Contagions: The Society for Historic Infectious Disease Studies has been given the opportunity of organizing three sessions at next year’s International Congress for Medieval Studies. This is the equivalent of a full day at the congress. The Congress will be held from May 10 to May 13, 2018, at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo Michigan. Our sessions next year will be:
Interdisciplinary Approaches to Historic Disease I and II
These two sessions are open to any aspect of study on infectious diseases and nutritional disorders in people and animals from the Late Antique to Late Medieval periods (400-1600 CE). These sessions are intended to be interdisciplinary as sessions, not necessarily as individual papers. Presentations on infectious diseases in literature, history, archaeology, and anthropology are all welcome.
Signs of Resilience in Medieval Populations
Major epidemics and natural disasters are ideal situations to study community resilience. No community is resistant to natural disasters; resilience is the best we can expect. Epidemics like the Black Death hit multiple communities in rapid succession but not all communities were equally affected in the short or long term. There are so many questions that can be asked.
What allows some communities to quickly rebound while others dwindle away?
How do people mentally cope with a famine and/or massive epidemic?
What changes did communities make to better prepare or prevent a similar disaster in the future? Examples would include rebuilding flood walls or rerouting a river, increasing communal food stores, or building a surveillance system to detect the plague.
How did past experiences alter the community response to the next epidemic or another disaster?
How did responses differ between types of disaster (epidemic, flood, earthquake)? Flooding, at least, would be expected on a regular basis.
How did they prioritize their response? For example, did community leaders prioritize the economy (import/export) over public health?
What role did religious institutions play in disaster response?
Presentations are limited to 20 minutes. PowerPoint-like presentations are encouraged. Participant Information Forms and an abstract are due to Michelle Ziegler by September 15th, contact prior to that date would be appreciated. Initial contact can be made through the form below.
Over the last decade or so, geologists and ecologists have begun to talk about planet earth entering a new geologic period called the Anthropocene, defined as the period when humans became the driving force of change on planet Earth. Debates continue on when the Anthropocene begins; sometime in the late 18th century when the industrial age is underway with the first steam engines, new products appear like plastic that persist in geology, and in medicine, Jenner begins his work on vaccines in the 1790s, would make sense. I suggest that this also marks the beginning of the microbial Anthropocene — when humans become a driving force in microbial evolution.
The graphic above is eye-opening. The Anthropocene is apparent in every level of microbial ecology examined. It is a good reminder that human intervention in microbial evolution goes far beyond infectious disease.
Perhaps most stunning message this graphic brought to me is the logarithmic nature of change. It finally dawned on me looking at this graphic that it also reflects the periods of epidemiological transition theory (ETT). The hunter-gatherer period correlates with the Pleistocene, then the first transition to the farmer-urban period (of epidemics) correlates with the Holocene, and the second transition to the modern third epidemiological phase characterized by longer lifespans and chronic disease is the Anthropocene. Finally, the time scale of the epidemiologic transitions makes some sense. The logarithmic scale may not bode well for the speed of future transitions.
The changes of the Anthropocene filter down through all living and non-living things. Among living things, there are winners and losers: species whose range and differentiation expands and others are driven to extinction. We can see this on a huge scale in the ocean where we have coral bleaching caused by loss of microbial symbionts, while there is an increasing incidence of toxic blooms and an enlarging dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico both caused by an overgrowth of some microbial species. With each transition, natural selection seems to go into overdrive until a new equilibrium is established (Gilling and Paulsen, 2).
Michael Gillings and Ian Paulsen identified several areas of microbial evolution and ecology impacted during the Anthropocene. The strong selective pressure antibiotics have exerted on infectious agents is the most commonly discussed risk in modern medical microbiology. Changes in the human microbiome are most closely related to diet changes (another feature of the Anthropocene), but our normal flora is also collateral damage of antimicrobial treatment. We often overlook that most antibiotics consumed by humans and livestock are washed through our bodies into the watershed where they alter the microbial ecology of entire ecosystems. Antimicrobial therapy began long before traditional modern antibiotics; mercury was used in medieval medicine to treat syphilis, leprosy and as a topical treatment for lice. Arsenic is still used to poison pests like rats. These early antimicrobials prompted the increase and spread of mercury and arsenic resistance in a wide variety of pathogens and environmental bacteria.
