5,000 years of plague
Plague has infected humans for thousands of years, and people have written about plague for hundreds of years. You could start with this short reading list if you want to catch up.
What is on the list?🔗
- 3 books,
- 4 online lectures,
- 18 scientific articles.
This list covers plague from the somewhat narrow perspective of a disease ecologist. So it is light on topics such as social impact, economic history, and disease pathology. If you want to dig deeper, the big literature list1 maintained by Monica H. Green is a good start.
Plague was already present and infecting humans all across Eurasia 5000 years ago. I don't know of any books covering this prehistoric period of plague, but there are a few relevant papers.
- Rasmussen, S. et al. (2015) ‘Early Divergent Strains of Yersinia pestis in Eurasia 5,000 Years Ago’, Cell, 163(3), pp. 571–582.
- Rascovan, N. et al. (2019) ‘Emergence and Spread of Basal Lineages of Yersinia pestis during the Neolithic Decline’, Cell, 176(1-2), pp. 295–305.e10.
- Spyrou, M.A. et al. (2018) ‘Analysis of 3800-year-old Yersinia pestis genomes suggests Bronze Age origin for bubonic plague’, Nature Communications, 9(1), p. 2234.
We used to think that plague strains from more than 3,600 years ago could only be transmitted through the air and possibly through food. Those old plague variants were missing a particular piece of DNA, the Ymt plasmid, that appeared to be essential for plague to survive in fleas.
But Bland et al. recently discovered that with the right kind of rodent blood (like that of the brown rat Rattus norvegicus), the disease could survive in fleas without the Ymt plasmid just fine. So it looks like the acquisition of this plasmid extended the number of rodent species that flea-borne plague could infect, rather than enabling flea-borne transmission for the first time.
- Bland, D.M. et al. (2021) ‘Acquisition of yersinia murine toxin enabled Yersinia pestis to expand the range of mammalian hosts that sustain flea-borne plague’, PLoS pathogens, 17(10), p. e1009995.
First Plague Pandemic.🔗
Lester K. Little's book on plague, Plague and the End of Antiquity, is a good start, but it predates the ancient DNA revolution in plague (the ability to retrieve old plague strains from corpses) and the ongoing discussion on the death toll of the Justinianic Plague by Mordechai and Sarris. So I suggest you read those papers as well.
[BOOK] Little, L.K. (2007) 'Plague and the End of Antiquity: The Pandemic of 541-750. Edited by L.K. Little. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 1–382.
Keller, M. et al. (2019) ‘Ancient Yersinia pestis genomes from across Western Europe reveal early diversification during the First Pandemic (541-750)’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 116(25), pp. 12363–12372.
Mordechai, L. et al. (2019) ‘The Justinianic Plague: An inconsequential pandemic?’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 116(51), pp. 25546–25554.
Sarris, P. (2022) ‘New Approaches to the “Plague of Justinian’, Past & present, 254(1), pp. 315–346.
Second Plague Pandemic.🔗
Much has been written about the Second Plague Pandemic, particularly about its start in Europe (the Black Death). I recommend you start with Bruce Campbell's book The Great Transition, which captures a wide range of angles, or his video lectures on the topic - they are good and a bit less dense on economic history than the book is.
[BOOK] Campbell, B.M.S. (2016) 'The Great Transition'. Cambridge University Press.
Campbell's video lectures on the topic
There is also an excellent paper by Hannah Barker about the initial series of outbreaks that started the Black Death.
- Barker, H. (2021) ‘Laying the Corpses to Rest: Grain, Embargoes, and Yersinia pestis in the Black Sea, 1346–48’, Speculum, 96(1), pp. 97–126.
However, the actual start of the Second Pandemic is becoming a matter of renewed academic inquiry, based on the combined analysis of historical records and the genetic relationships of today's and ancient plague strains, and by revisiting historical disease outbreaks of unknown origin.
Green, M.H. (2020) ‘The Four Black Deaths’, The American historical review, 125(5), pp. 1601–1631.
Fancy, N. and Green, M.H. (2021) ‘Plague and the Fall of Baghdad (1258)’, Medical history, 65(2), pp. 157–177.
The third pandemic has a large volume of research published during the 20th century, much of which you can read online. The best approach here is to decide which region of the world you want to learn about, and pick based on that distinction. The worst-affected areas were southern China and India. For China, I would start with reading Benedict's book. For India, there is a massive amount of literature published under the umbrella of the reports of the Indian Plague Commisson. I have linked the summary of the report here.
- [BOOK] Benedict, C.A. (1996) 'Bubonic Plague in Nineteenth-century China', Stanford University Press, pp. 107–155.
- Lamb, G. et al. (1907) 'Etiology and epidemiology of plague. A summary of the work of the plague commission', Calcutta, Superintendent of Government Printing.
For the United States, there is a very readable paper by Link, V. B.,
- Link, V.B. (1955) ‘A history of plague in United States of America’, Public health monograph, 26, pp. 1–120.
For Latin America, a series of chapters published by the Pan American Journal of Public Health gives a good description.
- Moll, A.A. and O’Leary, S.B. (1941) ‘Plague in the Americas: an historical and quasi-epidemiological survey’, Pan American Journal of Public Health. I made a collated pdf of the 14 chapters published between 1940 and 1942, available here
There is less to report for plague in the Third pandemic in Europe, at least not in terms of mortality toll. But that in itself is something remarkable.
- Bramanti, B. et al. (2019) ‘The Third Plague Pandemic in Europe’, Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 286(1901), p. 20182429.
On Ancient DNA and interpretations
A recent preprint highlights the uncertainty of ancient DNA-based plague phylogeographies. It is a point of contention between various scholars and scientists how far you can interpret the ancient DNA samples from Europe as evidence for how plague spread through Europe.
- Eaton, K. et al. (2021) ‘Plagued by a cryptic clock: Insight and issues from the global phylogeny of Yersinia pestis’, preprint at Research Square.
To develop a broader sense of the geographic scope of the plague pandemics, I recommend the following three pieces on plague in China, the Islamic world, and Africa.
Hymes, R. (2014) ‘Epilogue: A Hypothesis on the East Asian Beginnings of the Yersinia pestis Polytomy’, The Medieval Globe, 1(1), p. 12.
Varlık, N. (2014) ‘New science and old sources: why the Ottoman experience of plague matters’, The Medieval Globe, 1(1), p. 9.
Chouin, G. (2018) ‘Reflections on plague in African history (14th–19th c.)’, Afriques (09).
Joris Roosen and Monica H. Green, ‘The Mother of All Pandemics: The State of Black Death Research in the Era of COVID-19 – Bibliography’