Category Archives: Plague of Justinian

Contagion and Pestilence in Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies

Saint Isidore of Seville (c. 560–636). Bishop, confessor and Doctor of the Church. Altarpiece of Saint Isidore. 15th century. Diocesan Museum of Calatayud. Spain.

Before Isidore of Seville became the patron saint of the internet, he was known for over a thousand years as a font of knowledge.  Isidore was not an innovator; he was a master of synthesis. It is through Isidore that we have an orderly account of the learned knowledge of the Late Roman world.  He was conscious of the fact that he was saving information at risk of being lost.  His Etymologies, written in twenty sections between 621 and 636, was both the Latin dictionary and encyclopedia of the entire medieval period. Isidore is not always correct — there is a lot of sounds-like etymology– but his explanations were accepted throughout the medieval period. So, Isidore is an ideal source to gain an understanding of how modern terms like contagion and pestilence were defined from the early seventh century in the midst of the first plague pandemic.

From Book IV: On Acute Illnesses:

17. Pestilence is a contagion that as soon as it seizes on one person quickly spreads to many. It arises from corrupt air and maintains itself by penetrating the internal organs. Although this is generally caused by powers in air, it never occurs without the consent of God. 18. It is called pestilence (pestilentia) as if it were pastulentia, because it consumes (depascere, ppl. depastus) like fire, as Vergil, Aen. 5.683): The pestilence descends on the whole body*. Likewise contagion (contagium) is from ‘touching’ (contingere), because it contaminates anyone it touches. 19. The swellings (inguen) (ie. bubonic plague) are so called from their striking the groin (inguen). Pestilence is also called plague (lues), so called from destruction (labes) and distress (luctus), and is so violent that there is no time to anticipate life or death, but weakness comes suddenly together with death. (p. 110-111).

The general definition of both pestilence and contagion, along with their spellings in Latin, are recognizable to us today. The modern editors note that Vergil is using pestilence as a metaphor for the burning of a Trojan ship. It is on the origin or mechanism of pestilence where we differ. Isidore’s world understood medicine as a function of airs and humors, a topic for another time. He also writes of plague again in his On the Nature of Things, which was less influential than the Etymologies. In a later post I will look at what the Venerable Bede does with both the works of Isidore and Pliny in his own On the Nature of Things.

Inguen as the term for a swelling in the groin is the what draws my attention. Inguen is the root for the modern word inguinal; as in inguinal bubo.  Two of the most important European historians of the first pandemic, Gregory of Tours and Paul the Deacon, used the term inguinaria for the pandemic. Unfortunately, inguinaria is usually literally lost in translation. Rather than leaving inguinaria as the early medieval term for bubonic plague, it is usually translated as the less specific ‘plague’ or a little better ‘inguinal plague’. Even in the translation above, it is translated as swelling with the original word in parenthesis.

Bubo is likewise said to come from the Greek word for groin, boubon (βουβών), but I have not found a source to discuss its earliest use. Isidore does not discuss the term bubo or the Greek term boubon, presumably using inguen instead. Greek boubon translates into Latin as inguen, both meaning groin or swelling the groin. Ironically “inguinal bubo” then duplicates the same meaning. It would be interesting to know if boubon or bubonic is a word used for the first pandemic (541-c. 750) in the Eastern Roman empire.

One of the important inferences from the derivation of inguen/boubon is that it supports the groin as the primary site of early infection. So while buboes can be found in the axilla and neck, and there are other transmission routes, it was recognized from the beginning as a disease of the groin. This in turn supports fleas as the primary transmission vector, since as insects found on the floor most of the time, they usually bite on the legs resulting in an inguinal bubo.

Reference: Barney, SA, Lewis, WI, Beach, JA, and Berghof, O. (trans and ed). The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville. Cambridge, 2006.

Wendy Orent on the Plague

13548013 Plague: The Mysterious Past and Terrifying Future of the World’s Most Dangerous Disease

Wendy Orent, New York: Free Press, 2004, reprinted 2013

I’ve been way for far too long. One of the reasons for the quiet is because I’ve been reading quite a few books this summer. This book was one of them. I wouldn’t normally review a nine-year old book, but it was just reprinted unrevised this year so I think it’s fair for review. Published in 2004 it can’t be expected to have hardly any of the recent genetic work.

Wendy Orent has a PhD in anthropology but has always worked as a freelance writer. Her journalistic history shows. The sensationalist title put me off reading this book for a long time. Unfortunately, it continued in the book. The material is attention-getting enough without adjectives like “chilling”. She also overused interviews as sources. Some of the interviews are interesting and provide opinions not found in print. In my opinion, interviews should not be used for material that has been published.

