AD 2001000 The West Reaches Its Nadir

The Barbarians, c. A.D. 200-600 When it was no longer feasible for Rome to defend the frontiers from the barbarians who lurked upon the eastern side of the Rhine-Danube frontier, the empire enlisted them to defend what they coveted. Given land in the empire, the barbarians were partially Romanized and, in return for their land, were asked to defend the frontier. At this point, the third phase of the tripartite strategy comes into play. Because armies were not available in sufficient size to guarantee the immense frontier of the empire, and because the colonized barbarians themselves might decide to sack a nearby town or two, a "defense in depth" approach was developed. Strongly fortified positions were built, which could be supplied and manned to hold out for a long time in the rear of an enemy encroachment. These fortifications gave the Romans a foothold in areas that could only too easily be overrun. These strongholds could shelter and defend the frontier population until adequate military strength could be massed to counter the incursion. A strategy of this type clearly depends upon a much smaller population. For a stronghold to house more than a token population, the frontier population had to be small in the first place. This is further attested by the fact that the forts were victualed for long campaigns. Generally such fortifications were set upon natural defensive positions, minimizing the manpower necessary to defend them.

Even if this picture of the strategy of the empire is incorrect, there are too many other signs of population decline and of the increasing importance of local environments to deny convincingly that the demographic and disease picture had not changed immensely. The empire itself, which had dominated the

Mediterranean world, divided itself up into two main units, with a "second Rome" emerging in the form of Constantinople. By the fourth century it had become two major territories, each usually with its own emperor. No longer could armies feasibly be moved around so effortlessly as in the Punic Wars. The Greek and Latin empires drifted apart. The Latin Empire was increasingly the prey of barbarians. Peoples on the borders of the empire in the West, whether under population pressure of their own or because of pressure from more remote peoples, invaded and often settled in the lands that had comprised the empire. Often, they tried to revive Roman government and customs, as with the Ostrogoths, only to fall prey to more aggressive and less civilized peoples such as the Lombards. Matters were further complicated by the advent of Christianity, as if the empire was not experiencing enough travails.

The Christian religion arose (and was seen so to arise by divine plan by Augustine) in the empire. Its appeal was undeniably greatest to people who found the world they lived in unsatisfactory. Again so complex a subject as the change in the overall concept of the cosmos cannot be related to something as simple as disease, but there is little question that Christianity denigrated the world, as human beings lived in it, in favor of a life that would come after death. St. Augustine died while the Vandals besieged the city of which he was bishop. It would be an incredible oversimplification to attribute the fact that the City of God could not exist in this world, to the world Augustine lived in, but the religions of classical antiquity with few exceptions (and those exceptions became the rule as the situation of the empire worsened) saw this life as real life and what came after as a shadow thereof.

What diseases weakened the empire? Did the Romans come in contact with a distant disease pool, as has been suggested by William McNeill (1976)? We have essentially no hope of knowing the details. Nonetheless, epidemic diseases played an increasing role in the fate of the empire. In the sixth century, Justinian made a supreme effort to reunite the two halves of the empire. He might have succeeded had not a monstrous epidemic (in this case identifiable as plague) wreaked such mortality that the prospect was not entertained again for centuries.

The barbarians who occupied Roman lands first were almost invariably displaced by others who obviously had the manpower and freedom from epidemics to oust their rivals, who in their turn seem to have suffered much the fate of the Romans them selves. The first wave of barbarian invasions ended with western Europe in the hands of barbarian kingdoms and the East still a state with considerable territory and the ability to defend itself.

Cities, the cornerstones of classical antiquity, declined. In a famous example, the inhabitants of one city declined to the point where they lived in the city stadium. Effective government collapsed and local strongmen became the only powers that affected most of the population. In this decline of cities in particular, plague may have had a major role. In general, plague favors city over rural populations. Barbarians came from nonurban civilizations, but typically settled in the Roman cities they conquered. As epidemic followed epidemic (or, in the case of the Plague of Justinian, continued well into the seventh century), succeeding waves of barbarians probably profited from their predecessors' disease experience. Certainly there is reason to believe that the Huns were displaced by another tribe that was experiencing overpopulation.

Aside from the Plague of Justinian, we can identify few of the epidemics that afflicted Europe. The practical knowledge that permitted the Romans to drain swamps to lessen malaria was replaced by superstition and senseless violence. When an epidemic threatened the lives of the children of one of the Frankish kings, he decided that he was being punished by God for taxing the people. He burned the tax rolls, Gregory of Tours (1905) tells us, and his children survived. Again a single incident has much to tell us. First, unlike the societies that exposed children, we see a king terrified that his children will die. Partly this is a difference in religion and culture - barbarian Christian versus classical Greek - but partly there is a background of epidemic diseases that pose terrifying threats. There is also a population on the edge of disaster, low in number, and barely managing to subsist. There are enemies everywhere in the form of humans, diseases, and the supernatural (the term dates from the fourteenth century).

