“Bring out your dead”: science identifies ancient plagues

November 1, 2010 • 10:44 am

It’s hard to imagine an infectious disease so horrible that it kills every second person. And not every second person it infects: every second person, period.  That was the “Justinian Plague” of sixth-century Europe.  Another wave of bubonic plague, beginning in 1347, killed a third of Europeans.  Imagine the terror that invoked, since the cause was completely mysterious.

Today’s New York Times reports on two recent studies of black death.  In one, by Stephanie Haensch et al., researchers sequenced plague DNA from medieval “plague pits” where bodies were thrown.  They not only identified the causal organism as the bacterium Yersinia pestis (definitively settling a long-standing debate), but also found that it invaded Europe at least twice: once from the north and once from the south.

And in the new Nature Genetics, Morelli et al. do a phylogenetic reconstruction of the plague’s genetic history from geographically widespread sequences.  The pathogen apparently originated in or near China and, using a molecular clock, the researchers traced and dated the successive waves of invasion that caused epidemics of Black Death.

Here’s the final paragraph of Nicholas Wade’s report; the “slaughters by accident” is apt but not completely accurate: while most plague is transmitted by fleas that bite infected rodents and then humans, the pneumonic form (which occurs when the disease infects the lungs) can go directly from person to person.

The likely origin of the plague in China has nothing to do with its people or crowded cities, Dr. Achtman said. The bacterium has no interest in people, whom it slaughters by accident. Its natural hosts are various species of rodent such as marmots and voles, which are found throughout China.

Fig. 1.  The terrifying costume of a medieval plague doctor.  Long coat, boots, glass goggles, and a beak stuffed with herbs and spices to mask the stench.

h/t: Hempenstein


Haensch S, Bianucci R, Signoli M, Rajerison M, Schultz M, et al. 2010.  Distinct clones of Yersinia pestis Caused the Black Death. PLoS Pathog 6(10): e1001134. doi:10.1371/journal.ppat.1001134

Morelli, G. et al. 2010.  Yersinia pestis genome sequencing identifies patterns of global phylogenetic diversity. Nature Genetics doi:10.1038/ng.705

40 thoughts on ““Bring out your dead”: science identifies ancient plagues

  1. Thank goodness, I do get tired of everyone trying to blame Justinian’s Plague and the Black Death on whatever disease happens to be popular at the moment. I’ve seen Ebola, smallpox, Hanta virus, etc. Never mind the pretty clear historical legacy that plague leaves behind to identify it, its more fun when it could be something different.

    1. They not only identified the causal organism as the bacterium Yersinia pestis (definitively settling a long-standing debate), but also found that it invaded Europe at least twice: once from the north and once from the south.

      The Jews were the first organisms blamed for causing the Black Death. This is where the myth of Jews poisoning the wells of Christians comes from, which resulted in Germany’s first widespread slaughter and expulsion of the Jews:

      At Strasburg the mayor refused credence to the rumors, and declared his intention of sustaining the Jews; whereupon he was removed from his post, and more than 2,000 Jews of the city were put to death (Feb. 16, 1349). The deeds belonging to the latter were seized and destroyed (showing the real motive of the act); and the debtors of the Jews gave assurances to the citizens of protection from the consequences of the massacre (Stobbe, “Juden in Deutschland,” p. 189). The Jews of Worms were the next victims, and no less than 400 of them were burned March 1; while on July 24 the Jews of Frankfort preferred to offer themselves up as a holocaust, and in so doing burned part of the city. The largest number of victims is recorded at Mayence, where no less than 6,000 are said to have been slain Aug. 22, 1349. Here the Jews for the first time took activemeasures against their oppressors, and killed 200 of the populace; but finding the task of freeing themselves hopeless, they barricaded themselves in their dwellings, and when the alternative of starvation or baptism faced them, set fire to their houses and perished in the flames. Two days afterward the same fate befell the Jews of Cologne; and, seemingly in the same month (though other records assign March 21 as the date), the Jewish inhabitants of Erfurt, 3,000 in number, fell victims to the popular superstition and hatred. … The following list contains the names of all towns where the Jews were attacked on account of the Black Death, according to the records given in the Nuremberg “Memorbuch.” It is of importance not alone for its testimony to the wide area of the attacks upon the Jews, but also as recording almost every town in Germany, outside the Austrian dominions, in which Jews dwelt in the middle of the fourteenth century. … From this time onward the Jews in all German towns lived in perpetual dread of similar attacks; and the civil authorities adopted the plan of expulsion as the only means of getting rid of the Jewish question in the towns. By the end of the fifteenth century there were only three considerable communities left in the whole of Germany.

