Category Archives: Publications and Resources

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

 

Abstract

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.

 

Comment

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

archaeologist professor in medieval and postmedieval archaeology at Bamberg university

More Posts - Website

Follow Me:
Facebook

Tropical Diseases in late medieval Northern Europe


K. Giffin/A. K. Lankapalli/S. Sabin u. a., A treponemal genome from an historic plague victim supports a recent emergence of yaws and its presence in 15th century Europe. Scientific Reports 10, 1, 2020, e36666.
doi: 10.1038/s41598-020-66012-x

 

The “application of a non-targeted molecular screening tool for the parallel detection of pathogens in historical plague victims from post-medieval Lithuania” enabled a Jena based research team to show ” the presence of more than one active disease in one individual. In addition to Yersinia pestis, we detected and genomically characterized a septic infection of Treponema pallidum pertenue, a subtype of the treponemal disease family recognised as the cause of the tropical disease yaws. Our finding in northern Europe of a disease that is currently restricted to equatorial regions is interpreted within an historical framework of intercontinental trade and potential disease movements. Through this we offer an alternative hypothesis for the history and evolution of the treponemal diseases, and posit that yaws be considered an important contributor to the sudden epidemic of late 15th century Europe that is widely ascribed to syphilis. “

For a German media report see:

 

Rainer Schreg

archaeologist professor in medieval and postmedieval archaeology at Bamberg university

More Posts - Website

Follow Me:
Facebook

The European Black Death as the Source of Ancient and Modern Plague Pandemics

Again a study on the genetic history of the plague.

Rainer Schreg

archaeologist

professor in medieval and postmedieval archaeology at Bamberg university

More Posts - Website

Follow Me:
Facebook

A yet unknown reservoir of yersinia pestis in Europe

A new study provides data on long-term presence of yersinia pestis from 14th c. onwards by using analysis of ancient DNA (aDNA). The study is based on two different sites in Germany, spanning a time period of more than 300 years. One of them is the 14th c. mass grave at the St. Leonhard church in Manching-Pichl, which is still an extraordinary site in Germany. Of 30 tested skeletons 8 were positive for Yersinia pestis-specific nucleic acid. As there are some significant similarities between the y.p. evidence with other European findings, the authors conclude, that “beside the assumed continuous reintroduction of Y. pestis from central Asia in multiple waves during the second pandemic, long-term persistence of Y. pestis in Europe in a yet unknown reservoir host has also to be considered.”

In order to understand the 14th c. crisis it will be interesting to see whether their model in which Yersinia pestis “was introduced to Europe from Asia in several waves combined with a long-time persistence of the pathogen in not yet identified reservoirs” is also valid for the time between the 6th and the 14th c. as this has some consequences in understanding possible interaction between landscape changes, extreme weather and the Black Death.

 

Rainer Schreg

archaeologist

professor in medieval and postmedieval archaeology at Bamberg university

More Posts - Website

Follow Me:
Facebook

Reintroduction or European reservoir? – a key question for possible effects of 14th c. landscape history on the Black Death

A new article deals with the question of reintroductions of the Black Death from Asia and the role of reservoirs of Yersinia pestis in Europe. A database of historically recorded outbreaks of the plague is correlated with climate data from Central Asia as the main reservoir of the plague. As there is a correlation between climate change and outbreaks of the plague in Europe 15± 1 y, the authors see a mechanism starting with a situation, “when
the climate subsequently becomes less favorable, it facilitates the collapse of plague-infected rodent populations, forcing their fleas to find alternative hosts.” Such alternative hosts could be camels, which “are known to become infected relatively easy from infected fleas in plague foci, and can transmit the disease to humans.” Trading with caravans could transport the plague “across ∼4,000 km from the mountains of western Central Asia to the coast of the Black Sea”. The authors compare the transport rate of ∼333–400 km per year with that of the thrd pandemic in China ( ca 123 km per year) and the Black Death in Europe, which is however much faster (1330 km per year).

