AccueilEpidemics, History and the Environment: Crossing Academic Boundaries

Epidemics, History and the Environment: Crossing Academic Boundaries

European Society for Environmental History 10th Biennial Conference (2019)

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Publié le mercredi 24 octobre 2018 par Anastasia Giardinelli


This panel - epidemics, climate and history – for the European Society for Environmental History 10th Biennial Conference in Tallinn (2019) aims to explore specific climatic/environmental and institutional factors that shaped both the way in which plagues lato sensu and other epidemics, including cholera, yellow fever, typhus, typhoid fever, leprosy, syphilis, etc., originated and spread as well as the consecutive significant demographic and socio-economic consequences at a local or regional scale throughout history (without geographical limitation). A particular attention will be given to original interdisciplinary approaches linking natural proxy archives and written documentary sources.


European Society for Environmental History 10th Biennial Conference, Tallinn, Estonia, August 21 – 25, 2019


In a globalizing world, infectious diseases have become a rising challenge to mankind[1]. It is no surprise then epidemics features conspicuously in some debates in social and natural sciences: from traditional narratives on the rise of Europe to the social and demographic impact of Ebola. The Black Death, originating in Asia and arrived in the Mediterranean harbors of Europe via the land and sea trade routes of the ancient Silk Road system, and other severe pre-industrial epidemics, frequently referred to as “plagues” fill the public imagination. They are often identified as crucial turning points in history[2] that let to collapse of societies and sometimes paved the road for impressive growth[3]. Epidemics are useful illustrations of large-scale mass mortality caused by infectious diseases. Indeed, popular science makes comparison to the Black death in relation to current outbreaks of avian flu, Ebola or Zika.

One upcoming challenge originates from the effect of increasing temperature associated with climate change in facilitating the transmission of infectious diseases and enlarging the distribution of certain vector-borne diseases. This linkage between climate change and plague transmission has been proposed in many studies (sometimes in relation with significant climate forcing events like volcanic eruptions[4]). Recent plague studies in Europe and China have to play closer attention to weather and climate than in the past and the have broadened in multidisciplinary endeavors, as a pathogen like Yersinia pestis only creates (plagues) when it passes through various environments, different hosts as well as different ecosystems. The effects of climate change on infectious disease are materialized through a set of complex pathways that involve various parts of nature, making the connection between climate change and infectious diseases difficult to trace. Historical evidence suggests that latitudinal, altitudinal, seasonal, and inter-annual associations between climate and disease superimpose on each other to affect infectious disease in a nonlinear manner.

Moreover, a multi-decadal climate variability is imperative in driving the cycles of plague outbreaks in pre-industrial Europe. This lagged and multi-decadal effect of climate change on plague outbreaks may be attributable to the complexity of ecological, social, or climate systems, through which climate exerts its influence on plague dynamics[5]. In 2015, Schmid et al. shown that climate-driven outbreaks of Yersinia pestis in Asian rodent plague reservoirs are significantly associated with new waves of plague arriving into Europe through its maritime trade network with Asia[6]. This study provides a different perspective on the long-range transmission of Y. pestis across Eurasia, shifting it from a single introduction doctrine at the time of the Black Death - supported by paleo-biological studies[7] - to a climate-driven intermittent pulse of new strains arriving from wildlife rodent plague reservoirs in Asia.

Similarly, in China, recent work demonstrated that cold and dry climate conditions indirectly increased the prevalence of epidemics through the influences of locusts and famines. Results further reveal that low-frequency, long-term temperature trends mainly contributed to negative associations with epidemics, while positive associations of epidemics with droughts, floods, locusts, and famines mainly coincided with both higher and lower frequency temperature variations[8]. Other studies have shown evidence of climatic forcing on contemporary plague abundance in rodents and humans. For example, in Central Asia, high-resolution palaeoclimatic indices correlate with plague prevalence and population density in a major plague host species, the great gerbil (Rhombomys opimus), over 1949-1995[9]

However, disentangling causes and consequences, remains particularly challenging at historical time scales. To the extent that climate drives epidemics, whether in the short or long term, it does so in the context of local conditions (there is a need to investigate scale-dependent impacts of climate change on the prevalence of diseases). Continental- and global-level climate may be a necessary condition for inducing the outbreak of an epidemic, but it is not sufficient to explain why it happens. For that fuller explanation, the local microenvironment, as well as human networks, are essential for grounding and modifying the effects of global climate[10]. This is what environmental and climate history provide.

