Black Death mortality was not as widespread as previously thought

The Black Death had a devastating impact in some regions of Europe - however, parts of the continent experienced little or no effect, according to new research.

A study published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution uses pollen data to evaluate the second plague pandemic's mortality at a regional scale across Europe.

It shows the impact of the Black Death varied substantially from region to region.

Sharp agricultural declines in Scandinavia, France, southwestern Germany, Greece and central Italy support the high mortality rates attested to in medieval sources.

Meanwhile many regions, including much of Central and Eastern Europe and parts of Western Europe, including Ireland and Iberia, show evidence of continuity or uninterrupted growth.

The researchers say one reason the results come as a surprise is that many of the quantitative sources used to construct Black Death case studies come from urban areas.

Despite their enhanced ability to collect information and keep records, many of these were characterised by crowding and poor sanitation. However, in the mid-14th century, upwards of 75% of the population of every European region was rural.

The study was conducted by an international team of researchers, led by the Palaeo-Science and History group at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. In the UK, the team included researchers at the University of Plymouth, University of Reading, University of Oxford and Wessex Archaeology.

Professor Ralph Fyfe

Professor Ralph Fyfe

Ralph Fyfe, Professor of Geospatial Information at the University of Plymouth, said:

"The Black Death, like most plagues or pandemics, is something almost everyone has heard of. However, their understanding of it is based on stories from the time which were told, for obvious reasons, without any wider international context.
"This study uses pollen data to rewrite that history, and show the diversity of impacts that a pandemic can have on communities right across Europe. It is a fascinating, and in many ways surprising, insight into our past."
  • The full study - Izdebski et al: Palaeoecological Data indicates land-use changes across Europe linked to spatial heterogeneity in mortality during the Black Death pandemic - is published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, DOI: 10.1038/s41559-021-01652-4.
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