Defining Late Antiquity

I’ve been thinking lately about the coincidence that consensus seems to be developing around c. 750 as the end of “Late Antiquity” is the same time frame for the end of the Plague of Justinian. Do I think this is more than a coincidence? Yes, but not really causal. By that I mean that the plague didn’t ‘end Antiquity’ but perhaps the end of the Late Antique Mediterranean focus played a significant role in ending the plague.

The Mediterranean was the focus of the plague. This hurricane of death kept its eye over the waters of the Mediterranean  with ships carrying waves of plague to ports as distant as Ireland. It then moved in a slower wave over the continents (Europe and Asia and North Africa). While sporadic outbreaks occurred between waves inland each major wave of plague seems to have continued to originate in the Mediterranean over the entire 200 year period. The changes that brought about the end of late antiquity stilled the eye of the storm.

So what changed in c. 750? The pandemic clearly did not run out of microbes or non-immune hosts. It is very unlikely to have run out of vectors (probably fleas) or its likely reservoir rodents. We know of no major climatic events that would have disrupted arthropod vectors or rodent populations over such a wide territory. What piece of human behavior changed that caused the pandemic to fizzle out? Which trade networks collapsed in the mid-eighth century?

What changes would you associate with the end of Late Antiquity?

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7 thoughts on “Defining Late Antiquity

  1. No – changes like that are always the shifts caused by new modes of perceiving the world. Peter Brown, The World of Late Antiquity defines the period very well. Surely the rise of Islam, just glimpsed by Bede, and the advent of Charlemagne mark the start of the ‘haut moyen age’ as the French call it…

    1. Changes in how the world is perceived does lead to changes on the ground. As I said, I don’t think the plague was a factor in ending the period. We need to be able to explain why the plague ended until the 14th century. Plague epidemics reoccurred from the 14th century to the early 20th century, especially in the Middle East. So the rise of Islam alone is not a reason for the ending of plague transmission.

  2. Terribly Pirennian, I realise, but the loss of the African coast to the Eastern empire has to be some kind of factor. I might also suggest the Frankish recovery, except that that would seem likely to *increase* contacts across borders, not reduce them. I think that basically I’m glad this is someone else’s research question 🙂 But if you do identify factors, of course, they will matter for far more than just the plague.

    1. Actually I’m wondering what is happening on the southern, maritime route of the silk/spice road. The maritime route brings goods from the Indian ocean to the Mediterranean. I wrote a post about it on my Contagions blog called Beyond Pelusium (http://contagions.wordpress.com/2010/06/17/beyond-pelusium/). Events in southern Asia and the Indian subcontinent are also likely to be factors.

      I think ending the plague is a consequence rather than a cause.

      1. But if the disease is already rife in Europe, why should events at such a distance affect it? Is it so short-lived a bacillus that it needs continual replenishment? And if so, how on earth was it surviving in the East?

        1. That’s just it. Each major wave originates in the Mediterranean and eventually dies out in Europe. It should be telling us that Europe does not yet have a good reservoir species. Remember plague is primarily a rodent disease. The rat may not even be it’s original reservoir.

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