Epidemics can spread across large regions becoming pandemics by flowing along transportation and social networks. In the case of Black Death, network centrality and transitivity influence vulnerability to diseases of human populations. And, it has been shown that, after controlling for the city spatial location and the disease arrival time, cities with higher values of both centrality and transitivity were more severely affected by the plague[11]. Other studies, based on the spatiotemporal information from large databases of plague outbreaks in Europe and its neighboring regions highlighted the connection between navigable rivers and the spread and recurrence of plague[12]. And, in the case of the Southern Netherlands, there are no noticeable changes in the selectivity of that plague[13]. As such, certain assumptions on selective mortality effects can be refuted. One possible explanation is that epidemic only became a “selective” disease from the late fifteenth century onwards. The assumed selectivity in mortality effects proposed by certain authors “from a universal killer to a more selective and less severe disease” over time for the late medieval period might have been influenced by results for early modern plagues. Now, if we consider the dimension of the demographic damage caused by plagues, and the severity of its consequences, works related to seventeenth-century Europe, especially Italy[14] and the Low Countries[15], recently introduced an epidemiological variable that has not been considered in the classical literature: territorial pervasiveness of the contagion. This variable appears much more relevant than local mortality rates in accounting for the different regional impact of plague and if it proved able to spread pervasively to the countryside as well as to the cities, the possibility of a quick recovery of the urban populations could be curtailed. This approach offers an alternative view to the long historiography about early modern plague in Europe that largely establishes the disease as an urban phenomenon, a narrative that is still dominant. The “urban graveyards” notion still depicts early modern cities as death traps, a long-established claim that Europe’s experience with early modern plague was largely an urban affair.

Yet, despite these important findings, little is still known about the inland transmission and the severity of infectious diseases in history and some of their basic characteristics are still debated.

On the other hand, by introducing modern conceptual and technical tools, detailed and decisive comparison of chemical data from natural archives with historical records were made. For example, new advanced geochemical techniques, based on higher‐resolution ice core analysis, revealed demographic and economic collapse during major past plagues. Thanks to a precisely dated record of estimated lead emissions between 1100 BCE and 800 CE derived from subannually resolved measurements in Greenland ice cores and detailed atmospheric transport modeling, that annual European lead emissions fluctuated synchronously with wars and political instability particularly during the Roman Republic, and plunged coincident with two major plagues in the second and third centuries, remaining low for >500 years[16]. For the second plague pandemic records of atmospheric lead deposition in a new ice core extracted from a high Alpine glacier, in the Swiss-Italian Alps, show that contrary to the conventional wisdom, low levels of lead at or approaching natural background occurred only in a single 4 year period in ~2000 years documented, during the Black Death (~1346–1353 C.E.). Historical evidence shows that mining activity ceased upwind of the core site from ~1346 to 1353, while concurrently on the glacier lead (Pb) concentrations dropped to levels below detection, an order of magnitude beneath figures deemed low in earlier studies[17].

Another, just published, dendrochronology-based study demonstrates the value of dendrochronological felling dates as an indicator for times of crisis (as during epidemics) and prosperity during periods when documentary evidence is limited[18]. Indeed, variations in building activity reflect demographic, economic and social change during history. Annually precise evidence from a unique dataset of tree felling dates of historical wooden constructions compared with annual records of plague outbreaks shows that building activity was significantly negatively correlated to the number of plague outbreaks, with the greatest decrease in construction following the larger outbreaks by three to four years after the start of the epidemics. 

At last, the development of new field of investigation, like paleopathology and paleomicrobiology[19], opened a window into the past and permitted the retrospective diagnosis of infectious diseases from ancient human remains. These pioneering methods of biomolecular analysis - e.g. paleoproteomics - focused on the detection of ancient pathogens that have been responsible for major epidemics and massive mortality, including Yersinia pestis, Rickettsia prowazekii, the agent of exanthematic typhus, or Salmonella enterica Typhi, the agent of typhoid fever[20].

Finally, few studies grasp the full complexity of these potentially world-shaping phenomena. And, in this context, there is an important need for continuing in the historical exploration of the factors shaping past plagues and other lethal epidemics, and of their multi-faceted consequences for human societies.

This panel aims to explore specific climatic/environmental and institutional factors that shaped both the way in which plagues lato sensu and other epidemics, including cholera, yellow fever, typhus, typhoid fever, leprosy, syphilis, etc., originated and spread as well as the consecutive significant demographic and socio-economic consequences at a local or regional scale throughout history (without geographical limitation). A particular attention will be given to original interdisciplinary approaches linking natural proxy archives and written documentary sources.

Main topics

Possible topics for submissions might include, but are not restricted to:

  • Environmental drivers (other than climate), like famines, that might have exacerbated people’s vulnerability to epidemics, potential connection between stress and plague resistance
  • Impact of short and long-term climatic fluctuations in the prevalence of infectious diseases
  • Consequences of high-death rates on farming, rural economy and cultivated land abandonment at a local or regional scale
  • Migrations, conflicts and violence as an outcome of epidemics
  • The macro-economic consequences of demographic catastrophes following epidemics (with cross-country comparisons)
  • The different regional impact of infectious diseases – difference between cities and the countryside – and the evaluation of the territorial pervasiveness
  • The role of transportation, commercial and travelling networks in the propagation of infectious diseases in new, formerly disease-free territories (complex network theory)
  • The role of paleomicrobiology/paleoepathology in identifying and interpreting specific past human infections or particular mortality crisis in the absence of historical data
  • etc…

Even though proposals focusing on factors shaping epidemics, population dynamics and socio-economic impacts from a variety of perspectives will be considered, submissions addressing new research opportunities offered by large available digital databases that contain thousands of recorded outbreaks[21] as well the limitations in the use of preexisting data sets[22], that can help shed new light on epidemics, are also welcome.

