The Plague of Justinian is Finally Plague!

A group of German biological anthropologists gave me a good 6th anniversary present for Heavenfield. There is now good confirmation that the Plague of Justinian was the Plague! I know that sounds a little anti-climatic but some have fought the diagnosis against the odds for years now. We still need more data from well dated cemeteries but some things are clear.

Plague was diagnosed in Bavaria beyond the Roman world where plague had never been documented. Two sites from Gaul have also produced plague protein  results and well documented symptoms from Gaul and the Mediterranean suggests that it was wide-spread in the Late Antique world. I’ve written about the details of this newest discovery on Contagions.

The cemetery is well dated archaeologically to the 6th century and radiocarbon dates support that date. There were no disordered mass graves. So the graves all looked reasonably normal except there were a greater than normal number of multiple graves, but still well-ordered 2-5 person graves. I would take these graves to be household size. From what little I know of sixth century Bavaria this fits a diffuse settlement patterns without large urban areas. So far no historian of Germanic territories has written about this discovery to help put it in better context. A full write-up of this cemetery should be illuminating. The first paper on this cemetery reported that the grave contained some high status and trade goods.

Now that plague genetics seems to be getting sorted out, hopefully I’ll be able to spend more time  on the first pandemic and related topics here on Heavenfield.

St Michael, the Plague, and Castel Sant’ Angelo

Archangel Michael currently on top of Castel Sant’ Angelo made in 1753 (Public domain)

Gregory the Great’s vision of St Michael is one of the best known and most charming legends of the first plague pandemic. Gregory was elected Pope after the death of his predecessor from the plague in the 590s. In an effort to plead with God for an end of the plague, the new Pope Gregory led a procession, an early version of the Great Litany, around the streets of Rome. As they approached Hadrian’s Tomb, Gregory had a vision of Michael the Archangel atop the tomb overlooking the city, sheathing his sword, a sign that Gregory’s procession had been pleasing to God and that the plague would end. The statue to the right, an 18th century replacement of an earlier statue, commemorates the legend and evokes the archangels protection of Rome. It has become so iconic that it is on the cover of the only academic collected study on the first pandemic, Plague and the End of Antiquity.

As Louis Schwartz explained in his presentation at Kalamazoo last week, there are a number of problems with this story. Although Gregory the Great was a prolific writer and many of his works survive, he never mentions or even alludes to this vision. None of the early hagiographic works on Gregory mention it. Very strange considering how interested the English were in Gregory as their apostle. They came to Rome looking for more information in part on Gregory in the seventh century, and were still in the midst of plague epidemics when his story was forming in England. The earliest life of Gregory the Great was written in early eighth century England. The earliest written version of the vision that Schwartz could find was from the 13th century! The legend can only be documented about a century before the Black Death that must have fixed the legend in the landscape of Rome, along with supporting processions as mitigation against the plague.

For the shrine of St Michael in the upper chamber/roof of Hadrian’s Tomb, the earliest reference Schwartz could find was in Ado of Vienne’s Martyrology (c. 855) in the entry for St Michael.

“…But not much later, in Rome, the venerable pope Boniface dedicated to Holy Michael a church built atop a circular monument, a crypt of marvelous craft and great height. The church is housed within the very summit of this building, thus it is said to reside among the clouds.”

Castel Sant’Angelo guarding over the crossing over the River Tiber via the Pons Aelius (Credit: huwiki, wikipedia creative commons)

Schwartz notes that Ado was known for embellishing numerous saints lives and daily readings with innovative stories and is an unreliable historian. He believes that Ado was influenced by the Liber Pontificalis’ entry for pope Boniface IV (608-615) who built the church to St Mary in the structurally similar Pantheon. Bede describes this church after narrating Bishop Mellitus’ visit to Rome to confer with the pope on the English mission.

“St Boniface was the fourth bishop of Rome after St Gregory. He obtained from the Church of Christ from the Emperor Phocas the gift of the temple at Rome anciently known as the Pantheon because it represented all the gods. After he expelled every abomination from it, he made a church of it dedicated to the holy Mother of God and all the martyrs of Christ, so that when the multitudes of devils had been driven out, it might serve as a shrine for a multitude of saints.” (Bede, HE II:4)

For Schwartz the unreliable Ado of Vienne’s relatively late first reference to the shrine indicates that the shrine was old enough for its origin to have been forgotten. Instead of the time of Boniface IV in the early seventh century, Schwartz favors a later period in the early eighth century when the Lombards ruled over Rome. Michael the Archangel was the national patron saint and protector of the Lombards from the seventh century when a vision of Michael with his flaming sword was credited with the Lombards defensive victory in 663 at Monte Gargano under the warrior Lombard King Grimoald I.

