Bubonic plague may have hit England before its first recorded case in the Mediterranean

According to a new study there is a possibility that the Justinianic Plague  – the first known outbreak of bubonic plague – could have hit England before it struck the Mediterranean world.

The Justinianic Plague is named after the Emperor Justinian who at the time was trying to restore Roman imperial power. Long have scientists been arguing about the lethality of the disease as well as the social and economic impact that the plague had at the time. Scientists are even arguing about the route it took during its spread.

During last couple of years, multiple studies have argued that historians had massively exaggerated the impact of the Justinianic Plague and described it as an ‘inconsequential pandemic’. In a subsequent piece of journalism, written just before COVID-19 took hold in the West, two researchers suggested that the Justinianic Plague was ‘not unlike our flu outbreaks’.

Now a new study has been published in Past & Present, wherein Cambridge historian Professor Peter Sarris argues that these studies ignored or downplayed new genetic findings, offered misleading statistical analysis and misrepresented the evidence provided by ancient texts. According to the study, the plague did have a devastating effect on the society.

Further, until the early 2000s, the identification of the Justinianic Plague as ‘bubonic’ rested entirely upon ancient texts which described the appearance of buboes or swellings in the groins or armpits of victims. But then rapid advances in genomics enabled archaeologists and genetic scientists to discover traces of the ancient DNA of Yersinia pestis in Early Medieval skeletal remains. Such finds have been made in Germany, Spain, France and England.

In 2018, a study of DNA preserved in remains found in an early Anglo-Saxon burial site known as Edix Hill in Cambridgeshire revealed that many of the interred had died carrying the disease. Further analysis revealed that the strain of Y. pestis found was the earliest identified lineage of the bacterium involved in the 6th-century pandemic.

The study suggests that the plague may have reached the Mediterranean via the Red Sea, and reached England perhaps via the Baltic and Scandanavia, and from there onto parts of the continent.

The study emphasises that despite being called the ‘Justinianic Plague’, it was “never a purely or even primarily Roman phenomenon” and as recent genetic discoveries have proven, it reached remote and rural sites such as Edix Hill, as well as heavily populated cities.

It is widely accepted that the lethal and virulent strain of bubonic plague from which the Justinianic Plague and later the Black Death would descend had emerged in Central Asia by the Bronze Age before evolving further there in antiquity.

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