According to this model the plague of 1348/49 is in fact a reintroduction from Asia. This is remarkable, when thinking of the effect of landscape changes in Central Europe, which in fact created a situation, when anthropogenic alterations of the landscape provided a situation which had the potential to cause extrem weather, soil erosion and effects on rodents’ population. If there was no European reservoir of yersinia pestis at that time in Europe, the risk of an anthropogenic factor in the outbreak of the Black Death is significantly smaller (comp. Yersinia pestis – the missing ecological and historical dimension. Archaeologik [10.11.2011]. Attempting to take an ecological perspective on the Black Death is an important step also for a better understanding of the 14th c. crisis.

Boris V. Schmid; Ulf Büntgen; W. Ryan Easterday; Christian Ginzler; Lars Walløe; Barbara Bramanti; Nils Chr. Stenseth, Climate-driven introduction of the Black Death and successive plague reintroductions into Europe. PNAS Published online before print February 23, 2015 –  doi: 10.1073/pnas.1412887112

with supplements: http://www.pnas.org/content/suppl/2015/02/20/1412887112.DCSupplemental

Authors’ abstract
The Black Death, originating in Asia, arrived in the Mediterranean harbors of Europe in 1347 CE, via the land and sea trade routes of the ancient Silk Road system. This epidemic marked the start of the second plague pandemic, which lasted in Europe until the early 19th century. This pandemic is generally understood as the consequence of a singular introduction of Yersinia pestis, after which the disease established itself in European rodents over four centuries. To locate these putative plague reservoirs, we studied the climate fluctuations that preceded regional plague epidemics, based on a dataset of 7,711 georeferenced historical plague outbreaks and 15 annually resolved tree-ring records from Europe and Asia. We provide evidence for repeated climate-driven reintroductions of the bacterium into European harbors from reservoirs in Asia, with a delay of 15 ± 1 y. Our analysis finds no support for the existence of permanent plague reservoirs in medieval Europe.

Rainer Schreg

archaeologist

professor in medieval and postmedieval archaeology at Bamberg university

More Posts - Website

Follow Me:
Facebook

Ecological Approaches in Medieval Rural Archaeology

  • R. Schreg, Ecological Approaches in Medieval Rural Archaeology. European Journal of Archaeology 17(1), 2014, 83-119
    DOI 10.1179/1461957113Y.0000000045

    [There is currently no Open Access, sorry!].

In recent years, scientific methods of bio- and geoarchaeology have become increasingly important for archaeological research. Political changes since the 1990s have reshaped the archaeological community. At the same time environmental topics have gained importance in modern society, but the debate lacks an historical understanding. Regarding medieval rural archaeology, we need to ask how this influences our archaeological research on medieval settlements, and how ecological approaches fit into the self-concept of medieval archaeology as a primarily historical discipline. Based mainly on a background in German medieval archaeology, this article calls attention to more complex ecological research questions. Medieval village formation and the late medieval crisis are taken as examples to sketch some hypotheses and research questions. The perspective of a village ecosystem helps bring together economic aspects, human ecology and environmental history. There are several implications for archaeological theory as well as for archaeological practice. Traditional approaches from landscape archaeology are insufficient to understand the changes within village ecosystems. We need to consider social aspects and subjective recognition of the environment by past humans as a crucial part of human–nature interaction. Use of the perspective of village ecosystems as a theoretical background offers a way to examine individual historical case studies with close attention to human agency. Thinking in terms of human ecology and environmental history raises awareness of some interrelations that are crucial to understanding past societies and cultural change. (Abstract)

The article takes the late medieval crisis as an example for the complexity of interaction and proposes to understand the Black Death within the framework of human ecology.

