grazing the crop on the surrounding fields. In an open field system these troubling field borders were removed in order to plough the entire land and to turn the plough on the neighbouring field. As the rhythm of cultivation was the same there, no crop damage was done. The husbandry was held together in communal herds and left their manure during the fallow periods on the entire field block. However the removal of hedges had ecological consequences. The loss of hedges caused a decline in groundwater levels and altered the microclimate. Large areas cultivated with the same crop had a higher heath emission and evaporation than small field blocks.  I’m not sure whether this had consequences for weather conditions as for example the risk for thunderstorms, but for sure the risk of soil erosion increased. By now we don’t have enough information on the early medieval field systems in central Europe. In the north we know the ‘celtic fields’, rather compact  fields enclosed by stone lynchets. Similar fields surrounded by hedges may have a lower visibility especially in the early settled landscapes, often characterized by loess or deep soils.  More research is needed to better understand these changes in the cultural landscape and to model its ecological impact  (cf. Schreg 2020; Schreg 2021). Archaeological excavations – especially numerous rescue excavations – need to take notice of the necessary geo- and bioarchaeological data (cf. Schreg 2021; Kottmann et al. 2021).


perished memories

Commemoration and literary tradition related the 1342 floods with St. Magdalens day (July 22th), which was the day, when in Frankfurt a supplicatory procession  was held (Bauch 2021). Historical reports focus on towns and rivers, but we have little information, how people were hit by the flood. Whereas there are currently many interviews with victims of the flood in the Ahrtal and media reports about single fates. We have nearly no information for  these personal aftermath in 1342. Information as on the emergency accomodations close to Frankfurt are rare. Geoarchaeological evidence shows the large power of the water also in smaller valleys – what is not present in the written record.  Modern floods are also commemorated most often by pictures of flooded landscapes and streets. Currently videos made with omni-present mobile phones alter the visual perception, because now the event itself can be documented. When people are surprised by floods even on small creeks in low mountain ranges, this is a consequence of the medial perception and a lacking awareness of past events.

Despite important differences the 14th c. may give orientation for current handling of environmental risks, The 14th c. implies that even in pre-industrial time, people were able to cause environmental problems with horrific consequences. Though, more important it may contribute to a higher sensitivity for environmental risks even in Central Europe. Closer research on possible interconnections may help to overcome trivialization of climate change.

In contrast to Covid19, where many historical analogies were common in the public media (comp., there are only very few reports on historical floods now.

This oblivion of past flood events is well demonstrated by an exhibition and the environment office of the Mainz city council in 2012, which made historical floods to its topic – but did not look back more than approximately the last century. The impressive description of the water in the Mainz cathedral in 1342 was just forgotten.

flood level at Mainz. The picture gives only an impression, as the water level is not properly calculated (graphics R. Schreg)



