Category Archives: History

Themed Issue and Webinar on “Disease, Death, and Therapy” – Speculum

Speculum published a whole issue on the topic of “Disease, Death and Therapy” with several articles related directly to plague. Moreover, on 14 Jan 2021, Speculum hosted a webinar with the authors; the recording will soon be publicly available.

Gayk, S. Apocalyptic Ecologies: Eschatology, the Ethics of Care, and the Fifteen Signs of the Doom in Early England. Speculum 96, 1–37 (2021) doi:10.1086/711658

Abstract: Exploring how late medieval texts imagined the promised destruction of the physical world, this essay offers an ecocritical reading of a single apocalyptic motif: the Fifteen Signs of the Doom. This once popular catalogue of ecological and cosmological portents of the Apocalypse encouraged environmental watchfulness, moved human experience from the center to the margins, and explored the humbling inscrutability of natural disaster. Surveying some of the Middle English sermons and lyrics that include this motif, this article considers how the practice of imagining the coming apocalypse by cataloguing wonders, natural disasters, and strange phenomena in the material world not only reminded human beings of their participation in a larger ecology but also invited them to reflect upon their responsibilities to and sympathies with the larger world.

McCormick, M. Gregory of Tours on Sixth-Century Plague and Other Epidemics. Speculum 96, 38–96 (2021) doi:10.1086/711721

Abstract: Analyzes philologically and historically all testimony in the works of Gregory of Tours about various epidemics that struck Gaul, Iberia, and Italy in the sixth century; in particular, those of the most serious disease, “inguinal epidemic,” that is, bubonic plague (Yersinia pestis), as well as an illness that may have been smallpox (Variola major). Establishes that Gregory’s testimony, inspired by his personal and pastoral-theological concerns, is reliable and informative; delineates the motivations and sources for reporting the recurring epidemics of plague as they emerge from his writings; shows that Gregory’s information is robust but geographically constrained: of the twenty-two places and regions where he knows unambiguously about plague, only four are further than 400 km from his familial Clermont (Fig. 1). Gregory’s twenty-two mentions of plague also refer to six epidemics between c. 543–47 and c. 591–94, of which he treats four in greater detail; his silences are confirmed to be significant only rarely. Two epidemics are newly dated to springtime, and the initial outbreak is shown as likely to have reached Gaul from a western port. Contagion mirrors communications infrastructures and affected the countryside as well as towns, which populations tended to flee. Symptoms, epidemiology, and heavy mortality align with the ancient DNA proof that the pathogen was Yersinia pestis; pneumonic plague is suggested in two cases. Gregory’s historical testimony is confirmed by and integrated into the new biomolecular archaeological discoveries of early medieval plague victims in western Europe.

Barker, H. Laying the Corpses to Rest: Grain, Embargoes, and Yersinia pestis in the Black Sea, 1346–48. Speculum 96, 97–126 (2021) doi:10.1086/711596

Abstract: When, how, and why did the Black Death reach Europe? Historians have relied on Gabriele de’ Mussi’s account of Tatars catapulting plague-infested bodies into the besieged city of Caffa on the Crimean Peninsula. Yet Mussi spent the 1340s in Piacenza; he had no direct knowledge of events in Caffa. Sources by people present in the Black Sea during the Second Pandemic, including Genoese colonial administrators, Venetian diplomats, Byzantine chroniclers, and Mamluk merchants, offer a different perspective. They show that the Venetian community at Tana played an important role in plague transmission; that it took over a year (from spring 1346 to autumn 1347) for plague to cross the Black Sea to Constantinople; that people crossed the Black Sea in 1346 but commodities did not because of a series of trade embargoes; that grain was one of the most important Black Sea commodities in both volume and strategic value; and therefore that the embargoes of 1346 delayed plague transmission by temporarily halting the movement of grain with its accompanying rats, fleas, and bacteria. When Venice, Genoa, and the Golden Horde made peace and lifted their embargoes in 1347, both the grain trade and the spread of plague resumed.

Curtis, D. R. From One Mortality Regime to Another? Mortality Crises in Late Medieval Haarlem, Holland, in Perspective. Speculum 96, 127–155 (2021) doi:10.1086/711641

Abstract: This article employs a large database of 10,360 deaths taken from registrations of graves dug and church bells tolled at Haarlem between the years 1412 and 1547—one of the largest samples and longest series of mortality evidence ever produced for medieval Holland—and systematically compares findings with a seventeenth-century burial register for the same city. It concludes that we should put aside any lingering notion that late medieval Holland was very lightly affected by epidemic diseases: in fact, in Haarlem, these mortality crises were more severe than those seen in the seventeenth century. The data also reveal not one overarching “medieval mortality regime” but distinct changes between fewer but more severe spikes in the first half of the fifteenth century, and higher frequency of smaller spikes later on—especially in the period 1480–1530—with the number of mortality crises damping down after 1530. These mortality crises tended to produce more adult female victims than male, supporting recent findings from elsewhere in the late medieval Low Countries.