Minted by King Cunincpert of the Lombards (688-700) featuring St Michael.

Schwartz noted that Grimoald’s successors minted coins with St Michael on one side and that between the 9th to 11th century, over 250 place names linked with St Michael have been found in Lombard territory.

Schwartz argued that the shrine of St Michael was built-in such a visible and strategic location during the few short years in the mid eighth century when the Lombards had hegemony over Rome. They immediately succeeded the final loss of Italian territory by the Byzantine Empire. The strategic location of Castel Sant’ Angelo guarding the only bridge over the River Tiber leading to St Peter’s Basilica symbolizing the Lombard’s role in ‘protecting’ Rome. Even after the Lombard’s lost hegemony over Rome, Lombards continued to hold an important place within the  administration of Rome. They had a Schola Langobardum within the Leonine walls built to protect St Peter’s Basilica and surrounding buildings in c. 850.

Unfortunately, for one of the best known legends of the first plague pandemic, there just isn’t any evidence to support it. It now seems likely that the shrine at Castel Sant’Angelo predated the legend of Gregory’s vision perhaps by several centuries.


Louis Schwartz (May 12, 2012) “What Rome Owes to the Lombards: Devotion to Saint Michael in Early Medieval Italy and the Riddle of Castel Saint’Angelo” Session 429, International Congress for Medieval Studies, May 10-13, 2012, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, MI.

Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 731 AD. Judith McClure and Roger Collins, Eds. Oxford U. Press.

The Death of King Diarmait

I’ve been browsing through the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland for you know what, plague, and I came across an interesting entry.

665 Kl. The death by plague of the son of Áed Sláine, i.e. Blathmac [...], i.e. in Calatruim. Diarmait died in the same place, standing, stretched against a cross, watching the Laigin army approaching to kill him. His soul departed from him. It is found in some books that these two kings, Blathmac and Diarmait, reigned twelve years. In others, however, … years, which we follow. These two kings of Ireland, then, Blathmac and Diarmait, died in that plague, i.e. the Buide Conaill. (FA 28)

The Annals of Ulster has a king Diarmait son of Aed Slaine and a king Blathmac who died of plague. There is nothing about being “stretched against a cross, watching the Laigin army approaching to kill him.” I don’t think that I’ve seen anything quite like this before. This would seem to have a Leinster (Laigin) connection, like some of the other hints in plague lore like the name Buide Conaill itself (Conaill being the dynastic founder of the Leinster). Has anyone seen anything like this before?

The Plague Ship of Marseilles, 588 AD

Plague has always traveled long distances by ship. A ship creates the perfect environment for containing, incubating and magnifying the contagion. Even so, we don’t have very many descriptions of plague ships. Gregory of Tours may provide perhaps one of the earliest description in his History of the Franks (IX:20-21).

“At this time (588 AD) it was reported that Marseilles was suffering from a severe epidemic of swelling in the groin and that this disease quickly spread to Saint-Symphorien-d’Ozon, a village near Lyon. … I want to tell you exactly how this came about. … a ship from Spain put into port with the usual kind of cargo, unfortunately also bringing with it the source of the infection. Quite a few of the townsfolk purchased objects from the cargo and in less than no time a house in which eight people lived was left completely deserted, all of the inhabitants having caught the disease. The infection did not spread through the residential quarter immediately. Some time passed and then, like a cornfield set alight, the entire town was suddenly ablaze with pestilence. … At the end of two months the plague burned itself out. The population returned to Marseilles, thinking themselves safe. The disease started again and all who had come back died. On several occasions later on Marseilles suffered from an epidemic of this sort.”

Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, IX: 20-21. Lewis Thorpe, trans. Penguin. p. 509-511

Bubonic plague, identified by the severe epidemic with a swelling in the groin. Gregory often refers to it as inguinal pestilence. This passage is a classic description of what we should see for bubonic plague. Gregory specifies that the initial victims handled cargo from the ship; no mention of ill crew or passengers.

