Category Archives: Early Medieval

Landscapes of Disease Themed Issue

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For the last couple years, I have been writing about a landscape-based approach to the study of infectious disease in general and historic epidemics in particular. When I first wrote about Lambin et al.’s now classic paper “Pathogenic landscapes” nearly three years ago, I did not know then that it would be so influential in my thinking or that the Medieval Congress sessions would be so successful. In the fall of 2014, Graham Fairclough and I began talking about ways that this first congress session could be represented in the journal he edits, Landscapes. This issue is a departure from their usual approach to landscape studies so I would like to thank Graham Fairclough for entrusting me with a whole issue. It has been a challenge for both of us, and I am proud of our product.

This issue represents the wide variety of studies that can be done all contributing to an understanding of past landscapes of disease. One of the reasons why I like the phrase landscape of disease, rather than simply landscape epidemiology, is that it opens up the array of disciplines that can be involved. In the study of diseases of the past, humanistic approaches can be as valuable as scientific methods. Both are required to build a reasonably coherent reconstruction of the past. Science and the humanities need to act as a check and balance on each other, hopefully in a supportive and collegial way.

The issue was published online a couple days ago. Accessing the journal through your library will register interest in the journal with both your library and the publisher, and would be appreciated. By now the authors should (or will soon) have their codes for their free e-copies if you do not have access otherwise.

Table of Contents

Landscapes of Disease by Michelle Ziegler. An introduction to the concept of ‘landscapes of disease’ and the articles in the issue. (Open access)

The Diseased Landscape: Medieval and Early Modern Plaguescapes by Lori Jones

The Influence of Regional Landscapes on Early Medieval Health (c. 400-1200 A.D.): Evidence from Irish Human Skeletal Remains by Mara Tesorieri

Malarial Landscapes in Late Antique Rome and the Tiber Valley by Michelle Ziegler

Epizootic Landscapes: Sheep Scab and Regional Environment in England in 1279-1280 by Philip Slavin

Plague, Demographic Upheaval and Civilisational Decline: Ibn Khaldūn and Muḥammed al-Shaqūrī on the Black Death in North Africa and Islamic Spain by Russell Hopley

plus seven book reviews. Enjoy!


Lambin, E. F., Tran, A., Vanwambeke, S. O., Linard, C., & Soti, V. (2010). Pathogenic landscapes: Interactions between land, people, disease vectors, and their animal hosts. International Journal of Health Geographics, 9(1), 54.

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.

Human Parasites of the Roman Empire

Last week photos of Roman toilets were splashed across the web breaking the news that the Romans were not a healthy as most people seem to have assumed. As with many public health interventions, the real value of a sanitation system is out of view (and out of mind) to most people. Its not the toilet that keeps us healthy; its the water treatment plant. Plumbing just moves waste with its microbes and parasites from one place to another.

Paleoparasitology specialist Piers Mitchell put the Roman public health system to the test by evaluating the evidence for human parasites in archaeological remains from before, during and after the Roman Empire. Comparisons before and after the empire are more difficult in North Africa and the Middle East because these areas had long standing sophisticated civilizations before the Roman empire. There is more clarity between civilizations in Europe since Celtic and Germanic societies did not have anything like Roman infrastructure. Contrary to his expectations, there were just as many parasites and ectoparasites in the Roman era as before or after.  In some cases the empire helped spread parasites across Europe. Relative amounts of parasites across times is difficult to ascertain for a huge variety of reasons. So while the same parasites were present, the degree of infestation would have varied by place and time period, and archaeology can’t reliably predict this.

The Roman achilles’ heel was their use of human waste for fertilizer and fecal contamination of rivers.  Human waste was added to the other manure and redistributed to farm fields and the watershed. What they could not have understood is that human waste is a greater risk for the transmission of human parasites and bacterial diseases. Mitchell also suggests that Roman bath water, that was rarely changed, could have transmitted worm eggs and other parasites. Aquaducts did bring in cleaner water to some of the larger cities but the system could be contaminated and not all Roman sites had access to water from aquaducts. Walter Scheidel (2015:8) has claimed that the city of Rome itself was an example of the”urban graveyard” effect with a very unhealthy population despite having a “heavily subsidized food and water supply”. Scheidel emphasizes the impact of malaria and gastrointestinal disease. We should also keep in mind that a large proportion of gastrointestinal disease would have been bacterial or viral.

Second century Roman mosaic of foodstuffs

As the mosaic to the left shows, the Romans did change agriculture throughout the empire. They spread Mediterranean preferences for cereals and more fish and other aquatic food sources. Mitchell suggests that the Roman love for fish products, especially the fermented fish sauce garum, probably help spread fish tapeworms found throughout the empire. Many parasites and bacterial spores have evolved to withstand preserving methods like smoking, pickling, and osmotic preservation (like salting or sugaring).  Whipworm was the most common parasite found, but round worms and tape worms were also common. Lancet liver flukes were widespread and indicate the (presumably accidental) consumption of ants.  Antibody based detection (ELISA) has been able to identify Entamoeba histolytica that causes the usually endemic amoebic dysentery (as opposed to the epidemic bacterial dysentery caused by Shigella species). Although not strictly speaking parasites, Mitchell notes an abundance of evidence for flies around cesspits suggesting that they contributed to the spread of diseases associated with fecal contamination. He also notes that schistosomiasis has not been identified in Roman Europe, even though it has been found in medieval European remains.

Turning to ectoparasites, Mitchell found ample evidence of head lice, body lice, public lice, human fleas and bed bugs across the Romanized world. Human fleas (pulex irritans) have been particularly well preserved in Roman, Anglo-Scandinavian and medieval York in Britain. Mitchell notes that human fleas and body lice were present in over 50 archaeological layers at York. He concludes that “the Roman habit of washing in public baths does not seem to have decreased their risk of contracting ectoparasites, compared with Viking and Medieval people who did not use public baths in the same way” (Mitchell 2016: 6). Mitchell suggests that there were enough ectoparasites to support particularly lice transmitted diseases. He notes that Plague of Justinian was transmitted by fleas but is non-committal on the likely specific vector.

In examining the impact of the Roman empire, Mitchell notes that the transition from a wide variety of zoonotic parasites to those primarily associated with human fecal contamination had already occurred before the Roman expansion out of Italy. This shift is paralleled elsewhere and is tied to shift from hunter-gathers to settled agriculture. Whipworm, roundworm and amoebic dysentery were the primary parasites of Roman Europe, while the Romans seem to have made a lesser impact on North Africa and the Middle East where endemic zones of parasites were well established.

Malaria is the one parasitic disease I would have liked to see Mitchell discuss more. Mitchell notes that malarial aDNA has been found in Egypt and anemia possibly caused by malaria in Italy. He overlooks all the malaria work by Robert Sallares including malarial aDNA from Late Roman Italy and better anemia studies correlating with malaria have been done in Italy and Britain by Rebecca Gowland’s group. Yet, malaria is such a big topic that it would be hard to cover along with all the other parasites.


Mitchell, P. D. (2016). Human parasites in the Roman World: health consequences of conquering an empire. Parasitology, 1–11.

Scheidel, W. (2015). Death and the City: Ancient Rome and Beyond. Available at SSRN 2609651.

See also:

Hall, A., & Kenward, H. (2015). Sewers, Cesspits, and middens: a survey of the evidence of 2000 years of waste disposal in York, UK. In P. D. Mitchell (Ed.), Sanitation, latrines and intestinal parasites in past populations (pp. 99–120).