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.

Aldhelm on the Medicinal Uses of Beavers

Riddle 56

I am a dweller on the edge of steep stream banks, and not lazy at all, but warlike with the weapons of my mouth. I sustain my life with hard labour, laying low huge trees with my hooked axes. I dive into water, where the fish swim, and immerse by own head, wetting it in the watery surge. The wounds of sinews and limbs foul of gore I can cure. I destroy pestilence and the deadly plague. I eat the bitter and well-gnawed bark of trees.

Answer: the beaver.

Aldhelm, Enigma 56 ( trans. Nancy Porter Stork, 1990,  p. 170-171)

Reading Cameron’s Anglo-Saxon Medicine this afternoon, I came across his short discussion of Aldhelm’s riddles (Engima) having the earliest mention of Anglo-Saxon medical practices. Aldhelm  includes the medicinal use of the beaver (above) and also of the leech in this riddle on each.  Aldhelm’s riddles were part of a manuscript sent to his good friend, then king Aldfrith of Northumbria (r. 685-704), probably early in his reign.  Michael Lapidge has argued that Aldhelm was a relative of Cuthburgh, wife of Aldfrith and sister of King Ine of Wessex. She is mentioned in another of Aldhelm’s poems (On Virginity) as one of the nuns of Barking. In the letter linked to the text including the riddles, Aldhelm reminds King Aldfrith of their youthful training together and which would have had to have been in the early 660s. We know that Aldhelm later trained under Archbishop Theodore of Tarsus who arrived in Canterbury in 672.  Archbishop Theodore is credited by Bede with being well versed in the medicine, but none of his or Abbot Hadrian’s teachings or texts have survived. Having recently arrived from the Mediterranean where plague was common, it is possible that Theodore or his friend Hadrian the African brought plague treatments with them to their new post in England.

Beaver from the Medieval Bestiary, British Library, Harley MS 4751, Folio 9r.

Aesop’s Fables, Pliny the Elder and Isidore of Seville all mention that the testicles (actually inguinal glands) of beavers are used in medicines.The 13th century bestiary in Harley MS 4551 illustrates the story in Aesop’s Fables,  Isidore and Pliny that beavers will castrate themselves in order to escape hunters (shown to the left).  These glands were the source of an oil called castoreum.  However, at least Isidore does not say what the medicines are used to treat. Cameron notes that Aldhelm’s use of beaver as a component in a remedy is not found in any Anglo-Saxon medical text. I’ve consulted three translations and they all say that the beaver is used to treat plague (Latin text). It makes some sense from their point of view to include castoreum from the inguinal gland in a remedy for a bubo that is usually found in the inguinal or thigh region. If anyone knows of other plague remedies that use any beaver parts, please leave a comment!

Ironically if Aldhelm and Aldfrith were together as students on Iona in the mid-660s they may have been safe from the plague of 664 that Adomnan of Iona claims did not reach Iona. According to Bede, Aldfrith was on Iona when his brother died in May 685, keeping him safe from the plague of the mid 680s until he took the throne. (Adomnan claimed that neither plague epidemic that struck Britain in his time reached Iona, which he credited to St Columba’s protection.) On the other hand, Aldhelm would have been in Wessex during the plague in the mid 680s and if he sent the riddles to Aldfrith shortly after he came to the throne in 685/6, then the plague was still circulating in England at the time. From what is know of King Aldfrith, he was  high educated for a secular man at the time and enjoyed cosmology, and so animal lore is not far removed. Lapidge argues that Aldhelm read and studied Virgil on Iona. So it follows that Aldhelm would have known some of classical literature Aldfrith had learned. (Though it also has to be noted that Bede knew of Virgil’s works and had Pliny’s Natural History and he certainly didn’t study on Iona so these classical works may have been found in the better libraries in England.) Either way, Aldhelm may have included this clue in the riddle to make it harder to solve and allow Aldfrith to show his cleverness to his court.


The Medieval Bestiary: Beaver

M.L. Cameron. Anglo-Saxon Medicine. Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England 7. Cambridge, 1993 (repr. 2006)

Lapidge, M. (2009). The career of Aldhelm. Anglo-Saxon England, 36, 15. doi:10.1017/S0263675107000026

 Nancy Porter Stork, trans. 1990 , Through a Gloss Darkly: Aldhelm’s Riddles in the British Library MS Royal 12.C.xxiii. Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, Onterio. (Latin text also found at this link)

What do you really want to know about the past?

