Late antique plague has never been more contested. Recent scholarship has repeatedly questioned whether the Justinianic plague caused catastrophic mortality and supporters of the traditional narrative of a vast, depopulating sixth-century pandemic have dug in. Scholars have repeatedly assessed evidence thought to prove traditional narratives about the Justinianic plague, but never to everyone’s liking. Things have gotten ugly and no resolution is in sight. To advance the debate and shift the focus, these pages review the use of the Black Death in accounts of the Justinianic plague. What follows demonstrates that the claim the sixth-century pandemic killed many millions is founded on centuries of uncritical treatment of late antique sources reinforced in recent generations via the overinterpretation of the first pandemic’s plague diagnosis and the neglect of plague’s ecological and epidemiological complexities. That the Justinianic plague was another Black Death underpins research agendas and influences the interpretation of data in diverse fields, but it is an unsubstantiated claim, one stemming from deficient interdisciplinarity and neither proven by current evidence nor provable with current methods. Only by strengthening interdisciplinary collaboration, it is proposed in closing, can we begin to remedy our first-pandemic plague problems.
One Plague for Another? Interdisciplinary Shortcomings in Plague Studies and the Place of the Black Death in Histories of the Justinianic Plague
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Timothy P. Newfield; One Plague for Another? Interdisciplinary Shortcomings in Plague Studies and the Place of the Black Death in Histories of the Justinianic Plague. Studies in Late Antiquity 1 November 2022; 6 (4): 575–626. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/sla.2022.6.4.575
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