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Start updating your #BlackDeath lectures, folks! Hannah Barker has just released a pre-print of her eye-popping, paradigm-shifting study: "Laying the Corpses to Rest: Grain, Embargoes, and Yersinia pestis in the Black Sea, 1346-1348,"… #GlobalMiddleAges
I'll be tweeting some significant findings from this paper over the next several days, as we build up to next week's "Mother of All Pandemics" session sponsored by the @MedievalAcademy (…). Today, just fn. 3, on Issyk Kul.
fn. 3: "Since Lake Issyk Kul is located near a plague reservoir, this outbreak may have no causal connection with the Second Pandemic." Okay, so what's Issyk Kul, and what has it ever played any role in #BlackDeath narratives?
Issyk Kul is a very large lake to the west of the Tien Shan mountain range in what is modern Kyrgyzstan. Wikipedia: "is an endorheic lake in the northern Tian Shan mountains in eastern Kyrgyzstan. It is the 7th deepest lake in the world, the 10th largest lake in the world ..."
"... by volume (though not in surface area), and the 2nd largest saline lake after the Caspian Sea." But actually, the lake itself isn't relevant to the story of #plague. It's the animals & people who live near it. A photo of Issyk Kul, a lake in Kyrgyzstan that never freezes because of its high salinity. Photo:
But first, some historiography. When did Issyk Kul enter plague historiography? I've pinned it down to 2 moments, 1 in the late 19th century, & the other in 1951.
In the 1880s, an archaeologist named Chwolson found headstones of a Nestorian Christian community near Issyk Kul.
Some of the headstones were dated, & a couple of them mentioned the people having died of #plague. So date + cause of death = a datable plague outbreak. The dates were 1338-39. (Notice anything?) Chwolson published his findings (along with lots of other archaeol. info) in '90s.
And that was that: an incidental finding in some German archaeological reports that went unnoticed, apparently, for decades.
Cue the 1950s. #Plague around the world is a big issue for the recently formed @WHO. Plague researcher Robert Pollitzer, who knows Russian & reads widely,
... & who's writing the @WHO manual on #plague, stumbles on Chwolson's earlier archaeological reports. "Oh ho," he says, look at this: a #plague outbreak in 1338-39. And it's in Central Asia. And look, Wu Lien-Te [the super-famous Chinese plague researcher from the '20s & '30s]..
.. has already said that the #BlackDeath outbreak must have originated in Central Asia. Ergo, if there's a #plague outbreak here in this community in Central Asia in the 1330s, & then plague breaks out near the Crimea in the 1340s, then this must be the origin of the BD." A quote from Wu Lien-Teh,
In other words, it was entirely the work of Pollitzer that put Issyk Kul on the map of #BlackDeath narratives. I can't find anybody prior to his study of 1951 that does the 2+2=5 analysis of juxtaposing Chwolson's findings from the Nestorian cemetery w/ Wu's thoughts on origin. A quotation from WHO plague researcher, Robert Pollitzer, making the deduction that Issyk Kul was ground zero of the Black Death. Robert Pollitzer, “Plague Studies. 1. A Summary of the History and a Survey of the Present Distribution of the Disease,” Bull. Org. mond. Sante/Bull. World Hlth Org. 1951, 4 (1951), 475-533, quote from p. 477.
So, what's wrong w/ this picture? 1st, it's certainly plausible that the Issyk Kul outbreak in the 1330s was indeed #plague. The Nestorians call it that, & a 2019 analysis showed that the timing & apparent death rate were "plague-like." (I'll come back to this.) The problem is ..
... Pollitzer's inherent "post hoc, propter hoc" logic: the #BlackDeath happened after the outbreak at Issyk Kul, therefore (propter) the BD must be because of the outbreak at Issyk Kul."
So, a couple of things: 1) geography. Look how far Issyk Kul is from the Crimea!
Can #plague move swiftly? Sure, when it's on boats. But no boats between Issyk Kul & the Crimea. (Look at a map.)
2) Pollitzer's "pandemic spread" model might work if Issyk Kul were the only place where plague was present in the 1330s. But how do we know that? We only know ...
... about the Issyk Kul outbreak b/c of a triple accident: 1) people die & cause of death recorded on gravestones (this is very rare!); 2) dates of death recorded (not as rare, but not too common for 14thC); 3) Chwolson then finds said gravestones in 19thC.
And then there's the question, (2) Was the area of Issyk Kul the only place where #plague was found in the early 14thC? The answer simply is no. It must have already been found in a number of places by then. And not simply b/c strains that originated in the Bronze Age still ...
... existed then (& they do today), but b/c a new proliferation of #YersiniaPestis (the "Big Bang") had already happened by the 1330s. For the fact is that Issyk Kul is very near "plague central," the long-term reservoirs of plague strains involved in the #JustinianicPlague.
tl;dr: To sum up. #Plague was present in the region near Issyk Kul for centuries. The outbreak in the 1330s was almost certainly neither the community's 1st plague outbreak nor its last. There's another story about how #genetics tells us new things about all this. More later.
Sorry, forgot to add receipts:
1) on Chwolson and the excavations new Issyk Kul: Uli Schamiloglu, “The Impact of the Black Death on the Golden Horde: Politics, Economy, Society, and Civilization,” Golden Horde Review 5:2 (2017), pp. 325-343.
2) Pollitzer 1951 = “Plague Studies. 1. A Summary of the History and a Survey of the Present Distribution of the Disease,” Bulletin de l'Organization mondiale de la Santé/Bulletin of the World Health Organization 1951, 4 (1951), 475-533.
Further update. Dr Barker has now posted her translation of the petition from the residents of Caffa to the doge of Genoa in 1347, perhaps the earliest reference to the #BlackDeath pandemic in European sources. Available #OpenAccess here:….
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