Sixth Century Plague

This is the handout for my workshop on the Justinian Plague- the pictures are left out because I don’t have the rights to publish them- but you can google images for Bubonic plague. Write me if you want the 30 page booklet.

6th century Plague   

Hlafdige Arastorm aka Tchipakkan aka VFRichards-Taylor


Medical historians refer to three major pandemics caused by the bubonic plague: this first one is called the “The Plague of Justinian”, “the Black Death” was the second, and the last is often only referred to as “The Third Pandemic”. Actually, the term “Black Death” was only applied to the second pandemic in the 19th century, at the time it was called “The Great Mortality”, or “the Catastrophe”, or often simply “The Plague”. Justinian’s Plague, so called as it devastated Constantinople during the reign of Justinian, started in 541 C.E., and ended about 750 C.E. Justinian’s Plague spread north and west as far as England and Ireland, south into Africa, and to the east was reports show it reached China in the early seventh century.

The disease the bubonic plague is caused by the bacteria Yersinia Pestis. It was first isolated in 1894 by the bacteriologist Alexander Yersin, who proved that it was the cause of Plague. Scientists have isolated three biovars that are associated with each of the pandemics: Biovar Antiqua, with the 6th c. plague, Biovar Mediaevalis, with the 14th c., and Biovar Orientalis with that of the 19th century. More important in any given outbreak, there are three forms of Y. Pestis: Bubonic, Pneumonic, and Septicemic.

The bubonic form is characterized by swelling of the lymph nodes called buboes. The bubonic form was more general. Symptoms included fever and chills, headache, swollen glands, and lethargy or dementia. There is a two to six day incubation, but the mortality rate of the bubonic plague is “only” 40%. In contrast, the Pneumatic form occurred when the infection entered the lungs from the rest of the body. One of the more traumatic effects of the plague is that the tissues of the body weaken and start to break down. When this happened the bacteria (in the interstitial fluid) seeped into the lungs, and the lymph nodes in the neck swelled in a vein attempt to combat the infection. With every cough, bacteria-filled sputum entered the air all around the patient, ready to be inhaled and infect anyone nearby. This form was far more contagious, and sadly, results in nearly 100% mortality. Death is even more abrupt from the Septicemic form of  the plague, which is when the infection passes into the blood stream. It too is one hundred percent fatal, and death sometimes occurs so quickly other symptoms have no chance to become evident, as John of Ephesus wrote: “Nobody would go out of doors without a tag upon which his name was written and which hung upon his neck or his arm”.

While the pneumonic form of the plague is more contagious, the common carrier of the plague was not other humans but is the rat flea carried by the black rat. Most fleas are species specific (they prefer a specific host), but will jump species when starving (when their host dies and there is none other of the preferred host species in the area). Xenopsylla cheopsis, better known as the rat flea, is the vector for Y. Pestis. When Y. pestis has proliferated in the flea’s digestive tract, it causes the blood to coagulate which closes up the flea’s stomach. The flea bites and sucks, but no blood reaches its stomach. Hungry, it changes hosts and tries again, because of the seal, the blood it’s taken in gets pushed out again into the new host. The starving flea keeps trying new hosts until it dies of starvation.

The event that precipitated the first plague was the eruption of Proto-Krakatoa in 536 ce. called the “Dust Veil Event.”  For a few years after that dust in the atmosphere was sufficiently extensive that it reduced the amount of sunlight getting to the earth to cause a year or more of extreme weather, crop failures, and famines all over the world, and to activate Y Pestis in African rodents, and eventually to black rats who’d spread across the Roman Empire on it’s trade routes. At the end of the second pandemic the Brown or Norwegian rat spread through Europe, partially displacing the black rat, the black rat (roof rat) was the rat involved in the 6th century pandemic. This rat spread in grain, paper, and cloth shipments, mostly by ship. Because of this most areas more than 20 miles from coasts or rivers were not as badly hit- at least initially.

Our main literary sources are Procopius, John of Ephesus and Evagrius in Constantinople, Gregory of Tours in France, Bede in England, and Al-Asmai in the Arab world. It is important to remember that these authors were writing for their own reasons, and often do not give specific medical descriptions. Also bear in mind that other diseases might occur concurrently or between outbreaks of plague. These outbreaks returned sporadically, but on an average of eleven years. When they returned they hit the children who had been born since the last outbreak the hardest.