  • Aldenberger 1613
    J. Aldenberger, Fewer- Wasser- und Wein-Spiegel: WeinSpiegel / Das ist: Kurtze vnd ordentliche Verzeichnüß / wie Gott zu jederzeit in vielen Orten / vnnd sonderlich im Deutschland den Edlen Rebensafft reichlich bescheret. Auch die jenigen / so solchen schendlich mißbraucht / offtermals auff mancherley weiß ernstlich gestrafft. Aus vielen Geschichtsbüchern vnd täglicher Erfahrung (1615). – ,  hier zitiert nach
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    M. Bauch, Die Magdalenenflut 1342 am Schnittpunkt von Umwelt- und Infrastrukturgeschichte. Ein compound event als Taktgeber für mittelalterliche Infrastrukturentwicklung und Daseinsvorsorge. NTM Zeitschrift für Geschichte der Wissenschaften, Technik und Medizin 27 (3), 2019, 273–309. – .
  • Bauch 13.7.2021
    M. Bauch, Die kommende Flut und ihre brachliegende Vergangenheit. Mittelalter (13.7.2021). –
  • Beckenbach u.a. 2013
    E. Beckenbach/U. Niethammer/H. Seyfried, Spätmittelalterliche Starkregenereignisse und ihre geomorphologischen Kleinformen im Schönbuch (Süddeutschland): Erfassung mit hochauflösenden Fernerkundungsmethoden und sedimentologische Interpretation. Jahresberichte und Mitteilungen des Oberrheinischen Geologischen Vereins 95, 2013, 421–438. – mit Zusammenfassung
  • Beyer 2008
    A. Beyer, Mittelalterlich-neuzeitliche Landschaftsentwicklung im Südsolling – die Dorfwüstung Winnefeld. Diss. (Kiel 2008). –
  • Blischke 2021
    D. Blischke, Vor uns die Sintflut – Zur Krisenbewältigung des Magdalenenhochwassers 1342 an ausgewählten Fallbeispielen. Mittelalter. Interdisziplinäre Forschung und Rezeptionsgeschichte 4, 2021, 33–50. –
  • Böhm 2011
    O. Böhm, Hochwassergeschichte des bayerischen Alpenvorlandes. Die Hochwasser der Sommermonate im Kontext der Klimageschichte Mitteleuropas. Diss. Augsburg (Augsburg 2011). – urn:nbn:de:bvb:384-opus4-22618
  • Bork 2006
    H.-R. Bork (Hrsg.), Landschaften der Erde unter dem Einfluss des Menschen (Darmstadt 2006).
  • Bork u.a. 2011
    H.-R. Bork/ A. Beyer/ A. Kranz, Der 1000-jährige Niederschlag des Jahres 1342 und seine Folgen in Mitteleuropa. In: Falko Daim, Detlef Gronenborn und Rainer Schreg (Hg.): Strategien zum Überleben. Umweltkrisen und ihre Bewältigung. RGZM-Tagungen 11 (Mainz 2011) 231–242.
  • Dotterweich 2003
    M. Dotterweich, Holozäne Ökosystementwicklung in Franken (Kiel 2003).
  • Dotterweich 2005
    M. Dotterweich, High-resolution reconstruction of a 1300 year old gully system in northern Bavaria, Germany: a basis for modelling long-term human-induced landscape evolution. The Holocene 15 (7), 2005, 994–1005. – .
  • Dotterweich u. a. 2003
    M. Dotterweich/A. Schmitt/G. Schmidtchen u. a., Quantifying historical gully erosion in northern Bavaria. CATENA 50, 2003, 135–150.
  • Glaser 2013
    R. Glaser, Klimageschichte Mitteleuropas. 1200 Jahre Wetter, Klima, Katastrophen3 (Darmstadt 2013).
  • Herget u. a. 2015
    J. Herget/A. Kapala/M. Krell u. a., The millennium flood of July 1342 revisited. CATENA 130, 2015, 82–94. –
  • Hill/ Meuser 2018
    S. Hill/ A. Meuser, Was wäre, wenn ein Extremereignis die Oberrheinregion treffen würde?. In: S. Heimerl  (Hrsg.), Vorsorgender und nachsorgender Hochwasserschutz (Wiesbaden 2018)  156-162. –
  • Kottmann u. a. 2020
    A. Kottmann/S. Harding/P. Kühn u. a., Untersuchungen der Wölbäcker im Gewann “Höfelbett” in Albershausen. Arch. Ausgr. Bad.-Württ. 2020, 322–325.
  • Leisner 1706
    Achilles Augustus von Lersner: Der Weit-berühmten Freyen Reichs-Wahl- und Handels-Stadt Franckfurt am Mayn Chronica (Frankfurt am Main 1706). –
  • Schmitt 2003
    A. Schmitt, „Ward einen halben Acker Weinberg gegeben…“ – Die Landnutzungsgeschichte des Wolfsgrabens bei Bamberg seit dem Mittelalter. In: H.-R. Bork/G. Schmidtchen/M. Dotterweich (Hrsg.), Bodenbildung, Bodenerosion und Reliefentwicklung im Mittel- und Jungholozän Deutschlands. Forschungen zur deutschen Landeskunde 253 (Flensburg 2003) 165–186.
  • Schreg 2011
    R. Schreg: Die Krisen des Spätmittelalters: Perspektiven, Potenziale und Probleme der archäologischen Krisenforschung. In: F. Daim/ D. Gronenborn/ R. Schreg (Hrsg.): Strategien zum Überleben. Umweltkrisen und ihre Bewältigung. RGZM-Tagungen 11 (Mainz 2011) 197-214.
  • Schreg 19.1.2013
    R. Schreg, Bodenerosion 1342 – ein Rechtsstreit in Esslingen. Archaeologik (19.01.2013). –
  • Schreg 28.2.2013
    R. Schreg, Unwetterschäden im Raum Tübingen im Juli 1342(?). Archaeologik (28.2.2013) –
  • Schreg 7.2.2014
    R. Schreg, Ein Beitrag zur Magdalenenflut. Archaeologik (7.2.2014). –
  • Schreg 2018
    R. Schreg, Rinder und Schafe – Akteure mittelalterlicher Umweltgeschichte. In: T. Pommerening/J. Althoff (Hrsg.), Kult, Kunst, Konsum – Tiere in alten Kulturen (Darmstadt 2018) 72–89.
  • Schreg 2019
    R. Schreg, Plague and Desertion – A Consequence of Anthropogenic Landscape Change? Archaeological Studies in Southern Germany. In: M. Bauch/G. J. Schenk (Hrsg.), The Crisis of the 14th Century. Das Mittelalter. Beih. 13 (Berlin, Boston 2019) 221–246. –
  • Schreg 2020
    R. Schreg, Feld-, Wald- und Wiesenarchäologie. In: W. Brassat (Hrsg.), Komplexität und Diversität des kulturellen Erbes. Forschungsbeiträge aus dem Institut für Archäologische Wissenschaften, Denkmalwissenschaften und Kunstgeschichte. Forschungen des Instituts für Archäologische Wissenschaften, Denkmalwissenschaften und Kunstgeschichte 10 (Bamberg 2020) 11–32 – urn:nbn:de:bvb:473-irb-487420.
  • Schreg 2021
    R. Schreg, Altflurrelikte als Quelle der Umweltgeschichte. Neue Fragen und Methoden. Denkmalpfl. Bad.-Württ. 50/1, 2021, 17–22. –
  • Sirocko 2009
    F. Sirocko (Hrsg.), Wetter, Klima, Menschheitsentwicklung. Von der Eiszeit bis ins 21. Jahrhundert (Darmstadt 2009).
  • Stephan 2007
    Hans-Georg Stephan, Fächerübergreifende archäologische Untersuchungen im Bereich der mittelalterlichen Dorfwüstung Winnefeld im Solling. Nachr. Niedersachsen Urgesch. 76, 2007, 199–255.
  • Umweltamt Würzburg 2004
    Das Hochwasser von 1342. Umweltamt Würzburg (17. Mai 2004). – ehem. – noch verfügbar unter

