Black Death mortality was not as widespread as previously thought

The Black Death had a devastating impact in some regions of Europe – however, parts of the continent experienced little or no effect, according to new research.

A study published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution uses pollen data to evaluate the second plague pandemic’s mortality at a regional scale across Europe.

It shows the impact of the Black Death varied substantially from region to region.

Sharp agricultural declines in Scandinavia, France, southwestern Germany, Greece and central Italy support the high mortality rates attested to in medieval sources.

Meanwhile many regions, including much of Central and Eastern Europe and parts of Western Europe, including Ireland and Iberia, show evidence of continuity or uninterrupted growth.

The researchers say one reason the results come as a surprise is that many of the quantitative sources used to construct Black Death case studies come from urban areas.

Despite their enhanced ability to collect information and keep records, many of these were characterised by crowding and poor sanitation. However, in the mid-14th century, upwards of 75% of the population of every European region was rural.

The study was conducted by an international team of researchers, led by the Palaeo-Science and History group at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. In the UK, the team included researchers at the University of Plymouth, University of Reading, University of Oxford and Wessex Archaeology.

<p>Ralph Fyfe</p>

Professor Ralph Fyfe

Ralph Fyfe, Professor of Geospatial Information at the University of Plymouth, said:

“The Black Death, like most plagues or pandemics, is something almost everyone has heard of. However, their understanding of it is based on stories from the time which were told, for obvious reasons, without any wider international context.
"This study uses pollen data to rewrite that history, and show the diversity of impacts that a pandemic can have on communities right across Europe. It is a fascinating, and in many ways surprising, insight into our past.”

Professor Aleks Pluskowski, an environmental archaeologist at the University of Reading, added:

“When there is a lack of evidence, assumptions are often made and we have seen that with the COVID-19 pandemic. In this study, pollen from more than 600 years ago has provided us with vital evidence to get a clearer picture of how the Black Death pandemic affected Europeans living in the countryside as well as cities. Pandemics affect different people in society in different ways, and our research has demonstrated this was the case even for history’s most infamous disease.”

The study applied a new approach called Big-data paleoecology (BDP), through which the researchers analysed 1,634 pollen samples from 261 sites in 19 European countries to determine how landscapes and agricultural activity changed between 1250 and 1450CE – roughly 100 years before and 100 years after the pandemic.

This meant they could see which plants were growing and in what quantities, thereby determining whether agricultural activities in each region continued or halted, or if wild plants regrew at a time when human pressure was reduced.

Their results show that to understand the mortality of a particular region, data must be reconstructed from local sources, including BDP as method for measuring change in cultural landscapes.

The study includes pollen data from Devon, UK, which showed that between 1250 and 1450CE the Black Death resulted in some increases in livestock grazing, but did not dramatically change the nature of the countryside. This is unlike some other regions of Europe, which saw forests recover and a decline in agricultural production related to mortality.

“There is no single model of ‘the pandemic’ or a ‘plague outbreak’ that can be applied to any place at any time regardless of the context,”

says Adam Izdebski, leader of the Palaeo-Science and History group at Max Planck and the study’s lead author.

“Pandemics are complex phenomena that have regional, local histories. We have seen this with COVID-19 – now we have now shown it for the Black Death.”

  • The full study – Izdebski et al: Palaeoecological Data indicates land-use changes across Europe linked to spatial heterogeneity in mortality during the Black Death pandemic – is published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, DOI: 10.1038/s41559-021-01652-4.