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The Mother of All Pandemics: The State of Black Death Research in the Era of Covid-19
The Mother of All Pandemics: The State of Black Death Research in the Era of Covid-19
A Medieval Academy of America Webinar
Recorded 15 May 2020



Moderators: Winston Black (Independent Scholar) and Lori  Jones (Univ. of Ottawa)
Respondent: Monica Green (Independent Scholar)

Bibliographer: Joris Roosen (Independent Scholar)

Seeta Chaganti (Univ. of California, Davis)
Gérard Chouin (William & Mary)
Matthew Gabriele (Virginia Tech)
Robert Hymes (Columbia Univ.)
Nükhet Varlik (Rutgers University)


Bibliography (will be regularly updated):


Prior to 2020, when most people heard the word "pandemic," they thought of the Black Death. Now that the COVID-19 pandemic has made us all newly aware of the severe consequences of pandemic events, it is necessary to lay a foundation for transhistorical dialogue about disease emergence, the role of the state in epidemic emergencies, and climate factors, among many other questions.

A fixture in history courses all over the world, from middle school to university, the Black Death is usually defined as the plague pandemic that struck western Eurasia and the Mediterranean region between 1346 and 1353. Estimates of mortality vary, but historians are agreed that those regions saw no less than 30-40% mortality; in some areas, it was even higher.

Yet research in the past decade has made clear that neither the geography nor the chronology of that definition is sufficient. If true, this means that we have also underestimated the total mortality of the event. What is now better understood as the Second Plague Pandemic likely began in the 13th century, not the 14th, and may have spread plague across much of both Eurasia and Africa. This was, in other words, a pandemic that by 1500 touched nearly half of the inhabited world. So far as we know right now, only the Americas, Australia, and Oceania were spared. Strains of the pathogen, Yersinia pestis, continued to cause outbreaks for several more centuries, and their descendants still persist around the world today.

This panel brings together leading researchers on the Second Plague Pandemic. We will discuss why work in genetics has transformed the kinds of questions that historians and researchers in allied fields (bioarchaeology, genetics, climate history, literary studies, and art history) can now ask about this pandemic. For many of these questions, we're still dealing only with hypotheses and fragmentary evidence. But the very fact that researchers from across these many disciplines now recognize the urgency of talking together signals that the field has made an important shift. Please join us for this important conversation as we seek to understand what the medieval epidemic can teach us about the causes of, societal response to, and economic recovery from COVID-19.



Image: A crowded cemetery in London after the Black Death. From James le Palmer’s encyclopedia, Omne bonum (ca. 1360-ca. 1375). [London, British Library, MS Royal 6.E.VI , vol. 1, f. 267vb (detail)].

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