The Justinianic Plague

(also known as the first plague pandemic)

Episode 2 - April 2, 2020
Mosaic of Justinianus
credit: Petar Milošević
Merle and Lee discuss the late antique Justinianic Plague (c. 541-750), also known as the first plague pandemic. They cover the current consensus about plague first, and then offer their reinterpretation, together with some ideas for further research.

Episode 2: Transcript

[00:00:17] Merle: Welcome to the second podcast of the Infectious Historians. Today’s podcast is going to be about the Justinianic Plague. A brief introduction to ourselves one more time. My name is Merle Eisenberg and I’m a postdoctoral fellow at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center.

[00:00:37] Lee: And I’m Lee Mordechai. I’m an environmentalist story at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. So as we begin, let’s start with an update on what’s happening where we are both. Today is the 2nd of April. So what’s happening in Annapolis, Maryland?

[00:00:53] Merle: Yeah, so I’m part of a number of Annapolis Facebook forums and the big topic of conversation today, or seems to be about boating. Right. Annapolis is a very big boating and actually yachting community. I just learned that when I moved here last year. And everyone wants to know whether or not they’ll be able to take their boats out. There’s a strong disagreement because one group of people, obviously, you kind of go on a boat by yourself. So you’re kind of social distancing on the boat. But there’s another group, people that make that, I think, very good point, that if something goes wrong, you do need rescue people to come out and get you, which obviously strains resources that aren’t available. So that fight is playing out through various Facebook forums.

[00:01:35] Lee: So technically, people can still walk around and get on their boats, at least in theory.

[00:01:42]Merle:  People can definitely walk around for exercise. That’s perfectly legitimate. So I think in about four or between four and five most days, there’s a lot of people walking around, but it’s not a very populous area. So you just kind of avoid people. You don’t really get anywhere close to them. As for boats, I don’t know. I haven’t been near the yacht clubs in a few days. I tend to walk the same route every day. My kids like some lawn ornaments that we see. Some places to sit, digging machines, that kind of stuff. So I haven’t been down by the boats in probably three weeks. What about you, Lee? What’s happening in Israel?

[00:02:13]Lee: So yesterday it was the first time in which the government decided to quarantine a city. This city is in Israel, a center close to Tel Aviv. And that city is home to a large, ultra orthodox community, which is more religious, poorer, more insular community. So they are actually blocked all entrances and are forbidding people from leaving other than for medical reasons at this point.

[00:02:42]Merle: Wow, that’s pretty astonishing.

[00:02:44]Lee: Yeah, that’s how it is here.

[00:02:47] Merle: Well, today’s episode has four parts. Apparently, we like the number four. It’s about to be Passover. So maybe it’s like the four questions or the four children or maybe the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Why do we always seem to do things in four?

[00:03:03] Lee: Yeah, I actually don’t know. But I did notice that all your fours are religious. We have other fours as well, right? We have a number of cardinal directions or a number of seasons and even bases of DNA, which is on topic for today’s show. So what are the four parts of this episode? We’ll start off by giving you their traditional maximalist narrative of the Justinianic plague. Then for part two, we’re going to raise some problems with this narrative based on work that both of us have been leading. For the third part, we’re going to discuss some actual effects of the Justinianic Plague. And for the fourth part, we’ll briefly look at some future work and future directions that scholarship might go through. So to start off this episode, the Justinianic Plague is currently going through a phase of intense scholarly debate.

[00:03:56]Merle:  I noticed you did some air quotes there.

[00:04:00] Lee:  Yeah. When I say intense scholarly debate, it seems big. But actually the field or the number of people who work on the Justinianic plague is very small. So let’s say there are between 10 and 20 people involved worldwide. We’ll simplify here and group the approaches out there into two broad groups of scholars. On one side, you’ll have the traditionalists or maximalists. And on the other side, you’d have a group of revisionists who are sometimes called minimalists. Two groups of people who disagree. Let’s start off by going over how their accounts of the Justinianic Plague differ.

