I was asked to contribute to a blog post on how medievalists are doing in these troubled times. Here’s what I came up with:
Medievalists, particularly American medievalists, are usually starved for attention. They must work very hard to convince other people that their subject is relevant. So when the country is under coronavirus quarantine, they naturally bring up parallels with the Black Death of the fourteenth century, which can provide illuminating insights or at least comic relief. A friend claimed that he and his family were hunkered down, “telling a story a day to each other,” like the characters in Boccaccio’s Decameron. Another jokingly announced:
Hmm, just got a thing from a local church. They’re organizing a large group of Christians to publicly pray for mercy and strike themselves with belts and other things to show that they mean it. If it goes well locally, they plan on organizing a march of penance to other towns and cities.
But presumably this neo-Flagellant group is not going to proceed to a local Jewish neighborhood and beat up the inhabitants there, for allegedly poisoning the wells. Because, let’s be honest: a study of history often makes one very grateful to be living in the time and place that one does. We know that this pestilence is caused by a virus, and we know how it spreads; we can even come up with vaccines against it, which eventually we will. No more messing around with astrology, humorism, or aromatherapy, as the poor medievals did. We might study the Middle Ages, but I doubt any one of us actually wants to return to them.
Although, if there is one interesting parallel between Yersinia Pestis and SARS-CoV-2, it is how the spread of both microbes was abetted by international trade. The Black Death got to Europe over the Silk Road; our outsourcing of most manufacturing to China has given us lots of cheap stuff to buy, but it is also the means by which a local outbreak of a novel coronavirus in Wuhan became an international sensation. This is an unintended price of globalism – and a good reason to consider bringing home some of the things we’ve outsourced to China.
Adjunct professor Tim Furnish explores the historical context of our current situation in The Stream:
In the early 1990s, as part of my doctoral program in history at Ohio State, I took a seminar on how epidemics affected history. Our main text was the seminal Plagues and Peoples by William H. McNeill. That book taught me a healthy respect for — if not fear of — viruses and microbes. (Hence my Prepper Lite basement hoarding of freeze-dried food, ammo and, yes, toilet paper, which long preceded COVID-19.)
As R.S. Bray wrote in his excellent Armies of Pestilence: The Impact of Disease on History: since “a brand new infectious agent may engulf us, transmitted quickly and efficiently” we should ensure that “the great pandemics of the past and their effects upon man and his organisations were not forgotten.”
Coronavirus is indeed a global pandemic afflicting, as of this writing, nearly 700,000 people. The overall mortality rate is around 4.6%. In this country we have over 125,000 confirmed cases. Some 2200, or about 1.8%, of those have died. Many comparisons of this disease to the seasonal flu have been done, such as this one. I won’t repeat that exercise, Instead, I will try to put coronavirus into historical perspective.
Read the whole thing.
I ought to be drawing illuminating parallels between these troubled times and the fourteenth-century Black Death, Defoe’s Plague Year (London, 1665), or the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918-20. But I am not an epidemiologist and have nothing of interest to say about these things – or any other of the great pestilences that have afflicted humanity in the past, except to say that I certainly hope that the COVID-19 plague of 2020 doesn’t turn into a rerun of what happened under Marcus Aurelius or Justinian. I do find it notable how this one has triggered such a public-health reaction – much greater than the more recent outbreaks of SARS, MERS, Ebola, Zika, West Nile, or just the seasonal flu, which as everyone has been saying has killed more people than the current pandemic. I suppose it is better to be safe than sorry, and I sure hope that the economy bounces back from whatever disruption this quarantining will cause.
From Smithsonian Magazine (hat tip: Dan Franke):
Mass Grave Shows the Black Death’s ‘Catastrophic’ Impact in Rural England
At least 48 individuals were buried in a single grave in Lincolnshire, suggesting the community struggled to deal with an onslaught of plague victims
In the summer of 1348, the Black Death arrived in southwest England. The deadly disease rapidly swept through the country, ultimately killing between one-third and one-half of its population. Now, a team of researchers writing in the journal Antiquity has revealed new details about a mass grave of probable Black Death victims buried in the English countryside. The discovery offers rare insight into the plague’s “catastrophic” impact on rural communities.
The grave, located on the grounds of the historic Thornton Abbey in North Lincolnshire, was first excavated in 2013. Archaeologists unearthed the remains of at least 48 individuals, including 27 children. Differences in levels between the rows of bodies suggest the grave was “filled over the course of several days or weeks,” according to the study’s authors. Radiocarbon dating of two skeletons indicated the victims died sometime between 1295 and 1400, while ceramics and two silver pennies found in the grave helped experts narrow the date range down to the mid-14th century.
Though the researchers acknowledge that any number of factors could have driven the mass fatality in Lincolnshire, they suspect the Black Death is the “most probable cause.” Documentary evidence indicates the bubonic plague had hit Lincolnshire by the spring of 1349. What’s more, centuries-old DNA extracted from the teeth of 16 individuals buried at the site revealed the presence of Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes the disease.
The skeletons’ ages—which ranged from 1 year old to over 45—lend further credence to the theory that something devastating was at play. Hugh Willmott, a senior lecturer in European historical archaeology at the University of Sheffield and leader of the excavation, tells Live Science’s Mindy Weisberger that medieval cemeteries are typically dominated by very young and relatively old individuals, who are particularly susceptible to disease and injury.