An additional aim of this panel is to lay the production for a co-authored article or a thematic issue in a journal about this topic.


  • Nicolas MAUGHAN, UMR-CNRS I2M/FR ECCOREV, Aix-Marseille University, France.
  • Daniel R. CURTIS, Institute for History, Leiden University, The Netherlands.

Practical informations and schedule

If you are interested in participating in this proposed panel (4 to 8 papers, 15 minutes each, in one or two meetings), please contact promptly Nicolas MAUGHAN ( or Daniel R. CURTIS ( and send your proposal (title + abstract of 300 words maximum)

before Tuesday 30 October 2018.

Final papers and sessions should be submitted no later than Wednesday 31 October 2018.

All accepted participants will be required to register to the conference website following the conference guidelines.

Conference date: Estonian Centre for Environmental History (KAJAK), Tallinn, Estonia, August 21 - 25, 2019


[1] Stenseth NChr et al. (2008) Plague: Past, Present, and Future. PLOS Medecine, 5: e3.

[2] Campbell BMS (2016) The Great Transition: Climate, Disease and Society in the Late-Medieval World. Cambridge University Press, 485 p.

[3] Alfani G & Murphy TE (2017) Plague and Lethal Epidemics in the Pre-Industrial World. The Journal of Economic History, 77: 314-343.

[4] Kostick C & Ludlow F (2015) The Dating of Volcanic Events and Their Impact Upon European Society, 400-800 CE. Post-Classical Archaeologies, 5: 7-30.

[5] Yue RPH & Lee HF (2018) Pre-industrial plague transmission is mediated by the synergistic effect of temperature and aridity index. BMC Infectious Diseases, 18: 134.

[6] Schmid BV et al. (2015) Climate-Driven Introduction of the Black Death and Successive Plague Reintroductions into Europe. PNAS, 112: 3020-3025.

[7] Bos KI et al. (2016) Yersinia pestis Genomes Reveal the Long-Term Persistence of an Historical Plague Focus. eLife, 5: e12994.

[8] Tian H et al. (2017) Scale-Dependent Climatic Drivers of Human Epidemics in Ancient China. PNAS, 114: 12970-12975.

[9] Kausrud KL et al. (2010) Modeling the Epidemiological History of Plague in Central Asia: Paleoclimatic Forcing on a Disease System Over the Past Millennium. BMC Biology, 8: 112.

[10] Brook T (2017) Differential effects of global and local climate data in assessing environmental drivers of epidemic outbreaks. PNAS, 114: 12845-12847.

[11] Gómez JM & Verdú M (2017) Network Theory May Explain the Vulnerability of Medieval Human Settlements to the Black Death Pandemic. Scientific Reports, 7: 43467.

[12] Yue RPH et al. (2016) Navigable Rivers Facilitated the Spread and Recurrence of Plague in Pre-Industrial Europe. Scientific Reports, 6: 34867.

[13] Roosen J (2018) Severity and Selectivity of the Black Death and Recurring Plague in the Southern Netherlands (1349-1450). TSEG/Low Countries Journal of Social and Economic History, 14: 25-55.

[14] Guido A (2013) Plague in Seventeenth-century Europe and the decline of Italy: an epidemiological hypothesis. European Review of Economic History, 17: 408-430.

[15] Curtis DR (2016) Was Plague an Exclusively Urban Phenomenon? Plague Mortality in the Seventeenth-Century Low Countries. Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 47: 1-32.

[16] McConnell JR et al. (2018) Lead Pollution Recorded in Greenland Ice Indicates European Emissions Tracked Plagues, Wars, and Imperial Expansion During Antiquity. PNAS, 115: 5726-573.

[17] More AF et al. (2017) Next-generation ice core technology reveals trye minimum natural levels of lead (Pb) in the atmosphere: Insights from the Black Death. GeoHealth, 1: 211-219.

[18] Ljungqvist FC et al. (2018) Linking European building activity with plague history. Journal of Archaeological Science, 98: 81-92.

[19] Raoult D & Drancourt M (2008) Paleomicrobiology: Past Human Infections. Springer, 226 p.

[20] Barbieri R & Drancourt M (2018) Two Thousand Years of Epidemics in Marseille and the Mediterranean Basin. New Microbe and New Infections, 26: S4-S9.

[21] Büntgen U et al. (2012) Digitizing Historical Plague. Clinical Infectious Diseases, 55: 1587-1588.

[22] Roosen J & Curtis D (2018) Dangers of Noncritical Use of Historical Plague Data. Emerging Infectious Diseases, 24: 103-110.


  • Estonian Centre for Environmental History (KAJAK)
    Tallinn, Estonie


  • mardi 30 octobre 2018

Fichiers attachés


  • epidemics, plague, climate, environmental history, demography, Black Death


  • Nicolas Maughan
    courriel : nicolas [dot] maughan [at] gmail [dot] com

Source de l'information

  • Nicolas Maughan
    courriel : nicolas [dot] maughan [at] gmail [dot] com

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