Category Archives: book reviews

Disease and Discrimination in Colonial Atlantic America


Reviewed by Michelle Ziegler

Dale Hutchinson. Disease and Discrimination: Poverty and Pestilence in Colonial Atlantic America. University of Florida Press, 2016. $85

Dale Hutchinson’s latest book fits into a recent trend of a more critical analysis of the role disease played in the demographic collapse of Native Americans in the Colonial period. After spending most of his career working on the Spanish Colonial system in Florida,  in Disease and Discrimination, he discusses the English and French colonies along the Atlantic seaboard.

By his own description, “this book is a series of narratives about changing landscapes of America — not only the natural landscapes, but the social, political and economic landscapes — and how they all contributed to the nutrition and health of natives and newcomers in the Atlantic coastal colonies” (p. 10) He goes on to warn the reader that landscapes he intends to paint are “neither exhaustive nor completely factual representations”; he has “chosen what to accentuate” (p.11).   In painting his landscapes he chose to use an informal, conversational tone that should make it the science easier to understand but also leads to a somewhat rambling style that sometimes lacks structure and yields uneven coverage. Disease and Discrimination is divided into four sections: ‘Of Apples and Edens’,  ‘Natives and Newcomers’, and Planters and Pestilence, and ‘Measuring the Lands’.

In the first section, he discusses landscapes and disease processes.  He opens the second chapter with a nice introduction to disease ecology and terminology but then moves on build off of McNeill’s “civilized disease pools”, which is now quite outdated. This would have been an ideal place to discuss syndemics, but he does not apply syndemic theory anywhere in the book. From here he moves into a rather free flowing discussion of plague pandemics. To be honest, I felt this discussion was out of place in a book that does not otherwise discuss bubonic plague. If he wanted to discuss the Old World origins of New World epidemics, then wouldn’t it have been better to discuss the disease ecology of an organism that made the ‘Columbian exchange’?

Opening with a discussion of syphilis, the next chapter discusses historical epidemiology and then the virgin soil epidemic hypothesis. As he notes, attenuation (weakening over time) is a core principle of the virgin soil hypothesis that lacks pervasive scientific evidence. It is not always in the best interest of a pathogen to become less virulent. Indeed, some times it’s quite the opposite.  Hutchison correctly points out that many of the examples of virgin soil epidemics were more likely to be caused by environmental contingencies like over crowding and poor sanitation on Indian reservations. Consulting David Jones (2003) work on refuting the virgin soil hypothesis would have been helpful here.

In the second section, Hutchinson reviews the European settlement, resource extraction and interactions with the Native tribes. He pays particular attention to the interactions between the French, Dutch and English colonists with the tribes, providing a handy table of seventeenth-century epidemics (table 4.1). It is interesting that all but one of these epidemics are credited to viruses (smallpox, measles, and influenza). Just over half of these epidemics were recorded by the Jesuits working in the French colonies. The 1630s were a particularly bad time for the colonies with measles, smallpox and other poorly recognized diseases impacted both the colonists and the Native American tribes in the Northeast. Hutchinson spends some valuable time discussing the differential impacts of the French and English interests in resource extraction, how that affected the landscape, and how the tribes moved, mixed and formed new entities due to attrition. Despite the reputation of epidemics among native tribes, the Europeans and Africans were ravaged by smallpox and measles as well.  Children born to both Europeans and Africans would have been as immunologically naive as the Native Americans (although variolation would have protected the few who received it from smallpox). Malnutrition affected all three groups but in different circumstances and to different degrees, as did the effects of war. A key difference between natives and newcomers is that more Europeans and Africans could immigrate to bolster their numbers, while Native Americans were still being enslaved or facing hostile encounters.

