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Re: Medieval diseases (long)

Poster: Lorenzo <detoma@erols.com>


I just recently finished reading ""The Black Death: Natural and Human Distasters
in Medieval Europe" by Robert S. Gottfried, Free Press, 1983.
In it Gottfried makes the very definitive statement that it was Y. Pestis that
appeared in 541. Gottfried says that there are several permanent "foci" of plague,
which include central Asia, Siberia, the Yunan peninsula of China, parts of Iran
and Libya, the Arabian Peninsula and East Africa.

To quote from a (long) passage:
"Medieval Europe was struck by two plague pandemics. It is likely that the first
came down the Nile from East Africa to lower Egypt, and thence into the relatively
populous Mediterrenean Basin. The first epidemic of this pandemic has been called
"Justinian's Plague"... In a sixth century context, Justinian's Plague was very
nearly "worldwide", striking central and South Asia, North Africa and Arabia, and
Europe as far north as Denmark and as far west as Ireland, where mortality proved
especially severe. Only eastern Asia seemed to have escaped. In Constantinople...
the plague was at its most virulent from autumn 541 until spring 542. During a
four month span it allegedly killed 200,000 of the city's people, perhaps 40% of
the total population. It had a devastating effect in Italy, southern France, the
Rhine Valley, and Iberia, where it lingered until until autumn 544. When
Justinian's Plague had finally spent itself, between a fifth and a quarter of
Europe's population south of the Alps had perished. In political terms, it dealt a
crippling blow to Byzantine plans to conquer the western Mediterranean, and
perhaps so weakened Byzantium as to set it up for defeat by the Arabs a few
generations later. From the perspective of the history of infectious diseases, it
marked the arrival in Europe of a third pandemic disease (after smallpox and
measles) in a 400 year period, and the last one to come to the West from the lands
abutting the Indian Ocean for almost a millenium.

Justinian's Plague established a temporary focus of Y. Pestis among European fleas
and rodents, ensuring that subsequent epidemics of the pandemics would recur in
10-to-24-year cycles for the next 200 years. Plague returned from 558 to 561,
again beginning in Egypt, spreading throughout the eastern Mediterrenean Basin to
Constantinople, and then traveling west through the Italian ports of Ravenna and
Genoa into southern France. It came again from 580 ro 582, and from 588 to 591,
the latter spreading from Spain to southern France and Italy, the reverse of the
usual pattern of dissemination. There is some evidence that these third, fourth
and fifth plague epidemics were exacerbated by accompanying sieges of smallpox.
The sixth plague epidemic occurred from 599 through 600. In Italy and southern
France, it was the most lethal epidemic after Justinian's Plague, killing perhaps
15% of the population.

After 599-600, successive epidemics of the first plague pandemic were less
virulent, but about as frequent. Large parts of Mediterrenean Europe were
afflicted in 608, 618, 628, 640, 654, 684-686, 694-700, and 740-750. More
localized plague epidemics struck Sicily and Calabria in 746, and Naples and
southern Italy in 762. In both instances the epidemic remained restricted,
suggesting that they were introduced by foreign ships and that Y. pestis was no
longer enzootic among the indigenous rodent population - the latter perhaps the
result of a mutation in the bacillus or a change in rodent and insect ecology. By
the late eigth century, the first plague pandemic had come to its end in Europe"
(pages 10-12)

Sorry to take so much bandwidth, but this was fascinating to me when I first read
it, because like others I thought the first appearance of the plague in Europe was
in the 14th century, and knew little about Justinian's plague.

I highly recommend this book. Aside from providing a tremendous amount of data,
broken down by regions, for the 14th Century Black Death, it also gives really
good perspectives and insights into the effects of the plague, and how it
transformed the medieval world and set the stage for the Renaissance. The book is
$16.95 at Borders.


- Lorenzo

carl christianson wrote:

> 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
> 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_
> 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
> >Mexico.
> 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
> originates.
> 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!
> Elen
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