When you think about the past, what do you really want to know? Do you want to know what people thought and felt, their philosophy or understand their spin? Or, do you really want to know what really happened? What was their world really like, not what they said it was like? Sure we are all a little curious about both, but when push comes to shove, what do you want to know the most? Where will you invest your time?  These are really two very different approaches. I’ll soon be reviewing two books here that both look at nature in the Middle Ages and take opposite approaches.

The best example I have found of these diametrically opposed approaches is on medieval epidemics. Some historians will argue that it doesn’t matter what the disease was, all that matters is its demographic effect. Scientists will argue that you can’t really know anything about the epidemic without trying to characterize it medically/biologically, if not identify it. For many classically trained historians of medicine, retrospective diagnosis is not only a fool’s errand and waste of time, but bad practice. It is taking a lot of coaxing for them to accept scientific evidence that can identify the disease, and alas, some will look for any little uncertainty to cling to to reenforce their training. Scientists don’t help themselves by writing awful historical introductions to their papers relying on secondary sources that are themselves vintage to say the least.

Anthropology has been dealing with both approaches for a long time. In 1967, linguist Kenneth Pike first proposed the terms emic and etic to describe the two approaches. Etic, from phonetic, refers to measurable and observable traits. For Pike this meant the body structures and environments that effect human sound production, and today speech and language pathologies. Emic, from phonemic, refers to human interpretations of sounds that vary by culture to produce different languages and interpretations of sounds.   Pike’s book, published in 1967, was met with mixed success but his concept of emic and etic approaches has stuck. Moving beyond linguistics, the terms can be applied much more broadly.

An emic approach is interested in how people conceptualized and understood their world. If you want to know what they were thinking or what they believed, then you are asking an emic question. This is a humanist oriented approach used to study literature and language, cultural history and anthropology, religion and philosophy, art, etc. To study the past, this approach relies over-whelmingly on manuscripts, inscriptions and art (or interviews).

An etic approach is interested in what the world was really like using observable and ideally measurable data. If you want to know what caused a famine, not just what contemporary people attributed it to, then you are asking an etic question. This is science-oriented approach used by climatologists, biologists, archaeologists, ecologists and environmental historians, economists and some historians, (for example those who study military science or technology). The etic approach may also use manuscripts, some narratives but more likely technical drawings, tax rolls, manoral accounts, and other records. The etic approach is values physical data like climate proxies (ice cores, tree rings, etc), osteological analysis, pollen analysis, and analysis of physical remains.

Many fields use both approaches to  a greater or lesser degree. Anthropology is a prime example, but even here subdivisions develop with some competition. For example, (from what I have seen) cultural anthropology and medical anthropology primarily use emic approaches while archaeology and biological anthropology use etic approaches.  Likewise, academically linguistics is split into departments of language and literature, vs. departments of speech pathology and therapy. On the other hand, there are historians who use a lot of archaeology in their work along with manuscripts. I’m thinking of early medievalists in particular. One of the advantages of fields like Anglo-Saxon studies is that it can unite both approaches in a single field.

So what is your approach to history? Emic or etic? I am curious what approach my readers favor, so please leave a comment.


Emic and Etic, Wikipedia.

Harris, Marvin. “History and Significance of the Emic/Etic Distinction.” Annual Review of Anthropology, 1976, 329–50.

Green, Monica. “Taking ‘Pandemic’ Seriously: Making the Black Death Global” The Medieval Globe, issue 1 (forthcoming)

Addendum:  I admit that I used poor judgement in regards to using disease as an example of the emic/etic distinction. I failed to understand the importance of Monica Green’s priority in applying the concept to medieval disease, plague in particular, as previously discussed on the discussion list MedMed-L and in the forthcoming issue of The Medieval Globe (which I am also a contributor to). My intention was for this post to be a preamble to a review of Richard Hoffmann’s book An Environmental History of Medieval Europe and his independent use and discussion of emic/etic evidence, which is planned as the next post for this blog. I apologize to Dr Green and recommend her forthcoming article to you.


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.

Looking Back at Kalamazoo 2012

This was a really good Congress. It was pretty laid back and things seem to go pretty smoothly. I met lots of new history of medicine folks that I hope to keep in touch with (and barely got to chat with a certain geek I saw a lot of, sniff). I had great luck in picking sessions. Just about every session I went to either had interesting info for my research or gave me ideas for blog posts (even the ones I picked just for general information). I’ll highlight only some of the presentations here.