  2. Hmm. Time to re-read Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book, I think. Just the thing to appreciate stories of ancient microbial DNA from medieval tombs… 😉

  3. The next historical question I’d like to see answered is the nature of the royal hemophilia that many of us are familiar with. Everyone (myself included at first, along with some people who I thought would have known otherwise) thinks that the mutation is known. It isn’t. It isn’t even known if it was Hemophilia A or B (for which there are many underlying mutations) since the distinction wasn’t worked out (IIRC, 1952) until after the demise of the last royal with the trait (IIRC, 1940s).

    The reason this is of considerable academic interest is that, if Robert Massie was correct in Nicholas and Alexandra, on that mutation the course of 20th century Western history was altered, since shortly before they were all murdered, the White troops were prepared to rescue Nicholas & family. Instead, they were put at bay since Alexei was having a hemophilic crisis. Not long after the murders, the Whites took control of that area, so the premise that they could have been rescued seems pretty good.

    Identification of the mutation might have been possible from DNA analysis of his mother’s or (with reasonable probability) his sister’s DNA, but now according to a recent Smithsonian, the bones of Alexei and his remaining sister have been recovered: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/people-places/Resurrecting-the-Czar.html

    I know, from talking with one of the members of the US Armed Forces DNA team that this question never occurred to the group that analyzed the initial collection of bones, but from that connection I once had hopes that the question would be investigated. Now, I hope it has occurred to someone and that it might be possible.

    1. I’m not sure the Whites rescuing the Russian royal family would have had much impact on history. The tzar was overthrown because he was a cruel tyrant, and the Bolsheviks beat the Whites because they were more ruthless.

    2. What I would love to see is a complete genetic paternity testing of all the royal families of Europe. We know where most of them are buried, and it would be really interesting to have a look into any hidden intrigue that might never come to light otherwise. I’m surprised they don’t have a DNA test done to confirm the British (or any other) monarch’s paternity before handing him or her the crown.

      1. Examining the DNA of any male relative of anybody suspected of having haemophilia would tell us very little, if anything, abou the genetics of haemophilia. We may not know the gene(s) involved, but we do know it is X-linked. Males have only 1 X chromosome, inherited from the mother. If the Duke of Edinburgh does not have haemophilia, he does not have an X-chromo carrying the defective sequence.

        I very much doubt any royal family would be interested in a full genetic analysis of their ancestors. We already have a pretty good idea of how widespread “cuckholding” is among the general public, I don’t think any famous person would be interested in learning exactly how many of their ancestors were not actually the offspring of the line of kings.

        1. Given the massive amount of inbreeding in the royal families of Europe, the ones who are not the offspring of kings are the lucky ones.

        2. There is a good case made that Edward IV who at the time was alleged to be the son of an archer, was indeed a bastard, which would illegitimize any right to the throne of the Princes in the Tower.

    3. This was published last year in Science:

      Genotype Analysis Identifies the Cause of the “Royal Disease”

      Evgeny I. Rogaev,1,2,3,4,*, Anastasia P. Grigorenko,1,2,3,* Gulnaz Faskhutdinova,1 Ellen L. W. Kittler,1 Yuri K. Moliaka1

      The “royal disease,” a blood disorder transmitted from Queen Victoria to European royal families, is a striking example of X-linked recessive inheritance. Although the disease is widely recognized to be a form of the blood clotting disorder hemophilia, its molecular basis has never been identified, and the royal disease is now likely extinct. We identified the likely disease-causing mutation by applying genomic methodologies (multiplex target amplification and massively parallel sequencing) to historical specimens from the Romanov branch of the royal family. The mutation occurs in F9, a gene on the X chromosome that encodes blood coagulation factor IX, and is predicted to alter RNA splicing and to lead to production of a truncated form of factor IX. Thus, the royal disease is the severe form of hemophilia, also known as hemophilia B or Christmas disease.

  4. On a side note there are studies showing that because of the plagues infecting Europe 10% of the population are now resistant to HIV infection.

    1. Would you or someone else be so kind as to connect the dots here? (I.e., how plague exposure promotes HIV resistance.)

