Follow the garnets

by Michelle Ziegler

Last month was this blog’s tenth anniversary, so I thought I would celebrate with a little bling. What is more iconic in Anglo-Saxon jewelry than the near universal garnets? Not only are garnets the most common gemstone found in Anglo-Saxon artifacts but they are also widely scattered over Anglo-Saxon territory. Helen Hamerow’s recent review of the distribution and use of garnets offers some interesting insights.

A carry over from Roman tradition, Germanic leaders looked to red-cloaked Roman military officers as role models. Garnet encrusted weapons and cloak fasteners may have been a stylistic bridge between Roman military dress and that of later medieval nobles.

Garnet distribution

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Distribution of garnets in Anglo-Saxon England. Left: garnets found in graves, Right: garnets registered with the Portable Antiquities Scheme. (Hamerow, 2017, fig 1 & 2).

These maps show the garnets found in graves  (left) with caches marked (+), and lost items reported to the Portable Antiquities Scheme (right). Based on the distribution of discovered garnets, she suggests that in some areas burial of garnets in graves simply wasn’t done. Metal detectorists have found enough widely scattered garnets to imply that the goods did reach all throughout at least southern Anglo-Saxon England.

Caches of garnets show a different pattern. Most of the caches found in England are tiny fragments, some too small to use in jewelry (which makes them very tiny indeed!). These could be wastage from cutting stones or stones that fell out of a finished object. All of the caches in England were found in graves (three female and two male).This contrasts sharply with Scandinavia where none of the caches from Scandinavia are from graves.The most elaborate male grave from  Tatershall Thorpe (Lincolnshire) also included tools, a weigh pan and other scraps that suggested it was a smith’s grave in an area known for international exchange of goods. Breakage of several of these garnets has led to speculation that they were intended for repair work.  Provisional composition analysis done on garnets in three brooches found in Wessex indicate that the stones come from two batches of the same parent stone. This suggests that batches of garnets “could reach a goldsmith’s workshop in a relatively unmixed state, despite the long distances traveled.” (Hamerow, p. 77)

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Loose garnets caches in Northern Europe, 400-700. (Hamerow 2017, fig 3)

The Scandinavian caches all from known high-status sites with elite sponsored craftsmen. These sites begin in the ‘migration period’ but tend to be later and extend beyond 700 AD. Hamerow concludes that at least within Scandinavia the garnets were kept under the close control of ruling families who used their products within their political exchange networks.

Sourcing and Supply lines

Garnets arrived in northern Europe in two waves. The first surge in garnets occurred in the fifth and sixth century and are found in Late Antique brooches. Chemical analysis places the origin of these early garnets in Sri Lanka and India. The stones would have come across the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea entering the Mediterranean trade networks through the remaining Roman ports. It is interesting that this is the same route that the Plague of Justinian may have taken to the port of Pelusium in 541. Although the flow of garnets to Europe dropped to a trickle by the sixth century, these garnets peaked in Anglo-Saxon products in the seventh century. Perhaps not coincidently, plague followed the same pattern, peaking in England in the seventh century. This may say more about functioning trade networks than any correlation between garnets and fleas. At the same time, the flow of gold from Byzantine coins was also dwindling. The traditional reason for the reduction of garnets and gold is the expansion of the Sasanid expansion cutting off that trade route (although that does not explain the lack of Byzantine gold coins). By the late seventh century, Anglo-Saxon goldsmiths were clearly repurposing stones from old pieces to meet the demand for new pieces.

Hamerow stresses that the decrease in garnets and gold coinage was not due an overall economic downturn. Other precious goods are increasing across the seventh-century.  In the mid-seventh century precut cabochon garnets begin to appear with new exotic goods. Chemical analysis suggests that at least some of the cabochon’s come from the area of Bohemia, a new source carried possibly along new trade routes.  By the early eighth century, some garnets may have been mined in southwestern Sweden, so the later Scandinavian caches were of mined locally or perhaps brought in via riverine routes through Russia.  These later garnets are cut more crudely.

While trade with the Franks was undoubtedly an important factor in goods arriving in Anglo-Saxon England, it was not ultimately the critical factor in the flow of garnets, nor probably other gemstones.


