The Black Death
Lecture by Sir Richard J. Evans
Given at the Museum of London on Tuesday, 25 September 2012
Overview: Bubonic plague first swept Europe in the age of Justinian, in the sixth century, killing an estimated 25 million people in the Byzantine Empire and spreading further west. Its most devastating outbreak was in mid-fourteenth-century Europe, when it destroyed perhaps a third of the continent’s population. Italian city-states pioneered the policies of quarantine and isolation that remained standard preventive measures for many centuries; religious revival and popular disturbances, crime and conflict may have spread as life was cheapened by the mass impact of the plague. The economic effects of the drastic reduction in population were severe, though not necessarily negative. Later outbreaks of the plague culminated in outbreaks in Seville (1647), London (1665), Vienna (1679) and Marseilles (1720) and then it disappeared from Europe while recurring in Asia through the nineteenth century. The plague set the template for many later confrontations with epidemic disease, discussed in the following lectures.
Introduction: In this series of six lectures I want to look at some of the great diseases and their relationship to human history. That relationship has usually been described in terms of the impact of epidemics on societies, politics, economies and cultures. The classic statement of this view is William H. McNeill’s book Plagues and Peoples, first published in 1976. In it, McNeill, a specialist in global history and author of probably the best two general histories of human society to appear in the twentieth century, sought to uncover a dimension of human history that historians have not hitherto recognized: the history of humanity’s encounters with infectious diseases, and the far-reaching consequences that ensued whenever contacts across disease boundaries allowed a new infection to invade a population that lacked any acquired immunity to its ravages.
After surveying human history from its very beginnings in Africa up to the present, McNeill concluded that ‘infections disease…will surely remain…one of the fundamental parameters and determinants of human history.