Factors and hypothetical interactions during the late medieval crisis
Factors and hypothetical interactions during the late medieval crisis

 

 

 

Rainer Schreg

archaeologist

professor in medieval and postmedieval archaeology at Bamberg university

More Posts - Website

Follow Me:
Facebook

re: Livestock size change in the 14th century

For a little while now, I have been interested in identifying and explaining changes in the size of domestic livestock in the 14th century. This research was originally inspired by my analysis of the animal remains from Dudley Castle, West Midlands, UK, which revealed a statistically-significant increase in the size of cattle, sheep, pig, and even chicken, between two phases of occupation (1262-1321 and 1321-1397). These changes were much earlier than those documented at other sites (mostly 15th-17th century), and I interpreted them  within the context of altered tenurial and agricultural practices in the wake of the Black Death: Thomas, R. 2005. Zooarchaeology, improvement and the British Agricultural Revolution. International Journal of Historical Archaeology 9 (2): 71-88.

Since then, a number of additional sites have provided evidence of livestock size change in the 14th century – seemingly adding weight to this idea. Just recently, however, I have completed a collaborative project exploring size change in domestic livestock in medieval and early modern England, using data from London: Thomas, R., Holmes, M., and Morris, J. 2013. “So bigge as bigge may be”: tracking size and shape change in domestic livestock in London (AD 1220-1900). Journal of Archaeological Science 40 (8): 3309-3325.

In this study, we analysed 7966 individual cattle, sheep, pig and chicken bone measurements from 105 sites excavated in London dating to the period AD 1220–1900 and multiple episodes of size change were identified. The earliest evidence for size change in cattle and sheep occurs in the early 14th century: this is earlier than any previously documented instance of livestock size increase in the medieval period. The fact that only cattle and sheep witness size increase is interesting, given the major outbreaks of disease affecting these animals in the first quarter of the 14th century: sheep murrain was epidemic between 1314 and 1316, while a panzootic in cattle occurred between 1319 and 1322. Given the timing of the size increases and the fact that only cattle and
sheep are affected, re-stocking policies might be an obvious explanation. However, selective breeding from larger animals was probably not the cause: there is no zooarchaeological evidence for large livestock elsewhere in England and Wales in this period and the large-scale transnational cattle trade did not commence until the late 15th century. Perhaps, a temporary relative increase in mean size may have
occurred in the archaeological (death) assemblage, because of relatively lower slaughter rates of female cattle following the pestilence. This might be explained by the
fact that the slaughtering of females, which survived the panzootic, might have been delayed, to re-populate the herds; consequently, survivors were used for a longer period than would have normally been the case. Alternatively, the larger size of cattle and sheep may reflect the actions of natural selection. It is entirely conceivable that smaller, weaker animals were more susceptible to malnutrition and ultimately mortality, while the larger, healthier animals survived to perpetuate their genes.

At the moment I am fairly open about the most likely explanation, but I would welcome any thoughts if you have any.

Environmental damages in 14th century Southwest Germany

An interesting new study proves extreme  gullying in a landscape in Southwestern Germany.  By now there have been little indications that 1342 St. Magdalen’s flood had impact also on settlement landscapes in Southwest Germany.

Today this landscape – the southwestern Schönbuch natural park north of Tübingen – is completely forrested, but it must have been a rather open landscape vulnerable to erosion in the 14th century. In neighbouring settlements there are various indication for rural industries. There need for firing wood may have been an important factor for deforestation and environmental risk. A blog-post at Archaeologik discusses the archaeological evidence of settlement activity.

Documents from the town of  Esslingen, less than 30 km northwest of the gullies indicate that in fact rains in summer 1342 also affected the Neckar region (http://archaeologik.blogspot.de/2013/01/bodenerosion-1342-ein-rechtsstreit-in.html).

erosion gully in the southwestern Schönbuch forest northwest of Tübingen. Todya the landscape is completely forrested with little traces of medieval settlement.
(Foto: R. Schreg, 2013)

Rainer Schreg

archaeologist

professor in medieval and postmedieval archaeology at Bamberg university

More Posts - Website

Follow Me:
Facebook

Lepra in the Middle Ages

A new genetic study dealing with Lepra:
V. J. Schuenemann, P. Singh, T. A. Mendum, B. Krause-Kyora, G. Jäger et al., Genome-Wide Comparison of Medieval and Modern Mycobacterium leprae. Science (online 13.6.2013)