  5. More theodicy: without the plague, there would be no beautiful Basilica of St Mary of Health in Venice. I once saw a fantastic El Greco exhibit there.

    The historians’s favorite humanly tragic plague story (Norwich includes it in both his histories of Byzantium and Venice) is the marriage of Venetian Doge Pietro Orseolo’s son Giovanni to future Byzantine Emperor’s Romanos III’s sister, Maria Argyropoulos, arranged to secure the naval alliance with Basil II against Arab incursions into Sicily and Italy. As marriages of convenience go, this one was apparently successful and happy, and Maria was 4 months pregnant when she left Constantinople on ship back to Venice, “as if into exile in a foreign land” according to her parents. The “royal” Maria was feted as never before by the happy Venetians, and her little son Basil, named for the Emperor, was born shortly after Maria’s arrival. But in 1006 a comet appeared in the sky, there was an outbreak of the plague, and within weeks the entire happy family Maria, Giovanni, and baby Basil were all dead of the disease. The broken hearted grandfather Doge survived the plague, but died in 1008.

    Stories like this are addressed by Hume in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion:

    If you feel not human misery yourself, cried Demea, I congratulate you on so happy a singularity. Others, seemingly the most prosperous, have not been ashamed to vent their complaints in the most melancholy strains. Let us attend to the great, the fortunate emperor, Charles V., when, tired with human grandeur, he resigned all his extensive dominions into the hands of his son. In the last harangue which he made on that memorable occasion, he publicly avowed, that the greatest prosperities which he had ever enjoyed, had been mixed with so many adversities, that he might truly say he had never enjoyed any satisfaction or contentment. But did the retired life, in which he sought for shelter, afford him any greater happiness? If we may credit his son’s account, his repentance commenced the very day of his resignation.

    1. More plague theodicy: I just gotta say, not having seen before Donald Nicol’s history that I found on Google books, I love the dryly blasphemous taint that many historians bring to their subject. I believe that we owe this aspect of the trade to Gibbon. Here’s Donald Nicol’s account of 11th c. “reformer” Saint Peter Damian’s cautionary, schadenfreude explanation of God’s role in Maria’s death by the plague, and the dangers of the sybaritic East [my emphasis]:

      Peter records with vindictive satisfaction the how a Greek princess who came to Venice dies a hideous death as a result of her self-indulgence. Distrusting the water supply of Venice, she had her servants collect rain water for her ablutions. Too fastidious to eat with her fingers, she carries her food to her mouth with a two-pronged golden fork. Disliking the stink of the lagoons, she filled her rooms with incense and perfumes. For such depravity and vanity she was a victim of God, who smote her with a vile disease. Her body putrefied, her limbs withered, and her bedchamber was permeated with such a stench that only one of her maids could bear it; and after a lingering illness of excruciating agony she passed away, to the great relief of her friends. It is a nasty tale, but it is eloquent of the living standards between Byzantium and the west in the eleventh century. Maria’s parents had been right to sympathize with their daughter going off to exile in a foreign land. To a lady brought up to the refinements of aristocratic life in Constantinople must have seemed rather barbarous. What Peter Damian and his like took to be signs of depravity were esteemed in Byzantium as marks of urbanity and civilised living. The princess Theophano who had married Otto II was believed to be burning in Hell because of all the baths she had taken during her lifetime. If eating with a fork or taking baths were thought enough to bring down the wrath of God, western society had still some way to go to match the cultured habits of Byzantium.

      Doctor of the Church Peter Damian appears near the apogee of Dante’s Paradiso, just preceding Saint Francis.

      I’m a collector of blasphemies, and some of the best are from historians.

        1. Sounds like a job description from a Denis Wheatley novel. As to the topic of the main post, hoorah for science!

      1. Her immune system was not up to it – too much luxury – that’s why you should let children eat the bit of toast they dropped on the floor! 😉

  6. Well I fail to see how these studies are any different than the Virology Journal manuscript clearly showing that Jesus healed a woman of influenza.

  7. In England, before The Great Pestilence (Black Death), there were 3 classes – bellatores,oratores, laboratores. Warriors, those who pray, labourers.

    After The Great Pestilence the permanent classes started to break down. I wonder how much the ‘magic’ of the Church (in uneducated peasant eyes) stared to fade when it became clear that the Church could not convincingly explain The Great Pestilence as God’s will, nor could religious rituals prevent it.

