Book Review: Plague and the End of Antiquity

25 Apr

Little, Lester K., ed., Plague and the End of Antiquity: The Pandemic of 541-750. New York (2007). Pp 360. ISBN: 978-0-521-71897-4

This volume contains 12 essays discussing the first well documented incidence of Bubonic Plague which substantially impacted the Eastern Empire and had at least some impact in Western and Northern Europe during the period identified in the title. The book is divided into five broad topics. The essays are as follows:

I Introduction

  • 1. “Life and Afterlife of the First Plague Pandemic” by Lester K. Little
  • 2. “Historians and Epidemics: Simple Questions, Complex Answers” by Jo N. Hays

II The Near East

  • 3. “‘For Whom Does the Writer Write?’: The First Bubonic Plague Pandemic According to Syriac Sources” by Michael G. Morony
  • 4. “Justinianic Plague in Syria and the Archaeological Evidence” by Hugh N. Kennedy

III The Byzantine Empire

  • 5. “Crime and Punishment: The Plague in the Byzantine Empire, 541-749” by Dionysios Stathakopoulos
  • 6. “Bubonic Plague in Byzantium: The Evidence of Non-Literary Sources” by Peter Sarris

IV The Latin West

  • 7. “Consilia humana, ops divina, superstitio: Seeking Succor and Solace in Times of Plague, with Particular Reference to Gaul in the Early Middle Ages” by Alain J. Stoclet
  • 8. “Plague in Spanish Late Antiquity” by Michael Kulikowski
  • 9. “Plague in Seventh-Century England” by John Maddicott
  • 10. “The Plague and Its Consequences in Ireland” by Ann Dooley

V The Challenge of Epidemiology and Molecular Biology

  • 11. “Ecology, Evolution, and Epidemiology of Plague” by Robert Sollares
  • 12. “Toward a Molecular History of the Justinianic Pandemic” by Michael McCormick

This is a good, interesting book – with a few issues for individual essays. The first two essays, by Little and Hays, respectively, provide a summary of the evolution of the study of the plague – in brief for all plague events and in greater detail for the pandemic covered by the book. Little focuses more fully on the Justinianic Plague and only branches off to the discussion of other plagues as points of comparison while Hays addresses some of the issues and methodologies historians face when studying plague, pandemics and epidemics. These essays do a nice job of setting the stage for the remainder of the discussion, though as I will address later, including one additional essay here rather than where it appears might have been useful.

I won’t discuss each essay as, again, that would require a review article, not a book review. However I will touch on some essays that stand out for me.

Michael G. Morony’s essay is highly informative – and at times troubling. He discusses the Syriac sources in some depth, particularly the second part of John of Ephesus’ Ecclesiastical History which is the primary Syriac source for the plague. 1 He provides a very nice summary of what contemporary literature has to say about the plague, including the mention of symptoms pointing to this as plague as well as how the geographic progression of the disease can be traced through the sources. Where I have issues with this essay are in the conclusions. He accepts the scope and scale of the devastation of the plague as described in the sources in a relatively uncritical manner. He accepts as “realistic and believable” that the plague may have killed a third of the population (p 73) despite later accepting that other causes may have had an impact (pp 84-86). He also provides an interesting statement which I believe requires additional support, “But monasticism arguably drove down the birth rate among Christians in general compared to non-Christians.” (p 85). Is there evidence for this? In any case, I enjoyed this article, however I believe some of his conclusions lack support.

Alain J. Stoclet’s essay on the plague in Gaul discusses how the plague was both blamed on and responded to through; religion and religious practice; secular leaders and; superstition. There’s a fair amount of information and references to source material, however it lacks a cogent message and came across to me as a bit of a ramble. He fails to tie the information together or even provide a conclusion or summary. When I finished it, my mental thought was, “So what?”.

