Black Death Plague Was True Horror – but Not Everywhere, Says New Study

Texts written by terrified scribes in plague-wracked cities don’t attest to the state of rural communities, but the crops they were growing (or not growing) certainly do

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
"The Plague," 1898, by Arnold Böcklin.
"The Plague," 1898, by Arnold Böcklin.Credit: Gottfried Keller-Stiftung / Kunstmuseum Basel
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

“No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal” – Edgar Allan Poe, “The Masque of the Red Death”

The plague that swept through Europe, western Asia, including Israel and the rest of the Levant, and North Africa for five years starting in 1347 is estimated to have killed a third to half of Europe’s population. The pandemic was not referred to as the Black Plague as it unfolded (that only happened in the 18th century), and the context was less the buboes-ridden complexion of the ill and more the devastating effect of the disease.

The trauma it left behind is evident in the collective memory, reflected in works written centuries after the event by Edgar Allan Poe and others, who paint a scene of helplessness and absolute terror.

That disease was plague, and the consensus that it was terrifying was and remains roughly the end of any agreement about what happened in the 14th century when the illness reared its head. It hadn’t even been the consensus that the “black plague” was even that – the plague – until recently. At least that question has been laid to rest with the help of DNA research on bodies hailing from the time, which detected Yersinia pestis bacteria in the bodies – the cause of plague.

It has, however, still been widely assumed that the plague struck throughout Europe more or less uniformly. It did not, claims a groundbreaking paper published Wednesday in Nature Ecology and Evolution by a vast team from a host of scholastic institutions, led by the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.

The big data paleo-ecology approach to verifying Black Death mortality levels, 2022.Credit: Adam Izdebski / Timothy Newfield

Some areas were devastated; some were barely affected, if at all, claims the study, which uses a proxy for the visitation of disease: agricultural produce.

The conclusion of diversity in 14th-century plague impact is based on pollen data from 261 sites in 19 European countries, using big-data paleo-ecology techniques to analyze 1,634 pollen samples. The pollen indicates which plants were grown at the time, in what quantities, covering agricultural activity between 1250 and 1450 – roughly 100 years before the plague’s onset, to a century after it.

In short, if the community including the farmers and their “army” of rural workers is devastated, one would expect to see a lot less crops and more weeds – i.e., wild plants that reconquer the farmland when human presence diminishes for whatever reason.

“The living were scarcely sufficient to bury the dead” – quoted in various places, including in a chronicle compiled at St. Mary’s Abbey, York

Terrified masses cast about for causes of the plague where it struck hard. But the agricultural proxy now shows this was far from uniform.

One of best-preserved Baltic raised bogs in northern Poland. Credit: Mariusz Lamentowicz

Even in this age of science, the regional variations in the impact of coronavirus remain unexplained – and that’s today. We have little idea what happened in the 14th century, when the cause of plague remained unknown: some blamed miasma in the air or even the Jews, leading to massive pogroms. However, as some have pointed out, massacres of Jews didn’t need the trigger of pandemic. It didn’t help that even the pope himself, Clement VI, stated clearly in not one but two papal bulls that the plague was not the fault of the Jews – how could it be, if they were afflicted just as much as everyone else? That papal logic fell on deaf ears.

In any case, the plague’s impact turns out not to have been uniform, as had been assumed. “There is no single model of ‘the pandemic’ or a ‘plague outbreak’ that can be applied to any place at any time regardless of the context,” says Adam Izdebski, lead author and leader of the paleo-science and history group at Max Planck. “Pandemics are complex phenomena that have regional, local histories. We have seen this with COVID-19, now we have now shown it for the Black Death.”

In fact, several studies done before now had bucked the consensus assumption and suggested the plague had an uneven impact in Europe. But the new study is the first to be done on a pan-European scale, explains Hebrew University paleo-pandemics expert Lee Mordechai, who was not involved in this study.