[00:04:40] Merle: So the traditional maximalist narrative that you’ll find if you Google this, you find it on Wikipedia. History textbooks. I found it in a New Yorker article recently follows this narrative. The plague lasted for two centuries from 541 to 750. The first outbreak was in Egypt, which then spread to the rest of the Middle East, including the capital of the Roman Empire, Constantinople, which is Istanbul today. From there, it spread to the rest of Europe. Within just three or four years. Now, written sources from the time, along with ancient DNA evidence, suggests that the plague was spread across wide swaths of the Mediterranean and European world. And after these first four years, the plague returned in what have been called waves. It would somehow, for example, emerge in Spain and then spread maybe through trade or some other way to France and there to other places across Europe. Or it might emerge in Syria and then somehow reach Constantinople again. How this happens is never really stated or explained, but disconnected written sources from various places such as Spain, France, are piled together as what we might call nuggets of evidence.

[00:06:02] Lee: Yeah, that the traditional accounts of the mortality of the Justinianic plague suggest that it was a devastating event. Scholars often use numbers ranging from, let’s say, about 15 to 25 million deaths who die over as little as four years, followed by additional waves that you just mentioned in which, let’s say hundreds of thousands of people might die in each of these waves. So one way to look at it would be through numbers of deaths. Another way would be to look at percentages. And if you want to talk about percentages, so traditional views of the Justinianic Plague tend to follow the Black Death numbers. So let’s say about half the Mediterranean dying right away, maybe 10 percent or so dying in each subsequent outbreak. How these numbers are arrived at is actually problematic because we have very few numbers from the period and the ones we do have are imprecise. Incidentally, this is why even relatively simple estimates, such as, let’s say how many people lived in the Roman Empire can range pretty widely. So, for example, today, we don’t actually know how many people lived in the Roman Empire at that time. Scholars can throw around numbers ranging between, let’s say, 30 million and 80 million. And it’s difficult to figure that out.

[00:07:27] Merle: So when you mean difficult to figure that out, I just filled out my census form for the U.S. government. Right. So that they can record how many people live in America. Is there something similar we have as good evidence from the time period or how else are these numbers may be arrived at if we don’t?

[00:07:45] Lee: So we know that every once in a while the Romans are conducting censuses and we sometimes have numbers associated with those, censuses, but they are earlier on and we’re not entirely sure who those censuses include. And do they include only citizens? Do they include other people as well? What about slaves? What about women? What about children? Where are these censuses conducted exactly? There are a lot of questions and scholars debate these issues.

[00:08:15] Merle: So what you’re saying is most of these numbers are fairly conjectural.

[00:08:20] Lee: Yes, there are different ways in which people try to count or estimate. One easy way, which is obviously just a conjecture. But you look at the kind of territory or the size of the territory that’s under control of the Roman Empire at a time. And you try to estimate based on agricultural productivity, which again, is a very rough measure.

[00:08:41] Merle: Yes. So that’s interesting because we don’t know the population. So we don’t know how many people might have died from the population. These are all conjectural together.

[00:08:50] Lee: Yeah. And the solution to that is to talk about percentages. So instead of defining that, let’s say fifteen or twenty five million people died, which is just throwing a number out in the air. It might be a bit better to talk about percentages. So that’s a roughly a quarter of the population or half the population. We essentially exchanged one set of numbers with another set of percentages. So let’s move on and talk about the short and long term effects that traditional or maximalists narrative.

[00:09:22] Merle: So short term, people make all types of connections that aren’t documented in the sources, but occur around the same time period. So militarily, people have suggested that plague made wars pretty much impossible for the Roman Empire and that they started losing to other states in various fighting that was happening in Italy or in Persia at the same time. No one here, though, points out to me one obvious problem with this, which is that plague would have destroyed people and armies on both sides. So it’s not as if just the Roman army would have been affected. A second way is to look at cultural and religious changes, and people have suggested that there is a general way in which people, of the time period became more religious, whatever that means. So they look at ideas of more people praying to the Virgin Mary, for example, with more icons and more processions around cities as linked to plague, even though there’s no direct evidence for this.

