Were the Great Plagues in Britain really caused by rats and fleas, or is a cosmic event responsible for poisoning the atmosphere? I attended a lecture at the Society of Antiquaries to find out.
Last evening, I attended the Society of Antiquaries lecture, New Light on the Black Death: the cosmic connection, by Mike Baillie, FSA. The topic is not one with which I am greatly familiar, however I found the lecture extremely interesting…most especially because it dealt mainly with dendrochonological evidence (a love of mine); and, sitting in the audience was none other than Professor Peter I. Kuniholm, newly elected Fellow, founder of the Aegean Dendrochronology Project and the Malcolm and Carolyn Wiener Laboratory for Aegean and Near Eastern Dendrochronology at Cornell University (Professor Kuniholm once turned me down for a job, which upon reflection I am actually quite glad about, otherwise I would most likely not have come to CA!). No hard feelings, of course – and Professor Kuniholm is really the ultimate source when discussing dendrochronology, so his input on the presentation was extremely interesting.
Mr Baillie’s talk (and new book) is centered on the dendrochronogical evidence for an environmental context for both episodes of the Great Plague in Britain. There was a steep global reduction in tree growth in both AD 540 and AD1340, which coincides eerily well with both instances of the Black Death. Taken in conjunction with extremely well-dated annual records for Greenland ice cores that show a change in atmospheric conditions for those specific dates, Mr Baillie looks like he might be onto something. He maintains that the two scientific threads intersect at interaction with a comet (rather than a volcanic eruption, which would have produced an entirely different chemical signature in the ice cores), which in both cases is also supported by contemporary documentary sources in Britain as well as further afield. Seems a very neat way to tie up all the references to ‘infected air’ and a ‘poisoned atmosphere’ that accompany most written sources about the plague. It throws the accepted epidemiology on its head- definitely food for thought.
Speaking of food, the newly refurbished rooms of the Antiquaries are truly lovely. However, I spent the entire evening thinking (quite irreverently) that I felt like I was inside a box of Neapolitan ice cream as the paint scheme is chocolate, strawberry and vanilla. Delightful. I had an ice cream straight afterwards!