The 14th century was a profoundly tumultuous period in European history. Global climatic shifts from c.1270 onwards, characterised by high degree of instability and gradual cooling, triggered several episodes of harvest failures and subsequent famines in the early fourteenth century, 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 and warfare further stretched agricultural production to breaking point. In the middle of the century the Black Death swept through Eurasia and North Africa, killing 40–60% 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.
In the history of plague, the Black Death is only the most prominent pandemic event in a series of large-scale epidemics of Yersinia pestis. Traditionally divided into three major pandemics – First Pandemic with Justinianic Plague (6th-8th c.), Second Pandemic with Black Death (14th-18th c.), Third Pandemic (starting in the 19th c.) –, today the disease can be traced back at least to the Late Neolithic period through advances in ancient DNA. In the diversifying field of plague studies, more and more attention is given to plague in regions outside of Europe and beyond the major pandemics, helping to overcome simplistic models and deterministic scenarios about plague in particular and human-environment interactions in general.
Understanding both the 14th-century crises and the history of plague requires:
– a broad multidisciplinary approach, bringing together humanities, archaeology and sciences;
– comparative approaches both spatially and temporally to detect recurring patterns or unique phenomena.
Some of the disciplines involved are:
Currently our knowledge on the 14th-century crisis is based primarily on written evidence. The same is true for the First Pandemic in Late Antiquity. Besides chroniclers’ reports of famines, plagues and weather extremes, there is also an emerging corpus of quantitative data which can be utilized as proxies for economic, social and political parameters. To understand the crises we need detailed analysis of local case studies. Additionally, historical studies are crucial to help us understand contemporary perceptions and explanations of the plague and other hazards. Finally, historian’s analytical and methodological toolkit can be essential in contextualising and bettering our understanding of ‘pre-historical’ plagues, unearthed by archaeologists and studied by palaeogeneticists.
Already for some decades medieval archaeologists have been interested in the phenomena of abandoned settlements and mass graves, which have been in many cases connected with the 14th-century crises. The emerging field of plague palaeogenetics also raised the awareness of Prehistoric, Late Antique and the Early Modern Period archaeologists of the importance to look for traces of other past epidemics. In addition to changes in settlement structures and burial customs, also shifts in the material culture will provide insights in the aftermath of plagues and other disasters.
Zooarchaeology and Palaeoentomology
Zooarchaeological evidence (the study of animal bones from archaeological sites) was able to show significant changes in dietary cultures and agricultural production during the 14th century, which reflect changes in the patterns of land-holding, land use practices, and rising living standards. As a zoonotic disease, plague is inherently embedded in the ecology of wild and commensal rodents and potentially livestock; therefore, the analysis of animal bones can also help to answer some pressing questions about the spread and maintenance of plague over the centuries. Also 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.
Archaeobotany and palynology
Whereas in some late-medieval landscapes reforestation is reflected in palynological (pollen) data, in some other landscapes such evidence is missing. Quite often, the interest of palynological studies has instead either focused on prehistoric periods or has not produced data with the chronological precision to explore environmental and climatic change. Archaeobotany (the study of macrobotanical remains) also has the potential to explore the changing nature of diet and land exploitation practice, although this remains an under-explored avenue of enquiry.
Physical anthropology and Palaeoepidemiology
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. With some recent palaeopathological work on the Black Death contexts, it is now time to conduct similar research on other plague contexts. The context of skeletal deposition also provides indications of how survivors dealt with mass mortality events.
Ancient DNA studies enable the detection of the causative agent of plague, Y. pestis, when found in human skeletal remains, but also enable us to trace its evolutionary history. Also coinfections and syndemics with other pathogens will be traceable in the future. The analysis of human DNA on the other hand can provide insights in the consequences of plague on immunity and population structure.
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 in the context of plague and other disasters. 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, in the wider context of pandemics and other disasters.
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. Studies of the 6th century might shed some comparative insights on how similar extreme weather events preceding and following the Justinianic Plague contributed to shifts in land use .
Dendrology and Dendrochronology
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. Likewise, the First Pandemic, commencing around 541, was succeeding an extreme weather event documented in dendrochronological series, now commonly referred to as the ‘Dust Veil Event’ of 535-6.
Climatology and Climate History
Climatological expertise is especially important for understanding the causes and impact of extreme weather events of the 6th and 14th centuries. Furthermore, climatology will help to disentangle the complex interplay of climatic factors, human agency and plague ecology.
Some of these disciplines have already yielded important research; some other disciplines are more novel. The primary aim of this network is to connect scholars and scientists working on this shared theme, and encourage interdisciplinary, transnational research and knowledge exchange. Originally, the network 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. The idea to extend by adding a second axis on the history of plague goes back to discussions during the Annual Conference of the Society for Medieval Archaeology 2019 “The Long Black Death: New Perspectives” in York.