[00:10:24] Lee: There also have been economic changes that have been associated with the plague, so modeling or using examples from the Black Death, which we’ll get to in one of the next episodes. Some scholars have argued that the Justinianic plague led to more favorable laws for peasants. The idea here is that because there were fewer peasants, the ones that survived could demand, better conditions. Over the longer term, there is or has been and still is a debate about whether they’re just any Justinianic plague led to or contributed to. Or maybe it was simply a major factor in the fall of the Roman Empire. Some scholars even suggest that plague facilitated the Islamic conquests some ninety years later. Now, plague also coincides with the beginning of the dark ages or the Middle Ages when there were fewer people around. Now the question is whether there were fewer people around because they died of plague or from other reasons.

[00:11:25] Merle: So to recap, the traditional maximalist narrative, plague was everywhere, killed half the people of the known world and completely changed the course of history. It’s used to explain the end of the ancient world and the beginning of the Middle Ages, which is I admit, a sexy, seductive answer to really hard questions, such as why Rome fell.

[00:11:48] Lee: The question of the fall of Rome is really dominant in the scholarship. I know of one scholar writing some 30 years ago, 40 years ago, I think, who actually collected a list of reasons of why did the Roman Empire fall? And he ended up with over two hundred reasons that had been argued and scholarship.

[00:12:12] Merle: Yeah. Two hundred and ten reasons. Famously in nineteen eighty four was the collection.

[00:12:17] Lee: And so you’re the precise person today.

[00:12:21] Merle: Well, this is my field of specialty, so I feel like I should say something about the fall of Rome. Now, as experts on the Justinianic plague, we disagree with this narrative. I should say, we’ve read every single source from that time period, 541 to 750, that’s been written about plague and more or less everything that has been written about that time period. That is, say secondary sources for the last hundred and fifty years by historians and scientists. Lee and I actually created a giant flowchart to connect everyone together, going back precisely a hundred and fifty years where we did everything and every language we could find drove us a little mad. And I think actually broke the app we were using. Yeah. We’ve published a few articles on this and leading history and science journals and we’ll link to those on this Web site in this episode’s page. So how do we see this pandemic?

[00:13:19] Lee: OK, so let’s start by accepting that the Justinianic plague was actually caused by the plague, Yersinia pestis, the bacteria that we mentioned last episode. Now, this today is broadly accepted, but actually was debated until DNA studies prove plague was involved. So let’s start by that.

[00:13:42] Lee: We don’t deny that plague struck and killed people around the Mediterranean world and beyond. And obviously, some writers at the time definitely noticed it. But overall, we do believe that the impact of plague varied by a great deal. I think that’s really the key. We shouldn’t think of this pandemic or any pandemic really as killing people at the same rate everywhere or is adding the same short and long term effects everywhere. Local conditions. So anything from local climates, urban and rural population density and local responses, among other variables, all must be taken into account as well.

[00:14:24] Merle: We might call this a patchwork quilt model from high impact to medium and all the way down to low. Places that were more dense urban centers may have had more deaths, at least at certain times.

[00:14:39] Lee: Yeah, but we need to keep in mind that most of the empire’s population at this point did not really reside in cities or towns. Again, we don’t know the exact numbers, but maybe some 90 percent of the population lived in rural areas.

[00:14:55] Merle: Yeah, that’s a very good point. Keep in mind, locations that were rural or that people fled faster from particular cities might have had less of an impact overall.

[00:15:06] Lee: Yeah, so because we don’t actually know how many people lived at the time or died of the plague. Both of us, as we try to figure out what actually happened during the Justinianic Plague. Are way to solve this was to try to look for the demographic impacts of a plague through different approaches.

[00:15:26] Merle: Yeah. This is something we’ve had to test, and one of the ways we did this was through pollen samples. Now, pollen is useful in two types, pine pollen, which is to say tree pollen and cereal pollen, which is to say pollen used to make agricultural products.

[00:15:44] Lee: So pollen is increasingly studied for historical reasons. Now, the way to get pollen is you essentially go to a lake. Not every lake, but certain lakes that there are certain conditions that the lake has to have. So you go to one of these lakes and you drill down and extract the core from the sediment on the lakebed and you take it back to the lab and you analyze that sediment. And if it’s one of these lakes with the right conditions, you’d have layers and layers of sediment. And those layers would be deposited sometimes annually, sometimes over other time ranges. But by studying the layers and just going down into deeper and deeper layers, you can essentially reconstruct the vegetation that’s outside the lake.