Mind the gaps. There was a passage of time between the first eight victims and the explosion of pestilence throughout Marseilles. This would be when the rat epizootic was occurring. It explodes throughout the city when the rats are dead and the fleas move on to humans. Contagion transmitted by cargo is the movement of fleas only. I doubt many rats left plague ships. When the Marseilles rats come to feed on the cargo, they contract the infection from fleas in the grain, other foodstuffs or textiles.

Many of the people of Marseilles must have fled, as they often do before the plague, to return when word got out two months later that the sickness was gone. The second wave of pestilence was triggered by contagion left in the town by persistent fleas, possibly still in foodstuffs. If the returning people brought new rats into the town with them by bringing in fresh supplies, that could also restart the epidemic. The more intense the initial epidemic was, the more bacteria would be scattered in the environment to infect the returning people.

Gregory of Tours died in 594, so the several epidemics in Marseilles that he refers to must have happened between 588 and 594. Marseilles was one of the busiest Frankish ports because it was one of their only ports on the Mediterranean sea. It is likely that over at least the next century, many plague ships visited the port of Marseilles.

Cattle Plagues in the Annals of Ulster, 699-708

From the archives a couple years ago:

I’ve been looking at the Irish annals for references to plagues and I came across a couple of references to cattle plagues. Now these plagues are probably not the same disease causing human deaths in the annals. There is a species barrier for most diseases, but not all. Yersinia pestis is one that can cross the species barrier but I don’t think cattle are frequent plague victims in large numbers. Further, if humans were also victims they would be mentioned more prominently in the entries.

More importantly, cattle plagues cause human famines and protein malnutrition that can last for a decade or more. A massive loss of cattle can’t be replaced in a year or two. You can’t just order up replacement cattle. I was at a talk last year at Kalamazoo where they showed that the cattle plague that preceded the beginning of the Black Death took nearly 20 years for cattle stocks to recover. This caused a full generation of protein malnutrition. I would also add that milk would have also supplied a considerable amount of fat in the diet. We have too many fats in our diet today but in a medieval diet, milk fat (in butter, cheese and whole milk) would have been a significant dietary resource. Where else would a medieval diet have gotten protein or fat? With a short supply of cattle, there would have been little meat available (leaving probably mostly pigs, sheep, and birds for meat). Under normal circumstances milk and eggs would have supplied a significant amount of protein.  This would have left people relying very heavily on carbohydrates for all their nutrition. Its hard to get a enough protein from vegetables alone. Eggs would have become a critical protein source.

This all reminds me of Bede’s claims that the Irish monks relied heavily on cattle. On Lindisfarne, they drank only milk and water. He claimed that St Cedd fasted at Lastingham eating only a little bread, a hen’s egg, and watered milk. Likewise St Egbert fasted on only a little piece of bread and skim milk.  The Irish could survive quite healthily on just milk and cereals. Milk supplies protein, fat and sugar. Cereals supply carbohydrates. There are your four basic food groups, if not a lot a variety. However, this leaves them highly reliant on one type of animal and a cattle plague/murrain could be disastrous.

The Annals of Ulster record that the cattle murrain starts among the Saxons in 699 and it appeared in Mag Trega in Tethba (Ireland) on the Kalends of February in 700. Mag Trega is Moytra in County Longford, Ireland. It then records also in 700 that “famine and pestilence prevailed in Ireland for three years, so that man ate man.” Obviously this is a retrospective entry for it to list that it occurred for three years.  Nevertheless, it illustrates how dependent the Irish were upon their cattle. The Annals of Ulster recorded a mortality of cows again in 701. It wasn’t over yet. Again in 708, another cattle murrain is recorded.

The cattle plague would also seem to suggest that there was some trade in cattle across the Irish Sea. The annalist recorded the cattle deaths beginning among the Saxons, then spreading to Ireland. We also have to keep in mind that cattle were wealth certainly in Ireland, but perhaps also in Britain. We are left to wonder what political ramifications resulted not only from the famine and deaths but from the loss of cattle wealth. Would this have made cattle raiding more fierce over the cattle that were left, or would elites look from something else by which to calibrate their relative wealth? Could this have led in part to an increase in coinage at the turn of the 8th century? What could have replaced cattle (or leather) as a trade good? Remember it can take 10-20 years for cattle stocks to recover have a major cattle plague.

