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Re: Medieval diseases, or never touch plague rats

Poster: carl christianson <einar@cvn.net>

At 06:25 PM 12/8/98 -0500, you wrote:
>On Tue, 8 Dec 1998, carl christianson wrote:
>> Elen Prydydd grabs her handy copy of William McNeill's _Plagues and
>> 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

Yeah, that was a poor word choice.  sigh

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

My reading of McNeill is that South Asia or possibly the lake district of
East Africa is the homeland of bubonic plague.  McNeill does say that the
carrier of the bacillus-infected fleas was the black rat, a native of South
Asia.  From my understanding of trade in the ancient world, there was
contact and slave trade on the Indian Ocean coast of Africa, but I am not
sure just how deeply into the interior this went.  The Arabs were, however,
very active in the entire Indian Ocean region centuries before the rise of
Islam, and may well have had contact with the Ganges river valley, which is
supposed to be a hotbed of disease.  McNeill states pretty clearly his
theory that bubonic plague did not enter the Mongolian regions until either
contemporaneous with or just after the 6th c. outbreak in the
Mediterranean.  Bubonic plague did occur in China as well as the West, and,
in both major outbreaks, very close in time to the western pandemics.  It's
from Mongolia, when the overland route to China is re-established in an
unbroken line to the eastern Mediterranean, that the 14th c. outbreak

The prof I had for population history was really keen on McNeill:  he
drilled it into us pretty unmercifully  ;->  He even told us about
Mongolian folkways that prevented the spread of the damn disease:  never
touch a dead rodent (unless of course you just shot it) -- it's probably
diseased and has disease-carrying fleas on it!  


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