Hamerow, H. (2017). The Circulation of Garnets in the North Sea Zone, ca. 400-700. In A. Hilgner, S. Greiff, & D. Quast (Eds.), GEMSTONES IN THE FIRST MILLENNIUM AD MINES, TRADE, WORKSHOPS AND SYMBOLISM (pp. 71–86).

The Men of Early Medieval Bavaria

Bavarian warrior

This guy was not common. (Gutsmiedl-Schumann, 2010)

by Michelle Ziegler

When cemeteries are excavated, there is always some bling somewhere, or at least the rusty remains of a weapon to draw all of the attention. Reconstructions of the people from the cemetery are usually a composite figure like the guy to the left, usually armed to the teeth with a full complement of saex, spatha (sword), shield and spear. Although an ax and arrows are commonly found in graves, they are often left off the prototypical Germanic male recreation because they are not considered unambiguously weapons. There seems to be some biases in this picture. A farmer turned warrior might be a lot more effective fighting with an ax than a sword. Regardless, extremely few if any of the male graves have all of these weapons, so the guy pictured would have been quite uncommon.

Bavaria has been a particularly interesting area for the post-Roman / late Antique period. Nestled up against the Alps, this region had long been a strategic  Roman frontier province called Raetia. In addition to its natural resources, Bavaria / Raetia included some of the vital passes through the Alps such as the Reschen Pass via the Via Augusta Claudia (connecting Verona to Augsberg) that led to the Po Valley in Italy. The route over Brenner Pass came later in the Roman period and was used by the Almanni to invade Italy in 268 AD suggesting that it was not as well defended. Bavaria’s northern border is marked by the upper reaches of the River Danube which marked the Roman frontier  all the way to the Black Sea, and its valley was also a corridor for the movement of peoples from the east and Asia. The Romans held this area until c. 476 when they pulled back south of the Alps. The area is nominally under Merovingian rule but there is little evidence of direct Merovingian involvement in Bavaria for at least the first century.


Cemeteries on the Munich gravel plain. (Gutsmiedl-Schumann, 2010)

The four cemeteries in the Munich gravel plain at Aschheim, Altenerding, Aubing, and Pliening all span from the mid-fifth century to the early eighth century. Munich would not be founded until the twelfth century at the crossing of the River Isar. So these cemeteries, all completely excavated, provide a good sample of the entire population in early medieval Bavaria. All together these four cemeteries have about 3000 graves.

The ‘typical Merovingian man’ above may be a typical recreation but was not typical of the graves in the cemeteries. Of 590 graves that can be identified as men and boys, only 6 had all four of the weapons shown above. In fact only 64 had two or more weapons. To some extent this reflects the ages of the men and boys with adult males and old men having the most weapons. The most common weapon saex followed by arrows, although neither are necessarily weapons. The saex is basically a multi-purpose butcher knife.  These were followed by the spatha (sword).  The next most common grave artifact were a variety of tools, some in tool bags. A variety of types of knives and flint stones were the most common type of tools. There were also a few personal hygiene tools like combs or tweezers. Doris Gutsmeidl-Schumann divided the men into two basic groups — craftsmen and warriors.

Social status could be further implied by ‘magnificent belts’, the most common type of adornment. These belts could also indicate the status of the family given that even a few infants had these decorative belts. Notably all of the men with four or more weapons were adorned with a magnificent belt. Overall, 64% of the graves with two or more weapons also had magnificent belts and are therefore considered warriors. Only 27% of the men with two or more tools were adorned with the belts, suggesting perhaps that only high level craftsmen were honored with such a belt. Very few graves had both tools and weapons.  Overall, Gutsmeidl-Schumann considered that only 7.3% of the total male graves were warriors and about 21% were craftsmen.

What comes out of the total analysis is that there was a select group, perhaps families, of warriors with the highest status. There was a significant middle group of craftsmen, a few of whom were rewarded for their skill with belts. Most of the men though fell into neither group,  presumably doing mostly doing mixed agricultural work. This looks like a fairly stratified society with only a small percentage being trained warriors — so the typical Bavarian man was unlikely to have been a part-time soldier ready to pick up their weapons on short notice and deploy for battle. These results run counter to the standard historical claim that the first Germanic peoples who moved into former Roman territory were all warriors.


