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Białystok. Scientists determined that the death rate from the plague was not as great as it was thought

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Historians from the University of Bialystok took part in research on the demographic effects of the Black Death, which plagued humanity in the fourteenth century, conducted by an international team of scientists. Scientists’ conclusions? While the plague affected the populations of many parts of Europe, there were areas where the impact was minimal or absent at all. The research has been published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.

The Black Death that plagued Europe, West Asia and North Africa between 1347 and 1352 is considered the most terrible pandemic in history. It was the first wave of the so-called the second plague pandemic.

Historians have so far estimated that up to half of Europe’s inhabitants died during it, and on this basis they attributed the Black Death to the transformation of religious and political structures, and even the acceleration of major cultural and economic changes, such as the advent of the Renaissance or the rise of capitalism.

The Black Death that plagued Europe, West Asia and North Africa between 1347 and 1352 is considered the most terrible pandemic in historyillustrissima / Shutterstock

Data on the demographic effects of the plague are still little researched

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Meanwhile – although research on ancient DNA has identified the bacterium Yersinia pestis as the causative agent of the black death, and even traced its evolution over the millennia – data on the demographic effects of the plague is still little researched.

However, new research proves that the death rate caused by the plague in Europe in the mid-14th century was not as widespread or as high as previously thought. At least this is the result of an article that appeared in the pages of the prestigious journal “Nature Ecology and Evolution”.

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The publication is the result of the work of an international team of researchers, which included scientists from many European centers, including Poland: the University of Białystok, the University of Adam Mickiewicz in Poznań, the Institute of Botany W. Szafer PAN in Krakow, Institute of Geography and Spatial Organization Stanisław Leszczycki PAS, the Institute of Geological Sciences of the Polish Academy of Sciences, the University of Gdańsk, the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń and the Jagiellonian University in Kraków.

According to the press materials of the University of Białystok, scientists from the Palaeo-Science and History Group at the Max Planck Institute in Jena and historical demographers from the University of Bialystok – Dr. Radosław Poniat and Dr. hab. Piotr Guzowski.

They studied fungal spores and plant pollen

“Scientists analyzed pollen samples from the sediments of 261 lakes and wetlands in 19 modern European countries. This allowed them to determine how landscapes and agricultural activity changed between 1250 and 1450, which is about 100 years before and 100 years before. years after the pandemic “- we read in the press release of UWB.

The analysis of the samples confirms the damage that some regions of Europe have suffered. However, it shows that the Black Death did not affect all regions equally.

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– Palynology, which is the study of fungal spores and plant pollen, is a good tool for discovering the demographic effects of the Black Death. This is because the human impact on the landscape in pre-industrial times, primarily agriculture and forestry subordinated to construction needs, was largely dependent on the availability of employees – says Dr. Adam Izdebski, head of the Palaeo-Science and History group at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.

High mortality in France and Greece, among others

Using a new approach called Big Data Palaeoecology (BDP), researchers analyzed 1,634 pollen samples from locations across Europe to see which plants were growing in an area and to determine if agricultural activities the pandemic in a given place was slowed down, whether its intensity decreased or increased, which must have been associated with fluctuations in the number of the population. They also checked whether there were any signs of revival of wild vegetation, which could have meant a reduction in human pressure on the landscape.

Research from an international team shows that mortality from the epidemic varied widely. Some areas suffered damage on an unprecedented scale, while others suffered much more gently. The sharp decline in agricultural production in Scandinavia, France, southwest Germany, Greece and central Italy confirms the high mortality rate, as evidenced by medieval historical and archaeological sources. Meanwhile, many regions, including most of Central and Eastern Europe and parts of Western Europe – including Ireland and the Iberian Peninsula – show evidence of continuity or uninterrupted growth in agriculture.

Historical demographers from the University of Bialystok – Dr. Radosław Poniat (from the left) and Dr. hab. Piotr GuzowskiKatarzyna Dziedzik, University of Białystok

– The large variation in mortality rates, which we have confirmed with pollen data and the BDP method, requires clarification in further research, which will take into account local cultural, environmental, economic and social contexts. A number of local circumstances could have influenced the occurrence of plague bacteria, morbidity and mortality – claims Dr. Piotr Guzowski from the University of Białystok.

Also read: Black Death was already killing in the Bronze Age

A research method based on the reconstruction of changes in the landscape

Scientists emphasize the uniqueness of this research: most of the historical sources that have so far been used in the study of the Black Death came from urban areas that were characterized by a higher culture of writing and bureaucracy, but also by denser population and poor sanitation. Meanwhile, in the mid-fourteenth century, more than 75 percent. the population of all regions of Europe was rural. Current research shows that in order to reliably determine the scale of human losses in a given region, data from local sources should be used – not only historical, but also using nature archives and BDP as a method of reconstructing changes in the landscape.

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– There is no single model of a “pandemic” or “epidemic” of plague that could be applied to any place at any time, regardless of the context – emphasizes Adam Izdebski from the Max Planck Institute. And he adds: – Pandemics are complex phenomena with regional, local histories. We see it still the case COVID-19now we showed it in the case of the black death.

Scientists’ results show that plague was a dynamic disease, with cultural, ecological, economic and climatic factors influencing its spread and determining its impact on societies. The authors of the study hope that in the future, paleoecological data will be used even more extensively to understand how different local variables have influenced each other and shaped past – and influence current – pandemics.

Main photo source: illustrissima / Shutterstock



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