A first version of this blogpost was published in German at Archaeologik:

  • R. Schreg, Noch nie dagewesen? Hochwasser und Starkregen im Juli 2021 und im Juli 1342. Archaeologik (20.7.2021). –

Some changes and additions have been made, for example thanks to the comment by Klaus Graf at

Rainer Schreg


professor in medieval and postmedieval archaeology at Bamberg university

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Conference on Plague, Mallorca, October 20-22 2021

In-Hoppe, the “International Network – Historical and osteoarchaeological Past Populations Exploration” is organizing a conference on

Plague and Plagues – Transdisciplinary and diachronic perspectives on the history of the plague

in collaboration with the ADEH (asociación de demografía histórica) and the Research group on the History of Health (GHIS) of the University of the Balearic Islands, under the lead of Isabelle Seguy and Joana Maria Pujades Mora.

Originally, the conference was planned for October 2020, but rescheduled  to 2021 due to COVID-19.

More information can be found on the conference website.

Online registration is already open, the submission deadline is May 31, 2021.

Marcel Keller

Co-Editor of the Black Death Network Postdoc in Palaeogenetics at U. of Tartu

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Salmonella enterica subsp. enterica serovar Paratyphi C at Lübeck – an outbreak of enteric paratyphoid fever in 1367?

Excavation in the 1990s at Lübeck Heilig-Geist spital revealed a mass burial with more than 800 individuals dated to the 14th c.  New research screened aDNA from 92 individuals for the presence of pathogens. The analysis resulted in a detection of Salmonella enterica subsp. enterica serovar Paratyphi C.

These results show once more the complexity of the 14th c crisis, which can not be reduced on the BlackDeath.

