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The Justinian plague

11 July 2012
Ancient history

At http://phys.org/print261121955.html … we have one of those frustrating press releases from a university, a letter of intent – future plans. Scientists, it says, are going to take a trip back to the Byzantine Empire – by studying a sediment core from Lake Nar in central Turkey, purportedly the 'epi-centre' of the plague of Justinian. It is thought to have wiped out a quarter of the population in the eastern Mediterranean region, between AD541-750. Now, plague may well have been recurring over a long period of time, but is this timeline really authentic? The Islamic Empire was forged in the 7th century AD and although they probably took advantage of a depopulated countryside, can it really have been raging at the 'epi-centre' of Islamic expansion? The press release then adds, it is thought to have coincided with a switch from a drier to a wetter climate, in which the plague, and rats, thrived. This may be true of the bubonic plague in the 14th century AD – but does it apply to the 6th century AD? The climate, in NW Europe, that is, became wetter and cooler in the late Roman period, beginning in the 3rd century AD. Did it become wetter in Turkey? The date of AD541 is of course the date Mike Baillie has claimed coincides with the second of two closely spaced low growth tree ring events – ascribing them to a cosmic event of some kind. Others have suggested a volcanic eruption. Baillie foresees a cloud of sulphurous and other toxic chemicals as a transient event associated with a cosmic source – not a plague lasting 200 years. In Britain the yellow cloud was associated with the death of Maelgwyn – in the age of Arthur (as far as traditional history is concerned). The frustrating thing about the press release is that the study of the cores has not yet been done – they are talking about it, and adding some input that may or may not have anything to do with the plague of Justinian (including the rats). We can certainly look forwards to the results of the research – but that may be in a couple of years time.

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