The sex-selective impact of the Black Death and recurring plagues in the Southern Netherlands, 1349-1450

The sex-selective impact of the Black Death and recurring plagues in the Southern Netherlands, 1349-1450

By Daniel R. Curtis and Joris Roosen

American Journal of Physical Anthropology (2017)

Scène d’intercession du Musée de Lyon

Abstract: Although recent work has begun to establish that early modern plagues had selective mortality effects, it was generally accepted that the initial outbreak of Black Death in 1347-52 was a “universal killer.” Recent bioarchaeological work, however, has argued that the Black Death was also selective with regard to age and pre-plague health status. The issue of the Black Death’s potential sex selectivity is less clear. Bioarchaeological research hypothesizes that sex-selection in mortality was possible during the initial Black Death outbreak, and we present evidence from historical sources to test this notion.

Objective: To determine whether the Black Death and recurring plagues in the period 1349-1450 had a sex-selective mortality effect.

Materials and Methods: We present a newly compiled database of mortality information taken from mortmain records in Hainaut, Belgium, in the period 1349-1450, which not only is an important new source of information on medieval mortality, but also allows for sex-disaggregation.

Results: We find that the Black Death period of 1349-51, as well as recurring plagues in the 100 years up to 1450, often had a sex-selective effect-killing more women than in “non-plague years.”

Discussion: Although much research tends to suggest that men are more susceptible to a variety of diseases caused by bacteria, viruses and parasites, we cannot assume that the same direction of sex-selection in mortality applied to diseases in the distant past such as Second Pandemic plagues. While the exact reasons for the sex-selective effect of late-medieval plague are unclear in the absence of further data, we suggest that simple inequities between the sexes in exposure to the disease may not have been a key driver.

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