MedPlag (completed)

The medieval plagues: ecology, transmission modalities and routes of the infections.

About the project

The history of late medieval and early modern Europe was deeply affected by epidemics of plague that repeatedly broke out until 1750 AD and caused devastation and death with severe social, political and economic consequences. For decades, historians and scientists have been interested in the ancient pestilences and disputed their origin and epidemiology. One century ago, Yersinia pestis was identified as the causative agent of the current-day pandemic. Only some months ago the MedPlag team conclusively established (Haensch et al. 2010) that this bacterium was responsible for the Black Death (1346-1353 AD) and that two distinct variants of Y. pestis were simultaneously circulating through Europe during this pandemic. These results raise questions concerning the historic Y. pestis strains, their geographical origin, and whether they might have re-circulated in Europe over four centuries or were constantly reintroduced from elsewhere. Other open questions concern the routes of transmission of the medieval plagues and the role played by trade and pilgrimages in their dissemination, the mechanisms of transmission and the implication of wild and anthropochorous fauna, and the interplay between climatic conditions and plague dynamics. In addition, whether the reason for the disappearance of plague from Europe 250 years ago was due to improved hygiene or to genetic or environmental change remains unknown. Finally, while historians and scientists have speculated on the microbe responsible for the Justinian plague (541-542 AD) molecular evidence is still lacking. In this proposal, I outline the methodology by which I will answer these major questions with an inter-domain investigation involving ancient DNA, climatology, ecology, and history. The results of this work will not only settle century-old controversies by giving us valuable information about the past, but also furnish a paradigm for understanding the modality of serious epidemics in Europe; past, present, and future.


This project is funded by an ERC Advanced Grant


01.06.2013 - 31.05.2018

Published July 7, 2014 1:25 PM - Last modified Oct. 15, 2019 1:18 PM


Detailed list of participants