Category Archives: From the Editors

Launch of the new Black Death Network

The Black Death Network was initially established after a session on the EAA 2012 in Helsinki, Finland to facilitate communication and international exchange of researchers across disciplines. Main focus was the crisis of the 14th century triggered by climatic deterioration followed by crop failures and ultimately the devastating plague pandemic, today known as the Black Death.

In the last decade, not the least stimulated through palaeogenetic studies presenting Yersinia pestis genomes from the Neolithic up to the 18th century, the field of ‘plague studies’ flourished and diversified. During the Annual Conference of the Society for Medieval Archaeology in York 2019 on “The Long Black Death”, the demand for a central platform for plague researchers for exchange, communication and public outreach became apparent. Among different options, it was discussed to make use of the already existing Black Death Network. This idea was brought forward to the original editors, Clare Downham, Kerstin Pasda Rainer Schreg and Richard Thomas, and they generously agreed to open the Black Death Network for plague researchers in general. For this, the editorial team was extended, now including also Sacha Kacki, Marcel Keller and Phil Slavin.

The previous board focus on the 14th century crisis will be maintained as Axis I, dedicated to the climatological, ecological, social, economic and political transformations surrounding events such as the Great Famine of 1315-1317, the St. Mary Magdalene’s flood 1342, and the Black Death 1346-1353. In addition, the history of plague will form Axis II, diachronically approaching the history of plague (as caused by Yersinia pestis) from prehistory and the First Pandemic 541-750 to the early Third Pandemic in the 19th to early 20th century. 

 

The intersection of both axes and focal point of this blog will be the Black Death. The Black Death Network is open to researchers from a broad variety of disciplines, including but not limited to the ones listed in the figure. To become a member of the Network, please contact one of the admins. You will have to create a profile which allows you to post on the Black Death Network blog. We kindly ask all new members to post a short introduction in the “Researchers” category.

To improve the structure of the blog, we created a number of blog post categories:

  • Publications and Resources
  • In News and Media
  • Conferences and Workshops
  • Lectures and Talks
  • Research projects and groups
  • Research Insights
  • Comment and Opinion
  • Book Reviews

Please contact one of the admins for requests for additional categories. Here you can find short introductions and guidelines for the individual categories. In addition, we will offer curated bibliographies on selected topics which can be found via the top menu. Please contact the editors if you would like to contribute.

On behalf of the editorial team

Sacha Kacki, Marcel Keller, Rainer Schreg, Phil Slavin

Invitation to the Black Death Network

Dear colleagues,

The blog “The Black Death Network. Interdiscplinary approaches to the 14th-century crises in Europe ” just started. This is an initiative arising from a session at the EAA European Association of Archaeologists)/  MERC (medieval Europe research Congress) meeting in Helsinki 2012.
If you are engaged in research connected to the 14th-century crises across Europe we would be very happy for you to join out network. Our aim is to connect students and experienced scholars from all disciplines, to exchange news and ideas and to discuss all aspects of the topic.

We will give all colleagues author rights to write and comment. Please write an email to schregATrgzm.de or some other member of the editorial team. However, we ask you for a introductory blogpost presenting your yourself and your interests in the topic. We sort these posts in a category “researchers” which will create an overview of all persons actively involved. You may post short information about your research, new publications, news on relevant conferences.

The blog is hosted at hypotheses.org/ openedition, a common platform for academic blogs organised by the German Historical Institute at Paris, the French National Library. They will provide a ISSN similar to a journal and will also take care for archiving of the blog. Blog-Posts are therefore a litte bit more official than in private blogs, and therefore can also be cited. We put the texts of the blog under a CC-licence (BY NC SA).

You can follow the blog by rss-feed or by joining the facebook-group “The Black Death Network”. https://www.facebook.com/groups/340262089399227/. New posts from the blog are connected with this fb-group by an rss-feed.

There is also a group The Black Death Network at zotero collecting bibliographical data of research publications as well as more popular articles.

Rainer Schreg
Richard Thomas
Kerstin Pasda
Cclare Downham

Rainer Schreg

archaeologist

professor in medieval and postmedieval archaeology at Bamberg university

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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

professor in medieval and postmedieval archaeology at Bamberg university

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