While the two preceding essays stand out for me as having issues, there are several that are memorable for their quality. Michael Kulikowski provides archaeological and textual evidence for the impact of the Plague in Hispania. As always, his discussion is detailed and thorough. However in contrast to some of his other work – namely in Gillett (2002) and Kulikowski (2004) – he is willing to offer conclusions related to the cultural and economic changes which may be attributable to Plague impacts. 2

Robert Sollares’ contribution is, in my opinion, the most outstanding in this entire volume. For someone such as myself, who is relatively unfamiliar with the plague (I have, as anyone who’s ever read on the 14th century does, at least a passing familiarity with The Black Death) this detailed discussion of the Plague, both from the evolution of the study of the Plague and its epidemiology, is extremely useful. Sollares somehow manages to take hundreds of years of research, tie it all together and apply it to Medieval studies in one essay. I believe that for many people it would be more useful to read this as chapter 3, following Hays, than where it is placed in this book.

As he has done elsewhere, Michael McCormick provides something of a “future directions for study” related to microbiology and molecular biology. 3 He discusses methods in which current and future areas of scientific study may lead to a greater – in some cases far greater – understanding of the plague. Possibly due to my science background, I enjoyed this essay tremendously.

This is a high quality, useful book, certainly appropriate for an amateur with some knowledge of Late Antiquity. The essays are geographically quite broad and range from Syria and North Africa to Ireland and England. It is obvious that the respective contributions were written independently of each other as quite frequently the same area is covered in more than one essay – and reach different conclusions. What is most lacking is that final essay to tie it all together. McCormick provides a look forward, however someone tackling a summation of what was covered in this volume would have added value. There is also a lack of emphasis on attempts to quantify the long-term, subsequent impacts of the plague. This is touched on at times, such as by Sarris and Kulikowski, however the emphasis of most of the essays are on the contemporary impacts. Still, this is an excellent opening effort toward a comprehensive discussion of the Justinianic Plague which had such an impact, particularly on the late Roman world in the east. I hope that a more narrative type volume will soon follow to provide a more focused path of study.

1 The Third part of John of Ephesus’ Ecclesiastical History, translated by R. Payne Smith, is available both in print (as a reprint edition) and as a download from The Internet Archive. However to the best of my knowledge the second part is not available in its entirety in English but is largely recounted (according to Morony – I have this wishlisted, not in hand) in Harrak’s translation of The Chronicle of Zuchnin (1999).

2 In Gillett, Kulikowski provides arguments in opposition to Pohl (1998) regarding what archaeological evidence can tell us about ethnogenesis. He argues that there is extraordinarily little we can tell about the evolution of social structures and ethnic groups from these – particularly regarding the Goths but also in general. He provides substantial evidence but I found his conclusions unsatisfying. In his Late Roman Spain and Its Cities he frequently offers statements such as, “Thus, although Zaragosa would appear to have lost the last vestiges of its Roman townscape by the middle of the sixth century – in the sense that however many Roman buildings were still standing, the last lingering social aspects of that townscape were no more – there is no reason to think that the number of people who lived in the city declined or that the city underwent any sort of urban shrinkage.” (p 297) To my mind, when the structures – social, governmental and physical – that are typically associated with urban life disappear (and are not replaced), it is very logical to conclude that it is likely that some loss of population occurred. Either this or we assume that Medievals were capable of adopting some sort of communal behavior whereby large groups of people can live together without urban social structures without substantial social disruption. Kulikowski uses Ampurias as a parallel example – except in Ampurias, according to him, a major rebuilding program took place in the sixth century, something he does not attest to for Zaragosa. While there is no direct evidence for population loss from Zaragosa, there appear to be plenty of indicators – enough to reach an at least tentative conclusion. This absence of conclusions, even tentative ones, based on archaeological evidence is a common thread in this – still very good – book.

3 See this blog post from Jonathan Jarrett for another example of McCormick discussing the use of modern scientific methods in historical study.

Gillett, Andrew, ed. (2002). On Barbarian Identity: Critical Approaches to Ethnicity (Turnhout). ISBN: 978-2503511689 – I apologize for not correctly citing Kulikowski’s contribution here. I will correct this the next time I get to the University library and can take a look at the book (provided it isn’t checked out).

Harrak, Amir (1999). Chronicle of Zuqnin: Parts III and IV, AD. 488-775 (Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, Toronto). ISBN: 978-0888442864.