[00:16:35] Merle: Yeah. There’s a very nice video of this between will link to a UConn professor digging a core just near the campus there at Storrs. It has some very dramatic fun music. And my wife went to UConn and I’m a big UConn women’s basketball fan. So I you know, I really like that video.

[00:16:53] Lee: Yes. So in our study, we used two indicators, we used cereal, pollen and pine pollen.

[00:17:02] Merle: In short, if you have more pine pollen over time and less cereal pollen, then you have less intensive agriculture. And the opposite is also true. If you have more cereal pollen, then you have more intensive agricultural and more land use.

[00:17:19] Lee: Yeah, the idea is that people grow cereal for food. So when there are a lot of people there, they grow a lot of cereal, such as wheat or barley. Less people grow less cereal. And the reason for pine is that pine is a fast growing species. So if there are less people, if a lot of people die off, less people need to grow less food. They leave some of their fields and pine recolonizes those fields. So we get more pine.

[00:17:48] Merle: Yeah. If you want to think of a modern day comparison, you would find massive amounts of corn pollen presumably from Iowa today versus maybe two, three hundred years ago, you would find far less. And if you dug the cores properly, you could see changes for all types of reasons, right. In the US. We grow more corn now for ethanol and other reasons. So maybe even more corn in the last couple of decades. So more land use means more people to feed so more people who are alive overall.

[00:18:20] Lee: So how can you use this then?

[00:18:22] Merle: Well, during the Black Death, the amount of agricultural pollen that has zero pollen across Europe drops significantly and drastically. And you see more pine trees. Again, fewer people, more pine trees. And this happens almost immediately in the year 1350. When we did this study in the most densely populated places of the Roman Empire, that’s to say around the Balkans or nearby, what’s now Istanbul. You don’t see this at all during the Justinianic plague time. You just don’t have any drastic changes in polynyas.

[00:19:00] Lee: Oh. Ok so no pollen use. And we also used other indicators for a demographic change. One of these indicators was inscriptions. These are usually inscriptions such as we have today. They could let’s say a building that locations or inscriptions on tombstones from this time. And these are fairly common in the Mediterranean, especially eastern Mediterranean over the 6th century. They have thousands, if not tens of thousands of these. And we collected all these inscriptions which had precise dates on them. So dates of a year, sometimes even a more precise date. And we graphed them over time. So we put them all on the same graph. We expected that if there were less people, we’d see a drop in inscriptions as well. An alternative solution, maybe you might be to see more tombstones. Yet as we gathered all these inscriptions, we could find for the period and we placed them on the graph, which we saw no change in the trend. So the same trend that happened before continued to happen afterwards.

[00:20:03] Merle: So what we tried to do was see some type of change. There’s all types you might suggest. But in fact, we see nothing at all. It’s basically completely random.

[00:20:14] Lee: Yeah. And then made it unlikely for us to accept that plague somehow depopulated these areas, these very populous areas. Another indicator is that we don’t actually find more mass graves over time, for example. Now, if we build on Black Death examples or precedents, we find a lot of mass graves during the Black Death graves, meaning a lot of corpses thrown to get there, buried hastily and covered because a lot of people die and there’s no time or no resources to be able to bury each one of these people individually, as usually as they’re usually buried. Now, if the Justinianic Plague, we might expect that the Justinianic plague killed so many people, let’s say a third or half the population. We’d expect there to be a lot of mass graves as well. But we actually don’t have that there.

[00:21:12] Merle: Yeah. And I think one thing we’re learning both today and saying the 1918 flu influenza is that you don’t need a significantly large increase of deaths to actually change burial patterns. So you don’t even need 50 percent of people dying. You just need slightly above average, famously in 1918, this happened in Philadelphia, where the number of deaths increased by several hundred per week, and that was enough to strain the burial patterns across the city. And this seems to also be the case recently in Iran, for example, during the ongoing pandemic today.