Pieragostini, R. The Healing Power of Music? Documentary Evidence from Late-Fourteenth-Century Bologna. Speculum 96, 156–176 (2021) doi:10.1086/711571

Abstract: The idea of the healing power of music—rooted in Platonic and Aristotelian psychologies and Galenic humoral theory—has a long-standing tradition in European intellectual thought and occurs in several texts of the medieval and early modern periods. In contrast to the abundance of references in theoretical discussions, however, historians today face the scarcity of evidence documenting specific, actual uses of music as therapy. Among such rare evidence are two documents emanating from the chancery of late-fourteenth-century Bologna, which form the focus of this article. The documents, which concern a musician and an itinerant healer, provide new insights into musical practices directed in particular to the cure of psychic sufferings. The documents make clear that the secular authorities of Bologna considered the agency of these two practitioners and their medical and musical skills to be crucial for maintaining or restoring individual and collective health. The evidence discussed here suggests that the use of music toward curative ends must have been more widespread than hitherto acknowledged. It also highlights the powerful association between notions of musical healing and ideas of individual and civic well-being that underlay the Bologna officials’ idea of the state.

Marcel Keller

Co-Editor of the Black Death Network Postdoc in Palaeogenetics at U. of Tartu

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Castles and Fortresses in Times of Pestilence

A conference digitally held on 17 December 2020 by the Marburger Arbeitskreis für Europäische Burgenforschung and Aarhus University looking into the role of castles in times of pestilence can be found on youtube:

There are five papers:

  1. Christian Ottersbach: Introduction
  2. Rainer Atzbach: The Black Death in Denmark and in front of Kiel Castle
  3. Michael Nobel Hviid: The Royal Castle as a catalyst for dissemination
  4. Lea Reiff: War and Pestilence. (Co-)relations between plague and warfare in literature and film, past and present
  5. Dominik Gerd Sieber: Walls, Ditches and Gates contra Pestilence
. Castles in Upper Swabia during Times of  Pestilence in 16th Century

Rainer Schreg

archaeologist

professor in medieval and postmedieval archaeology at Bamberg university

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introduction – Hannah Barker

I am an assistant professor of medieval history at Arizona State University with an interest in Black Sea – Mediterranean connections in the 14th century. I have an article coming out in Speculum in January about the timing and transmission process for plague from the northern coast of the Black Sea (Caffa and Tana) to Italy in 1347 via Genoese and Venetian grain shipment networks. https://www.medievalacademy.org/page/Forthcoming

At the moment I am focusing on a non-plague-related project, but I am also interested in the early phases of the Second Pandemic in the Golden Horde/Caucasus region as well as the process of plague transmission from the Black Sea to Mamluk Alexandria in 1347.

 

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

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The Microbiology of early Globalisation

Blog Entry based on an updated extract from my book “Jenseits von Rom und Karl dem Großen” (Vienna 2018):

preiserkapeller

Byzantinist/medievalist at the Austrian Academy of Sciences with a tendency to experiment with concepts and methodologies from global/environmental history, complexity studies, network analysis.

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Ole Benedictow – Introduction & new publication

Dear all,

My monograph The Black Death and Later Plague Epidemics in the Scandinavian Countries: Perspectives and Controversies, Berlin: De Greuter, pp. 736, has just appeared: it is published in hardcover edition and also on the Internet in the form of Open access, De Greuter Open, https://www.degruyter.com/viewbooktoc/product/212904 . The book provides much new work on the Black Death, but also translations of works that so far has not been available in English. It also contains several long chapters that relate thoroughly to questions and controversies with respect to the presence of black rats in the Nordic countries (pp. 395-451 with three maps), transmission and dissemination by human ectoparasites, and the early-phase transmission theory or hypothesis rather (as long its advocates cannot explain how pathogenic doses of plague bacteria in the foregut of fleas are moved into a new bite site against the strong stream of a new blood meal).

This involves also the gathering together and presentation of all data on plague bacteraemia in rats and human beings to clarify their potential roles as sources of infection of feeding fleas and lice, the prevalence of bacteremia in rats and human beings measured as number of plague bacteria per mL (mm3) of blood, the volume of blood fleas or lice ingest (µL), and, thus, the potential role of human ectoparasites and rat fleas in the transmission and dissemination of plague bacteria. Finally, there is discussion of border values of Lethal Doses of transmission in the case of human beings and the presence and conditions for transmission of LDs of plague bacteria. There are also studies of the pattern, rhythm and seasonality of the spread of plague epidemics as reflections of and, thus, sources of information on the processes of transmission and dissemination.

