Tag Archives: Black Death

Surely you’re mistaken II

I am on holiday this week, and so probably have time but have little inclination to write you a long and technical post just now. Happily, student assessment comes to the rescue, or rather did in January to June 2019, over which time I collected, as some form of relief from marking, some more of my then-students’ best and brightest errors of fact, judgement or meaning on the two first-year modules I then taught, a full medieval and a late antique survey. All these students have now long since left our care, hopefully have their degrees and I don’t, in any case, know who they were as they were marked anonymously. I very much doubt they can remember writing these things, if they should ever read this. So I think it’s OK to let them lighten your summer as well. I shall group them and apply commentary where, well, where I think it’s funny…

Not quite thought through

“The impact of Constantine’s Christian implementation can be seen during the fourth and fifth centuries, whereby a widespread depiction of Christian art was displayed. For instance, churches became decorated with images of clear Christian origin and meaning, which conveyed an apparent Christian message.”

I mean, aren’t churches the last place you’d expect a Christian message to appear?

From one answer on the Black Death (that wasn’t really supposed to be about the Black Death):1

“However, the BD [sic] also led to the emergance [sic] of the Middle Class, ending the war for resources as the peasantry lessened and people could afford to feed their family.”

Damn peasants! We’d have so much more food without farmers!

“Many bodies were buried in the same grave but there were also many graves – this was a damage to the rural land and reduced possible crop-growing land therefore reducing the positive effect of the middle class emergance.”

Also dead people! So inconsiderate with the space they take up!

Similar vein, different paper, no way to know if it was the same student:

“… the growth of the bishops was not necessarily the main cause of the cities’ decline…”

But they just eat so much at that stage!

I know what you started with, but I don’t know how this happened to it

From the same answer on the Black Death as above:

“Public health, due to the Black Death, was instantly improved. In a short-term effort, people knew to isolate the sick from the cities and often used catapults to expel them.”

The source here must be an old story that the Mongols, while besieging the Venetian colony of Caffa in the Black Sea, catapulted their dead from the plague into the city. This may even have been true, though the source isn’t great, but it’s not true as it ended up here!2

And lastly…

“Britain was home to key Renaissance figures such as Chaucer and Diptych and also saw the spread of grammar schools across the country.”

But of course it wasn’t till the secondary moderns came along that we could develop thinkers like Triptych or Quadbyke.3 And that’s all, folks!

1. I have discovered, in my years of teaching across several institutions, that if you run a full medieval survey and don’t include assessment questions on the Vikings or the Black Death, you’ll get answers on them anyway. They are apparently the two things even the weakest students are interested enough by to revise.

2. See Mark Wheelis, “Biological Warfare at the 1346 Siege of Caffa” in Emerging Infectious Diseases Vol. 8 (Atlanta GA 2002), pp. 971–975, DOI: 10.3201/eid0809.010536.

3. My colleague who did the Renaissance lecture on this module liked to use Jan Van Eyck’s diptych of the Crucifixion and the Last Judgement, which see here, as an example of Renaissance art not all being from Italy. I hardly need to say that that colleague did not relocate it or Van Eyck to Britain, but even if they had, this student had more that they could add…

Thoughts on two exhibitions

By one of those occasional happy chances which look like coincidence but are actually probably consistent foci of interest, I’ve had this post intended for ages to follow the previous one, even before I fully realised the previous one was about a cemetery excavation and so would involve me using or not using photos of skeletons. And one commentator has even obligingly passed comment on the fact that I mentioned making that choice. Well, this post is about that very issue. This arises out of my having been to an exhibition which also raised that very issue, but that trip followed very hard on another exhibition opening which we’ve already mentioned, so I’m going just to mention it again first of all and then get onto the big issue for the day. That will involve one, slightly blurry, photo of skeletons, which I have put below a cut, so please don’t press for ‘more’ if such things distress you (already).

