Plague pandemic was pretty paltry

Little evidence to support claims that an early outbreak ravaged Europe, researchers say.

Detail from “Saint Sebastian interceding for the plague stricken”, by Josse Lieferinxe  (c. 1497-99). 

Walters Art Museum

By Barry Keily

The Justinianic Plague, which swept across Europe between 570 and 750 CE, might not have been such a big deal after all, a multidisciplinary investigation has revealed.

The analysis, headed by researchers at the University of Maryland's National-Socio Environmental Synthesis Centre (SESYNC) and published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), represent a challenge to historians, for whom the pandemic is generally regarded as a signal event in the history of Europe.

The outbreak – named after the Roman emperor Justinian – is often portrayed as an event that not only killed many millions of people but also reconfigured the world of Late Antiquity, setting the scene for the development of modern Europe and the Middle East.

Typical is the position taken by historian William Rosen in his 2007 book Justinian’s Flea. He notes that the plague arguably “caused Rome to fall [and] Europe to be born”.

“It is therefore as difficult to plot a course to modern Europe without acknowledging the presence of Justinian and the plague as it would to send a satellite to the moons of Saturn without accounting for the gravitational impact of the planet Jupiter,” he concludes.

In the new study, Lee Mordechai and colleagues suggest that such assertions are more than a tad hyperbolic.

Mordechai – who is now at the University of Jerusalem in Israel – gathered together a team of scientists from several fields. Together, they investigated datasets that collectively revealed the effects of the pandemic across Europe.

Among them were pollen records, which served as a proxy for agricultural activity, burial patterns, and changes to the genome of the plague bacterium, Yersina pestis.

The results were startling. Most of the evidence showed no appreciable changes during the plague years, indicating that human activity – and bacterial evolution – did not change pace.

"We used pollen evidence to estimate agricultural production, which shows no decrease associable with plague mortality,” says co-author Adam Izdebski.

“If there were fewer people working the land, this should have shown up in pollen, but it has failed to so far."

Funeral practices provided another key insight.

When, 800 years after the Justinianic Plague, the rather better-known Black Death rolled across Europe, the dead accumulated in such numbers that individual interments decreased in favour of mass burials. During the earlier pandemic, not so much.

"We investigated a large dataset of human burials from before and after the plague outbreak, and the plague did not result in a significant change in whether people buried the dead alone or with many others,” says co-author Janet Kay.

The researchers suggest that the fearsome reputation of the Justinianic Plague arose because historians, not unreasonably, took surviving written first-hand reports of its effects – pertinent only to a specific location – and then generalised.

The new study, says Mordechai, is the first time the outbreak has been traced through a combination of non-literary sources.

"If this plague was a key moment in human history that killed between a third and half the population of the Mediterranean world in just a few years, as is often claimed, we should have evidence for it but our survey of datasets found none,” he says.

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