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.

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)

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.

St Michael, the Plague, and Castel Sant’ Angelo

Archangel Michael currently on top of Castel Sant’ Angelo made in 1753 (Public domain)

Gregory the Great’s vision of St Michael is one of the best known and most charming legends of the first plague pandemic. Gregory was elected Pope after the death of his predecessor from the plague in the 590s. In an effort to plead with God for an end of the plague, the new Pope Gregory led a procession, an early version of the Great Litany, around the streets of Rome. As they approached Hadrian’s Tomb, Gregory had a vision of Michael the Archangel atop the tomb overlooking the city, sheathing his sword, a sign that Gregory’s procession had been pleasing to God and that the plague would end. The statue to the right, an 18th century replacement of an earlier statue, commemorates the legend and evokes the archangels protection of Rome. It has become so iconic that it is on the cover of the only academic collected study on the first pandemic, Plague and the End of Antiquity.

As Louis Schwartz explained in his presentation at Kalamazoo last week, there are a number of problems with this story. Although Gregory the Great was a prolific writer and many of his works survive, he never mentions or even alludes to this vision. None of the early hagiographic works on Gregory mention it. Very strange considering how interested the English were in Gregory as their apostle. They came to Rome looking for more information in part on Gregory in the seventh century, and were still in the midst of plague epidemics when his story was forming in England. The earliest life of Gregory the Great was written in early eighth century England. The earliest written version of the vision that Schwartz could find was from the 13th century! The legend can only be documented about a century before the Black Death that must have fixed the legend in the landscape of Rome, along with supporting processions as mitigation against the plague.

For the shrine of St Michael in the upper chamber/roof of Hadrian’s Tomb, the earliest reference Schwartz could find was in Ado of Vienne’s Martyrology (c. 855) in the entry for St Michael.

“…But not much later, in Rome, the venerable pope Boniface dedicated to Holy Michael a church built atop a circular monument, a crypt of marvelous craft and great height. The church is housed within the very summit of this building, thus it is said to reside among the clouds.”

Castel Sant’Angelo guarding over the crossing over the River Tiber via the Pons Aelius (Credit: huwiki, wikipedia creative commons)

Schwartz notes that Ado was known for embellishing numerous saints lives and daily readings with innovative stories and is an unreliable historian. He believes that Ado was influenced by the Liber Pontificalis’ entry for pope Boniface IV (608-615) who built the church to St Mary in the structurally similar Pantheon. Bede describes this church after narrating Bishop Mellitus’ visit to Rome to confer with the pope on the English mission.

“St Boniface was the fourth bishop of Rome after St Gregory. He obtained from the Church of Christ from the Emperor Phocas the gift of the temple at Rome anciently known as the Pantheon because it represented all the gods. After he expelled every abomination from it, he made a church of it dedicated to the holy Mother of God and all the martyrs of Christ, so that when the multitudes of devils had been driven out, it might serve as a shrine for a multitude of saints.” (Bede, HE II:4)

For Schwartz the unreliable Ado of Vienne’s relatively late first reference to the shrine indicates that the shrine was old enough for its origin to have been forgotten. Instead of the time of Boniface IV in the early seventh century, Schwartz favors a later period in the early eighth century when the Lombards ruled over Rome. Michael the Archangel was the national patron saint and protector of the Lombards from the seventh century when a vision of Michael with his flaming sword was credited with the Lombards defensive victory in 663 at Monte Gargano under the warrior Lombard King Grimoald I.

Minted by King Cunincpert of the Lombards (688-700) featuring St Michael.

Schwartz noted that Grimoald’s successors minted coins with St Michael on one side and that between the 9th to 11th century, over 250 place names linked with St Michael have been found in Lombard territory.

Schwartz argued that the shrine of St Michael was built-in such a visible and strategic location during the few short years in the mid eighth century when the Lombards had hegemony over Rome. They immediately succeeded the final loss of Italian territory by the Byzantine Empire. The strategic location of Castel Sant’ Angelo guarding the only bridge over the River Tiber leading to St Peter’s Basilica symbolizing the Lombard’s role in ‘protecting’ Rome. Even after the Lombard’s lost hegemony over Rome, Lombards continued to hold an important place within the  administration of Rome. They had a Schola Langobardum within the Leonine walls built to protect St Peter’s Basilica and surrounding buildings in c. 850.

Unfortunately, for one of the best known legends of the first plague pandemic, there just isn’t any evidence to support it. It now seems likely that the shrine at Castel Sant’Angelo predated the legend of Gregory’s vision perhaps by several centuries.


Louis Schwartz (May 12, 2012) “What Rome Owes to the Lombards: Devotion to Saint Michael in Early Medieval Italy and the Riddle of Castel Saint’Angelo” Session 429, International Congress for Medieval Studies, May 10-13, 2012, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, MI.

Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 731 AD. Judith McClure and Roger Collins, Eds. Oxford U. Press.