Our first reports of the plague say it broke out in the port of Pelusium on the Eastern side of the Nile delta in late 541. In the spring of 542 it broke out in Constantinople, first among the poor, then everywhere. Soon there were more sick people to be cared for and dead to bury than normal systems could handle. The government intervened, making mass graveyards.                   “… it started with vigour first with the masses of poor people who were cast away in the streets. Sometimes 5000, 7,000, 12,000, as many as 16,000 dying in a single day. Since it was still the beginning, men [government officials] used to stand in harbours, crossings and gates, counting their numbers.”  Justinian had assigned Theodorus to deal with the crisis, and he arranged for removal of the bodies, and opened large new burial pits across the Golden Horne. The city ran out of diggers and litters to carry the corpses, and they piled up in the streets. They filled boats and set them adrift, and filled the towers in the city walls with corpses.  Procopius wrote that “When they reached 230,000, seeing that the dead were uncountable, they gave up and just brought the bodies out without counting them.” After four months,  the outbreak slowed down, but it returned the next year.

Meanwhile it spread all up the Levant, across Greece, Italy, Southern France, Spain, and north Africa, and even to Ireland and Wales. Northern France and Eastern England weren’t as much affected, because they appear to have had less trade. However, once the rats had become infected, every time the population density grew great enough, another wave hit. It went through Persia and reached China.

Citys and towns lost 50% or more in the first outbreaks, some disappearing entirely. This depopulation created political imbalances which lead to wars and other power shifts. Religions looked upon the plague as a sign from God (or the gods- some recently converted Christians relapsed, which was a subject of some of the writings.) The plague hit rural areas too, killing some animals as well as humans, and the disruption in food production led to famines.  Sailors too were hit hard and trade greatly reduced. When it built up again the big east-west trade had shifted from gold for silk, to slaves for spices, because of the demand for labor in the Califate, (and reduced demand for silk).

Some Christians took the plague as a sign of the End of the World; others as punishment for general sins, or sins of leaders. During the 590 outbreak in Rome the new pope, Gregory the Great, saw a vision of an angel sheathing a sword, which led to St. Michael being considered a patron saint against plague. Other “plague” saints were Sebastian and Gerdtrude . Votive masses, (for a specific purpose), Rogations (penitential processions), and veneration of Mary also seem to have arisen as responses to the “Mortality”.  Magickal charms for protection also proliferated.

Then in the mid eighth century the outbreaks stopped. There is no consensus (and many theories) about why. Climate fluctuations and population density changes are among the most likely. No more outbreaks are recorded until the 14th century. It is probably worth mentioning that the spread of the Roman Empire (300 bce to 300 ad) had a similarly warmer climate to the Little Climatic Optimum (990-1315), and that the Dark Ages endured similar cooler weather to the “Little Ice Age”, both of which seem to have been triggered by a specific event and famines- followed by an outbreak of plague.

This is an image of a buboe, and one of necrosis of the extremities, not as well known.


Recommended reading

Bede, History of the English Church and People, (Sherly-Price trans.), Dorset 1968

Gildas, On the Ruin of Britain (De Excidio Britannia), Dodo Press, 2010

Jordanes, Origin and Deeds of the Goths, Qontro Classic, 2010

Procopius, Secret History, Penguin 1966 & The Persian Wars , Echo Library 2007

and modern books:

Crawford, Dorothy, Deadly Companions: How Microbes Shaped Our History,

Fagan, Brian, The Great Warming, Climate Change & the Rise & Fall of Civilizations, or one of his other books on climateBasic 2008

Hendrikson, Robert, More Cunning than Man: A Social History of Rats and Men, Dorset 1984

Keys, David, Catastrophe, Ballentine 1999 Little, Lester K, Plague and the End of Antiquity, the Pandemic of 541-750, Cambridge University Press  2007)

and the End of the Roman Empire, Penguin  2007

Please feel free to contact me with Questions, Comments and Corrections.  Arastorm

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