Environment, Society and the Black Death: An Interdisciplinary Approach to the Late Medieval Crisis in Sweden. Edited by Per Lagerås. Oxbow Books, 2016.
The Black Death is a bit of a phantom in this book. Like the human body casts of Pompeii, the Black Death is perceptible by the void it left behind — a void in farm occupation, a void in building, a void in the population/labor but ironically, also a void in mass burials. Without distinctive plague burials, this is how we should expect a scientific investigation of the plague and its environment context to be. What these sometimes contradictory seeming voids mean is the challenge taken up in this book. The studies presented in this book used pollen diagrams, dendrochronology, settlement archaeology and human remains to investigate the entire fourteenth century crisis with the clear signature of the Black Death apparent in each type of investigation.
When the Black Death reached Sweden in 1350, the kingdom was in pretty good shape compared to elsewhere in Northern Europe. Sweden seems to have avoided the Great Famine. The population was spread between small villages and isolated homesteads; there were no large urban areas on par with London or Paris. There was still room to expand settlement toward the uplands in the north-west. The relatively thin settlement and lack of large urban areas explains the lack of mass burials. Based on the population distribution and predicted mortality rate (comparable to the rest of northern Europe), they predict that the thin settlement allowed them to keep up with the burials along with some semblance of usual burial customs, such as coffins. The only indicator of plague deaths (or any epidemic) is the incidence of double and triple graves. So it’s not a matter of discovering the Black Death burials, they have been in plain sight all along.
Staying with the bodies, their osteological sample included 4876 skeletons from 65 medieval churchyards, three execution sites, and two mass military graves spanning the entire medieval period in the region of Lund. Their primary measure of stress was projected height. The only finding of significance was that women were slightly taller (2.5 cm) in the generation after the Black Death. I think they could have made a little more of this considering that the nutrition of young women has a disproportionate effect on fertility, fetal and maternal health. Enough healthy women of reproductive age is a necessity for a population to recover from a mortality crisis. The overall stature of Swedes was on par with elsewhere in Europe and in the 14th century far shorter than modern Swedes. The average height for a man after the Black Death was only 172.5 cm, (5′ 8″) and women at 162.7 (5’5″). They reached their low point in the 19th century only to sharply rebound to their tallest point in the 20th century.
The isotope data from selected skeletons from Lund, the largest urban district in Sweden, yielded a few surprises. They did find a diet change to include more animal and marine sources, but unlike elsewhere in Northern Europe, the switch occurred in the 12th century, not the 14th century. Could this explain why there is no evidence of the Great Famine in Sweden? Nearly two-thirds of the specimens from Lund had some marine sources in their diet. Zooarchaeological specimens suggest that cod was the primary marine source and that freshwater fish were not major contributors to the diet. Regardless, there was no 14th century diet change that the isotopes could detect and no correlation between dietary changes and height. Strontium analysis does not indicate many non-natives after the initial establishment phase of Lund. The Black Death period (1350-1370) had the lowest number of non-locals of the medieval to early modern period. They suggest that this means that contact with the non-Swedish world was reduced during this period.
The bulk of this book addresses settlement and land use changes in the mid-fourteenth century. Beginning with dendrochronology, there is a hundred years gap from 1360 to 1460, reflecting the lack of need of new building or expansion after the Black Death. Amazingly, a few of the farm buildings dating to the pre-Black Death period are still standing. Farm abandonment and landscape change unfortunately can’t be as directly measured as dendrochronology.
The pollen data largely reflects the paradox pointed to in Sing Chew’s The Recurring Dark Ages: Ecological Stress, Climate Change and System Transformation (2006), that periods of human crisis allow ecological rejuvenation. More simply what is bad for humans, is good for the environment. Periods of decreased human environmental exploitation (or resource extraction, if you prefer) allow the environment to recover. Chew does not address the fourteenth century, which we might call a Dark Age near miss, a time when the Old World tottered on the brink of another possible Dark Age, but the similarities still make a useful comparison (and open up some interesting questions).
In the decades after 1350, the pollen suggests that arable fields decreased, conversion to pasture and increased woodland expansion. The conversion of unused fields to pasture or hay kept those fields from regenerating their woodlands and making it easier to bring them back into arable production. Yet, there was still considerable woodland regeneration. They note that seedlings that sprouted in the years after the Black Death formed a mature forest that lasted in some areas for 300+ years. A mature forest with 300+ year old trees will seem like a virgin forest, but it is not; it is still an anthropomorphic landscape.
“In summary the late-medieval crisis and in particular the population drop initiated by the Black Death in 1350 did not only result in profound and long-term social changes, but also in environmental and ecological changes. These changes were not only passive consequences of the crisis – they also affected the course of the crisis through different feedback mechanisms, both positive and negative.”(Lagerås, 2016, loc 3603)
They also note that the only previous rejuvenation of woodlands in Europe occurred in the sixth century around the time of the first plague pandemic. I’m encouraged to see their interest in comparing the 14th century environmental context/consequences to the sixth century. It is refreshing to read a book written with such a clear, scientific tone and approach.
They note that the expansion of woodland allowed a rejuvenation of biodiversity mentioned in a 1376 royal letter that claimed more wolves and bears were damaging humans and livestock. While the abandonment would have decreased hunting pressure, it is also likely that the expansion of the woodland allowed a flourishing of the entire tropic cascade that was capped by predators like wolves and bears. We are more accustomed to thinking of tropic cascades as being suppressed by top down predation (often caused by humans), but the cascade can also bloom bottom up. While on the topic of biodiversity, a discussion of small mammals that could play a role in plague transmission during the 1350 epidemic and later epidemics would have been helpful. This ecological flourishing will radically change the landscape and human relationship to it. What effect, if any, did this have on later plague transmission? In this regard, their comparisons to an 18th century plague would have been just about when the post-Black Death ecological changes were giving way to expansion of arable farmland again and the population had rebounded.
The complexity of the ecological and settlement data is a measure of the long-term contextual changes caused by a single massive epidemic and its aftershocks. Populations would have been moving within the country for many years as heirs took possession of better land, and families depleted of heirs dwindled away over time. They note that the post-Black Death period brings about the end of the self-sufficient manor system. Social order evolves into a more specialized and interdependent system. The ecological changes slowly rolled out as fields turned into pastures or were left fallow; forest encroachment and development occurred over many years. This book is a work in progress on the environmental history of Sweden’s anthropomorphic landscape and its people. It should be considered in the context of other environmental studies of the fourteenth century crisis from Scandinavia, Britain and Ireland, Iceland, and the Northern European continent. I look forward to seeing how their work develops in the future.