Plague “good for health”


An outbreak of the plague that swept through Europe and the Middle East in the 6th Century AD was good for people’s health, according to a new book that looks at how Europeans’ health has changed over the past 2,000 years.

Of course, the Plague of Justinian was not great for the those who caught it, with the total number of people who died as a consequence reaching an estimated 25-50 million. But for those lucky enough to survive it, or who were born after the plague receded, life was more likely to be good.

“Health was surprisingly good for people who lived during the early Medieval Period,” says the blurb of the book, called The Backbone of Europe. “The Plague of Justinian of the sixth century was ultimately beneficial for health because the smaller population had relatively more resources that contributed to better living conditions.”

These improvements only lasted as long as it took for the population size to recover, however. “Increasing population density and inequality in the following centuries imposed an unhealthy diet – poor in protein – on the European population.”

The situation got even worse in the late middle ages, lasting from 1250 to 1500 AD, the book says, with the onset of The Little Ice Age. This nadir was not reversed until the 19th Century.

The book, which was published by Cambridge University Press on 15 November, uses evidence from more than 15,000 skeletal remains to examine how not only health but also workloads and violence changed for Europeans over the past two millennia. Its 500 pages “read like an exciting detective novel with a myriad of surprises along the way”, according to reviewer John Komlos of the University of Munich.

The Backbone of Europe was edited by Richard H. Steckel and Clark Spencer Larsen of Ohio State University, Charlotte A. Roberts of the University of Durham and Joerg Baten of Eberhard-Karls-Universität Tübingen.

Words: Craig Nicholson
Photo: British Library

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