Category Archives: Publications and Resources

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

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Introduction and new theses

Hello! My name is Michelle Laughran. I am Associate Professor of History at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine and a historian of the plague and epidemic diseases in Renaissance Venice (https://sjcme.academia.edu/MichelleLaughran). I am thrilled to join the Black Death Network and I look forward to participating in group discussions!

I wanted to inform the group that the latest listing of theses and dissertations by the University of Pittsburgh Health Library Systems has been published, and there are a few entries of potential interest of plague historians… In addition, I also went back through about five years of past issues and dug up other theses relevant to the fourteenth century as well.  Hope they may be useful!

Many thanks for welcoming me and very best wishes, Michelle

Publication #: 3581344
Property, power and patriarchy: The decline of women’s property right in England after the Black Death
Phifer, Michael J., PhD
University of Houston, 2014, 330 pages

Publication #: 3625805
Pestilence and politics: A global history of the Marseille plague
Ermus, Cindy, PhD
Florida State University, 2014, 247 pages

Publication #: 3605732
“Robbed of their Minds”: Madness, Medicine and Society in Southeastern Germany from 1350 to 1500
Koenig, Anne Morgan, PhD
Northwestern University, 2013, 572 pages

Publication #: 3598211
Childless Queens and Child-like Kings: Negotiating Royal Infertility in England, 1382–1471
Geaman, Kristen Lee, PhD
University of Southern California, 2013, 361 pages

Publication #: 3435307
Heaven in a bottle: Franciscan apocalypticism and the elixir, 1250-1360
Matus, Zachary Alexander, PhD
Harvard University, 2010, 245 pages

Publication #: 3423088
The “Carrara Herbal” in context: Imitation, exemplarity, and invention in late fourteenth-century Padua
Kyle, Sarah Rozalja, PhD
Emory University, 2010, 316 pages

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

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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.


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

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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.

 

Plague or rather climate?

Audun Dybdahl: Climate and demographic crises in Norway in medieval and early modern times. The Holocene 22 (10), 2012, 1159-1167
doi:10.1177/0959683612441843
http://hol.sagepub.com/content/22/10/1159

The paper claims that the role of the climate for the late medieval crisis in Norway (and more general) has been underestimated.

Rainer Schreg

archaeologist professor in medieval and postmedieval archaeology at Bamberg university

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Remapping the Black Death in the Age of Genomics and GIS

127th annual meeting of the American Historical Association, January 2013 at New Orleans

http://aha.confex.com/aha/2013/webprogram/Session7774.html with abstracts of the papers

http://contagions.wordpress.com/2012/09/19/aha-2013-the-power-of-cartography-remapping-the-black-death-in-the-age-of-genomics-and-gis/

Remapping the Black Death in the Age of Genomics and GIS will be an important topic, as many maps showing the spread of the Black Death still use 19th c.’s data collection, which often do not refer to the sources properly. And in many cases they just seem to use evidence of pogroms as a real evidence for the Black Death.

Rainer Schreg

archaeologist professor in medieval and postmedieval archaeology at Bamberg university

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DNA finds of Yersinia pestis

Several studies have dealt with the idenficiation of aDNA of Yersinia pestis. There are several arguments for a mutation of Y. pestis shortly before the 1347-53 pandemic. Probably there were different variants of Y. pestis involved. In order to understand the historical ecology of the Black Death and the role of 14th-century land-use practices and climate changes it will be crucial to trace the development of Y. pestis .

To date Y. pestis has been extracted from human skeletal remains at the following locations:

 
Yersinia pestis – larger map
(additions are welcome)

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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