Surviving the Black Death


Plague Doctor, via Love of History

The medieval Black Death, that struck Europe from 1347-1351 CE, has been considered one of the most devastating epidemics in human history. Europe’s populations dwindled as tens of millions of its people died. While early research claimed that the disease had no bias and killed indiscriminately, more recent studies have shown that it targeted the elderly, the young, and those who had previously been exposed to disease and high stress. People have been fascinated by the destruction that this epidemic caused, but rarely do we think about what happens after. Who were the people that survived this disaster? Were they stronger and healthier because of the loss of those with weaker immunities? Did they change their lifestyles and living conditions to prevent further outbreaks?

A new study by DeWitte 2014 investigates whether the combination of post-epidemic living and dietary standards, along with the selective mortality of the plague, had effects on the surviving population in London. DeWitte argues that the “Black Death might have represented a strong force of natural selection and removed the weakest individuals on a very broad scale within Europe.” Therefore, surviving populations were selected to have a higher chance of surviving future outbreaks and epidemics. Further, the loss of many lives reversed some of the pre-epidemic problems such as excess population relative to resources. The plague caused a major decline in available labor, which caused an increased demand for skilled workers leading to increased wages and a redistribution of wealth. In turn, this allowed for overall better living conditions and diet among the majority of the population. The question DeWitte asks is whether these changes are reflected in the physical remains of the population? Are the survivors living longer healthier lives than their pre-epidemic ancestors?

All skeletal material for the study came from medieval London cemeteries and the collections are all curated at the Museum of London Centre for Human Bioarchaeology. The pre-Black Death sample was taken from three cemeteries that have collections dating from the 11th to 12th century CE: St. Mary Spital, Guildhall Yard, and St. Nicholas Shambles. A random sample of 143 skeletons was selected from this population. The post-Black Death sample was taken from the cemetery associated with the Cistercian Abbey of St. Mary Graces. This cemetery was created following the plague, and dates from the mid-14th to 16th century. A total of 133 individuals were selected from this collection. Only adults were selected for analysis.

Age-At-Death changes in mortality patterns pre- and post-Death, via DeWitte 2014

Age-At-Death changes in mortality patterns pre- and post-Death, via DeWitte 2014

The initial age at death analysis between the populations, including all ages, reveals that mortality was higher among the young in pre-Black Death populations, and that there is a clear change to age-at-death increasing among the post-Black Death population. Therefore, the surviving population lived much longer following the Black Death than before it. A hazard analysis further supports that overall mortality in younger individuals following the Black Death was lower and there is reduced risk of mortality among all ages. DeWitte therefore argues “results indicate enhanced survival and improvements in mortality after the Black Death, and by inference, improved health at least at some ages in the post-Black Death population.”

What makes the results so fascinating, it that the Black Death was only the first of many outbreaks of the plague. Documentary evidence argues that each outbreak following the Black Death was just as catastrophic. DeWitte notes that these documents exclude “married women, children, household servants and apprentices, labourers and paupers” from their assessment, whereas her study investigates overall mortality among the whole population. She argues that despite the documents which note that mortality continued to be high following the first plague outbreak, the skeletal material reveals that overall health was improved and mortality was low. There are still many questions left to address: were the demographic changes and improvements in health directly affected by the plague? How does migration into London change mortality profiles?

Despite the questions that still remain, this study is fascinating and worth reading for anyone interested in this period. There do seem to be real tangible benefits for the survivors of the Black Death, such as improved wages, better health and living conditions, and rise in the age-at-death. As we continue to dig deeper into this epidemic and question the documentary evidence, we are able to better understand what these populations faced in this era.

Read the whole article here: DeWitte, S. 2014. Mortality Risk and Survival in the Aftermath of the Medieval Black Death

For more on the plague, check out Contagions’ Blog excellent plague series, and Alison Atkin’s PhD work on plague and epidemics.

Works Cited

ResearchBlogging.orgDeWitte, S. (2014). Mortality Risk and Survival in the Aftermath of the Medieval Black Death PLoS ONE, 9 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0096513

5 responses to “Surviving the Black Death

  1. I think the immigration is an interesting question. How many of the people who died later really were in London during the Black Death. Granted they may have been in other areas with a similar BD mortality rate.

  2. Absolutely right – very interesting. The thing that is important to keep in mind (and I think you did have it in mind) was that the availability of resources per individual post-plague would have been greater due to less population pressure. This in and of itself could probably increase how long people lived after the plague without any need for a selection-driven biological change.

    This being said, I don’t discount the importance of the black death as a selective event. There is certainly rather good evidence that smallpox, tuberculosis and potentially even cholera epidemics caused selection to favour certain genetic variants over others (CCR5 variants, SLC11A1 variants and CFTR variants respectively).

    Pathogens as a selective force in recent human history (after the adoption of urban centres) was actually the focus of my Master’s thesis. I used a combination of population genetic data, epidemiology and archaeological data to look into this – and obtained some rather unexpected, though interesting, results. I’d be happy to chat about it via email if you have curiosities that extend into the genetics end of the field.

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