The Winchester Coin Cabinet in the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds

The Winchester Coin Cabinet, in the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds

So, we are at this point in very early October 2017 in terms of my backlog, and it was then that the project I had raised money for called Unlocking the Winchester Cabinet came to fruition and we opened both its physical exhibition and the virtual one that goes with it.1 I’ve talked about both of these before, and how they are very much mostly not my work but that of Leeds student, then undergraduate, now doctoral, Emma Herbert-Davies, so I won’t repeat that story here. However, for value added, I can at least explain how it came to be that the physical exhibition is deep in the Brotherton Library in the entry corridor outside Special Collections, where only people with library access can see it. You see, back in the 1990s when the rather extensive University of Leeds coin collection was in its first phase of care and curation under Christopher Challis, there was a wall display case outside the Library barriers, and it had been used for regular, but quite small, coin displays. Now, the case is still in position, and we had initially hoped to use it for this, but it turned out that it isn’t alarmed, and while that may have been OK in the 1990s it wasn’t going to pass security and insurance muster now. So we replanned for the current location, which has given us about twice as much display space, admittedly, but not where the actual public can see it. On the other hand, it’s also meant that no-one has yet seen a need to change it, so if you can get into the Brotherton Library, you can go see our exhibition still!

The Unlocking the Winchester Cabinet exhibition, curated by Emma Herbert-Davies and Jonathan Jarrett, in Special Collections, the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds

The exhibition in place: photo by Emma Herbert-Davies and used by permission

But the exhibition which is this post’s real topic I went to see a few days after our one opened, and was nothing to do with the University. It was in Leeds City Museum, and it was called Skeletons: Our Buried Bones.2 It was a single gallery, and the centrepiece displays were twelve skeletons, which had been gathered from collections in London, Leeds, Sheffield and Bradford, in the latter two cases university collections but not, perhaps thankfully, in Leeds’s case. (The London ones came from the Wellcome Collection.) The point of the exhibition was mainly to showcase the different things and personal histories which archaeologists and forensic scientists could learn about the people whose bodies these had been, using just their bones. On that score, I will freely admit, it was extremely well-done, pitched at a low enough level to be comprehensible and a high enough one to sound scientific, and with some fascinating stories to reconstruct, such as…

  • … the Iron Age man and woman with a life of labour and disease behind them who were buried together in a small mound near Wetherby!
  • … the Black Death victim from one of the mass burials in Spitalfields, London, who turned out to have an arrowhead embedded in his spine in what must have been a seriously painful old war wound!
  • … the fifteenth-century woman buried at All Saints York who may have been an anchoress there but also turned out to be suffering from not just severe osteoporosis but syphilis! [Edit: some excellent discussion about this in comments; we begin to think that the anchoress is not guilty here, in so far as guilt is even appropriate to apportion…]
  • … the casualty from the Battle of Towton whose assailant didn’t know or care when to stop: the body had been, “struck by a poleaxe, leaving square injuries in his skull, stabbed in the right shoulder, and decapitated.”3

And of course all these stars of the show were actually physically there, laid out clinically in glass cases with careful explanations of how their histories had been deduced, suitable pointers to things like the arrowhead, and handy display panels around the walls about the sites where these people had been found and the wider archaeological context of which they came to form part. It was really very well-curated. And the one photo below the cut is as close as I’m going to showing you any of it. Continue reading

Seminars LXXX & LXXXI: two takes on really big changes

Okay, it’s been a while since last post. I’m not going to apologise, this term has just been a lot higher-pressure than last one and many of you know what that’s like. I do regret it, but what profits it you to know that? So I’ll write when I can and here I am doing it. My load is at least slightly lightened by the fact that the first seminar in my to-blog pile, Julia Smith speaking to the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages seminar with the title, “Rethinking relics in the medieval west: evidence and approaches c. 700-c. 1200″, which was excellent, has already been excellently written up by Magistra et Mater and so I shall direct you there for that and move on to stuff more local and, at last, less related to dead bodies. Do have a look, though. [Edit: light editing below to close up unfinished sentences, correct typoes and add the final missing footnote, and then one big and obvious edit to patch a mistake in my recollection, with thanks to Mark Handley for querying it!]

