6th-10th century AD

Past & Present, August, 1997 by J. R. Maddicott

The experience of Iceland, discussed by Gunnar Karlsson, both resembled and differed from that of Norway.(111) The two Icelandic plague epidemics of 1402-4 and 1494-5 afflicted a countryside where `practically everyone lived on individual farms; there were hardly any villages and certainly no towns'. Yet by Karlsson's reckoning the death rate may have been as high as 50 to 60 per cent in the first epidemic and 30 to 50 per cent in the second. It certainly brought a wide and general desertion of homesteads. How then did plague spread, and to such mortal effect, in this other land of isolated settlements? Not by rats, as Benedictow argues (wrongly in Karlsson's view) for Norway: there is no sign of their presence in Iceland; the climate was too cold for their survival, let alone for that of their parasitic plague-bearing fleas, and even had it not been, there was virtually no overland movement of grain to provide the means of flea-transmission proposed for Norway. Since both Icelandic epidemics continued through the winter, the evidence favours not bubonic but pneumonic plague, spread presumably by human contacts and through some of the same means prevailing in Norway: the flight of the fearful, the pastoral travels of priests, the journeys occasioned by funerals. Though pneumonic plague must take its distant origins from a flea bite, the Icelandic epidemics provide the best available evidence for plague's further diffusion without the agency of rats.

To the investigator of the seventh-century English plagues both these models have their uses, for they suggest ways in which plague could ravage a population dispersed across a rural landscape of small-scale settlements. In the case of England, where we have argued for the same combination of bubonic and pneumonic plague as was to occur again at the time of the Black Death, each of the mechanisms invoked by Benedictow and by Karlsson to explain the spread of plague in their respective countries may have come into play.(112) Perhaps the closest parallel between possible routes to infection in late medieval Norway and in early Anglo-Saxon England lies in the transport of grain. Benedictow's stress on the primacy of grain movements and on the symbiotic economies of highland and lowland, which often occasioned such movements, immediately brings to mind both the transport of the king's food rent (feorm) from dependent settlements to the central places marked by royal vills, and also the location of those vills. The only surviving statement of what a king could draw from his estate in feorm, contained in a grant made by Offa to the church of Worcester between 793 and 796, mentions, among other foodstuffs, thirty `embers' of unground corn and four `embers' of meal, to be delivered to the royal vill (ad regalem victim). The best known royal vill, at Yeavering, lay at the junction of highland and lowland zones, on the edge of both the pastoral Cheviots and of the grain-producing area of the coastal plain and the Tweed valley.(113) Although Yeavering had British origins, its siting may partly be explained in terms of its convenience for the exchange of grain and stock, and for the delivery of these complementary products for the king's use. Behind these links between agriculture and royal power we can thus dimly discern contacts similar to those which may later have spread infection in rural Norway.

 

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