Sunday, October 23, 2011

Medieval Genomics: The Black Death

Apes play ring-around-the-rosy. Walters Art Museum.
This recent paper in Nature reveals that the pathogen that caused the Black Death pandemic of 1348-50, Yersinia pestis, is the ancestral pathogen to all contemporary Y. pestis epidemics. The Black Death walks among us yet! 

Even more interesting is the attendant conclusion: "Comparisons against modern genomes reveal no unique derived positions in the medieval organism, indicating that the perceived increased virulence of the disease during the Black Death may not have been due to bacterial phenotype. These findings support the notion that factors other than microbial genetics, such as environment, vector dynamics and host susceptibility, should be at the forefront of epidemiological discussions regarding emerging Y. pestis infections."

The conclusions in this study strongly point to social and environmental factors as vectors in transmitting the disease and its morbidity and mortality rates. This is a great example of how scientific methods in history can fuel, rather than stifle, more long-standing interpretive methods. Social historians, environmental historians, urban historians, and historians of public health will continue to inform our understanding of the Black Death, how and why it spread, and its effects at the micro and macro levels during subsequent outbreaks in later centuries. 

Michelle Ziegler, over at Contagions, has a series of pieces on this study and earlier ones, and the implications for identifying the cause of the Justinianic Plague (c. 571-c. 750)  as Y. pestis, as well as concerns about the plague and bioterrorism.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Glorious Procrastination: The Walters Art Museum

Bravo to The Walters Art Museum for removing the copyright restrictions on more than 10,000 images through a Creative Commons License. The Walters is a jewel of a museum in Baltimore, and it houses one of the largest museum-held collections of medieval manuscripts in the country. And because the founder, Henry Walters, was particularly interested in manuscripts as works of art, the collection is especially rich in beautifully illuminated manuscripts and books with treasure bindings from medieval Europe, the Dar al-Islam, Christian Egypt, and Byzantium. 

Here's a link to the introductory video from Vimeo:

 And, because I can, here are some of my favorites: 1) An ivory abbess' seal from 1300, 2) a drawing from Macrobius' _Commentary on the Dream of Scipio_, mid-twelfth century, 3) a Moghul drawing of a charging elephant from the 16th century.

 What are your favorites?