Gutsmiedl-Schumann, D. (2010). Merovingian men – fulltime warriors?
Weapon graves of the continental Merovingian Period of the Munich Gravel Plain and the social and age structure of the contemporary society – a case study. In R. Berge, M. E. Jasinski, & K. Sognnes (Eds.), N-Tag Ten: Proceedings of the 10th Nordic TAG Conference at Stiklestad, Norway 2009 (pp. 251–261). University of Huston.

The Bavarians from the Ground Up


Archaeological sites in Bavaria.  Cross marks Aschheim where plague DNA was isolated. (Hakenbeck et al, 2010)

Since written history doesn’t spread very much light on the people who lived in sixth century Bavaria, let’s literally look to the ground and examine what their cemeteries tell us about them.  Aschheim is the only place where plague aDNA has been found, but as far as I know, it is the only Late Antique place that has been investigated for plague.

Aschheim and nearby Altenerding represent two different styles of cemetery covering nearly the same fifth to sixth century time period. Aschheim is a row cemetery with no apparently clustering, while Altenerding has several founder graves with stylistically distinct related graves surrounding each. Both collect graves from nearby rural small settlements and both are located near (but not on) a Roman road.

One of the distinctive features in these cemeteries are a number of ‘hunnic’ modified skulls. This modification is not a marker of the Huns, who were a multiethnic federation anyway. It was common around the Black Sea and Carpathian basin in Romania and Hungary where it was praticed equally among men and women and found in all ages. The oldest are assoicated with the Sarmatians predating the Huns by a couple centuries. Even where it is common, it found in a minority of graves suggesting that it was reserved for a specific, presumably elite group. They are also common around foritifications in the Roman province of Pannonia. In these eastern areas, the modifications are found among a riot of mixed styles in grave goods and in local style graves. Harkenbeck (2009) suggests that the eastern modifications represent a frontier hybrid culture that was encouraged to develope a local identity.

2009 Hakenbeck

Modified skull in Late Antique Europe. Red circle encloses the Bavarian cases. (Modified from Hakenbeck 2009)

Modified skulls found west of the Alps paint a very different picture. They are thinly spread over a vast area including Bavaria, Bohemia, the Rhine valley, and into southern France. The big difference is that 71% are female and their dates are restricted to the mid-fifth to mid-sixth centuries (Hakenbeck 2009). There are no modified skulls in children suggesting that the modification method was not actively practiced in these communities at all. According to Hakenbeck, 98% of those found in Bavaria and central Germany are mature adults or elderly. She notes that they are primarily found along the Rhine and Danuabe rivers that were highways as much as frontier borders. Indeed, their frontier status was only contemporary with the Roman empire. These rivers were not frontiers before or after the Roman empire.  In Bavaria, they cluster around the Danuabe and down along the River Isar including at Alternerding and Straubing. Hakenbeck suggests that these indicate the increased female migration at marriage that genetics suggests usually happens in a more archaeologically invisible way. She notes that the five women with modified skulls at Alternerding were dressed and buried in an unremarkable local pattern with very typical grave goods of mixed styles.


‘Hunnic’ modified skulls from Alternerding with accompanying grave goods. Hakenbeck et al, 2010

The grave goods are mostly these brooches or clothing clasps. Hakenbeck notes Frankish/Almannic, Ostrogothic, Thuringian and even rarely Anglo-Saxon styles. Even when a brooch represented one foreign style, it was still worn in a local pattern reflecting being worn on clothing of a local sytle. The mixture of styles (often within the same piece) tells me that they were more fashion than markers of ethnicity. These must represent artisans who felt free to experiment with different styles and still sell their wares. None of these sites are really high status enough to represent royal or elite interests.