The tone was set just right with the first session Thursday morning on “Medieval Environments I: Food Shortage and Subsistence Crises in Medieval Europe” sponsored by ENFORMA (Environmental History Network for the Middle Ages). All three of these papers were really good. Kathy Pearson’s “After the ‘Fall’: Feeding Rome in the Early Middle Ages” discussed the changes in Rome over the 5-7th century or so. She reminded us how drastically Rome shrank over the late antique/early medieval period. Their food demands shrank likewise and could usually be met by the hinterland until or unless pilgrims swelled the population of the city. Pearson reminded us that the Roman estate system had broken down  before the seventh century; its trade network and food shipments even from Sicily much less the wider Mediterranean were lost by or before the seventh century. Tim Newfield’s “Shortages and Population Trends in Carolingian Europe, ca. 750-950” was very interesting and closest to my own work. He presented a lot of hard data that I didn’t try to write down but will eagerly wait for publication (and I’ve already looked up his PhD thesis – maybe a future full post). For now I’ll only say that there were fairly regular food shortages throughout this period. Philip Slavin’s Alternative Consumption: Fodder and Fodder Resources in Late Medieval English Economy, ca. 1250-1450 reminded us how livestock compete with humans for food sources and what allocations of fodder can tell us about animal use. I think ENFORMA will be a group that I may want to follow-up on.

For my second session I hoped to learn more about the Goths but two of the presenters didn’t show up. Deanna Forsman’s Becoming Barbarian: An Examination of Stilicho in Fifth-Century Latin was an interesting exercise in ethnic identity and Roman citizenship delivered with a lot of energy!

The last session of Thursday was Medieval Environments III: Exploiting and Managing Animal Resources”. The two papers that really stuck with me are Cristina Arrigoni-Martelli’s The Prince, the Park, and the Prey: Hunting in and around Milan in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Century and Kevin Ian Malloy’s Forgotten Landscape: An Environmental History Examination of Medieval Parks in Scotland. What really struck me was the degree of management of the landscape into virtual open range deer parks to the point in Milan of rearranging the agricultural landscape to create range tracks for hunting. While I accept that it happened and that it explains the animal diversity (or lack of it) in Europe, it’s still hard for me to imagine. Driving back from Kalamazoo to southern Illinois I passed five deer road kills in one day!

Thursday evening I went to the “Burn after Reading: Miniature Manifestos for a Post/medieval studies” that I guess was supposed to talk about adjusting to some of the realities facing ‘medieval studies’ and the humanities as a whole in the current funding and reshaping of the university landscapes. A few of the 13 speakers had constructive (if not entirely popular) suggestions.  Several of the mini-manifestos have appeared on blogs since linked by the Medieval History Geek. It was interesting to watch as an outsider to the field. I loved it when another independent scholar asked the panel what they do for fun and not one of them said anything medieval related. I think she asked it because they were all being so dismal. Angst is the word I would use to describe the session. Of course they all backtracked and eventually said they loved their field, couldn’t imagine doing anything else etc. I believe she said she asked it because she wanted to know where/how they got their enthusiasm refreshed. They said ‘coming to Kzoo’! 🙂 Perhaps part of the problem they had being put on the spot was perhaps that I find it can be hard for a researcher to separate what is work and what is fun. Field trips are fun, even if work related. I imagine going to London or Paris to look at manuscripts could be fun! It also makes me think of the growth in Tolkien related studies at Kzoo, which for a medievalist is a fun modern text. The same for discussions of medievalisms in modern film, tv, books etc.  Likewise, lots of science folks read science fiction or watch science fiction tv/movies for fun. Alas, no one said they blog for fun.