  • M. Haller/K. Callan/J. Susat u. a., Mass burial genomics  reveals outbreak of enteric paratyphoid fever in the Late Medieval trade city Lübeck. iScience 24, 5, 2021, 102419. – doi 10.1016/j.isci.2021.102419

A German press report at

Rainer Schreg


professor in medieval and postmedieval archaeology at Bamberg university

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Introduction – Pierre GALANAUD

I am an immunologist who was director of an INSERM funded lab and head of a clinical unit at Paris-Saclay university school of medicine. As such, I am interested in infectious diseases and collaborate on historical aspects with Anne Galanaud who is a PhD in history.

We studied the fine grain GIS-based cartography of mortality during 15th century epidemics in the city of Dijon. We evidenced higher and lower mortality clusters that correspond to urban areas of different housing densities and in some instances to the implantation of professionals.

Galanaud P, Galanaud A, Giraudoux P (2015) Historical Epidemics Cartography Generated by Spatial Analysis: Mapping the Heterogeneity of Three Medieval “Plagues” in Dijon. PLoS ONE 10(12): e0143866. doi:


We showed a higher epidemic mortality for recent immigrants as well as their contribution to post-epidemic resilience.

Galanaud P, Galanaud A, Giraudoux P, Labesse H (2020) Mortality and demographic recovery in early post-black death epidemics: Role of recent emigrants in medieval Dijon. PLOS ONE 15(1): e0226420.

We elaborated on the general susceptibility of migrants to past and present pandemics.

Galanaud P, Galanaud A, 2020, Recent immigrants at increased pandemic risk (letter), Science, 368, 1323. 10.1126/science.abd1098

Our current research is focused on professional environment and resistance to epidemics.


Present academic affiliation:

Emeritus Professor of Immunology

Universite Paris-Saclay


Introduction - Pierre Galanaud - Block Editor As an immunologist, I am interested in infectious diseases and collaborate on historical aspects with Anne Galanaud who is a PhD in history. Our current research is focused on the relationship between the environment of professionals and their resistance to epidemics.

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Introduction – Gunnar Neumann

I am a PhD student at the Department of Archaeogenetics at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, soon moving to the MPI for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig.

My research focus are ancient pathogens in western Eurasia and their evolutionary history. Among others, I work on Yersinia pestis from the Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age until late medieval times. 


Gunnar Neumann

PhD student at the Department of Archaeogenetics of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Jena

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Themed Issue and Webinar on “Disease, Death, and Therapy” – Speculum

Speculum published a whole issue on the topic of “Disease, Death and Therapy” with several articles related directly to plague. Moreover, on 14 Jan 2021, Speculum hosted a webinar with the authors; the recording will soon be publicly available.

Gayk, S. Apocalyptic Ecologies: Eschatology, the Ethics of Care, and the Fifteen Signs of the Doom in Early England. Speculum 96, 1–37 (2021) doi:10.1086/711658

Abstract: Exploring how late medieval texts imagined the promised destruction of the physical world, this essay offers an ecocritical reading of a single apocalyptic motif: the Fifteen Signs of the Doom. This once popular catalogue of ecological and cosmological portents of the Apocalypse encouraged environmental watchfulness, moved human experience from the center to the margins, and explored the humbling inscrutability of natural disaster. Surveying some of the Middle English sermons and lyrics that include this motif, this article considers how the practice of imagining the coming apocalypse by cataloguing wonders, natural disasters, and strange phenomena in the material world not only reminded human beings of their participation in a larger ecology but also invited them to reflect upon their responsibilities to and sympathies with the larger world.

McCormick, M. Gregory of Tours on Sixth-Century Plague and Other Epidemics. Speculum 96, 38–96 (2021) doi:10.1086/711721

Abstract: Analyzes philologically and historically all testimony in the works of Gregory of Tours about various epidemics that struck Gaul, Iberia, and Italy in the sixth century; in particular, those of the most serious disease, “inguinal epidemic,” that is, bubonic plague (Yersinia pestis), as well as an illness that may have been smallpox (Variola major). Establishes that Gregory’s testimony, inspired by his personal and pastoral-theological concerns, is reliable and informative; delineates the motivations and sources for reporting the recurring epidemics of plague as they emerge from his writings; shows that Gregory’s information is robust but geographically constrained: of the twenty-two places and regions where he knows unambiguously about plague, only four are further than 400 km from his familial Clermont (Fig. 1). Gregory’s twenty-two mentions of plague also refer to six epidemics between c. 543–47 and c. 591–94, of which he treats four in greater detail; his silences are confirmed to be significant only rarely. Two epidemics are newly dated to springtime, and the initial outbreak is shown as likely to have reached Gaul from a western port. Contagion mirrors communications infrastructures and affected the countryside as well as towns, which populations tended to flee. Symptoms, epidemiology, and heavy mortality align with the ancient DNA proof that the pathogen was Yersinia pestis; pneumonic plague is suggested in two cases. Gregory’s historical testimony is confirmed by and integrated into the new biomolecular archaeological discoveries of early medieval plague victims in western Europe.

