[Source: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, full page: (LINK). Abstract, edited.]
The Justinianic Plague: An inconsequential pandemic?
Lee Mordechai, Merle Eisenberg, Timothy P. Newfield, Adam Izdebski, Janet E. Kay, and Hendrik Poinar
PNAS first published December 2, 2019 / DOI: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1903797116
Edited by Noel Lenski, Yale University, New Haven, CT, and accepted by Editorial Board Member Elsa M. Redmond October 7, 2019 (received for review March 4, 2019)
The Justinianic Plague (circa 541 to 750 CE) has recently featured prominently in scholarly and popular discussions. Current consensus accepts that it resulted in the deaths of between a quarter and half of the population of the Mediterranean, playing a key role in the fall of the Roman Empire. Our contribution argues that earlier estimates are founded on a small subset of textual evidence and are not supported by many other independent types of evidence (e.g., papyri, coins, inscriptions, and pollen archaeology). We therefore conclude that earlier analyses of the mortality and social effects of the plague are exaggerated, and that the nontextual evidence suggests plague did not play a significant role in the transformation of the Mediterranean world or Europe.
Existing mortality estimates assert that the Justinianic Plague (circa 541 to 750 CE) caused tens of millions of deaths throughout the Mediterranean world and Europe, helping to end antiquity and start the Middle Ages. In this article, we argue that this paradigm does not fit the evidence. We examine a series of independent quantitative and qualitative datasets that are directly or indirectly linked to demographic and economic trends during this two-century period: Written sources, legislation, coinage, papyri, inscriptions, pollen, ancient DNA, and mortuary archaeology. Individually or together, they fail to support the maximalist paradigm: None has a clear independent link to plague outbreaks and none supports maximalist reconstructions of late antique plague. Instead of large-scale, disruptive mortality, when contextualized and examined together, the datasets suggest continuity across the plague period. Although demographic, economic, and political changes continued between the 6th and 8th centuries, the evidence does not support the now commonplace claim that the Justinianic Plague was a primary causal factor of them.
Justinianic Plague – first plague pandemic – Late Antiquity – plague – Yersinia pestis
Keywords: European Region; Plague; History; Society.