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Re: Medieval diseases

Poster: David KUIJT <kuijt@umiacs.umd.edu>

On Tue, 8 Dec 1998, carl christianson wrote:

> Elen Prydydd grabs her handy copy of William McNeill's _Plagues and Peoples_:
> Now, to address bubonic plague specifically:  McNeill on page 123
> specifically cites a description by Procopius of the Justinian plague of
> 542-543 CE.  This disease was **probably** bubonic plague.  However, it
> disappeared and did not reappear in Europe until the 14th century.  The
> disease is believed to be of South Asian origin, and considering that the
> Romans were definitely trading with South Asia (this is widely recognized
> by many specialists in the areas of the classical world, medieval Middle
> East and ancient South Asia, and trade in general), this is probably when
> the disease first broke out of the subcontinent.  Why it went back to being
> dormant in the Mediterranean world, nobody knows.  Ask a historian of
> medicine (no, I'm not) for specifics.  Remember, bubonic plague takes two
> different forms:  one form involves the development of buboes, and the
> other is pneumonic and absolutely lethal without antibiotic treatment.
> Sorry, Dafydd, the bubonic plague was there in Europe briefly before
> 1347... and I think the 6th century counts as being at least on the
> transition between the classical era and the early medieval era.

Hmm, I don't remember that from my copy of McNeill; I'll have to re-read
it.  However, the thrust of my statement is still true: a disease that
affected somebody in England in the late 1200s could not have been bubonic
plague; it didn't reach England until about 60 years later. 

I believe your paragraph above contains a misstatement, using the word
_dormant_ to refer to bubonic plague after 543 CE.  If we accept McNeill's
proposal that the Justinian plague was bubonic plague, then it did not go
dormant, it disappeared (a very different thing).  The well-established
initial flow of bubonic plague through Europe in 1347-1350 was not that of
a dormant disease resurfacing, it was a new (to the population) disease
being introduced.  The tremendous mortality among both human and rodent
populations is typical of new diseases, not established ones.

I'll be interested to see why McNeill thinks the Justinian plague could
have been bubonic plague.  South Asia is not the accepted home of bubonic
plague; my impression is that it is a disease endemic (then and now) to
the burrowing rodent population of Mongolia, not South Asia.  Bubonic
plague has a similar (more modern)  home in the burrowing rodents of New


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