Inidcators of female migration go beyond the cranial modification. Skeletal measurements of males and females in Bavaria (at Altenerding and Neuburg near Straubing) suggest that the genders have different source populations. Hakenbeck (2009) notes that in the past jewelry was used to trace migrations but this is directly contradicted by biological analysis in Germanic areas where skull modification and isotopes often contradict the origins of material goods. The migration of women occurred at all social levels and was not associated with folk movements, tribal migrations or military expansions. Bavarian isotopic data is not very clear but the outliers do support some of the women having a significantly different diet for part of their lives.

One interesting grave discussed by Hakenbeck (2009, 2010) was of a high status elderly woman whose burial and grave goods connect her with Scandinavia or the Baltic.  Her isotopic data support her being a migrant. Along with some Anglo-Saxon influence in some of the jewelry, she is a reminder that communication and/or migration occurred with people to the north as well.

Hakenbeck (2011) proposes that Alternerding was is the result of two to three large extended kindreds with their associated staff.   The first generation had more distinctive styles that eventually became a more common, mixed style goods. Each family seems to have had its own section of the cemetery surrounding a founder grave.  The men in these areas had more similar accoutraments most likely related to current military affiliations. Weapons in the graves along with some high status brooches suggest that these were freemen. Interestingly, she noted that in the seventh century Byzantine and perhaps Lombard fashions began increasing in the Bavaria. Once the Byzantines were satisfied with the Franks holding a northern border including Bavaria, the Franks (and their territories) were allowed to prosper from close ties with the Byzantines and the Lombards. Symbols of Christianity do not appear in Bavaria until the seventh century along with the Byzantine influence. The appearance of the first Bavarian dukes in the mid-sixth century also stimulated the begennings of the development a Bavarian style.

The mechanism behind this fifth to sixth century migration is not well understood. Do these marriages reflect trade links? Alternatively, did men of all social levels seek wives from distant communities? Were these marriages made during military service far from home? Could some of them have been slaves taken as wives?  Afterall, two Merovingian kings married slaves who became, as far as we can tell, full status queens.  Obviously, long distance marriage does not necessarliy mean continuing long distance connections. It is notable though that the presence of these modified skulls end about 550 CE. Those of us interested in the plague have to realize that the Gothic War was probably a bigger factor in altering migration in the Danube valley than the plague. The Goths provide an environment where connections to the Black Sea area would have been possible. The impact of the Gothic war on migration, military movements, trade and communication has to be a major factor in looking at the plague in this region.



Hakenbeck, S. (2009). “Hunnic”modified skulls: physical appearance, identity and the transformative nature of migrations. In Mortuary Practices and Social Identities in the Middle Ages. University of Exeter Press.

Hakenbeck, S. (2011). Roman or Barbarian? Shifting identites in early medieval cemeteries in Bavaria. Post-Classical Archaeologies, (1), 37–66.

Hakenbeck, S., McManus, E., Geisler, H., Grupe, G., & O’Connell, T. (2010). Diet and mobility in Early Medieval Bavaria: a study of carbon and nitrogen stable isotopes. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 143(2), 235–249.

Wagner, D. M., Klunk, J., Harbeck, M., Devault, A., Waglechner, N., Sahl, J. W., et al. (2014). Yersinia pestis and the Plague of Justinian 541–543 AD: a genomic analysis. The Lancet Infectious Diseases, 14(4), 1–8.

Who were the Early Medieval Bavarians?

My reading for the last year has been all over the place as I try to catch up on the world of the Plague of Justinian. A sample of my reading for the last few months is here. Believe it or not, they all relate in some what to what was going on during the ‘dark ages’.

The only place that plague has been completely confirmed by ancient DNA is a small settlement in Bavaria called Aschheim. This is great in some ways. We have a full genome sequence and its a place where plague wasn’t recorded before. In fact the downside is that practically nothing is recorded there in the sixth or seventh centuries. While I’m sure that plague will be unambiguously identified elsewhere eventually, Bavaria is what we now to have to work with, and besides it is as important to understand there as much as anywhere else.

Who the Bavarians are, where they came from and what cohesion they had as a people is unknown. They are only mentioned by outsiders. No one claimed to be king of Bavaria. There are no royal genealogies or origin stories of any group of the population, probably because there was no king who needed such fictions to support them. Although the region of Bavaria is an iconic and integral component of Germany today, they were not considered necessarily Germanic then.

