Plague In Byzantine Times: A Historical And Med...
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Plague In Byzantine Times: A Historical And Med...
Natural disasters have always been followed by a fear of infectious diseases. This raised historical debate about one of the most feared scenarios: the outbreak of bubonic plague caused by Yersinia pestis. One such event was recorded in the Indian state Maharashtra in 1994 after an earthquake. In multidisciplinary historical approach to the evolution of plague, many experts ignore the possibility of natural foci and their activation. This article presents historical records from the Byzantine Empire about outbreaks of the Plague of Justinian occurring months or even up to a year after high-magnitude earthquakes. Historical records of plague outbreaks can be used to document existence of natural foci all over the world. Knowledge of these historical records and the contemporary examples of plague support the assumption that, in terms of organising humanitarian aid, poor monitoring of natural foci could lead to unpredictable epidemiological consequences after high-magnitude earthquakes.
The origins of diseases (in medicine, known as Etiology) are extremely hard to pinpoint, even in the modern age. When it comes to historical plagues and pandemics, the image that science can paint is even less clear, and we are forced to rely on potentially inaccurate historical accounts for information. The beginnings of the first plague pandemic and the Plague of Justinian are no exception to this rule.
As previously mentioned, the Plague of Justinian is considered to have been the first historically recorded Yersinia pestis epidemic and likely originated from Central Asia. However, some scientists have suggested that it actually began in Sub-Saharan Africa, pointing to the fact that Sasanian Persia was affected by the plague later than the Byzantine Empire, despite being situated further east.
It is now clear that plague studies will have to transcend the boundaries of individual disciplines; adopting an interdisciplinary approach is practically inevitable. The student of plague therefore needs to face up to the stipulations of interdisciplinary work. For example, there is a pressing need to keep up with the all-too-quickly-changing findings of the scientific literature, especially in the fields of genomics and evolutionary biology. It is necessary to understand, interpret, and utilize the research findings supplied by allied disciplines and fields, ranging from climate history to bioarcheology. It also means reckoning with what appears to be a growing imbalance between the new science of plague and the old sources. Even if one leaves aside differences in content, the disparity between publication cultures in the sciences and in the humanities cannot be overlooked. The former prefers short, rapidly-produced, multi-authored technical notices that may seem impenetrable to the nonspecialist; the characteristics of humanist publications are almost the opposite (except, in some cases, for their degree of impenetrability). Motivated by different questions, concerns, and agendas, the historical and scientific scholarship of plague do not produce research that can be easily reconciled. How, then, can this new science be used in conjunction with historical accounts How can the historian put them into dialogue This imbalance becomes all the more challenging in those fields where the historical scholarship of plague is still relatively undeveloped. There is a wealth of primary sources pertaining to plague in non-Western languages, but it is still in manuscript form. Until these sources are edited, published, and translated in a manner accessible to researchers, our knowledge of past plagues will continue to suffer from this imbalance.
The historical scholarship on the Black Death is largely Eurocentric. In this body of scholarship, Europe has occupied a privileged position, compared to other parts of the world that may have been at least as badly affected by plague, if not more so. Our current knowledge about the plague in East Asia, South Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa before the Third Pandemic is at best fragmentary and disconnected.7 As such, extant [End Page 196] scholarship has cultivated a lasting impression that the Black Death was a European phenomenon and that the European epidemiological experience was to be studied sui generis. In this epidemiological imagination, non-European epidemiological experiences would only be worthy of scholarly attention if commensurate with that of Europe. In other words, the lacunae in historical plague scholarship are not haphazard; what was studied and what was not can be best understood in the light of European notions of public health and efforts for disease control that came in the form of quarantines, plague commissions, sanitary missions, and international conferences at the dawn of the modern era. Those areas whose plague experience was believed, in the twentieth century, to have been of direct relevance to that of Europe (and perceived as having an impact on European public health concerns) came under the spotlight of scholarship while others remained rather obscure.
Subsequent scholarship seems to have maintained epidemiological zones corresponding to those of the early modern period: that of the Ottomans (read: Muslims) and that of the Europeans (read: Christians), with religion as the single most dividing factor (see, e.g., McNeill 1976; Dols 1977; Panzac 1985).25 These imagined divisions of epidemiological experience have resulted in separate histories of plague in Europe and the Middle East/Islamic world. Even in studies that encompass the Mediterranean, these divisions play an important role in explaining the very differences in the spread of plague and the responses it engendered. This bipartite epidemiological imaginary not only sustains essentialist binaries, it regards the Ottoman epidemiological experience as timeless, uniform, and thus unworthy of historical inquiry.
