Human-Bovine Plagues in the Early Middle Ages

ox book of durrowHuman-Bovine Plagues in the Early Middle Ages

By Timothy P. Newfield

Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol.46:1 (2015)

Introduction: This article combines written and plausible physical evidence for the human–bovine plagues (large outbreaks of acute disease) in 569–570 and 986–988 C.E. with evidence from two recent and independent molecular clock analyses (MCAs) that establish the divergence of measles (MV) from rinderpest (RPV) c. 1000 C.E. It proposes that the plagues of 569–570 and 986–988 testify to the outbreak of an MV–RPV ancestor that caused mass mortality in cattle and people. In other words, when spreading among cattle, a now-extinct morbillivirus episodically colonized and spread in human populations during the early Middle Ages.

The diseases that afflicted early medieval Europeans have attracted considerable attention during the last fifteen years. Yet, most of the scholars involved, historians and bioarchaeologists alike, have rarely discussed pathogens other than Yersinia pestis or the occurrence and effects of diseases other than such episodic epidemics as the Justinianic Plague (otherwise known as the Early Medieval Pandemic). Economic, medical, and social historians of the early Middle Ages have occasionally devoted a few words to the nonbubonic epidemic of 569–570, the spread (or dormancy) of malaria, and the supposedly non-Yersinial plagues reported in early Irish annals. Similarly, palaeomicrobiologists and palaeopathologists have drawn sporadic attention to some chronic, often nonlethal but endemic early medieval infections—such as leprosy, malaria, and tuberculosis. But, for the most part, non-Justinianic plagues, not to mention endemic diseases and epizootic diseases, have received little attention.


Specialists of periods richer in written sources than the early Middle Ages advise that it is a serious mistake to dismiss the baseline of endemic disease. They argue that the constant pressure of nonkilling pathogens inhibited demographic and economic growth over the long term far more than most epidemics. Nonkilling diseases also contributed significantly to excess mortality via malnutrition and secondary infections, aggravating the death toll during periods of dearth and epidemic. A growing body of work, some of it centered on the early Middle Ages, also “finds that epizootic disease, of domestic bovines especially, carried considerable repercussions for human health and economy in organic agrarian economies like those of early medieval Europe, which were largely dependent on cattle for traction and fertilizer and, to a lesser extent, for dairy and meat.

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