Industrial and agricultural practices have involved bacteria in changes to the global biogeochemistry and played a major role in climate change. The spread of industrialized agriculture has increased the methane production from (bacteria in) livestock, rice patties, and landfills. Crop rotations with legumes with their nitrogen-fixing symbionts increase the agricultural output of the land but in doing so the symbionts have altered the global nitrogen cycle. Gillings and Paulsen observed that the combined effect of burning fossil fuels, cultivating legumes, and industrial nitrogen fixation in fertilizer now accounts for about 45% of global nitrogen fixation. Agriculture on an industrial scale has impacted soil microbiology to the point where it has altered the carbon and nitrogen cycle of the entire planet. Elevated levels of methane and carbon dioxide do more than raise just the global temperature. While some have breathed a sigh of relief that the oceans have acted as a carbon sink, it has not been without cost. An acidic ocean is a price we pay for the carbon sink. The drop in marine pH will affect all microbial communities down to the depths of the abyss. Coral bleaching due to a loss of their microbial symbionts is just one of the most obvious outcomes.
Disease emergence and dispersal has been more of a mixed bag. New diseases get a great deal of attention but with the exception of HIV, they are not worse than the “age of epidemics” (plague, typhoid fever, yellow fever, etc.). Vaccines have still amounted to an overall decrease in infectious disease deaths. The three worst diseases to emerge during the Anthropocene are cholera, influenza, and HIV/AIDS. The greatest concerns today are the speed of dispersal for antibiotic resistant strains of old foes and development of new vaccines. Still, though, there are possibly more infectious organisms than ever. We have driven only two viruses to extinction — smallpox and rinderpest — while new zoonotic diseases emerge at a steady clip.
Completely synthetic microbes created in a laboratory may well eventually be the primary hallmark of the Anthropocene. We are on the verge of being there now and there are an uncountable number of engineered microbes that produce a variety of products from biofuels to drugs. It will be up to us to manage the use of a technology capable of resurrecting a long-extinct bacterial strain or virus.
Do we really think we are smart enough to manage the tsunami of change occurring the microbial world?
At the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo (Kzoo) last month, I couldn’t help feeling that we have reached a turning point. I went to four sessions that engaged in genomics, human and/or bacterial, in some way. Granted, these are a tiny proportion of the 500+ sessions offered, but I have learned that if you can string together so many sessions on any topic related to your work, it’s a really good Congress.
The tone was set in the very first session when Philip Slavin brought up human epigenetics in his discussion of 14th-century famine. This was followed the next day with three sessions on the Black Death and 14th-century crisis. The two Contagions society sessions went very well. Carenza Lewis talked about her ceramics landscape survey that showed how deep the 14th-century demographic loss actually was. Fabian Crespo introduced the audience to the human immune landscape and how it can be fruitfully approached (including by epigenetics). I will post on the roundtable on Bruce Campbell’s The Great Transition later this summer. The third plague session, Before and After 1348, organized by Monica Green focused on Asia and generated a vigorous discussion. I also attended a fifth session that focused on more traditional biological anthropology, ie. mostly osteology.
This turn hasn’t come all of a sudden. Historians began paying more attention to bacterial genomics a little over a decade ago when plague aDNA first hit the news. Michael McCormick, Lester Little, and Monica Green have all been instrumental in bringing science to the attention of historians. Three edited volumes stand out for putting genomics in front of historians: Lester Little’s Plague and the End of Antiquity: The Pandemic of 541-750 (2007), Linda Clark and Carol Rawcliffe’s Society in the Age of Plague (2013), and Monica Green’s Pandemic Disease in the Medieval World: Rethinking the Black Death* (2015).
On the other hand, scientists have also edited collections of papers that should make the science more accessible to historians. Didier Raoult and Michel Drancourt have edited two volumes, Paleomicrobiology (2008) and Paleomicrobiology of Humans(2017). Ruifu Yang and Andrey Anisimov edited a more technical volume, Yersinia pestis: Retrospective and Perspective (2016) that should summarize the state of the science (as of 2016) for more advanced readers in the humanities.
Of the monographs, the historian’s usual primary venue, books addressing genomics or using genomics as a springboard are limited. With at least three appearing in 2016 by Nükhet Varlik, Ole Benedictow, and Bruce Campbell, this should change soon. At this point, I should mention that genomics is already becoming useful to historians of other diseases, especially leprosy and tuberculosis. Historians are also becoming reinvigorated to provide context for plague and other diseases that may be of interest to geneticists and biological anthropologists. Varlik’s edited collected Plague and Contagion in the Islamic Mediterranean (2017) is the most recent to provide context for a variety of diseases in an understudied area.
*Green’s volume was first published as a double inaugural issue of the journal The Medieval Globe and then published as a hardback book by ARC Medieval Press.