The Death of King Diarmait

I’ve been browsing through the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland for you know what, plague, and I came across an interesting entry.

665 Kl. The death by plague of the son of Áed Sláine, i.e. Blathmac [], i.e. in Calatruim. Diarmait died in the same place, standing, stretched against a cross, watching the Laigin army approaching to kill him. His soul departed from him. It is found in some books that these two kings, Blathmac and Diarmait, reigned twelve years. In others, however, … years, which we follow. These two kings of Ireland, then, Blathmac and Diarmait, died in that plague, i.e. the Buide Conaill. (FA 28)

The Annals of Ulster has a king Diarmait son of Aed Slaine and a king Blathmac who died of plague. There is nothing about being “stretched against a cross, watching the Laigin army approaching to kill him.” I don’t think that I’ve seen anything quite like this before. This would seem to have a Leinster (Laigin) connection, like some of the other hints in plague lore like the name Buide Conaill itself (Conaill being the dynastic founder of the Leinster). Has anyone seen anything like this before?

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.

Cattle Plagues in the Annals of Ulster, 699-708

From the archives a couple years ago:

I’ve been looking at the Irish annals for references to plagues and I came across a couple of references to cattle plagues. Now these plagues are probably not the same disease causing human deaths in the annals. There is a species barrier for most diseases, but not all. Yersinia pestis is one that can cross the species barrier but I don’t think cattle are frequent plague victims in large numbers. Further, if humans were also victims they would be mentioned more prominently in the entries.

More importantly, cattle plagues cause human famines and protein malnutrition that can last for a decade or more. A massive loss of cattle can’t be replaced in a year or two. You can’t just order up replacement cattle. I was at a talk last year at Kalamazoo where they showed that the cattle plague that preceded the beginning of the Black Death took nearly 20 years for cattle stocks to recover. This caused a full generation of protein malnutrition. I would also add that milk would have also supplied a considerable amount of fat in the diet. We have too many fats in our diet today but in a medieval diet, milk fat (in butter, cheese and whole milk) would have been a significant dietary resource. Where else would a medieval diet have gotten protein or fat? With a short supply of cattle, there would have been little meat available (leaving probably mostly pigs, sheep, and birds for meat). Under normal circumstances milk and eggs would have supplied a significant amount of protein.  This would have left people relying very heavily on carbohydrates for all their nutrition. Its hard to get a enough protein from vegetables alone. Eggs would have become a critical protein source.

This all reminds me of Bede’s claims that the Irish monks relied heavily on cattle. On Lindisfarne, they drank only milk and water. He claimed that St Cedd fasted at Lastingham eating only a little bread, a hen’s egg, and watered milk. Likewise St Egbert fasted on only a little piece of bread and skim milk.  The Irish could survive quite healthily on just milk and cereals. Milk supplies protein, fat and sugar. Cereals supply carbohydrates. There are your four basic food groups, if not a lot a variety. However, this leaves them highly reliant on one type of animal and a cattle plague/murrain could be disastrous.

The Annals of Ulster record that the cattle murrain starts among the Saxons in 699 and it appeared in Mag Trega in Tethba (Ireland) on the Kalends of February in 700. Mag Trega is Moytra in County Longford, Ireland. It then records also in 700 that “famine and pestilence prevailed in Ireland for three years, so that man ate man.” Obviously this is a retrospective entry for it to list that it occurred for three years.  Nevertheless, it illustrates how dependent the Irish were upon their cattle. The Annals of Ulster recorded a mortality of cows again in 701. It wasn’t over yet. Again in 708, another cattle murrain is recorded.

The cattle plague would also seem to suggest that there was some trade in cattle across the Irish Sea. The annalist recorded the cattle deaths beginning among the Saxons, then spreading to Ireland. We also have to keep in mind that cattle were wealth certainly in Ireland, but perhaps also in Britain. We are left to wonder what political ramifications resulted not only from the famine and deaths but from the loss of cattle wealth. Would this have made cattle raiding more fierce over the cattle that were left, or would elites look from something else by which to calibrate their relative wealth? Could this have led in part to an increase in coinage at the turn of the 8th century? What could have replaced cattle (or leather) as a trade good? Remember it can take 10-20 years for cattle stocks to recover have a major cattle plague.

I looked at all the entries from 650 to 730 and these are the only cattle deaths mentioned. The human plague reports and the cattle deaths are distinct. The pestilence recorded that accompanied the famine in c. 700 was probably gastrointestinal since in such a severe famine people would have been eating anything they could find. Scavenging for food coupled with a lowered immune response makes people very vulnerable to food poisoning / intestinal disease. Weakened immune responses could have also led to a variety of infectious diseases striking the population, much as they do in refugee camps. Between the human plagues that struck in the 660s and 680s, and the cattle plague at the turn of the century every generation in the second half of the seventh century would have coped with illness and death en masse.