Studying the Ottoman plague experience during the Second Pandemic offers three important insights. First, it underscores the critical importance of focalization. Such processes may be helpful in studying the plague experience of even those areas that are historically imagined to have received the infection from outside: for example, Europe. Second, it draws attention to the necessity of adopting more complex models of plague transmission, with a special emphasis on interspecies dynamics and the local species that serve as hosts, vectors, and as intermediaries. In order to better understand local plague ecologies, it may be invaluable to expand our vision to include a wider spectrum of rodent species and consider the role of domestic and commensal mammals, mammalian carnivores, predator and migratory birds in plague transmission. Third, it urges the elimination of old models of assumed/imagined epidemiological boundaries and trajectories that have been built on flawed historical constructs, such as those that have been inherited from nineteenth-century Eurocentric notions and colonial plague science. Instead, it highlights the importance of adopting more unified epidemiological perspectives for studying larger disease zones, such as the Afro-Eurasian zone during the Second Pandemic. The Ottoman epidemiological experience is not only eminently comparable to those other contemporaneous experiences, but also indispensable for a full understanding of plague in this larger disease ecology. Finally, the new plague science, as valuable as it is, should be considered as a set of guidelines in studying the plague. Historical sources suggest that the disease could manifest itself in different forms and have different effects, depending on local circumstances. As lesser-known epidemiological experiences are recovered from the past, this evidence will supply increased opportunities not only for the plague historian but for the plague scientist as well. [End Page 216]
The Justinianic Plague is the first known outbreak of bubonic plague in west Eurasian history and struck the Mediterranean world at a pivotal moment in its historical development, when the Emperor Justinian was trying to restore Roman imperial power.
Sarris says: "The significance of a historical pandemic should never be judged primarily on the basis of whether it leads to the 'collapse' of the societies concerned. Equally, the resilience of the East Roman state in the face of the plague does not signify that the challenge posed by the plague was not real."
Central Asian climate fluctuations appear to have had significant influences on regional human plague frequency in the first part of the 20th century, and probably over the past 1500 years. This first attempt at ecoepidemiological reconstruction of historical disease activity may shed some light on how long-term plague epidemiology interacts with human activity. As plague activity in Central Asia seems to have followed climate fluctuations over the past centuries, we may expect global warming to have an impact upon future plague epidemiology, probably sustaining or increasing plague activity in the region, at least in the rodent reservoirs, in the coming decades.
Turning to much longer time scales, we first construct a binary vector, with 0 meaning no known large plague epidemic AD 450-2000, and 1 denoting suspected high plague activity leading up to a pandemic, namely the years 510-541 (prelude to the plague of Justinian), 1300-1347 (before the Black Death), 1845-1885 (the start of the Third Pandemic) and 1900-1920 (the Manchurian epidemics), the periods shaded in Figure 3d. The models whose predictions correlate the most with human plague in Kazakhstan 1904-1948 (D) also tend to have the highest correlations with this crude series of historical plague (ρ = 0.8, n = 104, P < 0.01; see also Additional file 1).
The associations between the climatic indexes, predicted plague and NDVI suggest that periods of high plague activity should have a degree of correlation with increased precipitation and thus productivity in water-limited grasslands, as also suggested by earlier studies in Kazakhstan  and the USA . Historical records reflecting the relative strength of the Han Chinese states versus neighboring pastoralist groups  are consistent with periods of high productivity preceding the two major plague epidemics (Figure 3d; see also Methods and Additional file 1). Resource scarcity is often assumed to be a primary driver of historical conflicts , and poor grazing conditions during cold periods probably forced Central Asian nomads south. However, territorial expansions and (successful) warfare depend not only on population size relative to its resources but also on the absolute size of the population from which armies can be recruited. We thus observe that the two main periods of border expansion, migration and warfare by Central Asian nomad pastoralists  found in Chinese records, and known in European history from the Hun invasions of the 5th century and the Mongol expansions of the 13th, are consistent with periods of high productivity in Central Asian grasslands having occurred prior to the great plague pandemics (Figure 3d). Also, Mongol expansions  might explain why plague appeared in Kaifeng (then recently occupied by Mongols) but not in Europe in the 1200 s, whereas during the 1300 s, after the Mongol conquest of Eastern Europe, plague appeared both in China and Europe . 59ce067264