Kolloquium der Alten Geschichte
Rosshofgasse (Schnitz) Seminarraum S 01
Justinianic Plague for Historians
We have come a long way in researching what we call the ‘Plague of Justinian’ or the ‘Justinianic Plague’ or ‘The Early Medieval Plague’ – the conventional (and perhaps misleading) name for the first pandemic of plague, usually taken to start with its outbreak in Pelusium in 541, returning in some 18 waves, with its final one ending its cycle in 750. From Valentin Seibel, who produced the first study of this phenomenon in 1857, to scientific studies of ancient DNA (both that of humans and of microorganisms) that were published a few months ago, research on the plague has gone through three major phases, in my mind, named after the body of material that was principally responsible for driving it forward: the narrative, the documentary, and the paleo-scientific or laboratory phase. In this paper I will review these different phases and discuss their results as well as their relevance for the study of late antique history. I will also point to the limitations of the data that we have accumulated and critically examine the challenges that historians face when having to deal with information produced by disciplines that have a limited understanding of the nuances of work in the humanities.
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