The Justinianic Plague: An inconsequential pandemic?

Lee Mordechai*, Merle Eisenberg, Timothy P. Newfield, Adam Izdebski, Janet E. Kay, Hendrik Poinar

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

100 Scopus citations

Abstract

Existing mortality estimates assert that the Justinianic Plague (circa 541 to 750 CE) caused tens of millions of deaths throughout the Mediterranean world and Europe, helping to end antiquity and start the Middle Ages. In this article, we argue that this paradigm does not fit the evidence. We examine a series of independent quantitative and qualitative datasets that are directly or indirectly linked to demographic and economic trends during this two-century period: Written sources, legislation, coinage, papyri, inscriptions, pollen, ancient DNA, and mortuary archaeology. Individually or together, they fail to support the maximalist paradigm: None has a clear independent link to plague outbreaks and none supports maximalist reconstructions of late antique plague. Instead of large-scale, disruptive mortality, when contextualized and examined together, the datasets suggest continuity across the plague period. Although demographic, economic, and political changes continued between the 6th and 8th centuries, the evidence does not support the now commonplace claim that the Justinianic Plague was a primary causal factor of them.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)25546-25554
Number of pages9
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Volume116
Issue number51
DOIs
StatePublished - 17 Dec 2019

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019 National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

Keywords

  • First plague pandemic
  • Justinianic Plague
  • Late Antiquity
  • Plague
  • Yersinia pestis

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