Belgian postage stamp depicting Henri Pirenne

Postage stamp depicting Henri Pirenne, possibly the second most famous Belgian

Instead, I can offer brief reports on a couple of truly macro-scale papers that I heard in Oxford in the early part of the year, and first of these was the inestimable Dr Mark Whittow, who at rather short notice had to draft himself in to address the Oxford Medieval History Seminar on 17th January, and did so with the title, “Pirenne, Mohammed and Bohemond: before Orientalism”. You will immediately observe that this is a title implying a fairly broad sweep of knowledge and a deliberately provoking argument, and so it was. I can’t do it justice, so I’ll do it the hopefully venal injustice of a short summary. Mark asserted that in some fundamental ways the famous Pirenne thesis, originated by the gent on the stamp above and arguing that the ancient world’s economic arrangement persisted long after Rome’s fall and was only really broken up by the Muslim conquests that separated Africa from the Christian territories on the north of the Mediterranean, has now more or less been proven by archæological finds (such as the occupation at the Crypta Balbi in Rome and Pella in Jordan, which stopped receiving imports from across the Mediterranean only in the eighth century), as well as a cursory reading of the letters of the trans-Mediterranean traveller Pope Gregory the Great.1 Whether or not the territories of the West belonged to it in any direct sense, they all belonged to the political context and mental world of the Empire still.

(High) medieval map of Jerusalem

(High) medieval map of Jerusalem

After the Muslim conquests, however, the conquered lands were fundamentally reoriented, quite literally, in both commercial and mentality terms, eastwards, and those Christian territories lined up against them were similarly so. But, argued Mark, though the East may have forgotten the West, the West did not forget the East, the source of the Christianity even then making its way among new peoples whose fascination with the Holy Land and knowledge of its ancient state soon far outstripped their knowledge of their much nearer neighbours. Around the Irish Sea, for example, there were works about the Holy Places circulating but no contact, for example, with Spain (at least not since the British diaspora, I might condition).2 Everywhere in the West you could find relics of the Holy Land, bits of it that people had got hold of or brought home. In some ways the East remained the spiritual home of Western Christians, and this fascination was played upon to the ultimate effect when the First Crusade was called, and may explain the massive response to Emperor Alexius’s call for help, [Edit: here’s what the above deletion should have said…] a response, we may note, which was far larger for the Holy Land than for similar calls to action in Spain and Italy at earlier points. [You see how this makes more sense. Sorry Mark!] What followed, however, was a rapid disenchantment as the East, in all its manifold divisions, proved less accepting of the West than had been assumed it would and the West found itself not among brothers but among all manner of difference, leading the Crusader kingdoms’ élites to keep themselves Latinately separate from their subjects and Europe to redefine itself against this finally-noticed Other.3

Map of trade routes through the Caucasus and East in the tenth to eleventh centuries

Map of trade routes through the Caucasus and East in the tenth to eleventh centuries (from English Wikipedia)

This is of course a powerfully explanatory thesis, and I’m certainly not equipped to critique it all, nor, given how massively helpful Mark has been to me since I arrived, do I really feel like doing so. At the time, this seemed almost insuperably convincing and questions mainly centred on whether Pirenne’s picture could be called right given what we know of the alternative networks developing, in the North Sea and through the Caucasus and Baltic regions, which drain focus from the Mediterranean economy anyway. Chris Wickham also pointed out a long tradition of dismissing the East which predates the First Crusade, visible for example in Western responses to Iconoclasm, which Mark suggested came from the Roman tradition of sneering at the Greeks. It does seem to me, however, that to stand up fully the broader thesis requires that we accept arguments from silence about networks and connections in the West, which someone like Martin Carver might question,4 while at the same time dismissing such arguments in the central Mediterranean in the light of recent finds. New finds might obviously also mess with the picture in the West. Likewise, the quantity of evidence feels important. The ending of Roman grain shipments from Africa to Rome, and then to Constantinople, must have reduced the weight of trade across those routes.5 If the contacts were already attenuating before the Muslim advent, and it was the Muslim conquests that finally caused them to drop off completely, the effects that Mark was arguing for would have been under way before the Muslim conquests and Pirenne’s thesis would be right, perhaps, but lose much of its explanatory value. Michael Bentley did also ask if there was any evidence that would actually disprove a theory so based in a subjective reading of patchy manuscript preservation. This, in as much as it amounted to demanding the proof of a negative, seemed a bit unfair, but the question of falsifiability does still lurk. We may never be able to prove Mark wrong if he decides to run with this, but it will also be very hard to be sure that he’s right. History is fun like that, isn’t it?

