Remapping the Black Death

Saturday, January 5, 2013: 9:00 AM
Bayside Ballroom A (Sheraton New Orleans)
David Mengel, Xavier University
Historians and geographers have been mapping the effects of the Black Death since at least 1879. Maps—especially versions of Élisabeth Carpentier’s influential 1962 map—continue to figure prominently in the academic and popular historiography of this medieval epidemic. The results of such maps’ powerful but often misleading claims can be clearly traced in the scholarship. They have, for example, fostered false assumptions about the geographical variations in plague mortality—assumptions that in turn have inspired spurious and even outlandish theories about the nature of the epidemic. Now, ubiquitous satellite imagery and powerful GIS (Geographical Information System) mapping tools offer new possibilities for the cartographic representation of the Black Death. Like John Snow’s famous map of the 1854 cholera outbreak in London, they promise to do more than simply illustrate historical arguments. Such maps may also uncover geographical patterns and distinctions that will inform larger debates about the nature and effects of the epidemic. Maps, in other words, promise to become increasingly powerful tools for historical analysis. This paper explores the possibilities and promises which new mapping tools offer for the historical study of the Black Death. It will also discuss the challenges and limitations to fulfilling these promises. Maps rely on precise and reliable data. For maps of the Black Death, these especially include geographically specific mortality data that can be very difficult or even impossible to obtain. Furthermore, current mortality estimates for the European continent too often rely on different and at times even contradictory assumptions and extrapolations from limited medieval evidence. To remap the Black Death, historians must not only master new mapping tools but also deal with old methodological problems related to the quantitative study of the past.
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