There have been several media reports in Germany. E.g. FAZ (19.6.2013)

Rainer Schreg

archaeologist

professor in medieval and postmedieval archaeology at Bamberg university

More Posts - Website

Follow Me:
Facebook

Rats cannot have been intermediate hosts for Yersinia pestis during medieval plague epidemics in Northern Europe

Journal of Archaeological Science

Volume 40, Issue 4, April 2013, Pages 1752–1759

Rats cannot have been intermediate hosts for Yersinia pestis during medieval plague epidemics in Northern Europe

  • a University Museum of Bergen, University of Bergen, Norway
  • b Department of Physiology, Institute of Basic Medical Sciences, University of Oslo, P.O. Box 1103 Blindern, N-0317 Oslo, Norway
http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jas.2012.12.007


Abstract

The commonly accepted understanding of modern human plague epidemics has been that plague is a disease of rodents that is transmitted to humans from black rats, with rat fleas as vectors. Historians have assumed that this transmission model is also valid for the Black Death and later medieval plague epidemics in Europe. Here we examine information on the geographical distribution and population density of the black rat (Rattus rattus) in Norway and other Nordic countries in medieval times. The study is based on older zoological literature and on bone samples from archaeological excavations. Only a few of the archaeological finds from medieval harbour towns in Norway contain rat bones. There are no finds of black rats from the many archaeological excavations in rural areas or from the inland town of Hamar. These results show that it is extremely unlikely that rats accounted for the spread of plague to rural areas in Norway. Archaeological evidence from other Nordic countries indicates that rats were uncommon there too, and were therefore unlikely to be responsible for the dissemination of human plague. We hypothesize that the mode of transmission during the historical plague epidemics was from human to human via an insect ectoparasite vector.


Effects of 1342 rainfalls at the Neckar river, southwest Germany

Written, archaeological, and geographical sources show the heavy effects of the rainfalls in summer 1342. The mostly refer to the river Main, the middle Rhine, Elbe, and Weser.  A charter from the town of Esslingen situated at the river Neckar, dated 9th of September 1342 documents a court ruling. The local Augustinian monastery sued  against Kaisheim abbey, which owned a nearby vineyard. Soil was flooded into the Augustinian monastery. The document shows that the rainfalls in summer 1342 also affected the Neckar valley.

 

 

The town of Esslingen depicted by Andreas Kieser. The wineyard ist situated below the castle
(HStA Stuttgart H 107/15 Bd 7 Bl. 22, via Wikimedia Commons)

 

Rainer Schreg

archaeologist

professor in medieval and postmedieval archaeology at Bamberg university

More Posts - Website

Follow Me:
Facebook

Late medieval apotropaic devices

The medievalists.net refers to a Master thesis from the University of Louisville dealing with c.

  • Lena Mackenzie Gimbel, Bawdy badges and the Black Death: late medieval apotropaic devices against the spread of the plague. MA thesis (Louisville 2010) – pdf from Louisville university.

Rainer Schreg

archaeologist

professor in medieval and postmedieval archaeology at Bamberg university

More Posts - Website

Follow Me:
Facebook

Molecular Traces of the Black Death

Over the last decade a substantial amount of molecular evidence confirming the etiology of the plague over virtually the entire medieval period has been produced. In this rapidly evolving field, evidence for the Black Death of the 14th century has been produced by each new method in turn.

Given the conditions of remains sampled to date, the methods fall into two main categories: genomics and immunology. There are pros and cons to each. Genomics has well-recognized specificity and the ability to compare with living and ancient strains, but non-nucleic acid methods are both specific and far more sensitive. Non-nucleic acid methods (using immunology) will give a better indication of the true incidence within a population, especially important when testing moves beyond mass graves. Immunologic methods have been the primary means of diagnosing clinical infectious disease for at least 30 years. The Rapid Diagnostic Test (RDT) now used to diagnose ancient and modern plague uses technology that has existed for over 25 years with a good track record. The downside of immunology is that it doesn’t give strain specific information. On the other hand, detection of degraded DNA much less getting good enough sequence for strain matching is difficult and inefficient.

