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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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Islamic attidues to disasters in the Middle Ages: a comparison of earthquakes and plagues

A re-post from the Medievalists.net blog of a 2007 article in Medieval History Journal (10) by Anna Akasoy:

http://www.medievalists.net/2012/09/09/islamic-attitudes-to-disasters-in-the-middle-ages-a-comparison-of-earthquakes-and-plagues/

Rainer Schreg

archaeologist professor in medieval and postmedieval archaeology at Bamberg university

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How great was the Great Famine of 1314-1322? Between ecology and institutions

Philip Slavin: How Great Was the Great Famine of 1314-22: Between Ecology and Institutions.  Yale Economic History Workshop, October 19, (2009)

Abstract

There can be little doubt that the Great European Famine of 1314-22 was a single most severe food crisis in the late Middle Ages. The almost biblical flooding of 1314-17 led to a harsh subsistence crisis that deeply transformed European population, society, economy and ecology. Historians have long been aware of this in relation to the crop failures that occurred in these years, but their studies have tended to stand outside the analytical, and certainly statistical, frameworks that historians have created for assessing the impact of the catastrophe. The present working paper proposes the preliminary re-assessment of three important aspects of the Great Famine, from an English and Welsh perspective. The reason for concentrating on England and Wales is the fact that this region is abundant in a large corpus of statistical data, which either does not survive or does not exist for other regions in Northern Europe.

http://www.econ.yale.edu/seminars/echist/eh09/slavin-091026.pdf

Rainer Schreg

archaeologist professor in medieval and postmedieval archaeology at Bamberg university

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Sickness, Hunger, War, and Religion

As open access available:
“Sickness, Hunger, War, and Religion: Multidisciplinary Perspectives.”
Rachel Carson Center Perspectives 2012, Issue 3
Edited by Michaela Harbeck, Kristin von Heyking, and Heiner Schwarzberg

A peste, fame et bello libera nos, Domine!” Disease, hunger, war, and religion have shaped human existence over many centuries. This volume presents exciting syntheses between research in the fields of archaeology, anthropology, and history; moving from prehistory to the medieval period, six chapters look at humanity’s struggles with subsistence, religious belief, ill-health, death, and warfare in a variety of global landscapes, and show how, by sharing expertise and combining methodological approaches, we can advance our understanding of our common past.


http://www.carsoncenter.uni-muenchen.de/publications/perspectives_mainpage/2012_perspectives/index.html

available as  pdf (pdf, 7.5 MB) (or printer-friendly version, pdf, 6.6 MB)

Rainer Schreg

archaeologist professor in medieval and postmedieval archaeology at Bamberg university

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Human skeletal health before and after the Black Death

Ongoing analysis of the human skeletal remains from London by Sharon DeWitte reveals changes in health and lifespan in the wake of the Black Death, and adds to the growing body of bioarchaeological evidence that life for survivors was better.

http://archaeologynewsnetwork.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/decoding-black-death.html

Rainer Schreg

archaeologist professor in medieval and postmedieval archaeology at Bamberg university

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Useful cattle murrain papers

These are two very useful papers that deal with the impact of the early 14th century cattle plagues on English manors:

Newfield, T. 2009. A cattle panzootic in early fourteenth-century Europe. Agricultural History Review 57, 155-190.

Slavin, P. in press. The great bovine pestilence and its economic and environmental consequences in England and Wales, 1318-1350. Economic History Review DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-0289.2011.00625.x

 

Rainer Schreg

archaeologist professor in medieval and postmedieval archaeology at Bamberg university

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