One of her primary sources is a Russian biologist named Igor Domaradskij whose Cold War career ran the gamut of roles in the Russian plague system from anti-plague epidemiologist to biological weapons designer. Orent previously was co-author of his autobiography and considers him a friend. Her theories and even terminology are heavily influenced by Domaradskij to the degree that it seems to compromise her objectivity. Sources like Domaradskij are difficult, divulging their version of events that their government will never acknowledge even occurred. We have to keep in mind that one reason men like Domaradskij write books is to get recognition for their secret work and get vengeance on a system they feel wronged by. Cold war Russian research was also warped by the influence of Lysenkoism and by its self-imposed isolation from the rest of the world of science making reconciliation of scientific theories and philosophies difficult. Even those like Domaradskij who say they always renounced Lysenkoism were still trained and worked in an environment that warped the scientific method.  We are forced to use their information because we can’t afford not to but we have to approach it with caution and skepticism.

Her reconstruction of the first two plague pandemics is a mixed bag. She supported Yersinia pestis as the agent of both pandemics and asserts that the human flea was the primary vector.  It’s interesting to see how she argues for the human flea as vector but she never really presents evidence to support this method. She also posits that there were fundamental differences between the first and second pandemics that I do not believe the sources support. We don’t have enough sources from the first pandemic to judge. She does not seem to recognize that although early plague records are primarily coastal, plague is mentioned in all areas of Europe that we have written records. It is likely that the perceived area restrictions are due more to our records than the actual spread of the plague. She makes some predictions about the evolution of Yersinia pestis, especially the Black Death clone(s), that have not panned out in modern genetic studies. Depending on Russian evolutionary theories rooted in Cold War philosophies is just not sound.  She argues for a major role for pneumonic plague early during the Black Death that transitions into a vector borne disease. These are just a few areas where she argues for explanations without enough scientific or historic evidence to back them up.

There is some thought-provoking material in this book primary on plague in the 20th century but there is a lot of chaff to sift to find the wheat. It may be useful to people who are well read on the plague literature, historic and scientific, but I can’t recommend it to those who have not done a lot of previous study on the plague.

Molecular Confirmation of Yersinia pestis in 6th century Bavaria

Erasing any lingering doubts about the agent of the Plague of Justinian, a group of German biological anthropologists have shown conclusively that Yersinia pestis caused an epidemic in a 6th century Bavarian cemetery at Aschheim. Harbeck et al (2013) provide a convincing refutation of previous theories about the etiologic agent of the Plague of Justinian.   Returning to the same cemetery where plague was previously reported, two independent labs using the most modern standards to prevent contamination confirmed Yersinia pestis from multiple burials within the cemetery making this the best characterized Early Medieval plague cemetery.

The cemetery, called Aschheim, is in Bavaria outside of Munich. It contains the remains of 438 people with an unusually high number of multiple graves but no disordered mass graves. The 19 multiple burials contained two to five individuals arranged in lines. The cemetery was dated archaeologically to 500-700 AD with remains being carbon dated ranging from 530 to 680, all consistent with the 541 pandemic and its aftermath. Harbeck et al (2013) tested 19 individuals from 12 multiple graves. From these, there were eight positive samples, but only one produced enough aDNA to do some SNP genotyping. Added to the previous paper, this makes 11 positive individuals from this cemetery. Given the tenuous survival of aDNA, 11 positive individuals out of 21 tested in the two combined papers is a very good success rate. This is a cemetery that the F1 antigen test would be interesting since it could be used on the entire cemetery without great cost or labor. More sensitive than aDNA, the antigen test could tell us the percentage of plague deaths in the cemetery.

Individual A120 was screened with several SNPs that mapped it to an early region of the phylogenetic tree in the 0.ANT section. This makes the Plague of Justinian isolate ancestral to the Black Death isolates (yellow boxes below) from East Smithfield. This section whose only point of diversity is 0.ANT1 at node 4. Date predictions for the nodes of diversity in the tree fits with the Plague of Justinian falling in this region.  Modern isolates that  form this region of the phylogenetic tree all come from central Asia (around Tibet), suggesting that like the Black Death, the Plague of Justinian also originated in Asia. Overall, everything fits in well with expectations for the first pandemic.

(Harbeck et al, 2013. Fig. 1)
(Harbeck et al, 2013. Fig. 1)


Harbeck M, Seifert L, Hänsch S, Wagner DM, Birdsell D, et al. (2013) Yersinia pestis DNA from Skeletal Remains from the 6th Century AD Reveals Insights into Justinianic Plague. PLoS Pathog 9(5): e1003349. doi:10.1371/journal.ppat.1003349

Wiechmann I, & Grupe G (2005). Detection of Yersinia pestis DNA in two early medieval skeletal finds from Aschheim (Upper Bavaria, 6th century A.D.). American journal of physical anthropology, 126 (1), 48-55 PMID: 15386257