As the English began to attempt to transform the landscape, to ‘improve’ it, they began to build plantations, essentially recreating English manors in the New World. The New World landscapes did not yield easily and it dragged out long enough to spawn its own pestilence, known by contemporaries as ‘the seasoning’.  Hutchinson discusses the ecological causes including rice farming, deforestation, and diseases clusters (primarily typhoid and malaria).  The ‘seasoning’ is discussed in terms of immunology but it would have been helpful to consider the seasoning as a type of syndemic. In addition to gaining some immunological protection, the mortality rate was often very high in the first few years after arriving on the frontier.  In the Carolinas, rice farming learned from West African slaves quickly went from sustenance to export along with indigo and timber, taken for lumber and pine tar. The radical changes to the Carolina landscape primed it for its own blend of ‘seasoning’ microbes led by malaria.  The production environment of the Carolinas stimulated the import of African slaves who brought more malaria and were vulnerable to infections primed by enslavement conditions.

As the plantation landscape developed beyond the coast the stratification of society became extreme enough to be detected in osteological assessments of their health. Indentured servants and slaves both show evidence of a very hard life with overdeveloped muscle attachments on their bone indicating hard labor and evidence of malnutrition including signs of rickets, scurvy, and protein malnutrition. Corn (maize) replaced European grains, especially for servants and slaves. The caloric intake may be similar but the nutritional value is not. The typical diet of cornmeal, fatback, molasses, and an assortment of vegetables given to slaves is not a balanced diet. Fatback is a slice of pork under the back skin with hard fat with little or no muscle. It was often left to slaves and indentured servants to hunt or fish for most of their protein. Protein malnutrition is particularly evident in the remains of children who got the proportionally worst diet.  Through at least the early seventeenth century Native Americans continued to be a significant percentage of slaves, 20% in one Carolina census, and when census are compared, proportionally more Native American slaves were added than African. It was not until the end of the seventeenth century that the birth rate exceeded the death rate in Chesapeake, and even then, parents “were about as likely to die before their children reached their teens as their children were to reach maturity” (p. 137). Many children would be forced into early hard labor to survive. Although Hutchison does not discuss infection and nutrition as a syndemic, he does recognize the “synergistic relationship between nutrition and infectious disease” (p. 139). He notes that slave owners treated infectious disease but tended to ignore chronic or nutritional disorders that made the slaves more prone to serious infectious disease. I do wonder if this was not the attitude of most people except the richest families. It is unclear if they understood the nature of their malnutrition.

In the last section, Hutchinson turns more toward the first cities and urban life. In the last full chapter, he discusses the rapid development of New York City from the original Dutch colony to New York City on the verge of the Civil War. Early New York did not have a sanitary infrastructure so that it quickly became an extremely contaminated environment that was unhealthy for all of its inhabitants. Poverty was an issue for the inhabitants of New York from its earliest days. A constant stream of new poor immigrants meant that the labor market always had access to laborers for less than a living wage. Crowd diseases like smallpox and measles and filth diseases like dysentery always had a constant supply of vulnerable people to prey upon. The city streets were a zoo of animals that contributed to its disease ecology: hogs roamed the street eating refuse, mice and rats multiplied along with stray dogs and constant horse traffic. The city buzzed with urban mosquitoes and New York fell victim to Yellow fever 19 times between 1702 and 1822, but it still did not suffer as much or as often as Philadelphia or Charlestown (p. 166). By 1760 Beloe Island in New York Bay hosted a pesthouse for smallpox and yellow fever; fifty years later the island was ceded to the federal government for the construction of Fort Wood, now the foundation for the base of the Statue of Liberty. A sewage and water system was not installed in New York City until 1850.  As with other large cities in the more distant past, New York’s high mortality rate was offset by an even higher immigration rate into the city.

Hutchinson accomplished his goal of painting a very complex landscape of disease in Colonial America. To gain a more complete picture of the causes and effects of malnutrition and disease, social, cultural and economic factors have to be brought into play along with biological and ecological conditions.

It seems that this book overlapped in the publication process with the collected study Beyond Germs: Native Depopulation in North America, published in 2015. These two books complement each other even though there does not seem to be any contact between the authors. It seems we are on the verge of a new era of Native American studies that will be very welcome.


