Study: Historians Underestimated the Effects of Justinian's Plague

Between 542 and 545 CE, the Justinian Plague spread across Western Eurasia during the reign of Emperor Justinian I, known for trying to restore the Western Roman Empire. The Plague was the first known case of bubonic plague — caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis and normally transmitted via fleas from rodents to humans—in this part of the world. Now, a new study finds that its impacts were much more severe than previously thought.

Published in the scientific journal Past & Present, the new study by historian Peter Sarris, from the University of Cambridge, investigated both ancient texts of the time and analyzes of genetic data. According to the author, it is essential that archeologists and researchers work alongside scientists and geneticists to reveal the past in a multidisciplinary and, consequently, more truthful way.

Transmitted by fleas carried by rats, Justinian’s Plague is known as the first known case of bubonic plague (Image: Reproduction/Twenty20photos/Envato)

“Some historians remain highly hostile to considering external factors such as certain diseases as having a major impact on the development of human society, and ‘plague skepticism’ has had a lot of attention in recent years,” argues Sarris.

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For the historian, in recent years, interest in the impacts of Justinian’s Plague has grown. On the other hand, this “coincided with a concerted effort by some historians to minimize its historical importance”, he explains. Even understanding this relationship can point to the origins of denial until our times, where society faces covid-19.

Why would Justinian’s Plague have been so devastating?

For the historian Sarris, one of the facts that point to the gravity of Justinian’s Plague is the number of laws passed, between the years of 542 and 545 AD, when the population decreased significantly. In this sense, some laws intended to prevent the exploitation of workers. That’s because the moment appeared to be a serious shortage of labor.

In 542, a law passed was intended to support the banking sector of the imperial economy. Its approval was justified by the intense presence and impacts of “death” on society. In addition, a new series of lighter gold coins was issued, while the weight of copper coins fell. The situation pointed to the deregulation of the incipient economy and the extension of the damage caused by the plague within society.

“Witnessing the plague firsthand forced the contemporary historian Procopius to break with his vast military narrative to write a harrowing account of the Plague’s arrival in Constantinople that would leave a deep impression on subsequent generations of Byzantine readers,” wrote Sarris.

Bubonic Plague DNA Samples

To assess the real impact of the Justiniana Plague, historian uses DNA analysis carried out in cemeteries at the time (Image: Reproduction/Aetb/Envato)

In addition to the legal and economic issue, the historian highlights evidence from the Natural Sciences on the impact of the Justinian Plague in that region of the globe. That’s because new DNA evidence shows that bubonic plague has made its way to England, according to a 2018 genetic analysis carried out in a British cemetery. Until then, it was hard to think that the disease could go that far.

For the historian, DNA analysis is a much more reliable method of discovering where the plague has spread than just looking up ancient texts. “We have a lot to learn about how our ancestors responded to epidemic diseases and how pandemics affected social structures, the distribution of wealth and ways of thinking,” adds Sarris.

It is worth remembering that, even before the new discoveries, Justinian’s Plague was already considered one of the 10 worst pandemics in history. In this sense, the new evidence supports this understanding and places it alongside the Black Death and the Third Cholera Pandemic.

Source: Past & Present

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