Among the myriad factors that have been argued to have contributed to Rome's fall, the unfavorable epidemic disease picture, as opposed to the threat of the barbarians, is a factor that cannot be discounted.

The Early Middle Ages, c. A.D. 500-1000

However influential the Plague of Justinian was, once its century-long devastation of Europe ended, plague did not recur in western Europe again until 1347. Why this is so is totally obscure. Even if cities and overall population density declined, plague is primarily a zoonosis and, once established, counts humans as incidental victims. It seems likely that the plague never established an enzootic focus in Europe, or if it did, that focus died out quickly. This pattern has been documented in recent years for Hawaii (Ell 1984a; Tomich et al. 1984). In such places, a few susceptible animal strains allowed the disease an enzootic foothold, but could not sustain it indefinitely.

Despite the temporary absence of plague, the Early Middle Ages saw its share of disease. Chronicles rarely covered more than a few years before noting some outbreak of epidemic disease.

Although charges of abandoning children, suffocating them in their sleep, and so forth, remained part and parcel of medieval lore, children were certainly not subjected to a formal decision on survival at birth. We can read little or nothing into this as regards population dynamics, however, because we are in the world of Christianity and Germanic custom rather than classical practice.

If the barbarians started their careers in a favorable demographic position relative to the Romans, this situation seems to have lasted a very short time, as suggested above. Despite the influx of barbarians into western Europe, cities contracted further, and secondary waves of barbarians overwhelmed earlier arrivals. The best example of this phenomenon is the primacy of the previously obscure Franks, who were the only barbarian tribe that by chance had not converted to what was rapidly perceived as a heretical form of Christianity.

There was certainly little enough to favor population growth. The Roman governmental apparatus was among the most elaborate the world has ever seen and certainly surpassed anything to be seen in Europe at least until the Renaissance (and then on a much smaller scale). When the barbarians tried to take over this system, the results were indeed barbaric. Roads were not repaired. Tax rolls were not updated, so that someone living in a given place might legally be someone long dead and owe the latter's taxes. The newly risen landowners might live a life unencumbered with taxes, while identifiable units from the past were asked for money they could not pay. War, which was the king's truest business and accounted for much of his revenue, contributed little to this already bleak picture. Every spring, the Frankish kings reviewed their armies and went off to war. Since war generally increases epidemic disease, the annual royal endeavor again would be likely to worsen the disease situation.

As if political ineptitude, gratuitous violence, and an unfavorable disease climate were not enough, the experience of the Romans was about to be mimicked by their inheritors. The comparatively settled barbarian kingdoms had by 800 coalesced (largely by force of arms, to be sure) into the Empire of Charlemagne. What the future of this empire left to itself might have been, we will never know. A storm of new invaders fell mercilessly on western Europe, and a near parody of what had gone before occurred.

Evidence from Scandinavia suggests that that region was overpopulated (Musset 1971). Again, for unclear reasons, peoples outside what was left of the Roman Empire seem to have enjoyed a much more favorable disease ecology and significant population growth. In 796, the first Viking raid sacked the monastery at Lindisfarne. A little over two centuries later, a Dane ruled England. Until very recently, the English Book of Common Prayer contained the phrase "God protect us from the fury of the Northmen." William the Conqueror was the descendant of the Viking conquerors of Normandy.

The north was not the only battleground. For more obscure reasons, the Magyars, fierce horsemen from central Europe, began to press the eastern borders of the old Carolingian domains. Their depredations destabilized the precarious hold of the young German monarchy, which finally crushed them at the Battle of Lechfeld in 955.

In the south, Islam entered one of its periodic expansionist phases and threatened Europe. Pirates and small armies made every locale anywhere near the Mediterranean coast unsafe. No single engagement or event ended this inclusion, but it ebbed away almost completely by the year 1000.

The wave of barbarian invasions ended differently from the first. Despite high cost, the existing institutions proved capable of driving off or absorbing the invaders. More importantly, the second wave of barbarian invasions was the last. By 1066, Europe was free to develop politically without outside threat. The weak had begun to grow strong again.

The High Middle Ages, 1000-1348 Renewal

A marginal agricultural surplus began to be produced by at least the tenth century, and by the year 1000 the demographic profile of western Europe began to improve dramatically. Whenever the actual improvements in agricultural techniques began is unclear, but so long as Europe was under the siege of the second wave of barbarians, such improvements were unlikely to have a significant effect. Once a period of relative peace ensued, the small agricultural surplus then available provided the basis for one of the great periods of population growth in European history (Duby 1981). Other factors were also at work, including better government and probably the abatement of a now unidentifiable series of epidemics. In any case, for the next 300 years, western Europe enjoyed very favorable demographic circumstances. Indeed by the year 1300, parts of rural Italy enjoyed population densities that would not be reached again until the nineteenth century (Herlihy 1968). The results of this growth in population were spectacular.