Jones, D. S. (2003). Virgin soils revisited. The William and Mary Quarterly, 60(4), 703–742.

Catherine Cameron, Paul Kelton, Alan Swedlund, Eds. Beyond Germs: Native Depopulation in North America. University of Arizona Press, 2015.


Roundtable on Campbell’s Climate, Disease, and Society in the Late Medieval World

by Michelle Ziegler

Bruce Campbell. The Great Transition: Climate, Disease, and Society in the Late Medieval World. Cambridge University Press, 2016.


When I first learned that Bruce Campbell was working on this book, I wondered if it would be the first grand synthesis of the new paradigm. Although there have been some very good regional books in the last couple of years, Campbell has indeed brought forward the first analysis of the Black Death and 14th-century crisis using global evidence. Although not entirely clear from the publisher’s description, this is an economic history that draws on interdisciplinary evidence.

I proposed this session and recruited participants without ever seeing the book (though I had seen his Ellen McArthur Lectures). I got very lucky that the panel matched up so well with the book. The five panelists who were able to attend were (from left to right below) Mongolian historian Christopher Atwood, Historian of Medicine Wendy Turner, Evolutionary Biologist Boris Schmid, Archaeologist Carenza Lewis, and Economic/Environmental Historian Philip Slavin.

roundtable 2017
Great Transition Roundtable: Christopher Atwood, Wendy Turner, Boris Schmid, Carenza Lewis, and Phillip Slavin. (Photo by Nükhet Varlik, used with permission)

Everyone agreed that Campbell’s book will become the foundation upon which the new synthesis of plague history will be built. Campbell synthesized a vast amount of data with a particular appreciation for the integration of climate and disease data. Most agreed that this was a very high-level view of the crisis, an aerial view if you will, that leaves many details to be filled in. Some missed an analysis of the relationship with cascading levels of analysis down to the level of individuals. On the other hand, Atwood remarked that this is far more detailed than would be possible in Asian studies today. Perhaps not surprisingly, this interdisciplinary panel would have liked to see more evidence from other fields such as archaeology and social history used.  As Lewis noted, archaeology, in particular, could have given more support to the economic and environmental arguments without pulling away from the flow of the book.

The global evidence is primarily limited to climate data. Several panelists remarked that it is still very Eurocentric view, and Anglo-centric on top of that. There is more data that could have been gathered particularly from the Mediterranean. War as a syndemic factor and as a result of climate or disease weakened societies was not given much space in Campbell’s analysis. One effect of such a high-level regional treatment is that causes of local mortality from war (including the environmental destruction of war) can be overlooked because it doesn’t effect a large enough piece of territory. Slavin has also pointed out that Campbell’s interpretation tends to come across as somewhat deterministic, here and there. Thus, in discussing the Great European Famine of the early 14th century, Campbell provided an engaging analysis of the environmental context of the famine as its causation, without considering various intermediate links, demographic and institutional. As a result, Slavin noted that Campbell’s interpretation of the Great Famine as an exogenous disaster stands out as unilateral; famines, across space and time, are incredibly complex phenomena.

Developing a historical paradigm based heavily on scientific data is like building a house on shifting sand. Eventually, the sand will swallow the house. The best you can hope for is to be precariously perched on the ridge of a dune.  Most biological data is out of date by the time it is printed in a book. While there were a few misunderstandings, most of the discrepancies between Campbell’s portrait of the plague and other diseases is simply out of date even though he incorporates information up to about 2015. For example, ancient DNA studies have found evidence for at least one, and probably several, (still unlocated) local reservoirs of plague in or near Europe, so the idea that plague was frequently imported from the East no longer holds (but Boris disagrees on this view).