Barker, H. Laying the Corpses to Rest: Grain, Embargoes, and Yersinia pestis in the Black Sea, 1346–48. Speculum 96, 97–126 (2021) doi:10.1086/711596

Abstract: When, how, and why did the Black Death reach Europe? Historians have relied on Gabriele de’ Mussi’s account of Tatars catapulting plague-infested bodies into the besieged city of Caffa on the Crimean Peninsula. Yet Mussi spent the 1340s in Piacenza; he had no direct knowledge of events in Caffa. Sources by people present in the Black Sea during the Second Pandemic, including Genoese colonial administrators, Venetian diplomats, Byzantine chroniclers, and Mamluk merchants, offer a different perspective. They show that the Venetian community at Tana played an important role in plague transmission; that it took over a year (from spring 1346 to autumn 1347) for plague to cross the Black Sea to Constantinople; that people crossed the Black Sea in 1346 but commodities did not because of a series of trade embargoes; that grain was one of the most important Black Sea commodities in both volume and strategic value; and therefore that the embargoes of 1346 delayed plague transmission by temporarily halting the movement of grain with its accompanying rats, fleas, and bacteria. When Venice, Genoa, and the Golden Horde made peace and lifted their embargoes in 1347, both the grain trade and the spread of plague resumed.

Curtis, D. R. From One Mortality Regime to Another? Mortality Crises in Late Medieval Haarlem, Holland, in Perspective. Speculum 96, 127–155 (2021) doi:10.1086/711641

Abstract: This article employs a large database of 10,360 deaths taken from registrations of graves dug and church bells tolled at Haarlem between the years 1412 and 1547—one of the largest samples and longest series of mortality evidence ever produced for medieval Holland—and systematically compares findings with a seventeenth-century burial register for the same city. It concludes that we should put aside any lingering notion that late medieval Holland was very lightly affected by epidemic diseases: in fact, in Haarlem, these mortality crises were more severe than those seen in the seventeenth century. The data also reveal not one overarching “medieval mortality regime” but distinct changes between fewer but more severe spikes in the first half of the fifteenth century, and higher frequency of smaller spikes later on—especially in the period 1480–1530—with the number of mortality crises damping down after 1530. These mortality crises tended to produce more adult female victims than male, supporting recent findings from elsewhere in the late medieval Low Countries.

Pieragostini, R. The Healing Power of Music? Documentary Evidence from Late-Fourteenth-Century Bologna. Speculum 96, 156–176 (2021) doi:10.1086/711571

Abstract: The idea of the healing power of music—rooted in Platonic and Aristotelian psychologies and Galenic humoral theory—has a long-standing tradition in European intellectual thought and occurs in several texts of the medieval and early modern periods. In contrast to the abundance of references in theoretical discussions, however, historians today face the scarcity of evidence documenting specific, actual uses of music as therapy. Among such rare evidence are two documents emanating from the chancery of late-fourteenth-century Bologna, which form the focus of this article. The documents, which concern a musician and an itinerant healer, provide new insights into musical practices directed in particular to the cure of psychic sufferings. The documents make clear that the secular authorities of Bologna considered the agency of these two practitioners and their medical and musical skills to be crucial for maintaining or restoring individual and collective health. The evidence discussed here suggests that the use of music toward curative ends must have been more widespread than hitherto acknowledged. It also highlights the powerful association between notions of musical healing and ideas of individual and civic well-being that underlay the Bologna officials’ idea of the state.

Marcel Keller

Co-Editor of the Black Death Network Postdoc in Palaeogenetics at U. of Tartu

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More Bronze Age Plague from Lake Baikal

Kılınç, G. M. et al. Human population dynamics and Yersinia pestis in ancient northeast Asia. Science Advances 7, eabc4587 (2021) doi:10.1126/sciadv.abc4587


We present genome-wide data from 40 individuals dating to c.16,900 to 550 years ago in northeast Asia. We describe hitherto unknown gene flow and admixture events in the region, revealing a complex population history. While populations east of Lake Baikal remained relatively stable from the Mesolithic to the Bronze Age, those from Yakutia and west of Lake Baikal witnessed major population transformations, from the Late Upper Paleolithic to the Neolithic, and during the Bronze Age, respectively. We further locate the Asian ancestors of Paleo-Inuits, using direct genetic evidence. Last, we report the most northeastern ancient occurrence of the plague-related bacterium, Yersinia pestis. Our findings indicate the highly connected and dynamic nature of northeast Asia populations throughout the Holocene.


After Yu et al. 2020, this is the second Bronze Age plague genome from Lake Baikal. Since this paper was probably submitted before the publication of Yu et al. 2020, this is not discussed here, and the claim that they report the most northeastern Y. pestis genome does not hold true. Unfortunately, the coverage of their genome is extremely low, so it could not be phylogenetically assessed.

Marcel Keller

Co-Editor of the Black Death Network Postdoc in Palaeogenetics at U. of Tartu

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Castles and Fortresses in Times of Pestilence

A conference digitally held on 17 December 2020 by the Marburger Arbeitskreis für Europäische Burgenforschung and Aarhus University looking into the role of castles in times of pestilence can be found on youtube:

There are five papers:

  1. Christian Ottersbach: Introduction
  2. Rainer Atzbach: The Black Death in Denmark and in front of Kiel Castle
  3. Michael Nobel Hviid: The Royal Castle as a catalyst for dissemination
  4. Lea Reiff: War and Pestilence. (Co-)relations between plague and warfare in literature and film, past and present
  5. Dominik Gerd Sieber: Walls, Ditches and Gates contra Pestilence
. Castles in Upper Swabia during Times of  Pestilence in 16th Century

Rainer Schreg


professor in medieval and postmedieval archaeology at Bamberg university

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introduction – Hannah Barker

I am an assistant professor of medieval history at Arizona State University with an interest in Black Sea – Mediterranean connections in the 14th century. I have an article coming out in Speculum in January about the timing and transmission process for plague from the northern coast of the Black Sea (Caffa and Tana) to Italy in 1347 via Genoese and Venetian grain shipment networks.

At the moment I am focusing on a non-plague-related project, but I am also interested in the early phases of the Second Pandemic in the Golden Horde/Caucasus region as well as the process of plague transmission from the Black Sea to Mamluk Alexandria in 1347.


Second Pandemic Plague Genomes of the 18th Century

Guellil, M. et al. A genomic and historical synthesis of plague in 18th century Eurasia. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A. (2020) doi:10.1073/pnas.2009677117


Plague continued to afflict Europe for more than five centuries after the Black Death. Yet, by the 17th century, the dynamics of plague had changed, leading to its slow decline in Western Europe over the subsequent 200 y, a period for which only one genome was previously available. Using a multidisciplinary approach, combining genomic and historical data, we assembled Y. pestisg enomes from nine individuals covering four Eurasian sites and placed them into an historical context within the established phylogeny. CHE1 (Chechnya, Russia,18th century) is now the latest Second Plague Pandemic genome and the first non-European sample in the post-Black Death lineage. Its placement in the phylogeny and our synthesis point toward the existence of an extra-European reservoir feeding plague into Western Europe in multiple waves. By considering socioeconomic, ecological, and climatic factors we highlight the importance of a noneurocentric approach for the discussion on Second Plague Pandemic dynamics in Europe.

Marcel Keller

Co-Editor of the Black Death Network Postdoc in Palaeogenetics at U. of Tartu

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Acceleration of plague outbreaks in London by historical sources

D. J. D. Earn/J. Ma/H. Poinar u. a., Acceleration of plague outbreaks in the second pandemic. Proc .Nat. Acad. Science USA (PNAS) 2020. – doi:10.1073/pnas.2004904117



Historical records reveal the temporal patterns of a sequence of plague epidemics in London, United Kingdom, from the 14th to 17th centuries. Analysis of these records shows that later epidemics spread significantly faster (“accelerated”). Between the Black Death of 1348 and the later epidemics that culminated with the Great Plague of 1665, we estimate that the epidemic growth rate increased fourfold. Currently available data do not provide enough information to infer the mode of plague transmission in any given epidemic; nevertheless, order-of-magnitude estimates of epidemic parameters suggest that the observed slow growth rates in the 14th century are inconsistent with direct (pneumonic) transmission. We discuss the potential roles of demographic and ecological factors, such as climate change or human or rat population density, in driving the observed acceleration.



