Black Death mortality not as widespread as long thought

The Black Death, which plagued Europe, West Asia and North Africa from 1347-1352, is the most infamous pandemic in history.

Historians have estimated that up to 50% of Europe’s population died during the pandemic and credit the Black Death with transforming religious and political structures, even precipitating major cultural and economic transformations such as the Renaissance. Although ancient DNA research has identified Yersinia pestis as the Black Death’s causative agent and even traced its evolution across millennia, data on the plague’s demographic impacts is still underexplored and little understood.

Now, a new study in Nature Ecology and Evolution demonstrates that the Black Death’s mortality in Europe was not as universal or as widespread as long thought. An international team of researchers, led by the Palaeo-Science and History group at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, analyzed pollen samples from 261 sites in 19 modern-day European countries to determine how landscapes and agricultural activity changed between 1250 and 1450 CE – roughly 100 years before to 100 years after the pandemic.  Their analysis supports the devastation experienced by some European regions, but also shows that the Black Death did not impact all regions equally.

Landscapes tell a surprising story

- Advertisement -

Palynology, or the study of fossil plant spores and pollen, is a powerful tool for uncovering the demographic impacts of the Black Death. This is because human pressures on the landscape in pre-industrial times, such as farming or clearing native plants for building, were heavily dependent on the availability of rural workers. Using a new approach called Big-data paleoecology (BDP), the researchers analyzed 1,634 pollen samples from sites all over Europe to see which plants were growing in which quantities, and thereby determine whether agricultural activities in each region continued or halted, or if wild plants regrew while human pressure is reduced.

Their results show that the Black Death’s mortality varied widely, with some areas suffering the devastation the pandemic has become known for and others experiencing a much lighter touch. Sharp agricultural declines in Scandinavia, France, southwestern Germany, Greece and central Italy support the high mortality rates attested to in medieval sources. Meanwhile many regions, including much of Central and Eastern Europe and parts of Western Europe including Ireland and Iberia, show evidence for continuity or uninterrupted growth.

“The significant variability in mortality that our BDP approach identifies remains to be explained, but local cultural, demographic, economic, environmental and societal contexts would have influenced Y. pestis prevalence, morbidity and mortality,” says Alessia Masi from the MPI SHH and La Sapienza University in Rome.

No single model of the pandemic

One reason these results come as a surprise is that many of the quantitative sources that have been used to construct Black Death case studies come from urban areas, which, despite their ability to collect information and keep records, were also characterized by crowding and poor sanitation. However, in the mid 14th century, upwards of 75% of the population of every European region was rural.  The current study shows that, to understand the mortality of a particular region, data must be reconstructed from local sources, including BDP as a method for measuring the change in cultural landscapes.

“There is no single model of ‘the pandemic’ or a ‘plague outbreak’ that can be applied to any place at any time regardless of the context,” says Adam Izdebski, the leader of the Palaeo-Science and History group at the MPI SHH.  “Pandemics are complex phenomena that have regional, local histories. We have seen this with COVID-19, now we have now shown it for the Black Death.”

The differences in the Black Death’s mortality across Europe demonstrates that the plague was a dynamic disease, with cultural, ecological, economic and climatic factors mediating its dissemination and impact. Moving forward, the researchers hope that more studies will use palaeoecological data to understand how these variables interact to shape past – and present – pandemics.


Header Image – Bagno Kusowo peatland – one of best-preserved Baltic raised bogs in N Poland. The site possesses an exceptional multi-proxy record of fires frequency and vegetation change in the last millennium. Image Credit : Mariusz Lamentowicz

- Advertisement -
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is an award winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 7,500 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education and the BCA Medal of Honour.

Mobile Application


Related Articles

Baboons in Ancient Egypt were raised in captivity before being mummified

In a new study published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE, researchers examined a collection of baboon mummies from the ancient Egyptian site of Gabbanat el-Qurud, the so-called Valley of the Monkeys on the west bank of Luxor.

Archaeologists find 22 mummified burials in Peru

A Polish-Peruvian team of archaeologists have uncovered 22 mummified burials in Barranca, Peru.

Oldest prehistoric fortress found in remote Siberia

An international team, led by archaeologists from Freie Universität Berlin has uncovered an ancient prehistoric fortress in a remote region of Siberia known as Amnya.

Top 10 archaeological discoveries of 2023

The field of archaeology has been continuously evolving in 2023, making significant strides in uncovering new historical findings, preserving cultural heritage, and employing innovative technologies to study the past.

War in Ukraine sees destruction of cultural heritage not witnessed since WW2

The full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 has resulted in a significant loss of human lives and the national and international displacement of many Ukrainian people.

Archaeologists find five Bronze Age axes in the forests of Kociewie

According to an announcement by the Pomeranian Provincial Conservator of Monuments, archaeologists have discovered five Bronze Age axes in Starogard Forest District, located in Kociewie, Poland.

Origins of English Christmas traditions

Christmas embodies a tapestry of ritual traditions and customs shared by many countries and cultures. Some hearken back to ancient times, while others represent more recent innovations.

Mosaic depicting lions found at ancient Prusias ad Hypium

Archaeologists have uncovered a mosaic depicting lions during excavations at ancient Prusias ad Hypium, located in modern-day Konuralp, Turkey.