Bavaria is primarily composed of the Roman provinces of Raetia and Noricum. (modified public domain image)

Bavaria is primarily composed of the Roman provinces of Raetia and Noricum. (modified public domain image)

The area we now know as Bavaria was not a backwater in the Roman or early medieval world. It formed the Roman provinces of Raetia II (eastern half of Raetia) and Noricum. The original province of Raetia was organized by Rome in the first century and held tightly for strategic reasons.  The Bavarian alps were a major defensive feature for northern Italy and conversely its passes were weak points to be guarded. The province of Noricum was rich in mining resources: salt, gold and iron. Otherwise, the province of Raetia and Noricum were used primarily for grazing on the poor highland soils.

Both provinces originally belonged to Celtic peoples and so by the fall of the western empire they had long been a Romano-Celtic population (not unlike Britain). Archaeologically Germanic people can be seen infiltrating the region, but it is far from a wave or population displacement. Obviously, the German language eventually becomes dominant but how long it took for that to take hold is unclear. The few texts from the region are in Latin. The name ‘bavarians’ also has an unclear origin, but the best current guess suggests bohemian.

The region of interest for my purposes can be triangulated between three former Roman settlements: Regensburg (Castra Regina) , Augsberg (Augusta Vindelicum), and Saltzberg (Iuvavum). Red lines on the map are Roman roads including over the Alps to the Adriatic at the bottom.

Late Antique Bavaria

The core of Bavaria with modern names next to Roman names. The black star marks the site of Aschheim. Map from the Pelagios project.

The core region of Bavaria is bounded by the River Danube in the north and the Alps in the south. The river Lech forms the western boundary and the River Inn is roughly the eastern boundary though this side fluctuated more over time. Sometimes Saltzburg was in Bavaria and other times it was not. The same is really true for Augsburg on the River Lech as well. Today Aschheim is above the River Isar on the outskirts of Munich, the capital of Bavaria since Munich’s foundation in the mid-twelfth century. So Aschheim remains in the core of Bavaria, no matter how its boundary changes. The rivers Lech, Isar, and Inn all arise in the Alps and run into the Danube. They were used to transport goods down from the Alps and even Italy beyond to the Danube.

Politically the region is transferred from the Romans to Theodoric the Great, becoming part of his Gothic empire. It remained with the Goths until Byzantium broke them. At some point in the Gothic war, the Franks gained hegemony over the region and in about 550 the Franks appointed or gave the duchy to Garibald I. The dukes who claimed descent from Garibald I solidified their position by intermarriage with both the Merovingians and Lombards, making them intolerable to the Carolingians. My concern however is limited to the sixth century when plague can be placed there. So zeroing in on the late Gothic war and the Merovingians are in order.

This post is a general introduction to the Bavarians. I plan on coming back with posts on more detailed aspects of sixth to seventh century Bavaria. Although my primary interest is the landscape of disease, there are some interesting parallels with changes going on in Britain as well.

Emperor Justinian and the British Kings, c. 540

Emperor Justinian

Roman historian Procopius had a lot to complain about in his Secret History. Its pretty easy to say that he did a hatchet job on his bosses, Emperor Justinian and General Belisauris. Procopius was the Late Antique equivalent of a severely conservative ‘think tank’ founder, you know the type that queue up to appear on talk shows and start whisper campaigns. He shared some whoppers, perhaps the least of which is theorizing that his emperor is really a demon and the court women were even worse.

Complaints about Justinian’s use of the treasury are constant throughout the Secret History.

There was no time at which he ceased giving huge gifts of money to all the barbarians, to both easterners and westerners as well as out of the North and to the South, as far as the inhabitants of Britain … for they poured into Byzantion from every corner of the world in order to reach him….he was overjoyed with this state of affairs, believing it to be a lucky opportunity to exhaust the wealth of the Romans and throw it out to the barbarians, as good as throwing it into the churning waves of the sea. (Procopius, Secret History, III:13-15)

If Justinian’s ambition to recapture former imperial territory was real, then he had to build hegemony, buying allies and perhaps paying for proxy wars. He also had to keep former Roman territory that paid him at least lip service happy. So if British kings styled themselves protectors of the Roman province and requested subsidies to pay Saxon troops to protect Roman territory, it would be hard to Justinian to turn them down while handing out money to barbarians. Regardless of how they asked, there was enough gold going from Constantinople to Britain for Procopius to know about it and complain.

