683 The beginning of the children’s plague in the month of October (AT, AU, AI), which lasted for three years in Ireland. (FAI); A plague was in Ireland (AC)
684: The plague of youths, in which all the chieftains and nearly all the young Irish noblemen perished. (FAI); The mortality of little ones (AT) / children (AU). Loch nEchach was turned into blood this year. (AU)
When I first found the annal entries above, I was intrigued. These brief annal entries rarely give clues to the type of disease, and almost never refer to children at all. Before we dig into these entries a little deeper, lets look at why some diseases at times occur primarily in children.
What makes a ‘childhood disease’? This simplest answer is that it is disease that the adults are immune to due to previous exposure. There is nothing special about these organisms that targets them to children or makes children uniquely vulnerable to them. The one thing they have in common is that these organisms are so abundant in the environment that few children get through childhood without being exposed.
Which pathogens cause ‘childhood diseases’ change over time depending on the available organisms and the immunity of the collective community (herd immunity). When I was a child, chickenpox was the most common childhood disease that most of my classmates all contracted. When my parents were children, measles and mumps were the common dangers of childhood. For my grandparents generation the most feared childhood disease may have been polio, whooping-cough and diphtheria/croup.
The nature of childhood diseases has changed rapidly over the 20th century solely because vaccines have immunized children before exposure. Today it’s not uncommon for my college students to have never seen a case of chickenpox. Nevertheless, the organisms are still very present in our environment as the climbing rate of measles in the last few years illustrates.
When looking at medieval populations, the same factors come to play but in different expressions. Not all pathogens that we are familiar with today existed in the seventh century. For example, measles is predicted to have evolved around the twelfth century. Other diseases did not yet have a global (or Old World) spread. Conversely diseases like the plague that are infrequent today were much more common in the early medieval period. Vaccines obviously did not exist to provide safe immunity. Previous epidemics were the only way for a community to develop herd immunity.
Returning to the seventh century, the context of these entries can suggest the nature of this ‘mortality of children.’ Three years earlier in 680 the Annals of Ulster records a “most severe leprosy in Ireland called bolgach (smallpox)”. If smallpox had been a major epidemic just a couple of years before there wouldn’t be the kind of differential in immunity between adults and children needed for a children’s epidemic, so we can rule out smallpox. There are records of other adult deaths due to ‘pestilence’ around this time in Britain and in 685 the deaths of two elites by disease are recorded in the Annals of Ulster. Bede also writes about plague in Northumbria before and after 685 in the Life of Cuthbert. The British sources, including Bede’s Life of Cuthbert, indicate widespread disease and depopulation that doesn’t single out children as the victims. With that being said, the one detailed example Bede gives of the plague of c. 685 is of Bishop Cuthbert comforting a mother who had already lost one young son to the plague and was holding another dying son whom Cuthbert blessed and survived. William MacArthur (1949) also concluded that these entries refer to a wave of bubonic plague based on their context. He also compared these entries to similar records of child deaths in the second wave of plague that followed the Black Death in England, 1361.
The later Fragmentary Annals of Ireland suggests that the mortality of children doesn’t necessarily refer only to actual children. The epidemic when “all the chieftains and nearly all the young Irish noblemen perished” suggests a succession crisis more than indicating the age of the victims. The Irish practiced a form of succession where a couple of generations of descendents of a previous king were eligible to succeed. It was not uncommon for cousins to succeed each other and sons were not necessarily favored to succeed. This method would normally weather epidemics, famines, or constant petty warfare well because there were so many eligible successors. If this is the bubonic plague as the context suggests then this would be the second major wave of plague within twenty years, and therefore, two successive generations were severely depopulated causing rare succession crises.
This does tell us something about the severity of both the plague of 664 and 683 in Ireland. Enough adults in the 680s must have been survivors of a bubonic plague infection in the 660s to be immune. This would tilt the incidence of the disease toward youth up to 20 years old. A loss of teenagers would have depleted any major kingdom of a majority of its young nobles and a considerable proportion of its young warriors. Then as traditionally now, most warriors would have been 15-25 years old. It is quite possible that there may not have been many young nobles in their early twenties because they would have been vulnerable infants during the plague of the 660s.
There isn’t much evidence of plague-related succession crises in Britain. Although, it is possible that we just don’t have reference to the deaths of secondary heirs or really any children. Northumbria’s succession crisis upon Ecgfrith’s death in 685 is usually considered to be more political secondary to his potential infertility and the early death of his younger brother. Yet there does appear to be a lack of other eligible Æthelfrithings which could be due to the plagues. We are usually all too ready to accept that other Æthelfrithings died in battle or due to political intrigue. Even if Ecgfrith had a son, it unlikely he would have been old enough to successfully succeed in 685. The Annals Cambriae also credits the death of King Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon of Gwynedd to this plague. Succession of the major British kingdoms in Wales seem fairly unstable at this time as well, but we don’t have enough information about them to understand why. So, while there isn’t evidence of plague-related royal instability it is a possibility.
One further thing to explore in these entries is the claim that the water in Ireland and Britain turned red that year. In entry 684 above “Loch nEchach was turned into blood this year (AU).” Loch nEchach is the largest freshwater lake in Ireland, sometimes called the ‘eye of Ireland’. Likewise in Britain there are claims that “rain turned to blood in Britain, and ‡in Ireland‡ milk and butter turned to blood (AC, 689)”. In 685 there are also widespread records of an earthquake, probably in the Irish sea. Given the way these early annals are constructed and differences between them, it is unclear that these environmental events were securely after the beginning of the plague or what they mean by water turning to blood over such a large area. None of this suggests that the epidemic was anything other than the plague. Environmental disruption could also trigger a plague outbreak from rodent hosts within the islands.
Colgrave,Bertram. (1940, 2007 repr.) Two Lives of Saint Cuthbert. Cambridge University Press.
MacArthur, William P. (1949) The identification of some pestilences recorded in the Irish annals. Irish Historical Studies, 6 (23), 169-188.