Composite Northern Hemisphere temperature reconstructions & published Northern Hemisphere reconstructions 200-2000 CE and 1000-2000 CE

Composite Northern Hemisphere temperature reconstructions & published Northern Hemisphere reconstructions 200-2000 CE and 1000-2000 CE

Harder to understand, but (if I did) much less disputable was a paper the very next day, 18th January, given by Professor Bruce Campbell to the Europe in the Later Middle Ages Seminar in Oxford under the title, “Population, Disease and Environmental Change in the Fourteenth Century”. This was a paper about the Black Death, except that it was not about the disease itself or its spread, about which indeed there have been lots of recent new discoveries largely covered by Michelle of Heavenfield at her Contagions blog, if you’re interested. Instead, it took in a huge range of climate evidence, taken from all over Europe, and sourced from lake cores, tree rings, stalactite build-up, and all manner of different things to build up a very complicated picture of global climate over the central Middle Ages. This was of course different all round the globe: one of the biggest problems with doing palæoclimatology, as I’ve said here before, is that people generalise from Greenland to Barcelona quite happily when actually Lake Geneva gives you a different story, and so on. Campbell was fully emphasising this variation across the globe, and conditioning almost all his general trends with local or micro-level exceptions. This made it all the more powerful that he was able to emphasise, from all his sorts of evidence, almost all of which you can check out yourself at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Paleoclimatology Data website if you choose, that all over the globe climate was in violent flux over the course of the fourteenth century. It was not simply getting warmer or getting colder, it was all over the shop everywhere, with different overall trends in different places—in Western Europe passing eventually from the Medieval Climatic Anomaly (as I now sort of understand why we have to call it, seeing as ‘warm’ is a bit subjective) to the Little Ice Age—but such serious variation in the period between that big freezes, droughts and, consequently, serious agricultural disruption dominated most of the period 1250-1450. This doesn’t explain the Black Death, at least not directly; the unusual travel of rats is still not understood and it seems unlikely that the archæology will ever be there. What it may well explain, however, is the incredible gravity of the plague’s effects, especially since they came on the back of an under-explored wave of cattle disease which meant that much of the affected area, in East and West, was already running very short on meat and milk, in turn messing with population replacement rates. Everywhere was short of resource and resistance. The results, catastrophe (and a quasi-Malthusian fat time for the survivors, though it was not Malthusian crisis that had thinned things out previously).6

Peasants at work on a plough team, from the Luttrell Psalter

Obligatory toiling peasants illustration, from about the right period too

This was powerful stuff. I was mainly excited because of the variety of subtle ways in and the massive source of free data with which I might now reconsider the Medieval Climatic Anomaly, and others there were more interested in knowing if they could use this sort of techniques to look at other plagues (and suspicious that it doesn’t seem to work half so well for the Justinianic plague). To this Campbell was keen to emphasise, as he had throughout, that he was looking here at an incredibly complex set of environmental systems, with almost-chaotic looking interrelations. Changes in, for example, the Pacific Ocean’s oscillation, as we are seeing even today, have complex causes and affect climate all over the world, but depending on what else climate is doing in each area, and a dozen or more other factors, the results are very different on the micro-scale. (Failure to appreciate this leads to Daily Express stories ‘disproving’ global warming because of huge snowfall in Britain as the Guardian runs stories about historically-unparalleled droughts in Kenya at about the same time.) For the current debates over climate, only the big trends are truly significant, but for our sort of researches, the local variation is immensely important, and there are some ways here to approach it at the same time as the big trends that make up its background. This applies to more than just climate, as a way of thinking… For the second time in two days I’d been thrown into some really big thoughts about changes affecting the whole world that I study and had to come away thinking myself quite lucky just to be where I am when I am, in this way at least.7

