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‘For Whom Does the Writer Write?’: The First Bubonic Plague Pandemic According to Syriac Sources

‘For Whom Does the Writer Write?’: The First Bubonic Plague Pandemic According to Syriac Sources

By Michael G. Morony

Plague and the End of Antiquity: The Pandemic of 541–750, edited by Lester K. Little (Cambridge, 2006)

Introduction: Syriac literature has a good deal to say about the first pandemic of bubonic plague from 541 to 749 CE. This includes information about the geographical spread and extent of the initial outbreak in the time of Justinian (541–543), the chronology of later outbreaks, the pathology of the disease, its occurrence among animals, some information about the extent of mortality among its human victims, the disposal of the corpses, the plague’s social, economic, and psychological effects, and how it was understood and described by contemporaries.

The main contemporary Syriac account of the first known outbreak of bubonic plague during the reign of Justinian occurs in the second part of the Ecclesiastical History of John, Bishop of Ephesus (489–578/9). John was a native of Amida (Diyarbakr) in northern Mesopotamia and was in Palestine when the plague arrived, traveled from there to Constantinople witnessing the plague conditions along the way, and was present in Constantinople during the plague there. The Syriac text of his account is published in the second volume of Land’s Anecdota Syriaca. This text was largely reproduced by the monastic author of the Zuqnin Chronicle, which was completed at the monastery of Zuquin near Amida in 775. John’s account is also the basis for the passage in the Chronicle of Michael the Syrian, the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch (1166–1199). Both the author of the Zuqnin Chronicle and Michael the Syrian call their source John of Asia. A summary of this outbreak of plague in the Chronicle of Dionysius of Tel Mahre, the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch (815–845), is constructed of excerpts from John’s account. These are all different versions of the same text, and thus represent a single source, although each of these texts contains information the others do not, so they all must be consulted. Material that, in some fashion, goes back ultimately to John of Ephesus is also found in the eleventh-century Christian Arabic Chronicle of Seert, which is based on earlier Syriac sources. An independent contemporary Syriac source for the plague in the time of Justinian consists of a short but extremely valuable paragraph taken from the sixth-century Syriac continuation of the Historia Miscellanea attributed to Zacharias Rhetor, bishop of Mitylene, which ended in 491. This passage is preserved in Michael the Syrian’s text.

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