Plague texts from Late Antique Britain

Plague in Late Antique Britain is one of the few topics that has not yet been well studied. Assembling the plague texts for the Plague of Justinian from Anglo-Saxon England and neighboring kingdoms is the best place to start.

All of the following at least mention the plague:

  • Adomnan, Life of Columba, c. 700
  • Anon. Life of Cuthbert, c. 705
  • Stephan’s Life of Wilfrid, c. 710
  • Bede’s Life of Cuthbert, c 705-716.
  • Bede’s Greater Chronicle (part of his larger On the Reckoning of Time), c. 720
  • Bede’s History of the Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow, c. 716-730
  • Anon. History of Abbot Ceolfrith, early 8th century.
  • Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 731/734.
  • Anon/Nennius, Historia Brittonum/ History of the Britons, 825
  • Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, compiled from previous chronicles in c. 900
  • various Irish annals

The value of these texts varies greatly. Some merely mentioned that someone died of plague, but do not give signs and symptoms or other indicators to confirm that it was the plague rather than another epidemic.  A few though do give either signs and symptoms or other useful information. While this may look like a significant number of texts, most come from Northumbria and refer to the same people and places.

I’m sure I have probably missed some texts.  I have yet to check the Life of Gregory the Great from Whitby or the Guthlac texts.  If you can add any to this list please do so!

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6 thoughts on “Plague texts from Late Antique Britain

    1. You have hit on a key problem Norman. There is no specific name for the plague in the early or late medieval period. The term “Black Death” does not appear until the early modern period and doesn’t actually refer to signs and symptoms anyway. Plague itself is a vague term like pestilence. It is only in modern times that “the plague” has referred to Yersinia pestis, cause of the three great pandemics.

      The most common terms used for plague in these texts is mortality (mortalitatis) or pestilence (pestilentiae). I haven’t found all of the texts in Latin yet. Bede provides enough clues to support the plague, Yersinia pestis, as the cause, though it would help to have molecular evidence from period remains. We can also link them to waves of disease spreading through Europe. We do also have to keep in mind that people still died of other causes, including other infectious diseases, during a pandemic.

  1. There was an article by J.R. Maddicott in Past & Present called ‘Plague in seventh-century Britain’, but I don’t think it goes into detail on previous plagues. It seems more focussed on Anglo-Saxon-era sources (it’s been a while since I read it). It might be worth a read if you have access to either the printed journal or JSTOR, though.

    1. Thanks for the suggestion. I’ve read it. It was also reprinted in the recent book on the Plague of Justinian. It is the only study I know of the first plague pandemic in Britain! And its been about 20 years if I remember right.

  2. That sounds about right. I’m surprised that nobody has done anything to advance on Maddicott’s work. Until I read your post I hadn’t realised that the plague pandemic was so little-studied. I must try to get a hold of that book on the plague of Justinian as well; it sounds very interesting (wait, does that sound really morbid of me?).

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