This map charts all of the medieval plague molecular data that I have seen (view Plague Map in a larger map). The red balloons mark 6th-9th century, Plague of Justinian, sites. All three early medieval sites are beyond the Alps proving that the plague of Justinian penetrated well beyond the Mediterranean basin.  The yellow balloons represent 14th century data, with the starred balloon specifically dated to the first wave of the Black Death pandemic. The blue balloons represent post-14 century data (14th-17th century). Click the balloons for references.

Even a cursory look at the map makes it apparent that both pandemics reached beyond the Alps into the European plain. Further, the distribution represents the areas of activity of 3-4 research groups rather than as an indication of plague incidence across Europe. Every region so far examined and published has found some evidence of plague. There is both DNA and immunological evidence for the 14th century. Unfortunately, DNA data has been produced by three different groups who have not yet produced a consensus sequence or analyzed their differences. Despite the differences between their sequences, there is plenty of homology between their data and modern reference sequences to ensure that they all identified Yersinia pestis. Their differences are most likely to be primarily related to interpretations of degradative changes in the ancient DNA, though it is possible that more than one strain was active in 14th century Europe.

The map also makes it apparent that we only have molecular evidence from a very small sliver of the territory covered by the medieval pandemics. There are too few sites so far to make any predictions about the routes the plague traveled based on molecular evidence. It never travels from point A to point B as the crow flies! Plague spreads more like a spiderweb than a wave. So, long distance transmission may well exist before lateral spread fills in the countryside. It is absolutely necessary to take in consideration medieval trade and communication routes.

This is an exciting time to be working on the plague. So far, only the tip of the iceberg has been exposed. To date, the molecular evidence has been the most useful for confirming the etiology of the plague of Justinian, the Black Death pandemic, and plague’s endurance in western Europe. We have the technology now to map the geographic extent of Yersinia pestis for the first and second pandemic. It will take at least a generation of work from archaeologists, geneticists, and paleomicrobiologists to gather enough sites and resolve the fine-detail sequencing issues to begin to do strain mapping.

 

Medieval pig management

I have a new paper published that explores the impact of Black Death on pig management…I hope it is of interest.
Hamilton, J. and Thomas, R. 2012. Pannage, pulses and pigs: isotopic and zooarchaeological evidence for changing pig management practices in 14th century England. Journal of Medieval Archaeology 56: 235-260.
Zooarchaeological analysis of a substantial assemblage of animal bones excavated from Dudley Castle, West Midlands, suggests that a significant change in pig management occurred during the 14th century. A dramatic decrease in the relative abundance of pigs, combined with an increase in the size of post-cranial bones and teeth, and a higher proportion of neonatal individuals, raises the possibility that greater control over breeding and feeding was being exerted in this period through the emergence of enclosed husbandry practices. Carbon and nitrogen stable-isotope analysis of a sample of 41 pig mandibles from two tightly dated phases of occupation supports this interpretation. Between the late 13th century and later 14th century there was a statistically significant decrease in δ 15N, but not in δ 13C, and pig dietary diversity probably also decreased. This paper discusses several explanations for these patterns, all consistent with a major change in pig management at this time.

Chicken husbandry: pre- and post-BD comparison

Just added in zotero an interesting article from Ph. Slavin about changes on chicken farming after 1350:

http://www.mnhn.fr/museum/front/medias/publication/23772_35_56_HD_N.pdf

Ptolemaios Paxinos

Doctoral candidate of the Graduate Program of the ArchaeoBioCenter at the Ludwigs-Maximilian-Universität. Dissertation Topic: „Die Archäozoologie der Pest. Die Auswirkungen des Schwarzen Todes (1347-1350) auf Viehhaltung, Wirtschaft und Handel in Deutschland“

More Posts