Back to regular sessions, the intriguing mix of science and medieval studies continued all day Friday. I started the morning with The Health and Lifestyle of Medieval Populations: A Bio-anthropological Perspective. Another case where people dropped out of the session but they scheduled four so it was still good. The two presenters came from the Global History of Health Project at Ohio State. This is a massive bioanthropology study of people around the world from prehistory to the 19th century.  (They are still looking for collaborators for Europe, especially south of the Alps for all time periods.) Richard Steckel’s Medieval Stature: The Human Skeletal Record of Life and Living, AD 800-1500  had some really interesting data on the long-term shifts of human height (related to nutrition and life stress) for about a thousand years. (If I recall correctly his data extended beyond 800-1500). I wish I had a print out of some of the charts showing the rolling changes in height across the medieval period and the differences in gender. For example in some periods, men got shorter and women got taller or the opposite. Other periods, there was  a general decline in height and the shortest of all was the industrial period (about 17-19th century). Our medieval ancestors were taller on average than the first factory workers. Kimberly Williams’ Growing Old in Medieval Europe: Osteoarthritic Ankles, Knees, and Toes (and Other Joints) covered arthritic changes observed and how they also changed over time and place. She also discussed the osteological paradox which states that bones that show signs of arthritis (or malnutrition) are the healthier individuals because they survived the stress. People of weaker constitutions would die before these signs of adaption appeared in the skeleton.

Next up where the two sessions I organized. I really couldn’t have been happier with how they turned out. The first session on Health and Healing in Early Medieval Britain and Ireland was packed; we had people sitting on the floor. I was up first and I think my talk went ok (and I’ve tried out parts of it on you all over the last year here at Heavenfield and on Contagions, so no rehashing that!). Mara Tesorieri’s Regional Patterns of Health in Early Ireland: Distributions of Non-specific Stress Indicators covered some of the same malnutrition topics I did but from a bioarchaeological perspective.  She had some interesting data contrasting Ireland with Britain and areas within Ireland. In general, there were more signs of stress in Ireland and it was not distributed evenly. She briefly discussed some early observations of stress indicators vs. political stability. I’ll be looking forward to hearing more about her project as it progresses. Julia Baolotina’s The Experience and Practice of Medicine by the Laity in Anglo-Saxon England discussed what evidence there is for lay medicine and how much medical care monasteries provided for their surrounding territory, which seems to have varied quite a bit based on excavated cemeteries. Silas Mallery’s By France, or By Spain? Possible Mediterranean Origins of Irish Holy Well Veneration covered a wide-ranging comparison between early holy wells in the Mediterranean, Roman Britain and their later appearance in Ireland, their use in medicine, and he also discussed the antiquity of general water offerings.

In the second session Medical Texts of the Early Medieval Mediterranean our second speaker withdrew the week of the Congress, but the remaining two more than made up for the space. Jayna Brett’s Animal-Derived Medicines in the Early Medieval Pharmacy discussed a 4-5th century Italian text and its influence. She gave us lots of examples of the types of animal parts used and what they were used for. The early medieval pharmacist must have been quite the odd fellow picking around butchered and exotic animals for their medicinal bits.  I mean really, who collects condor eyes for a future salve? As I commented then, it seemed more dangerous to acquire some of these medicinal bits from some wild and aggressive animals than the condition the medicine was used to treat. Glenn Cooper’s Book-Learning and Medicine in Medieval Byzantium: Theory and Practice of the Alexiad of Anna Comnena brought us the fascinating story of a woman author who wrote her father’s biography using a metaphorical system based on the human body and used her own book-learned medical knowledge to describe his condition and criticize his medical care. Confined to a monastery for a rebellion against her brother she gathered a “salon” of learned men around her that became her intellectual legacy. I want to thank everyone who came to both sessions and the lively discussion that followed both sessions was great! After such a busy day speaking and presiding, this introvert needed to recharge with a quiet night, a nice dinner and returning to the hotel early.

I had intended Saturday to be a mainly Anglo-Saxon day but I made some last-minute changes and it worked out really well. The first session was Bede: Friends and Enemies I that I got to late, so I missed most of the first speaker. Patrick McBrine’s Old Acquaintances: The Poetry of Bede’s Vita Cuthberti brought a welcome look at the influences of antique poets on Bede’s verse Life of Cuthbert. It is always nice to see even snippets of that life, which still lacks an English translation!! The third speaker was a no-show, sigh. The session wrapped up with Peter Darby’s Bede and the Image Question: Enemies and Friends in Constantinople. Darby argued that Bede was kept up to date on the latest Iconoclast controversy in Rome by his researcher Nothhelm and that Bede took part in the debate by producing his De Templo as a rebuttal to the Iconoclasts using the decoration of Soloman’s temple. Within De Templo, Bede comments that the commandment not to make craven images of things in heaven or earth did not apply to icons and church decorations because Soloman’s temple had many carved images of things both from heaven (cherebim) and on earth. It’s interesting that Bede sends De Templo to Albinus of Canterbury to be copied for distribution. Darby argued that Bede felt so strongly about this issue because of how important the icons/paintings that Benedict Biscop brought to Wearmouth and Jarrow from Rome were to the community. Recall that Bede spends a lot of time in the History of the Abbots describing the art work acquired by Benedict.