1. Some quick web-digging finds the Crypta Balbi excavations reported in Daniele Manacorda, Crypta Balbi. Archeologia e storia di un paesaggio urbano (Rome 2001) and Gregory’s letters are now all translated in John R. C. Martyn (transl.), The Letters of Gregory the Great (Toronto 2004). I don’t have a reference for Pella.

2. The obvious one is Adomnán of Iona’s De locis sanctis, ed. & transl. Denis Meehan as Adamnan’s De locis sanctis (Dublin 1958) though you could if you liked find an older translation online here. Bede like Admonán’s work so much he wrote his own, and you can find that translated online here, transl. A. van der Nat as “Regarding the Holy Places, by the Venerable Bede”, from the edition of Paul Geyer of it as “Bædae Liber de locis sanctis” in idem (ed.), Itinera Hierosolymitana, sæculi IIII-VIII, Corpus scriptorum ecclesiae latinorum XXXVIIII (Vienna 1898).

3. On which a quick study might be Jonathan Phillips, “The Latin East, 1098-1291” in Jonathan Riley-Smith (ed.), The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades (Oxford 1995), pp. 112-140.

4. A suspicion I have mainly on the scale of connections I’ve heard him attribute to monastic centres in Pictland, as for example in his “Conversion and Politics on the Eastern Seaboard of Britain: some archaeological indications” in Barbara Crawford (ed.), Conversion and Christianity in the North Sea World, St Andrews House Papers 8 (St Andrews 1998), pp. 11-40, but shared by a number of the contributors to Sally Foster (ed.), The St Andrews Sarcophagus: a Pictish masterpiece and its international connections (Dublin 1998).

5. My cite of resort for this remains Chris Wickham, “Marx, Sherlock Holmes, and Late Roman Commerce” in Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 78 (London 1988), pp. 182-193, rev. in idem, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 77-98, and of course that does mean I’m twenty years out of date and new evidence may very well have changed the picture. I know what the answer to this is, of course, and it’s now quite close to the top of the to-read pile but as ever other stuff is more immediately urgent.

6. Professor Campbell’s paper was loaded with references, which he displayed by adding them onto the relevant presentation slide as he wound up each point. This was very stylish but left one little time to copy them down. However, I bet most of them are in what seems to be a related publication, B. M. S. Campbell, “Physical Shocks, Biological Hazards, and Human Impacts: The Crisis of the Fourteenth Century Revisited” in Simonetta Cavaciocchi (ed.), Le interazioni fra economia e ambiente biologico nell’Europe preindustriale, secc. XIII-XVIII. Economic and biological interactions in pre-industrial Europe from the 13th to the 18th centuries. Atti della “Quarantunesima Settimana di Studi” 26-30 aprile 2009 (Firenze 2010), pp. 13-32 and online as PDF here. Meanwhile, the damn handy graph I’ve used as illustration is from Michael E. Mann, Zhihua Zhang, Malcolm K. Hughes, Raymond S. Bradley, Sonya K. Miller, Scott Rutherford & Fenbiao Ni, “Proxy-based reconstructions of hemispheric and global surface temperature variations over the past two millennia” in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Vol. 105 (Washington DC 2008), pp. 13252-13257, doi:10.1073/pnas.0805721105 and otherwise online unpaginated here.

7. Not, of course, that I’m happy about living in the era where this is a sudden and urgent political concern that the reigning world-system is completely unequipped to tackle. I have a son, after all, I’m not really happy about the world I’m bequeathing to him.