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Famine and Pestilence in the Irish Sea Region, 500–800 AD
By Michelle Ziegler (Saint Louis University)
Paper given at the 47th International Congress on Medieval Studies (2012)
Michelle Ziegler examines the questions on why does plagues seemed so much worse in the Middle Ages. Why did medieval populations die so much more frequently? Was it because of malnutrition?
Ziegler notes that we often see a correlation between malnutrition and epidemics, because the lack of proper food suppresses the immune system, leaving people more vulnerable to disease. This situation can worsen when a plague strikes, as it can also cause lost productivity, create refugees, which in turn contributes to more malnutrition. She adds that medieval people rarely flee to other areas because of plagues or lack of food.
Her research focuses in on early medieval England and Ireland, where she can make use of a number of written sources including Annals of Ulster, the Life of Columba by Adomnan, and works by Bede. These sources are uneven in quality, with some such as the Annals of Ulster providing more detailed information than other works.
Based on this research, Ziegler concludes that the Irish Sea region was hit by famine in the years 536, 538-, 670, 675-8, 685, 699-701, 708, 737, 748, 760, 764-5. 773, 778-9, 793, and 799. She also finds that many of the famine entries were linked to weather events, such as a great snowfall, or when “red rain fell” in the year 685. The eighth century saw several occurrences of cattle deaths linked to heavy snowfalls.
The loss of cattle could mean drastic cuts to the food available to humans, as they lost milk, cheese, whey and dairy products. Winter cattle deaths were particularly harsh, because the only cattle kept over winter were used for breeding, so this loss would deplete stock for years to come.
Ziegler next examines episodes of pestilence, which could be “leprosy with blogach” (probably smallpox) and “bloody flux” – a dysentery-like disease that struck in the years 764, 768, 770, 773, 774, 777 and 778. Some of the worst episodes of disease include the arrival of plague from Byzantium to Ireland in 545. The Annals of Ulster called this ‘blefed’ which might be a reference to the yellow plague (bla=yellow feth=appearance) and also notes a large number of obituaries because of this plague.
Another particularly strong plague occurred in the the years 683-684, when Ireland was struck by a disease the killed children. The Fragmentary Annals of Ireland reports about “the plague of youths, in which all the chieftains and nearly all the youung Irish nobleman perished.”
Ziegler does not find any significant correlation between famines and plague in her research on the early medieval Irish sea region, but does find correlation between cattle murrains which leads to bloody flux in humans.
You can learn more about Michelle Ziegler and her area of research through her website: Contagions – thoughts on historic infectious disease