I switched from my planned Bede sessions to Early Medieval Europe II and it really paid off. It opened with Louis Schwartz’s What Rome Owes to the Lombards: Devotion to Saint Michael in Early Medieval Italy and the Riddle of Castel Sant’ Angelo. This is one of those plague legends that I think I will devote a separate post to, so hang on for more on this one.  Erica Buchberger’s Gothic Identity in Spain before and after the Arab Conquest brought more examples of the fluidity of ethnic identity, both self-identity and reported identity both others. Helen Foxhall Forbes’ Suicides and the Damned in Anglo-Saxon England discussed what limited information and attitudes toward suicide. Acknowlegment of a suicide is rare in the records because it meant burial in unconsecrated ground. As Forbes said, a lot of people die ‘falling’ off buildings. The suicides implied in the record are also all from falling from great heights. She was also representing The Impact of Diasporas on the Making of England project at the University of Leicester, a multidisciplinary project involving history, archeology, genetics, linguistics, etc. Check it out!

For my last regular session, I thought I would try to learn something about Herbals so I went to the Herbs and Healing, from the Ancient Medieterranean through the Medieval West: Papers in Honor of John Riddle II. I’m afraid I didn’t get too much out of the first two papers because I’m really not a manuscript person. Unfortunately they were more interested in reconstructing textual transmission than with the content of the manuscript. However, the last talk was Wendy Turner’s Mental Incompetency as a Foundation for Suit in Medieval English Land Disputes had some good data that covered up through late medieval England. I’ll have to keep an eye  out for her work for post-Black Death guardianships etc. Handling issues like care for children and the disabled is part of disaster response (even if it’s not called that) that can go on for years after the event.

My Congress ended with a pretty typical routine: one last stroll through the book exhibits, pick up dinner, and then go to the Pseudo-Society Saturday evening. The book exhibits were disappointing this year. Fewer publishers and book sellers came, and those that came brought fewer books to exhibit and fewer copies of what they did exhibit. I rarely go to Sunday morning sessions with such a long drive home. So after a quick run through the big book sale Sunday morning, I hit the road early and got home in time watch Sherlock Sunday evening. Overall, a very good Congress with lots to think about and a rejuvenated feeling that are exciting things going on that I might be able to contribute to!

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.

Health and Healing Sessions at Kalamazoo 2012

Regular readers might remember that last fall I was regularly posting and tweeting a call for papers for a session on health and healing in early medieval Europe for the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo in 2012. The schedule for the Congress is now out so I can tell everyone all about it. As you can see I got a great response to my CFP and the Congress committee let me put together two sessions. So without further ado, here are the sessions co-sponsored by The Heroic Age and Medica: The Society for the Study of Healing in the Middle Ages.

Session 264 (Friday 1:30)
Schneider 1255

Health and Healing in Early Medieval Britain and Ireland
Presider: Deanna Forsman, North Hennepin Community College

  • Famine and Pestilence in the Irish Sea Region, 500–800 AD: Michelle Ziegler
  • Regional Patterns of Health in Early Medieval Ireland: Distributions of Non-specific Stress Indicators: Mara Tesorieri, Univ. College Cork
  • The Experience and Practice of Medicine by the Laity in Anglo-Saxon England: Julia Bolotina, Univ. of Cambridge
  • By Rome, or By Spain? Possible Mediterranean Origins of Irish Holy Well Veneration: Silas J. Mallery, North Hennepin Community College

Session 319 (Friday 3:30)
Schneider 1255

Medical Texts of the Early Medieval Mediterranean
Presider: Michelle Ziegler

  • Animal-Derived Medicines in Early Medieval Pharmacy: Jayna Brett, Centre for Medieval Studies, Univ. of Toronto
  • A Medieval Hippocrates? The construction of the Articella during the eleventh century.: Marco A. Viniegra, Harvard Univ.
  • Book-Learning and Medicine in Medieval Byzantium: Theory and Practice in the Alexiad of Anna Comnena: Glen M. Cooper, Brigham Young Univ.