The introductory general chapter on plague contains also two specific subchapters that really are lengthy articles. In Chapter 1.5, all paleobiological data on finds of aDNA or F1 antigen of Y. pestis in putative plague graves are gathered together with a comprehensive presentation of the research history and achievements of the new discipline of paleobiology in plague-related research, pp. 73-99. Chapter 1.4, reverts to the topic of alternative theories of plague, in this case an epidemiological alternative, which so far has not been addressed seriously and critically: ‘Serious Plague History under Pressure: The Twelfth Theory of Historical Plague. Comments on the Recent paper “Climate-driven Introductions of the Black Death and Successive Plague Reintroductions into Europe”, pp. 35-72. The relevant points on the role of human ectoparasites in the epidemiology of plague are discussed in the chapters mentioned above.

I will be grateful for all critical and supplementary reactions, which can come to good use now that my English publisher has asked me to write a 2nd edn. of my monograph on the Black Death and I am working on it to the hilt. This is also the case with respect to my previous monograph What Disease was Plague? On the Controversy over the Microbiological Identity of Plague Epidemics of the Past, Leiden: Brill , pp. 746.

Happy New Year to all,

Ole J. Benedictow
Emeritus Professor,
Department of History,
University of Oslo

EAA Vilnius 2016: Session report on “Plague in diachronic and interdisciplinary perspective”

The following session report by Doris Gutsmiedl-Schümann (Freie Universität Berlin, Germany), Sacha Kacki (Université de Bordeaux, France), Marcel Keller (MPI-SHH Jena, Germany) and Christina Lee (University of Nottingham, UK) will be published in The European Archaeologist. With kind permission of the EAA.

Edit 17-02-07: filmed talks are now linked under the respective name.

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Plague, an infectious disease caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, occurred in at least three major historical pandemics: the Justinianic Plague (6th to 8th century), the Black Death (1348-1352, with further epidemic outbreaks until the 18th century), and the Modern or Hong Kong Plague (19th to 20th century). However, it appears that the disease may be much older: DNA from Bronze Age human skeleton has recently shown that plague first emerged at least as early as 3000 BC. As any disease, plague has both a biological as well as a social dimension. Different disciplines can therefore explicate different aspects of plague which can lead to a better understanding of the disease and its medical and social implications.

The session was held on 2nd September 2016 as part of the 22nd Annual Meeting of the EAA with the aim of bringing together researchers from different disciplines who work on plague. It addressed a series of research questions, such as:

  • Which disciplines can contribute to the research on plague?
  • What are their methodological possibilities and the limitations of their methodologies?
  • How can different disciplines work together in order to gain a more realistic and detailed picture of plague in different periods and regions?
  • How did different societies react to plague? In which way may we prove or disprove evidence for such reactions – and which disciplines may contribute to the debate?
  • What where the common aspects, and what the differences of the various plague outbreaks? Are there any epidemiological characteristics that are essential and/or unique to plague?
  • What are possible implications of the pandemic spread and endemic occurrence of plague through the ages for the interpretation of historical and cultural phenomena?

Continue reading EAA Vilnius 2016: Session report on “Plague in diachronic and interdisciplinary perspective”

Marcel Keller

Co-Editor of the Black Death Network
Postdoc in Palaeogenetics at U. of Tartu

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Introduction – Joris Roosen

As a first year PhD-candidate, I am working within the “Coordinating for life” project at the University of Utrecht. The project aims to explain why some societies are successful in preventing the effects of major hazards and buffering threats, or in recovering quickly, while others prove highly vulnerable. My specific sub-project focuses on the subject of the Black Death and the recurring waves of plague in late medieval Europe.

My research aims to look at the institutional framework of three regions in order to ascertain why some regions were able to mitigate and recover quickly from the effects of the Black Death whilst others did not.

The regions I will be investigating are coastal Flanders, Picardy and Norfolk.

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

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Justin Stearns – Contagion in Muslim and Christian Thought

I am assistant professor at New York University – Abu Dhabi. My interest in the Black Death is primarily Muslim and Christian intellectual and social responses to the plague. I have written a book comparing Muslim and Christian understandings of contagion in Iberia(http://muse.jhu.edu/books/9781421401058), as well as a short review article on religious responses to the plague
(http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1478-0542.2009.00634.x/abstract) and continue to work on the plague in the Muslim world.

http://nyuad.academia.edu/JustinStearns

jstearns

My interest in the Black Death is primarily Muslim and Christian intellectual and
social responses to the plague. I have written a book comparing Muslim and Christian
understandings of contagion in
Iberia(http://muse.jhu.edu/books/9781421401058), as well as a short review article on religious responses to the plague
(http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1478-0542.2009.00634.x/abstract)
and continue to work on the plague in the Muslim world.

More Posts - Website