Category Archives: Plague of Justinian

Plague in 6th century Aschheim and Altenerding, Bavaria

Since I last wrote about Bavaria, the aDNA centers have been busy. With the accepted manuscript of the second new paper available this past week, its time for an update. The fourth paper on Aschheim not only confirmed the first three, but it also produced the first full genome of Yersinia pestis for the Plague of Justinian (Wagner et al, 2014). This paper also confirmed the Bavarian strain’s placement in the phylogeny of Y. pestis. The availability of the first full genome will primarily be important for comparison to newly discovered samples from elsewhere. Using newer technology, the newest paper refined some of the Aschheim sequence and produced a full genome of Y. pestis from a woman buried at Altenerding, about 20 km from Aschheim (Feldman et al, 2016). Radiocarbon dating from both sites places the epidemic in the mid-sixth century; it can not differentiate which specific epidemic ‘wave’.  The Altenerding epidemic was from the same Y. pestis lineage as Aschheim proving that this was a regional epidemic, possibly the same epidemic event. The phylogeny for the first pandemic is still based on a single epidemic from one geographic region, so the time is not yet ripe to use the phylogeny to tell inform us on the transmission or route of the pandemic.

6th cent Bavaria
Map of Roman Bavaria showing the Roman roads with Aschheim and Altenerding marked. The half circle/mound mark designates Roman villas. (modified from the Pelagios project)

It is, however,  time to start thinking a little more about the environment of these sites. They are both located on the Munich gravel plain, foreland (foothills) north of the Alps. Aschheim is located closer to the Alps at an elevation of 500 meters with Altenerding 20 km further north at a lower elevation in small valley formed by a tributary of the River Isar. The Roman road running horizontally across the map runs west to Augsburg, the capital of the Roman province of Raetia Secunda and east to the city of Batavia, a colony in the province of Noricum. The road running by Altenerding would take traffic eventually north toward Regensburg (Casta Regina).

Large water feature is Speichersee lake with a man-made 20th century reservoir used to power hydroelectric plants and serve some of the water needs of the Munich region. As far as I can tell, none of this would have been present in the Late Antique period. The River Isar is the green line to the west of both sites. Munich will later be founded where the road crosses the river from monastic land in about 1158. There was nothing special at the river crossing in the sixth century. Although the road crosses the river, there is no indication of a Roman bridge on the map.

Both Aschheim and Altenerding are located in what would have been the province of Raetia II. While they are along Roman roads, this would have been a rural area. Both Aschheim and Altenerding were sites of Roman villas and Dornach near Aschheim was a small settlement. How much of this would have been occupied and further developed (or not) after the Roman army left is unclear. The cemetery at Altenerding is triple the size of Aschheim. Yet, there is reason to think that Aschheim was hit harder by the plague and based on the carbon dates of graves with some molecular plague signal, probably more than once. Michael McCormick (2015:83) suggests that the Aschheim cemetery gathered graves from a dispersed settlement that probably had fewer than 70 people at any one time.

A living history museum in Munich area at Kirchheim has reconstructed typical buildings from the early medieval Merovingian period. Although this area was nominally under Merovingian Frankish hegemony there is little specifically Frankish about the archaeology. They were all wooden construction. Below is a picture of a sunken pit building, an ‘out building’ and a long house.

Reconstruction of 6th-7th century Bavarian buildings at Kirchheim in the Munich district close to Aschheim. (Photo by Leporollo, Wikipedia CC3.0)

Continue to think of the Plague of Justinian in Constantinople and Pelusium, it was surely there. Just remember that most of its geographic spread may have looked more like this picture.


Feldman, M., Harbeck, M., Keller, M., Spyrou, M. A., Rott, A., Trautmann, B., et al. (2016). A high-coverage Yersinia pestis Genome from a 6th-century Justinianic Plague Victim. Molecular Biology and Evolution, 1–31. [Accepted manuscript]

McCormick, M. (2015). Tracking mass death during the fall of Rome’s empire (I). Journal of Roman Archaeology, 28, 325–357.

Wagner, D. M., Klunk, J., Harbeck, M., Devault, A., Waglechner, N., Sahl, J. W., et al. (2014). Yersinia pestis and the Plague of Justinian 541–543 AD: a genomic analysis. The Lancet Infectious Diseases, 14(4), 1–8.

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.