206418 Justinian's plague, pathogen pollution, and the role of the early Christian church in the British Isles

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Craig A. Molgaard, PhD, MPH , School of Public and Community Health Sciences, University of Montana, Missoula, MT
Kerry E. Ryan, BS , School of Public and Community Health Sciences, University of Montana, Missoula, MT
Amanda L. Golbeck, PhD , School of Public and Community Health Sciences, University of Montana, Missoula, MT
Justinian's plague (541 - 544) decimated the Mediterranean basin and surrounding areas, and returned in a series of outbreaks (557-561) (570-574) that lasted decades. Epidemiological controversy exists as to the extent that this zoonosis penetrated northern Europe, especially Ireland and Great Britain, where possible outbreaks occurred in 548, 664, and 684. The posited mechanism for transmission of Justinian's plague to the British Isles has been sea-borne trade, as suggested by Rosen. Yet review of both primary and secondary historical sources and maps in terms of these outbreaks is unconvincing that transmission was by sea-borne trade. Such trade from the continent was rare to Ireland and spastic to Great Britain during this time. London, for example, a minor trading center at the time, traded predominantly with Frisia, and Kent traded with the Rhineland, both thought to be disease free. Ireland's main contact with the continent was at Nantes and the Loire Valley. Furthermore, evidence for the putative trade involving the shipping of grain with incumbent rats and fleas necessary for disease transmission from the Mediterranean past disease free areas of Spain, northern France, the low-countries and Germany is lacking.

This poster will illustrate the influence of monastic orders in Great Britain and Ireland in terms of their influence on the public health models of antiquity as well as on disease transmission. Using the interpretive model of social epidemiology, a case will be made that a far more likely mechanism of transmission was the organization and functioning of the early Christian church in the British Isles. Because the British Isles lacked true urban centers by and large at this time, the disease attacked monasteries where populations were clustered, infected monks who were dedicated to treating the sick, and traveled with the monks from one monastery to another. Given that the trade transmission argument is false, it is far more likely that disease that broke out in Great Britain and Ireland during this time period was a by-product of Christian travel, care-giving and missionary work.

Disease did not follow trade in this example of what Daszak calls pathogen pollution, but followed the new religion instead. As such, while pathogen pollution highlights the link that exists between global trade and disease emergence, several types of pathogen pollution can be posited to exist, depending on the social institutions and public health behaviors that characterize any given society at any point in time.

Learning Objectives:
Describe how social institutions of antiquity influenced disease transmission and the history of public health during the Plague of Justinian.

Keywords: History, Pathogens

Presenting author's disclosure statement:

Qualified on the content I am responsible for because: I earned a PhD in medical anthropology and a MPH in epidemiology, both from the University of California at Berkeley. I have over 25 years of experience as a academician and over 150 peer reviewed publications. My current research specialty is history of plague transmission.
Any relevant financial relationships? No

I agree to comply with the American Public Health Association Conflict of Interest and Commercial Support Guidelines, and to disclose to the participants any off-label or experimental uses of a commercial product or service discussed in my presentation.