    An excellent book, written in semi narrative style, is ‘The Black Death -the intimate story of a village in crisis, 1345 – 1350’ by John Hatcher.

    The book paints a picture of the labouring classes absolutely in thrall to the magical rituals of the Church for fear of going to Hell…. The Great Pestilence killed around 50% of the population. Previously land was the scarce resource, locking people into social immobility. After the Pestilence labourers were the scarce resource and all the efforts of the King and clergy to revert to the old social order proved to be ineffective.

    Should we thank the Pestilence? A sobering thought.

    1. In England it was ‘a good thing’ (in the words of Sellar & Yeatman in 1066 and All That), however for Norway which suffered particularly badly, to simplify somewhat, it wiped out the educated class small though it had been, & meant that they had to bring in Danish/Swedish priests, administrators etc. This accelerated the decline of Norway as a separate state & led to 500 years of foreign (Danish then Swedish) domination, & the modern situation where they have two written forms of the language.

      1. Obviously the plague was bad for all who where infected with it, but watching the priest and the pious die along with the bad helped place a healthy scepticism amongst the population which probably did wonders for human rights what with the lack of labour and all that. I don’t know why this healthy scepticism wasn’t transported to America but you either go back to the dark ages voting for the teabaggers or join us in the real world.

      2. Is that why Norge and Noreg both mean Norway?

        My understanding is that Norwegian was basically created mainly out of Danish at the time the union with Sweden was dissolved in 1905. Seems that it’s more complicated than that.

        1. They do. The Norwegians never got a bible at the Reformation, being an adjunct of the Danish crown at the time, so they used a Danish bible pronounced in a Norwegian way. Norge is Bokmaal, the written form of the majority of the press & prevailing in Oslo & the east, which was gradually changed from written Danish & Norwegianised in the course of the 19th C. Noreg in Nynorsk, based on dialects collected by the great Norwegian Ivar Aasen, who walked his way around from town to town collating local varients & terms he heard in the markets etc. He put them into a written norm now morphed/adapted into Nynorsk. This is all very political still & too much to cover here! I will add though that the Reformation was I think a ‘good thing’ as it gave emphasis on the individual & led to the enlightenment, Hobbes, Hume, Voltaire, etc. Very simplistic analysis.

          1. Sorry – variAnts! If my teacher father hadn’t been cremated the poor fellow would be spinning in his grave!

  8. Someone has to do it:

    1. I don’t know about vinegar, but I think the spices and herbs were also thought to ward off bad vapors that caused the disease. I’m not an expert here.

        1. There’s no real evidence that Ring a ‘Ring a Ring o’Roses’ has anything to do with the plague. It seems to be a nineteenth century form of a variety of rhymes most of which had different lyrics. The plague theory of its origin appears to be urban myth

  9. Chinese tax records record plagues in which 98% of all hearths were wiped out. I’m not sure exactly how that translates to mortality: more than 98% because some of a family could die but the household might be maintained?

  10. William Ruddiman in “Plows, Plagues and Petroleum” argues that the Black Death was (at least partially) responsible for the Little Ice Age (so many peasants died that much agricultural land returned to forest and reversed the trend for increasing CO2 levels of the past 8000 years).

    Accounts of events in the Middle Ages which don’t mention the Black Death I regard as being incomplete. Creationists often like to bring up miracles as evidence of a god. I’ve had one argue that the miracle of Turin in 1453 proves their case because they claim Turin isn’t exactly an obscure place, 1453 was an enlightened time and god was sending a message to console Christians for the fall of Constantinople (pointing out that the miracle occurred at a time when Italy was being invaded by the French and the bubonic plague had been recurring 2 or 3 times a generation for over a hundred years-for then mysterious and frightening reasons-didn’t convince the creationist). The creationist was actually a professor of geology at a fairly good American university, so intelligence doesn’t protect against woo (he also believed that the Phoenicians got to North America first before Columbus).

    1. Well, that wouldn’t prove to be such a silly idea ; all in all, the Northmen *did* find America well before Columbus.

  11. “And not every second person it infects: every second person, period.”

    That makes it sound like it killed people regardless of whether they became infected! I think I know what you mean, but thinking I know and knowing I know aren’t the same thing. You might want to consider an alternate wording for future sentences of that nature!

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