Justinian I  Tremisis. Rome mint. Struck circa 540-546 AD.

Justinian I Tremisis. minted in Rome. Struck circa 540-546 AD.

If a lot of gold was heading to Britain, it probably went to the western territories along the Irish sea where archaeologists have found most of the Roman/Byzantine trade goods in the fifth century. Most notably, the Penmachno stone from Gwynedd dates the grave of the son of Avitorius who was buried to the time of Justi* Con[sul]. This stone has been most often dated to the consulship of Justinian in 540 (Sarris, p. 200). Gildas’ five kings are likely to be among the beneficiaries of Justinian’s largess, and he singles out Maelgwn of Gwynedd as the most powerful. So it is interesting that the one king we would predict would have been in touch with Justinian’s court, has the Penmachno stone in his kingdom and  is the only British citizen recorded as dying in the ‘great mortality’ in 547. The Annals Cambriae are usually off by a couple of years in this section so this lines up well with the Irish records of plague in the 540s.

 The great death [plague] in which Maelgwn, king of Gwynedd died. ‡Thus they say ‘The long sleep of Maelgwn in the court of Rhos’. Then was the yellow plague.‡ (Annals Cambriae, 547)

anus Mortalitas magna inqua pausat mailcun rex genedotae (A-text of Annals Cambriae, Gough-Cooper ed.)

Likewise the additional material added in the B-text (‡) referring to Maelgwn’s death during the ‘yellow plague’ has the hallmarks of oral history found in Irish sources. (I’ll come back to folklore on Maelgwn and his death some other day.) For unknown reasons, Irish folklore color codes the plague as yellow – although no epidemic infectious disease of the mid-sixth century causes yellowing. Ann Dooley has made a well argued case for the ‘yellow plague’ and other terms like blefed as being references to the plague. So we have a route and rationale for the Plague of Justinian to reach the Irish Sea zone from any number of points with direct contact infected areas of Justinian’s territory. While its possible that Justinian’s goods reached Britain through Gaul (possibly through the Loire valley) (Little 2007:10), while Justinian held territory in Iberia and controlled the Straits of Gibraltar, a direct route by sea is also possible. Plague fleas can be transported in cereals or textiles for long distances.

One of the oddities of early Anglo-Saxon records is that most of the royal dynasties go back to about 550, about a hundred years after the Anglo-Saxons themselves claim (and archaeology confirms) that they came to Britain. Failure to pay for security services rendered is also a consistent feature in folklore of the ‘adventus’. Archaeology also tells us that links to Byzantium were lost from the mid-sixth century, right around the time of the plague. So whatever help Justinian was sending Britain, it may have been to keep the ‘Saxons’ on the payroll for a little while longer, but as soon as trade with Byzantium (and presumably Roman foreign aid) is cut off around the time of the plague, we find the origins of the English royal dynasties.

So when I look at the recent Staffordshire hoard of gold military equipment, I just have to wonder how much of Justinian’s gold is recycled there.

Items from the Staffordshire hoard


Anthony Kaldellis, ed. & trans. Prokopios: The Secret History and Related Texts. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett, 2010.

Ann Dooley “The Plague and its Consequences in Ireland” in Plague and the End of Antiquity, ed. Lester Little, Cambridge, 2006.

Peter Sarris. Empires of Faith: The Fall of Rome to the Rise of Islam, 500-700. Oxford History of Medieval Europe, 2011. [Sarris is the only recent historian to discuss these linkages between Justinian and events in Britain, but he does not mention Maelgwn’s death.]

Lester Little “Life and Afterlife of the First Plague Pandemic” in Plague and the End of Antiquity: The Pandemic of 541-750.  Lester Little, ed.  Cambridge, 2006.