Huge amounts of land were brought under cultivation for the first time. Improvements in plows and crop rotations boosted agricultural yields (White 1962; Duby 1968). Gothic architecture arose at the hands of Suger of St. Denis and cast its magic light over Europe (Duby 1981). Partly because less effort was required for daily life, persons of means turned hungrily toward knowledge and found it on the interface of Christianity and Islam, mainly in Spain and Sicily. The vast storehouse of classical literature, along with the brilliant commentaries and original works of the great minds of Islam, was translated for the Latin world (Southern 1966; Lindberg 1978; Stock 1978). This fueled one of the most exciting intellectual flowerings in Western history. The university, which arose from the cathedral school, dates from the High Middle Ages and remains a foundation of intellectual life.

For the first time, western Europe began to expand against its neighbors. In Urban II's call for the First Crusade, there is an overt reference to an overpopulation of knights, who were creating internal violence. Thus aside from its religious content, the First Crusade was seen as a partial solution to overpopulation. This adventure involved not only knights but also thousands of peasants, who attempted to make their way to the Holy Land, only to perish en route. The Germanic kingdom began to expand to the East, and in Spain the reconquista to drive out the Moors was accelerated.

The recovery of classical and Islamic medical writings permits, along with contemporary Western works, the identification of at least a few diseases. Smallpox and chickenpox were separated, and smallpox can occasionally be identified. Like most endemic diseases of humans that require direct contact, smallpox was a major killer of children (Hopkins 1983). Plague made its reappearance only to mark the end of the High Middle Ages, but leprosy was a near obsession in western Europe.

Leprosy in medieval Europe has produced an immense literature. (Probably the most complete and the most extensive bibliography to date is Brody 1974.) In recent years, it has become possible to speak of medieval leprosy as the same disease we know today, at least from around the year 1200 on (arguments summarized in Ell 1986). This statement is based mainly on the results of excavations of skeletal remains from the cemeteries of leprosaria (after the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, a leprosy patient could not be buried in the same cemetery as a person not suffering from the disease), coupled with the writings of contemporary physicians (Ell 1986,1989b). In particular, the works of Theodoric of Cervia in the thirteenth century and Guy de Chauliac in the fourteenth show a clear acquaintance with a disease that is readily recognizable as leprosy (usually the lepromatous, or low-immunity type). Many claims made by these authors and dismissed by several generations of more modern commentators can be shown to have a basis in fact, often fact that has only recently been rediscovered (Ell 1984b, 1986, 1989b).

It has been claimed that leprosy was the most common disease in Europe before plague. Unfortunately, there is absolutely no ground for supporting such a claim. Very tentative and speculative work using skeletal remains, and a regression analysis of bone loss in the anterior maxilla as related to duration of lepromatous leprosy, have suggested that part of southern Denmark experienced an incidence of 20 cases per 1,000 population between the years 1250 and 1550 (Ell 1988). It is unrealistic at the current time to extrapolate any aspect of this study to the rest of Europe, and it is well to remember that Scandinavia was probably the highest-incidence area in Europe, and clearly the area in which the disease persisted longest.

If the study cited above is correct, however, the incidence in that region of Denmark was in the highest range classified today (Sansaarico 1981). Not only is it risky to extrapolate the proposed incidence in this part of Denmark to the rest of Europe, but it is well known that the incidence of the disease may vary significantly within a small geographic region. This pale glimpse of the possible prevalence of one disease in a small region is both speculative and isolated, for we have no information at all on other diseases. Tuberculosis, frequently mentioned in discussions of medieval disease history, cannot readily be identified beyond the point of stating that the disease was present in medieval Europe, but at what level and significance we have no idea.

Premonitions of Disaster

Thomas Aquinas, the greatest philosopher of the High Middle Ages and one of the greatest synthesizing authors of all time, when asked who would carry on to completion his reconciliation of classical and Christian sources, is reputed to have replied, on his deathbed, that the work could not be done. Aquinas died on the eve of one of the greatest demographic disasters in the history of Europe, the Plague of 1348, but his remark, apocryphal or not, shows a changing mood in western Europe.

High medieval thought and activity abound with optimism. Intoxicated with new knowledge and increasing material abundance, the prevailing expectations of the future were very high. Around 1300, this mood began to change, and it changed in many areas. Major defaults by important Italian banks, famines reappearing in a population freed from them for two centuries, overcrowded and overworked farmland - all these reverses changed the mood of the fourteenth century to one of anxiety and foreboding. Although Dante would die in 1330, 18 years before plague struck the city in exile from which he composed the greatest work of the Middle Ages, he wrote, "Io non averei creduto che morte tanta n'avesse disfatta" ("I would not have believed death had undone so many" - author's translation of a 1981 edition of Dante). This line might stand as the motto for what was to come. Whatever stance historians may take regarding an economic depression in the fourteenth century, it is clear that Europe was in demographic decline before the plague struck.

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