Doubt Cast on Death Toll From the Black Plague

Researchers analyzing ancient pollen deposits are skeptical it killed half of Europe
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 11, 2022 12:28 PM CST
Doubt Cast on Death Toll From the Black Plague
This 2014 photo shows a skeleton found by construction workers under central London's Charterhouse Square, which was thought to have come from a cemetery for victims of the bubonic plague that ravaged Europe in the 14th century.   (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

(Newser) – "It may still be the 'mother of all pandemics,' but what we think the Black Death was is changing," according to researchers, who are calling into question the widely reported claim that the bubonic plague pandemic from 1346 to 1353 wiped out half of Europe's population. There are varying estimates of the death toll. Indeed, Norwegian historian Ole Benedictow claimed the plague killed up to 65% of Europe's population in a 2021 book, though experts usually give an estimate of between 30% and 50%. Even that lower estimate didn't sit well with an international team of researchers, whose work was published Thursday in Nature Ecology & Evolution. They make the case that the estimate was based on historical texts from certain regions, then applied universally across the continent.

They figured that if so many people died in the 14th century, when most worked to produce crops on farms, then agricultural activity would have suffered and farms would've become overgrown. And that's not what they say happened, at least not universally. In analyzing 1,634 ancient pollen deposits taken from 261 lakes and wetlands in 19 European countries, they found signs that the landscape in many regions continued to be developed from around 1250 to 1450. In Poland, the Baltics, and central Spain, there was an increase in pollen from crops and a decease in pollen from mature trees, suggesting "agricultural expansion continued uninterrupted," Izdebski and colleagues write at the Conversation. "This means the Black Death's mortality was neither universal nor universally catastrophic."

There was a major shift in the opposite direction in regions including southern Norway, central Italy, and Greece, as pollen from farmland decreased while pollen from birch and oak trees appeared. But researchers say this was not widespread enough to support a 50% death toll. Medieval historian John Aberth is still confident in using the 50% figure, however. He tells the New York Times that regions "highly interconnected, even during the Middle Ages, by trade, travel, commerce and migration" could not have been spared and that increases in crop pollen might only indicate that immigrants arrived to take over land left vacant by the dead. The study authors note there could be numerous factors at play, from local environment and living conditions to the time of year at which the bacteria arrived. (Read more Black Death stories.)

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