Pandemics were a major aspect of life in the Middle Ages. They left in their train regions and cities sometimes robbed of half of more of all their people. We might also call these plagues invasions, analogous to those by Turkic hordes, the subject of the last post in this series. Most plagues also appeared travelling from East to West from as far away as China following the Silk Road. I use the plural in my title because two major pandemics marked the Middle Ages—541-750 and 1346-1353—but these were trailed by others. The plural is also appropriate in that the cause of these mass die-offs was a bacterium called Yerisinia pestis which, like the barbarians themselves, was (and still is) divided into different tribes. We have the tribes Bubonic, Septicemic, Pneumonic, Pharyngeal, Meningial, and the miscellaneous “Other,” the smaller tribes. The majors are associated with (1) lymph glands (and bulbous swellings), (2) circulation problems, (3) lung failure, (4) a kind of tonsillitis, and (5) meningitis (brain and spinal column). The “Other” category affects the skin and people may recover; they may also recover from the pharyngeal version of the plague.
The premature deaths caused in the Middle Ages by Y. pestis far outnumber the deaths caused by either Germanic, Turkic, or Ugric invaders, but such is the nature of history, focused as it tends to be on political and military power, that we learn about the Other Invaders in more or less footnote fashion: they “contributed” to trouble rather than, as in actuality, being the most potent problems society had had to face and on a scale no barbarian war band could even dream of imposing. With that in mind, let me here present a picture of the Plagues—and what they meant in the context of the rise of Western Culture.
My first and summary graphic provides a broad view. It simply shows the medieval centuries in which either pandemics or major outbreaks devastated the European and Near-Eastern lands. We see here that in the eleven centuries of the medieval period, five centuries were marked by plagues—at the beginning and at the end. The white space in the center first inaugurates and then unveils the High Middle Ages, the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries. Next I present a timeline:
The shaded area is that of the Middle Ages (476-1453). I start this list in BC times because plagues were not a unique medieval phenomenon, of course. They devastated regions all over the world. I include the Plague of Athens which may well have been a pandemic; Pericles died of that plague. It coincided with the Peloponnesian war and we hear something about it from Thucydides. That plague (traditionally thought to have been bubonic) killed a third of the people of Athens and then spread from Athens to the entire Mediterranean region. The Antonine Plague, associated with Emperor Antoninus Pius and the Plague of Cyprian, named after St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, who wrote about it, are assigned to smallpox, but the cause is not unambiguously known. In Cyprian’s time Claudius II ruled Rome —and also had the easier job of dealing with the Alamanni and the Goths; he, however, succumbed to the plague; it took his life in 270. At the plague’s peak, 250-266, it was said to be taking 5,000 people a day in Rome (Wikipedia). Such numbers, however, are at best cloudy. If the peak was 17 years in duration, that rate would yield a total population loss of 31 million in a city alone that had an estimated population of 1 million in 200 AD. Such, however, is the historical reporting—there is little under it beyond scattered statements of contemporary witnesses.
The Plague of Justinian is reported narrowly(541-542), meaning its effect on Constantinople alone, as well as widely (541-750), as a pandemic that extended over most of the Mediterranean basin. Here again we meet that same number: 5,000 dying daily in Constantinople; the City then had roughly a population of roughly 450,000. Another and more reasonable estimate is that the city lost 40 percent of its population or 90,000. Spreading from Constantinople, the disease is said to have reduced the population of the imperial realm by 25 percent overall. The map shows its extent:
Please note, on this map, that the coloration does not indicate the intensity of the pandemic by depth of color. The colors mark chronological spread.
A note on the eventual conquest of Y. pestis. It took until 1897 to test an effective plague vaccine. It was tried and found to be effective by Waldemar Haffekin, a Russian bacteriologist who, working in India, discovered the method. Haffekin, whose name does not sound Russian, came from a Russian Jewish family. Streptomycin, the first of several antibiotics that came to be used later, dates to 1943.
The consequences of the plagues can only be summed up by making some gestures. I’ll focus on the Black Death, the better-documented of the two great pandemics. Depopulation was a significant issue—but, paradoxically, it helped in a way by reducing the number who had to be fed. During the reign of Yerisinia, the Little Ice Age was marching forward in time and would reach its peak about a century later. The Great Famine (1315-1317), due to extremely rainy weather, short summers, and exhaustion of arable land with the technology of the time had come before the plague. Depopulation weakened the feudal system in that labor shortages appeared and paid labor, versus owned labor, became more common. Serf labor was tied to the soil—so long as the serf wanted to work it. When serfs died, they could not be replaced, as in Roman times, by buying new ones. You had to pay someone. The religious consciousness of Europe was decisively weakened. Why did God permit this massive and clearly random dying—not least of its clergy? The Church lost standing. A sense of cynicism, largely absent before, rose to pave the ways toward the Renaissance. In yet other segments of the population the plague intensified the religious feeling and drove it to extremes, witness the heretical Flaggelant movement which combined extreme religious forms with hostility to Church authority; the movement predated the Black Death but culminated at its peak. Jewish persecutions flared up as the mob-mind sought someone to blame. And so on to the Renaissance and beyond, both to its cure and modernity. The Black Death was a game changer.
Another observation that doing this brief research suggested to Brigitte, and I concurr, is how the human mind, by and large, always has its attention focused on the survivors, and even more narrowly, on what humans can control. The Hitlers of the world are long remembered, the Dr. Haffekins of the world are rapidly forgotten. Some of the greatest and most influential events, those caused by Mother Nature, are rapidly forgotten again. As soon as it is over, the last disaster, mass shooting, or whatever, we’re back to guessing who’ll run for president two or three years from now.
Y. pestis is almost gone today—although still some 200 people die of it annualy, here and there. But is the “invisible Goth,” in a larger sense, still at the door of modern humanity? Waiting? I have looked back and noted—sparing the details, not least medieval art showing the infected—what it could do. Now a look forward. A good while back now, probably in the year of its publication, 1994, Brigitte bought a copy of The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance. It is a massive book by Laurie Garrett, a Pulitzer Prize Winner for Explanatory Journalism. That quite excellent work provides a rather dark projection of the future—certainly as dark as the picture I’ve presented looking back. And just this morning, knowing what I’m working on, Brigitte handed me a brief article in today’s New York Times titled, “Zombies in the Garden, Killing Themselves Slowly.” Should such a protein manage major inroads, we may be facing the Great Famine again. The story reports on a protein that takes over crop plants and causes them to do its will. It rides on tiny insects, leaf hoppers, and causes what one biologist in the story, Saskia A. Hogenhout, calls “a living death for the plant.” Should such a protein manage major inroads, we may be facing the Great Famine again. The Goth is still there. Vigilance is still advised. If we’re not careful, the Middle Ages may dawn once again and, in the future, some other scribe will have to rise to the challenge of sorting its chaos…
Plague of Justinian: University of California, Irvine (link)
Image of flea carrying Y. pestis: Wikipedia (link)
Black Death map: Wikipedia (link)
Middle Ages Posts: