The plague was raging in various regions

The Black Death found its way into agricultural activity: analyzes of pollen deposits from 19 countries show that the worst known plague wave hit different parts of Europe very differently: while the Grim Reaper did rage in some regions, others apparently suffered surprisingly little. The exact reasons for the differences remain unclear. However, scientists say cultural, ecological, economic and climatic factors likely played a role in regional development.

Today the Covid-19 pandemic is having a hard time. But in the history of mankind much worse infectious diseases raged, most of all plague. Various waves of propagation hit Europe, West Asia and North Africa. The so-called Black Death is considered the most serious plague pandemic: millions of people died between 1347 and 1352, resulting in many social ruptures in Europe. As a result, this epidemic made a particularly strong impression on the memory of mankind.

Research has already identified the bacterial pathogen Yersinia pestis as the cause of the plague and rat fleas, which also attack humans as important vectors. According to some estimates, the Black Death could kill almost half of Europe’s population. Sometimes a relatively even spread of the disease is assumed. However, there were already signs of marked regional differences. However, historical records and archaeological research provide an unclear picture of the actual demographic impact of the disease in different parts of Europe.

There are significant differences

In order to obtain new information on the plague mortality at this time, an international research team has now investigated the development of agricultural activity during this period. The researchers used late-medieval pollen sediment analyzes as evidence: they tested 1,634 samples from 261 research locations in 19 European countries. This enabled the team to determine which crops were grown in what quantities at a given time, and whether wild plants were able to re-establish themselves in abandoned fields. This allowed conclusions to be drawn about the extent to which agriculture was curtailed during the pandemic, and therefore how much the region was hit by the plague.

According to the researchers, the results show that the plague was raging differently in different parts of Europe than previously thought. Scandinavia, France, southwestern Germany, Greece and central Italy experienced a particularly sharp decline in agricultural activity. This is in line with medieval sources that report very high loss of population in these areas. But it is now clear that this seemed to contrast with other regions: parts of Western Europe, including Ireland and the Iberian Peninsula, and areas of Central and Eastern Europe showed signs of continuity and even uninterrupted growth in agriculture. Apparently there was no drastic loss of population there.

Complex development of the pandemic

“The study thus refutes notions about the Black Death, which assume that Yersinia pestis was almost evenly distributed across Europe and that the pandemic had devastating demographic effects everywhere,” the researchers write. According to them, in addition to insight into the spread of the plague, there are also hints for historians: “For regions such as the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, the results of the research confirm the assumption that their flourishing from 1350 does not have to be the least in the absence of the Black Death,” says co-author Martin Bauch from the Institute of History and Culture of Eastern Europe Leibniz (GWZO) in Leipzig.

It is surprisingly clear how regionally different the impact of the pandemic was at that time. But why? “This significant variation in mortality has not yet been fully elucidated. But local conditions likely had an impact on spread, infection rate, and mortality from the Yersinia pestis pathogen, ”says senior author Alessia Masi of the Institute of Human History. Max Planck in Jena and La Sapienza University in Rome. It appears that the medieval outbreaks of the plague were also characterized by dynamics in which cultural, ecological, economic and climatic factors played a special role.

Scientists hope that future research will be able to elucidate how these variables interacted in the development of past pandemics – and therefore perhaps also how they shape current events. The first author, Adam Izdebski from the Institute of Human History Max Planck also refers to Covid-19: “What we experienced during the corona pandemic, we also managed to show in the case of plague outbreaks at that time: Pandemics are complex phenomena that always have different regional and local characteristics,” concludes the scientist.

Source: Leibniz Institute for the History and Culture of Eastern Europe (GWZO), Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Article: Nature Ecology & Evolution, doi: 10.1038 / s41559-021-01652-4

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