The Power of Cartography: Remapping the Black Death in the Age of Genomics and GIS

AHA Session 143
Medieval Academy of America 4
Saturday, January 5, 2013: 9:00 AM-11:00 AM
Bayside Ballroom A (Sheraton New Orleans)
Nukhet Varlik, Rutgers University–Newark
The Public Practice of History in and for a Digital Age
Remapping the Black Death
David Mengel, Xavier University
Toward a Molecular History of Yersinia pestis
Michelle Ziegler, Saint Louis University
In Search of the Black Death in Central Eurasia
Uli Schamiloglu, University of Wisconsin–Madison
Plague Patterns in Fifteenth Century Milan
Ann Carmichael, Indiana University Bloomington
Lester K. Little, Smith College

Session Abstract

Transformative work has happened in the field of genetics/microbiology in the past decade and a half, with the development of techniques to both retrieve ancient DNA (aDNA) and reconstruct the phylogenies of present-day microorganisms and postulate their evolutionary development.  In no field have these developments been more transformative than in plague studies, where the question “What caused the Black Death?” has now reached a point of general consensus, at least in so far as confirming that the causative organism, Yersinia pestis, was indeed present in human remains from the period.  However, because the question of causative organism has been the focus of so much debate for the past 30 years, microbiologists have moved to the foreground.  While (regular) historians have not ceded to microbiologists the authority to frame the entire narrative of the cataclysmic mid-fourteenth century pandemic, to date we have not yet been keeping up with the task of engaging seriously and productively with their work.

It is time, we believe, for historians to reframe our task of reconstructing our narratives of the Black Death (1346-1353), the most lethal pandemic in human history as a percentage of population killed if not in absolute numbers.  One of our central challenges is that many of the central points of our narratives about the Black Death—where it struck, its timing, estimates of mortality—were put in place over a century ago, long before the current microbiological understanding emerged.  Some aspects of these narratives have been reframed with bits and pieces of new information, but without any fundamental rethinking of the basic information, assumptions, and interpretations on which they stand.  For example, one of the main World History textbooks includes a "plague originated in China" map, which seems to fit with the latest phylogenetic studies on plague’s evolutionary origins.  In fact, however, neither “narrative” conforms to the historiographical consensus that medieval “China” saw little if any effect of plague.  The participants in this panel believe now is an excellent time for a "state of the question" discussion on how historians can both engage with results from the microbiological and bioarcheological scientific disciplines and exploit the new computer-enabled possibilities of data analysis, particularly geographic mapping.  Both allow us to think in radically new ways about the history of epidemic disease in premodern times. 

The Black Death was clearly a semi-global phenomenon, affecting the Eurasian and North African land masses (and possibly extending into sub-Saharan Africa, too).  The present panel reflects that geographic breadth and brings an array of empirical data and methodological perspectives to bear on this singular event that connected peoples across space, culture, and language.  Because plague is a zoonotic disease with a particularly complex relationship to the surrounding physical and animal environment, and because plague is now a fully global disease due to transmissions during the Third Pandemic in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this will be a particularly appropriate discussion for the 2013 AHA conference theme, “Lives, Places, Stories.”

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