Justinian’s Plague Is Not Your Plague

Now in the case of all other scourges sent from Heaven some explanation of a cause might be given by daring men, such as the many theories propounded by those who are clever in these matters; for they love to conjure up causes which are absolutely incomprehensible to man, and to fabricate outlandish theories of natural philosophy, knowing well that they are saying nothing sound, but considering it sufficient for them …

So grouched Procopius, as quoted in Robert Gottfried’s The Black Death: Natural and Human Disaster in Medieval Europe. He was a Byzantine court historian who claimed, at its height, what we know as Justinian’s Plague killed 10,000 people a day in Constantinople.

However, those who are clever in these matters really have managed to establish several things.

Three great pandemics swept through humanity starting around 541 AD and then 1344 and then in the 1860s. The First Pandemic may have put a stop to the Byzantine Empire bringing the Western Roman Empire back into the fold.  The Second Pandemic (aka the Black Death, the Black Plague, the Great Mortality) probably hastened the end of the feudal system in medieval Europe. The Third Pandemic actually swept the world and introduced reservoirs of plague in America.

I’m a Black Death man myself, but virtually every book I’ve read on the Black Death mentions Justinian’s plague, so I was very interested to see that, while we know that the bacteria yersina pestis caused all three pandemics, the First Pandemic seems to have been caused by a mutant strain, a “a novel branch on the Y pestis phylogeny” in the words of the researchers, that accounted for the First Pandemic’s unusually high mortality. That strain is unknown today as a disease agent or, at least, “unsampled” in the wild. Our plague is from the strain that caused the Second and Third Pandemics.

Melissa Snell at About.com’s Medieval history has the details including the researchers’ Lancet article and links to various news stories.

Of course, controversies remain. Like any scientific study, it’s not really the first test that counts. It’s the second and later confirming observations that will really matter — providing researchers can find some more good 6th century teeth to drill into to get the DNA they need.

DNA sampling seems to have swung the argument toward the y. pestis side as the disease agent that caused what we call the Black Death. For a while, people put forth other candidates — anthrax and hemorrhagic fever, but that seems to have died down. John Kelly’s The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time concludes with a refutation of those positions. Of course, it is possible the biological and social havoc the medieval plague caused could have led to higher mortality from other infectious diseases during a plague epidemic.

I have read a fair number of books on the Black Death but by no means everything in English even from an historical perspective to say nothing of works centering on the plague from ecological and microbiological perspectives.

Besides Gottfried and Kelly, I’d recommend, for an account of England in the time of the Black Death, Philip Ziegler’s The Black Death. And, of course, there is the still the seminal work on the effect of infectious diseases on history: Plagues and Peoples by William H. McNeill.

As far as fiction goes, there are a fair number of stories involving the plague in the past and present. Of those, I would recommend three. Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book has a time traveler trapped in the England of the Second Pandemic. Medical doctor Alan E. Nourse gives us a modern plague epidemic in The Fourth Horseman. For something a bit different, there is Karen Joy Fowler’s short story “The Dark” which mixes the tunnel war of Vietnam with the plague. (Vietnam really did have outbreaks of the plague during the Vietnam War.) It can be found at many locations.

Finally, for a lurid story set in the plague, there is Paul Finch’s King Death which I reviewed for Innsmouth Free Press.

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