written by Dr. Stephen A. Berger
A frightening pandemic arises from animals in Asia and spreads westward, killing thousands in Italy, France, Spain, and many other countries. The more severe infections are characterized by cough and fever, leading to progressive pneumonia. There is no specific treatment available, and entire cultures live in fear and uncertainty.
And so, during 541-542 C.E. Yersinia pestis the bacterium that causes bubonic plague, spread out from China into the Byzantine Empire. Few were spared, and an estimated 25 to 100 million Europeans went on to die during repeated waves of infection that struck the region over the next 200 years. As many as 5,000 plague deaths per day were recorded in the city of Constantinople. This “Justinian Plague” is named for the Emperor Justinian, who managed to survive an attack of the illness (less-fortunate victims included Pope Pelagius II and Wighard, Archbishop of Canterbury)
In recent years, much is written regarding the risk of the spread of infectious diseases related to global warming. In fact, there is some evidence that the Justinian plague was the product of global cooling. Five years before the onset of the pandemic, emissions from a volcano may have significantly lowered atmospheric temperature, resulting in the migration of rodents deprived of food. Fleas, which spread plague from rodents to humans, are unable to efficiently digest their blood meals at low temperatures, causing them to vomit as they attempt to feed again – injecting contaminated material into their hosts.
The Justinian plague largely spared the Arabian Peninsula, thus nourishing the rise of Islam and Arab armies which easily went on to conquer large areas of a devastated Europe.
From 1347 to 1351, a second plague pandemic – The Black Death – killed 75 to 200 million humans – an estimated ten-to-sixty percent of the European population. Once again, the disease originated in Asia, entering through Sicily on Genoese galleys, and reaching Venice in 1348. The irony of a pestilence from China spreading through northern Italy is obvious in light of current events. Just as the Justinian Plague claimed the life of Bishop Wighard, the Black Death killed two Archbishops of Canterbury in a single year – Thomas Bradwardine and John de Ufford.
Just as the Justinian Plague altered the future of Europe, the Black Death may well have paved a path into the Renaissance.
As of March 2020, there is little similarity between COVID-19 and Bubonic plague; but the current massive disruption of society will surely have consequences for human civilization in years to come.