“The idea up to now has been that mortality was more or less even, and they show using pollen as a proxy that it wasn’t,” Mordechai explains. “It isn’t perfect because it doesn’t show mortality per se.” But until now, studies of Black Death mortality have been based on spotty, sketchy and mainly local exploration of graves and texts. Now this uniquely broad study looks at another angle of what did and didn’t happen, he explains. “They’re filling in a lot of holes in the map.”

Stążki river valley - the complex of rich fens having an origin in the medieval period.Credit: Mariusz Lamentowicz / Picasa

Signs of life

Why might plague have had widely varying impact in different regions, towns and neighborhoods? Weren’t the conditions encouraging the proliferation of Yersinia bacteria more or less everywhere in hygiene-unaware Medieval Europe?

Among the erroneous assumptions is that if you find Yersinia in a body, that indicates plague ran riot in the town and caused societal devastation. But it need not be so. This is partly because we have morbid imaginations, Mordechai and his colleague Merle Eisenberg have noted before. They have long been arguing that the “Justinianic plague” from the year 541 to 750 was not particularly intense, nor was it of course the “first plague” as it has come to be known – Yersinia has been around for millennia, if not more.

Another possible fallacy prevailing even today is the role of our friend the rat in disseminating plague: the discovery of rats and Yersinia in a given cemetery doesn’t mean the first gave the second to the long-dead humans, and none of this necessarily means the society of the town was reduced to a howling mob of terrified murderers.

Regional scenarios of Black Death demographic impact. Colors reflect centennial-scale changes in the cereal pollen indicators. Background map with political borders of 14th-century Europe.Credit: Hans Sell / Michelle OReilly

So if we mute our morbid minds for a moment and give the rat a break, and instead look at the latest evidence based on agriculture of food versus weed outbreaks, we find – the team found – that Scandinavia, France, southwestern Germany, Greece and central Italy seem to have suffered mightily from the Black Death, as the spotty medieval accounts indicate.

However, much of Central and Eastern Europe, and parts of Western Europe including Ireland and Iberia, and some other areas show evidence for continuity or uninterrupted growth, the team writes.

“The significant variability in mortality that our BDP approach identifies remains to be explained, but local cultural, demographic, economic, environmental and societal contexts would have influenced Y. pestis prevalence, morbidity and mortality,” says Alessia Masi from Max Planck and Sapienza University of Rome.

Linje mire - one of the oldest-known, continuously growing areas of peatland.Credit: Mariusz Lamentowicz

Blaming Saturn

This is, as Mordechai explains, the first study to address the regional scale of all Europe using a proxy not affected by the state of panic in a 14th-century scribe. Most historic records of plague are from cities where the disease was raging. Just as one doesn’t find news stories “John had a happy day,” one doesn’t find records describing market day in some remote rural spot where the sun shone and everything was normal.

Also, the conditions in the cities did lend themselves to infection, especially as the people – and their version of mendicants – had absolutely no idea what caused this horror. Crowding and filth didn’t seem to be on their list of potential causes.

As usual when destruction strikes, many assumed it was the wrath of the deity because of their sinfulness – a reasonable if erroneous assumption given how so many people behave, but not biologically sound. A fringe theory touted in 1348 blamed the position of the planets Mars, Jupiter and Saturn: they may not have been observed, but their existence was sort of known well before Galileo and his telescope.

"The Plague at Ashdod," by Nicolas Poussin. And nary a face mask in sight.Credit: Louvre Museum

Yersinia pestis as the cause of plague was only discovered in the year 1894. It was named Pasteurella pestis and only later named for its actual discoverer, an early bacteriologist called Alexandre Yersin. The variant that caused the 14th-century plague is believed to be ancestral to all subsequent outbreaks of plague around the world. For this, humans can blame themselves and their wanderlust, not the rat or any other rodent.

So much like the coronavirus is proving to be, and the flu has any number of times, it turns out that the plague behind the Black Death was a dynamic disease. Cultural, ecological, economic and climatic factors mediated its dissemination and impact, the authors say. Some places were devastated, some untouched, but where it did arrive, it engendered horror. And since none knew whence it came, none could be safe.

“And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night,” Poe ends his story. “And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.” Or not.

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