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.