Some other hypotheses on plague transmission, though proposed several years ago, have failed to gain much traction. While evidence continues to mount that the soil plays a role in Yersinia pestis’ survival and that human ectoparasites could be the primary vector at the pandemic level, these hypotheses are not proven yet. This doesn’t mean that they won’t eventually be accepted, just that we are not yet there.

Figure 4.05 REV 6
Stages in the plague cycle (Figure 3.27, Campbell 2016)

I am reproducing figure 3.27 here because I think this will prove to be popular with teachers. With that being said there are a few comments that need to be made about it. The role of the soil in the enzootic environment of the rodent’s burrow is poorly understood at the moment. However, teachers could just explain that level 1 simply represents the environment of the rodent burrow.  Level 5 is where the real debates are going on now among those who study transmission. Campbell does leave open which ectoparasites are involved, human fleas or lice, but there is not yet general acceptance of human ectoparasites as major vectors. It may yet come, but we aren’t there yet. While local cases of pneumonic plague will occur any time there is bubonic plague, it is unlikely to be a major driver in a pandemic. The red box that I have added to the figure is where the really critical events are happening for human epidemics and pandemics. While I do believe that humans should be considered hosts in pandemic level transition, a variety of other hosts, always including rodents, will continue to be instrumental in the amplification and must be involved for the endurance of an outbreak in a locality.

While working with scientific detail is challenging for historians, after Campbell’s book I think it will be necessary to address scientific information at least to the level where there is a consensus. As long as historians stay with information that has been confirmed by a second study or that has obviously gained scientific consensus, the risks of using scientific information really are manageable. Finding a scientist who has your trust to comment on drafts is a good practice (and the reverse for scientists writing history!).

There were some concerns. There was a feeling that correlation does not necessarily equal causation. Schmid and Slavin would have liked to see more evidence of statistical analysis to support the conclusions drawn. They had a sense that the patterns that Campbell noted in a number of his overlapping time series might prove to be coincidental, rather than significant when tested with robust statistics.

Wendy Turner addressed pedological uses of the book. She found that, at least for a history of medicine course, it could not be used alone as a textbook. It does not have enough social history to address the complete impact of the Black Death. I don’t think that was its purpose, as much as some of us hoped it would be.  “The” Black Death book has yet to be written. When it is it will have to address all the social, medical, scientific, economic, and political impacts — a tall order. It is likely that aDNA studies will have more to contribute to shore up the transmission routes of such a project. Campbell’s book could be a major text (if not the only one) for an economic or environmental history course if it is supplemented by other texts. Archaeology as done by Carenza Lewis or Per Lagerås would support Campbell’s overall argument.  Turner and others agreed that it is not written for introductory students and they wondered how even upper-level students would respond to the density of the material. It should be required reading for graduate students who focus on the 14th century or any of the infectious/famine crises.

Atwood observed that historians tend to recognize a “crisis” about every couple of centuries and wondered if these mostly European events/crises over millennia were not tied to changes that had swept across all of Eurasia. In effect, Campbell’s book lays the supportive groundwork for arguing that the Eurasian land mass should be considered as a whole rather than European only or Asian only.  I think we could make an argument that the Afro-Eurasian landmass is one historic unit. The Indian Ocean is still an underappreciated communication avenue.

The most lively discussion with the audience concerned the terminology for the 14th-century events — transformation, crisis, collapse, etc. Positions seemed to be based at least partially on training, with some rejecting the term collapse under any circumstances, while others were more open to its use in areas like “population collapse”.  For me, this is an internal matter for historians to resolve. Terminology can be a fickle thing, but data is always preeminent. And that is a good place to leave this post. Campbell has done us all a service by compiling a huge amount of data that will be the foundation of a new era of analysis of the 14th century and the Black Death. For this above all else, we must be grateful.


Environment, Society and the Black Death in Sweden

Environment, Society and the Black Death: An Interdisciplinary Approach to the Late Medieval Crisis in Sweden. Edited by Per Lagerås. Oxbow Books, 2016. 

9781785700545_1The 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.