The database of this article comes from historical records – the London Bills of Mortality, Parish registers, and wills and testaments. The last ones are the only reliable source for the 14th c. which allows a statistical approach. It seems remarkable to me, that no historian was a member of the team of authors, but the data used come  from the commercial company ancestry Corporate. Data series as the ones used in the PNAS articles are extremely significant, but digital publications of this kind of data are still insufficient.


Rainer Schreg


professor in medieval and postmedieval archaeology at Bamberg university

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Second Pandemic Plague Genomes from Poland and Russia

Morozova, I. et al. New ancient Eastern European Yersinia pestis genomes illuminate the dispersal of plague in Europe. Philos. Trans. R. Soc. B 375:20190569 (2020) doi:10.1098/rstb.2019.0569


Yersinia pestis, the causative agent of plague, has been prevalent among humans for at least 5000 years, being accountable for several devastating epidemics in history, including the Black Death. Analyses of the genetic diversity of ancient strains of Y. pestis have shed light on the mechanisms of evolution and the spread of plague in Europe. However, many questions regarding the origins of the pathogen and its long persistence in Europe are still unresolved, especially during the late medieval time period. To address this, we present four newly assembled Y. pestis genomes from Eastern Europe(Poland and Southern Russia), dating from the fifteenth to eighteenth century AD. The analysis of polymorphisms in these genomes and their phylogenetic relationships with other ancient and modern Y. pestis strains may suggest several independent introductions of plague into Eastern Europe or its persistence in different reservoirs. Furthermore, with the reconstruction of a partial Y. pestis genome from rat skeletal remains found in a Polish ossuary, we were able to identify a potential animal reservoir in late medieval Europe. Overall, our results add new information concerning Y. pestis transmission and its evolutionary history in Eastern Europe.

Marcel Keller

Co-Editor of the Black Death Network Postdoc in Palaeogenetics at U. of Tartu

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Second Pandemic Plague Genomes From Riga

Susat, J. et al. Yersinia pestis strains from Latvia show depletion of the pla virulence gene at the end of the second plague pandemic. Scientific Reports 10:14628 (2020), doi:10.1038/s41598-020-71530-9


Ancient genomic studies have identified Yersinia pestis (Y. pestis) as the causative agent of the second plague pandemic (fourteenth–eighteenth century) that started with the Black Death (1,347–1,353). Most of the Y. pestis strains investigated from this pandemic have been isolated from western Europe, and not much is known about the diversity and microevolution of this bacterium in eastern European countries. In this study, we investigated human remains excavated from two cemeteries in Riga (Latvia). Historical evidence suggests that the burials were a consequence of plague outbreaks during the seventeenth century. DNA was extracted from teeth of 16 individuals and subjected to shotgun sequencing. Analysis of the metagenomic data revealed the presence of Y. pestis sequences in four remains, confirming that the buried individuals were victims of plague. In two samples, Y. pestis DNA coverage was sufficient for genome reconstruction. Subsequent phylogenetic analysis showed that the Riga strains fell within the diversity of the already known post‑Black Death genomes. Interestingly, the two Latvian isolates did not cluster together. Moreover, we detected a drop in coverage of the pPCP1 plasmid region containing the pla gene. Further analysis indicated the presence of two pPCP1 plasmids, one with and one without the pla gene region, and only one bacterial chromosome, indicating that the same bacterium carried two distinct pPCP1 plasmids. In addition, we found the same pattern in the majority of previously published post‑Black Death strains, but not in the Black Death strains. The pla gene is an important virulence factor for the infection of and transmission in humans. thus, the spread of pla‑depleted strains may, among other causes, have contributed to the disappearance of the second plague pandemic in eighteenth century Europe.

Marcel Keller

Co-Editor of the Black Death Network Postdoc in Palaeogenetics at U. of Tartu

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Interdisciplinary approaches to the 14th century crisis and the history of plague

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