“But what we’ve got is not that profile at all,” says Willmott. “We can tell from the proportion of individuals that everyone is being affected, and everyone is dying.”
Read the whole thing.
From Phys.org (hat tip: Tom MacMaster):
Scientists link Neanderthal extinction to human diseases
Growing up in Israel, Gili Greenbaum would give tours of local caves once inhabited by Neanderthals and wonder along with others why our distant cousins abruptly disappeared about 40,000 years ago. Now a scientist at Stanford, Greenbaum thinks he has an answer.
In a new study published in the journal Nature Communications, Greenbaum and his colleagues propose that complex disease transmission patterns can explain not only how modern humans were able to wipe out Neanderthals in Europe and Asia in just a few thousand years but also, perhaps more puzzling, why the end didn’t come sooner.
“Our research suggests that diseases may have played a more important role in the extinction of the Neanderthals than previously thought. They may even be the main reason why modern humans are now the only human group left on the planet,” said Greenbaum, who is the first author of the study and a postdoctoral researcher in Stanford’s Department of Biology.
Read the whole thing.
Apparently eating raw marmot kidneys is not actually good for one’s health – in fact, it might be a vector for bubonic plague. From NPR (hat tip: Bill Campbell):
Bubonic Plague Strikes In Mongolia: Why Is It Still A Threat?
The medieval plague known as the Black Death is making headlines this month.
In Mongolia, a couple died of bubonic plague on May 1 after reportedly hunting marmots, large rodents that can harbor the bacterium that causes the disease, and eating the animal’s raw meat and kidneys – which some Mongolians believe is good for their health.
This is the same illness that killed an estimated 50 million people across three continents in the 1300s. Nowadays, the plague still crops up from time to time, although antibiotics will treat it if taken soon after exposure or the appearance of symptoms.
Left untreated, the plague causes fever, vomiting, bleeding and open, infected sores — and can kill a person within a few days.
The ethnic Kazakh couple died in Bayan-Ulgii, Mongolia’s westernmost province bordering Russia and China. It is not clear what treatment they received, if any.
Read the whole thing.
From Science News, courtesy my friend William Campbell:
A 5,000-year-old mass grave harbors the oldest plague bacteria ever found
A long-dead Scandinavian woman has yielded bacterial DNA showing that she contracted the earliest known case of the plague in humans.
DNA extracted from the woman’s teeth comes from a newly identified ancient strain of Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes plague, the oldest ever found. The woman’s bones, which date from 5,040 to 4,867 years ago, were found nearly 20 years ago in a mass grave at an ancient farming site in Sweden.
Teeth from an adult male in the same grave contain traces of the same plague variant, say evolutionary geneticist Simon Rasmussen of the University of Copenhagen and colleagues. But plague DNA from the woman is better preserved, the team reports online December 6 in Cell.
Comparisons of the newly found Y. pestis strain with other ancient and modern strains suggest that a plague epidemic emerged more than 5,000 years ago in densely populated farming communities in southeastern Europe. Then the plague spread elsewhere, including to Scandinavia, via trade routes, Rasmussen’s team concludes. That ancient epidemic apparently contributed to sharp population declines in Europe that began as early as 8,000 years ago.
In particular, the scientists suspect that an early form of plague developed among southeastern Europe’s Trypillia culture between 6,100 and 5,400 years ago. Trypillia settlements were the first to bring enough people into close contact to enable the evolution of a highly infectious version of Y. pestis, the team suggests. Trading networks then transmitted the plague from Trypillia population centers, home to as many as 10,000 to 20,000 people, to West Asian herders known as the Yamnaya, the researchers argue. In this scenario, herders infected by the Trypillia people probably spread what had become a new strain of the plague both eastward to Siberia and westward to the rest of Europe, including Scandinavia. Yamnaya migrations to Europe roughly coincided with the rapid abandonment and burning of large Trypillia settlements, which probably occurred as a result of plague outbreaks, the scientists say.
More at the link.
From The Independent (hat tip: Tim Furnish):
Mystery over death of 15 million Aztecs may be solved after nearly 500 years, study suggests
DNA analysis of skeletons reveals traces of disease
Scientists believe they may have discovered the cause of an epidemic that struck Mexico’s Aztec population in 1545, killing up to 15 million people.
In a paper published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, they describe how DNA extracted from the teeth of 29 skeletons buried in a cemetery in southern Mexico revealed previously unidentified traces of the salmonella enterica bacterium.
The bacterium is known to cause enteric fever, of which typhoid is an example. According to the study, the symptoms tally with those mentioned in records from the time, which describe victims developing red spots on the skin, vomiting, and bleeding from various body orifices.
The epidemic was one of several to hit the indigenous population soon after the arrival of Europeans in the early 16th century.
“When the Europeans arrived in Mexico, they brought with them lots of different diseases,” Ashild Vagene, co-author of the study, told The Independent. “There were dozens of epidemics across the New World and Mexico was particularly hard hit.”
“What we’re talking about is the devastating decimation of indigenous populations by previously unknown diseases,” Dr Caroline Dodds Pennock, lecturer in International History at the University of Sheffield, told The Independent.
“Mortality rates were maybe 80 or 90 per cent by 1600,” she said. “Imagine nine out of every 10 people dying – it’s almost unimaginable.”
The cause of the 1545-1550 epidemic has been debated for more than a century. Measles, pneumonic plague and influenza have all been suggested as possibilities, but historians have never reached a consensus.
More at the link.