Procopius’ indictment of ‘outlandish theories of natural science’

“During those times there was a plague that came close to wiping out the whole of mankind. Now for all the calamities that fall upon us from the heavens it might be possible for some bold man to venture a theory regarding their causes, like many marvelous theories about the causes that the experts in these fields tend to dream up which are, in reality, utterly incomprehensible to mankind. Still, they make up outlandish theories of natural science, knowing well that they are saying nothing sound and they are content with themselves if only they manage to deceive a few people they meet into accepting their argument. But about this calamity there is no way to find any justification, to give a rational account, or even to cope with it mentally, except by referring it to God.” Procopius, The Wars (2.22.1)

OUCH! When I first read this, it stung a bit. The plague has been prone to many ‘outlandish theories of natural science’. How will our theories look to future generations of plague scholars? Only time will tell.

Its a shame that Procopius didn’t record some of those theories of natural science that he found so outlandish. Our only clue to these theories is a reference to “subtle theorists and astrologers” (Procopius, The Wars, 2.22.5). A reminder that in the sixth century, astrology was part of the natural sciences. Later in his description of plague devastation, he records that “some doctors … believing that the focus of the disease was to be found in the buboes, decided to investigate the bodies of the dead. Cutting into some of the buboes, they found that a kind of malignant carbuncle had developed inside” (Procopius, The Wars, 2.22.29). He goes on to explain how doctors could not predict at all who would die and who would survive.

In some ways we know much more than Procopius did, even though he lived through it. But, he goes on to tell why he believes that it can not be explained, and many of the reasons he gives are still mysteries to this day. Procopius goes on to tell how it struck the whole earth, sparing no area or region, striking in winter and summer, and people of all ages and both genders of high and low status equally. The great and the good died alongside the cruel and evil. After it was over, Procopius was convinced only the most evil had survived (including the Emperor Justinian).

“For people differ from each other in the place that they live, the customs of their lifestyle, the manner of their personality, their profession, and many other ways, but none of these differences made the slightest differences when it came to this disease — and this disease alone.” (Procopius, The Wars, 2.22.4)

How well founded Procopius assertions are is a matter of debate. Eye witnesses are notoriously error prone and biased. He can’t divorce his emotions from his account, no eye-witness can. If we did some real epidemiology number crunching — oh we if had that data! — then it is unlikely that all these factors really made no difference. From a layman’s point of view and for practical purposes though, Procopius may be correct. It devastated all layers and groups within his society. We would really just be quibbling with his assertions on equality. To the survivors, a few percentage points in the mortality rate would be trivial.

The modern editor of Procopius Anthony Kaldellis has investigated what Procopius meant by “referring it to God”.  Procopius was a pagan Roman who yearned for the ideals of the pre-Christian Roman Republic. As a pagan, Procopius was not referring to any sort of monotheistic god, not unless it is to please his Christian emperor. Kaldellis interprets Procopius’ references to God throughout The Wars and his other works as being “what people normally though of as ‘chance’, that is what remains when all rational factors are excluded” (2010a, note 63). So when Procopius refers the cause of the plague to God he means a very different thing that any monotheist would.

Even among Christians, Kaldellis notes that the Byzantines did not have a well thought out theology of how God intervened in practical, everyday matters. They were more concerned with the philosophical debates on God’s nature than on how God interacts with the world. Procopius never invokes sin as a cause, as others do, and he is struck by how the most evil, in his view, survive. Among the other Byzantine writers of the plague of Justinian sin is occasionally invoked as a cause but a well thought out theology never develops (see Kaldellis 2010b), nor does it develop in Europe. There is simply no way to adequately explain how the saintly die alongside the sinners in equal numbers. Collective social sin never gains traction either. This is an area where more work could be done by someone with the linguistic skills to tackle all the various texts from North Africa to Northern Europe.


Prokopius: The Secret History: with Related Texts. Kaldellis, A. trans., ed., introdocution.  Hackett, 2010a.

Kaldellis, A. (2010b). The Literature of Plague and the Anxieties of Piety in Sixth Century Byzantium. p. 1-23 in Piety and Plague From Byzantium to the Baroque.

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.