I looked at all the entries from 650 to 730 and these are the only cattle deaths mentioned. The human plague reports and the cattle deaths are distinct. The pestilence recorded that accompanied the famine in c. 700 was probably gastrointestinal since in such a severe famine people would have been eating anything they could find. Scavenging for food coupled with a lowered immune response makes people very vulnerable to food poisoning / intestinal disease. Weakened immune responses could have also led to a variety of infectious diseases striking the population, much as they do in refugee camps. Between the human plagues that struck in the 660s and 680s, and the cattle plague at the turn of the century every generation in the second half of the seventh century would have coped with illness and death en masse.

The Ancient Silence

Writing in the 790s, Paul the deacon chronicled a plague that swept through the Lombard territory of  Luguria in what is today northern Italy in about 560. After providing clear signs of bubonic plague and its deadly consequences, he paints a vivid portrait of popular reaction.

“For the common report had it that those who fled would avoid the plague, the dwellings were left deserted by their inhabitants, and the dogs alone kept house. The flocks remained alone in the pastures with no shepherd at hand. You might see villages (villas) or fortified places lately filled with crowds of men, and on the next day all had departed and everything was in utter silence. Some fled, leaving the corpses of their parents unburied; parents forgetful of their duty abandoned their children in raging fever. If by chance long-standing affection constrained anyone to bury his near relative, he remained himself unburied, and while he was performing funeral rites he perished; while he offered obsequies to the dead, his own corpse remained without obsequies. You might see the world brought back to its ancient silence; no voice in the field, no whistling shepherds; no lying in wait of wild beasts among the cattle; no harm to domestic fowls. The crops, outliving the time of the harvest, awaited the reaper untouched; the vineyard with its fallen leaves and its shining grapes remained undisturbed while winter came on; a trumpet as of warriors resounded through the day and night; something like a murmur of an army was heard by many; there were no footsteps of passers by, no murderer was seen, yet corpses of the dead were more than the eye could discern; pastoral places had been turned into a desert, and human habitations had become places of refuge for wild beasts.”

Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombards 2.4 [1]

 The ancient silence, a common secular apocalyptic vision that easily spans the 1200 years between Paul the Deacon and us. This odd idea is that if humans were gone everything would lay just as we left it before it slowly decays. Clearly this type of apocalyptic vision didn’t originate with nuclear radiation zones of the 20th century. Just as in a nuclear zone the wind seems loud and haunting perhaps all the more so here because they believed in a miasmic theory of contagion. Death was quite literally in the air. Unseasonable storms and great winds were believed to bring pestilence of all kinds. If contagion was in the wind itself, then disturbed wind carries bad things on an epic scale. In this scenario, the murmur of an army could be the souls of the dead haunting their former homes, or it could be the contagion itself seeking new victims.

It is the rhetoric of desolation. The “common report” may not contain many facts that would pass the muster of modern historians but the sense of catastrophe is palpable and that was the important message. In fact a close reading of the description doesn’t make sense. It has become a “refuge for wild beasts” but the chickens are safe in their pens and the cows in their fields. The “murmur of an army is heard by many”, yet Luguria is supposed to be deserted, indeed “turned into a desert”. This landscape is in Paul’s imagination.

Interesting that Maddicott (p. 197-198) thinks that Paul’s report is “precise” and seems to accept the description of abandonment at face value. He goes on to even wonder if there were “no longer whistling shepherds on the hills of Northumbria?”(p. 198) Yet, Paul is describing flight as much as death. Presumably some of these people came back after a time. Flight is a common problem in assessing the toll of the plague from tax rolls or other demographics including village or estate abandonment. Alternatively, depopulation through death and flight could have been part of the foundation legend for how the land became available for the communities that grew up in the region after the plague. Foundation legends often mask as much or more than the historical nuggets they may preserve.

[1] Paul the deacon quoted in John Maddicott’s “Plague in Seventh-Century England” p. 197-198 in Plague and the End of Antiquity: The Pandemic of 541-750. (2007) Edited by Lester Little. Cambridge.

The Mortality of Children, Ireland 683-685

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)

AU= Annals of Ulster; AT = Annals of Tigernach, FAI= Fragmentary Annals of Ireland, AC = Annals Cambriae

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.

Hans Holbein, "The Dance of Death", bef. 1538

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.

AU= Annals of Ulster; AT = Annals of Tigernach, FAI= Fragmentary Annals of Ireland, AC = Annals Cambriae