6th Century British Plague

So I was thinking about ole Maelgwn Gwynedd reputedly dying of plague in c. 544. Now, granted the evidence doesn’t stand up because the earliest evidence is well, at least, 500 years after his death. However, its not impossible because we know archaeologically that the British were in contact with Byzantine traders. As one of the most powerful kings of his age, its likely that the best trade goods made their way to his conveniently coastal court on North Wales.

So lets say for the sake of argument that the Justinian plague did make it to Britain, how would you detect it? Given that the population was not nearly as dense as the Black Death of the 14th century, it is possible that you would not find plague pits like those created in the later epidemic. I mean after all, Britain is supposed to be in decline without the plague because the Romans have left and they are being preyed upon by Picts and Scots and Saxons. So you have economic decline, population decline, warfare/raiding activity – how do you archaeologically detect a plague?

Now add in that it would have easily spread to Anglo-Saxon areas because settlement was much more patchwork with Britons and you don’t have to be friendly to spread disease. (I believe I have read British sources that claimed that disease spread from unburied bodies after battle, for example.) Pagan Anglo-Saxons practiced cremation so there are no bodies to find. It would be even easier to deal with large numbers of bodies by cremation. I imagine there was no ceremonial objection to burning bodies from the same family together, for example. Burning all the dead of a village together would be little different than a plague pit, if you normally practice cremation anyway. Makes me wonder if even Christians would have reverted to cremation rather than plague pits in 664. Not likely in monasteries, but in villages? These types of problems are found all over the West for the Justinian plague.

Its interesting that there seems to be a trend to widen the time period of the Justinian plague to possibly as late as the 750s. I’m not sure what I think of that.

2 comments on “6th Century British Plague

  1. Dan Reff’s recent Plagues, Priests, and Demons has some interesting stuff on the pervasiveness of disease in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, tying it to the acceptance of Christianity. Good book.

  2. In “Catastrophe” by David Keys, which tries to identify the source of the Justinian plague among other sudden changes in the 6th century, the author states that cremation was widely practiced in order to limit the spread of infection. I don’t think he covers whether bodies were cremated in England, though.

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