Renaming the Third Plague Pandemic

One of my pet peeves in plague historiography is the name of the third pandemic. None of the plague pandemics have the most logical name. The Black Death is a misnomer that came about centuries after the pandemic. It conjures images that are not realistic of plague deaths. The plague of Justinian is probably named better since it started during his reign and is best recorded by writers in Roman territory. And then there is the third pandemic….. it doesn’t even get a name. Blah.

So I would like to make some suggestions for the ‘third pandemic’. If we want to be politically correct and non-offensive to anyone, then perhaps the Global Plague Pandemic since this was the first plague to reach every inhabited continent and seeded new territory in North and South America. I actually prefer the Victorian Pandemic or the Plague of Victoria (or British Empire). Plague first catches world attention when it strikes British Hong Kong and British territory in China and India have the worst mortality. Afterall, Victoria crowned herself Empress of India.  Further it was the Victorian economic network that spread plague around the world. This follows the naming pattern of the Justinian pandemic and, although not contiguous, the British Empire was perhaps as dominant as the Roman Empire in its day. Or is there a better name for the third pandemic? Let me know what you think in the comments.

Defining what a plague pandemic actually is, is another whole quagmire. These names really should only reflect the first couple years of the outbreak when a continuous network of transmission can be plausibly reconstructed. It is now generally recognized that the Black Death did not last 400 years. About 18 “waves” of plague have been identified for the Justinian plague. I fully expect that aDNA will confirm that some of these secondary “waves” of both the first and second pandemic were pandemics in their own right (with distinctive genetic signatures).  I really expect that aDNA from biovar medievalis (branch 2) will be found in Europe or North Africa at some point. Wether we define pandemics genetically or historically may be the post-plague identity academic argument. That is a way off yet though, since unfortunately the identity war doesn’t seem to be finally settled yet (though the way forward seems quite clear to me), but that is a topic for another day.

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5 thoughts on “Renaming the Third Plague Pandemic

  1. The use of the name “Black Death” should actually only refer to the first 5 years of the pandemic (or epidemic, whichever you prefer) on the European continent (1347-1352) , because it affected almost whole Europe (with some unaffected territories). The year 1352 marks, more or less, the end of this first wave of plague. The next waves didn’t affect the whole continent but “only” certain territories (by which I mean certain cities), also those which remained unaffected in the first wave. And sometimes the death toll was as severe as in the first wave, the “Black Death”. Of course this definition doesn’t take in account the spread of the infection in Asia.
    Your suggestion for the name of the third pandemic (Victorian Pandemic) is, in my view, appropriate and I find it better the “Global Plague Pandemic”. But here one could maybe distinguish between the first wave of the plague, which can be named “Victorian Pandemic”, and the next ones. But here I am not quite sure, if it is possible to make such a distinction. Does the third Plague Pandemic begins in 1855 in Yunnan-province or not until 1894 in Hong-Kong? When does it end? Is it 1912 or 1945? What do you think?

    1. All of the pandemics have indefinite starts and ends. I would probably start it with the first clear records of it. The Black Death begins somewhere before it reaches Europe, the traditional start date. I really don’t know the details well enough to draw an end point. This period of plague is, I think, considered to be over by 1950.

  2. Hi,

    Thanks for yet another very interesting post. I can see that a lot has happened in the field on The Black Death since I had a course on the subject some 15 years ago.
    If I were to read up on the subject again and gain a broad view of the Stand der Forschung regarding The Black Death and plague research (mostly the period of the Antiquity and the Middle Ages), could you recommend some articles or books?

    With regards

  3. Unfortunately this is not a very easy question to answer. There really isn’t a book out there to cover all of plague history or really even the individual pandemics. I hope to rectify that someday. For the first pandemic, Lester Little’s The End of Antiquity: The plague of Justinian 541-750 is the best collection of essays. For the second pandemic, there are many books and articles but one doesn’t really stand out for to me as an overview. The plague page here at Contagions has a few book reviews and all the posts have references for more reading. For the third pandemic, Myron Echenberg’s Plague Ports: the Global Urban Impact of Bubonic Plague 1894-1901 is probably the best overview.

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