Kulikowski, Michael (2004). Late Roman Spain and Its Cities (Baltimore). ISBN: 0-8018-7978-7

Pohl, Walter and Reimitz, Helmut (1998). Strategies of Distinction: The Construction of Ethnic Communities, 300-800 (Leiden). ISBN: 978-9004108462


Posted by on April 25, 2010 in Books, Disease and Medicine


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6 responses to “Book Review: Plague and the End of Antiquity

  1. Jonathan Jarrett

    April 26, 2010 at 9:07 am

    Thankyou for the link, as ever, Curt, and the intelligent review. I'm beginning to get the idea that Kulikowski's work presents people with problems. In particular, from what you quote—though I'd have to read his paper—it's not clear to me why Zaragoza should have lost its function. It remained important under the Visigoths, I believe, and was certainly so under the Muslims. I suppose the question is how does the standing population there reorient itself around these changes? If they can still be supplied, then, well, that's a rook of economic, and with them social, functions the city can't have lost, IMO. If this was my exact period I'd have to make a point of reading this sooner rather than later…

  2. Medieval History Geek

    April 26, 2010 at 10:26 pm

    From what I've read of him he knows his archaeology – he goes into a lot of detail, his descriptive elements are clear and well done but he seems to be (though not in the essay in this book) hesitant to offer conclusions based on what he's found. I wonder if he has a bit of an empirical background? I'm used to that but I wouldn't think history needs to be held to that standard.Maybe I'm off base on Zaragosa anyway – he believes it likely had about 6,000 inhabitants (p 128). That seems pretty large for the period to me but maybe they could get along without much in the way of administrative structures – or maybe it wouldn't leave physical evidence. I'm sure they had a church though I don't recall that it was particularly notable – and I'm certainly not arguing that it fell off the map. I believe there was a mint nearby wasn't there? Charlemagne sure thought it was important by the 8th century. Part of the problem is that in that chapter he uses other examples, including Eulalia and Ampurias as evidence that urban life didn't decline, just changed, but offers a lot of evidence for rebuilding. Zaragosa is notable in this chapter for losing/abandoning the Roman type buildings, burying people and dumping trash inside the city, without evidence of substantial rebuilding during the 6th century. Or maybe I should have used another example from this book to illustrate my point. ;)

  3. Jonathan Jarrett

    April 27, 2010 at 11:45 am

    Zaragoza certainly remains important or becomes so again, though I don't think it's a mint until the taifa period; I find no note of it being so under the Visigoths, at least. 6,000 people sounds like an awful lot to me as well, but it's a frequent trade destination and the main route from the Pyrenees to al-Andalus by the eighth century. What the archæology shows you by then, who knows? Not I, anyway. But I'm not understanding here what Kulikowski's basis for assuming that it keeps going through the sixth century too is.Empúries is an odd case (at least compared to Zaragoza) because it moves, but again as a trading site it changes to meet the times as you describe. I don't know Eulalia—where is it?

  4. Medieval History Geek

    April 29, 2010 at 2:48 am

    Bleh – my descriptive skills are in the toilet. He uses construction centering around Saint Eulalia including a basilica and episcopal complex as evidence of continued urbanization of Merida. Sorry about that.

  5. Sherman

    April 30, 2015 at 6:23 am

    According to sources like Wikipedia (and my sincere apologies for citing it) as many as 75-200 million people lost their lives within 4 years time which I find extremely unlikely, not to mention these figures dwarf WW I and II combined. Naturally people will huff and puff about these wards significantly more because their grand parents saw it and their great grand parents fought in it.

    Although it is claimed to heave spread from other continents and brought to Europe, records I stumbled upon suggested the biggest death toll actually occurred in Europe which I find dreadfully strange.

    Could you possibly explore this subject some more? I know a great deal of Christians must have suffered greatly because of the Black Death, considering the hygiene standards across most religion worshippers did not differ greatly in that time period.

    • Curt Emanuel

      May 5, 2015 at 7:01 am

      Sherman, Thanks for your comment. This book refers to the plague event of the 6th-8th centuries, not the Black Death. Numbers for Black Death mortality are debatable and researchers regularly offer their methodologies for determining them. That discussion will likely continue for as long as people write about it.


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