[00:21:48] Lee: We just don’t find those numbers of mass graves. There has been some work that’s being done or that has been done on multiple burials. And there are a lot of questions involved there. But what we try to do is to look at burials before and after the Justinianic plague before the onset of the Justinianic Plague. And we found no real difference. Once we looked at burial comprehensively.

[00:22:15] Merle: So in addition, we have also used ancient DNA evidence. I think it’s fair to say that this is perhaps one of the most exciting developments in the pandemic field today. And we’re going to have a separate discussion about ancient DNA and what it can teach us about the past.

[00:22:33] Lee: Yeah, I think it’s a good idea that there’s been a lot of work on this recently and it received a lot of media attention.

[00:22:40] Merle: Yeah, it’s often presented as very, quote unquote, cutting edge. And we can discuss what that means and other things and in a little bit. So I’ll be brief today that you can find the DNA of your Yersinia pestis in the teeth of human burial remains. And this confirms that the Justinianic plague, as we said, is the plague. But there are some issues with this approach that I’ll highlight briefly. First is dating. Only one person so far has been found buried with a marker, an inscription in this case that says I died of plague, essentially. And this was found in 542. For all other burials that have been found with plague, scientific and archeological techniques are needed to date people that give us ranges, sometimes decades, but often even a century. We can’t say the person died in 542, but that they died between maybe five hundred and six hundred CE And that’s kind of a problem when you’re making a narrative and trying to show that 50 percent of people died in just four years. The second issue is geography. The remains we have so far only come from Western Europe and not where the plague was supposed to be more of an impact in the east.

[00:23:58] Lee: Yeah, that might change the future, though, right? As more research might uncover additional corpses where there is Yersinia pestis in the east as well.

[00:24:07] Merle: Yeah, I think it’s an exciting time to work on this because new discoveries could change our conclusions, sometimes significantly.

[00:24:14] Lee: This happened last year, as we mentioned briefly in the previous episode, when a German research group found evidence for plague in Britain for the first time.

[00:24:24] Merle: Yeah, I remember that paper in particular because it ended a debate about plague in England that had been going on for centuries. As I said, we’ve tracked this back a hundred and fifty years, but I could tell it had gone back farther than that. The third point, and perhaps most importantly, is just because, you know, someone died of plague doesn’t mean huge numbers of people died. Remember, the Black Death might have had a 50 percent mortality, but the modern plague numbers were something like point zero zero zero one percent or something like that. Finding one positive remain does not tell us which one of these two scenarios, the Justinianic plague was 50 percent or the very, very small percentage or if itself it was completely different or whether there’s any type of standard or outlier at all.

[00:25:13] Lee: That also has to do with publishing standards and we can discuss it as well, if our listeners are interested in publishing standards. This means that researchers publish when they find something. But not when they don’t find it. So if let’s say I check 10000 remains and find no plague in them. That wouldn’t be interesting and would not be published. So nobody would know.

[00:25:37] Merle: There’s a chance of false negatives, too.

[00:25:40] Lee: Yes, false negatives means cases in which we search for plague and someone’s remains and don’t find it there, even though that person actually did die of plague. So we get a negative result, but it’s wrong. So ancient DNA is an important new methodology, which is great. It’s already revealed that the Justinianic plague was in fact plague and the plague reached Britain early on. However, it does not and perhaps cannot answer some of the historical questions we’re most interested in, such as questions about the Justinianic plague’s mortality.

[00:26:16] Merle: So what are some other historical questions we might want to know the answer to?

[00:26:21] Lee: So we think that instead of blanket statements about how everything changed, we might want to delve into particular questions historians want to know. So let’s think about economic effects. For example, in certain places, there do seem to be some long term economic changes, but were these the result of plague or something else. Many of these changes are difficult to date precisely because of the nature of our evidence. I’ve worked on some of the eastern Mediterranean cities. Cities such as Antioch, Beirut and a Apamea. Although we do see economic changes in these cities over the sixth century, those changes begin before the onset of plague and are usually associated with other events such as earthquakes or enemy raids. So we might see changes in trade networks after a major earthquake, but nothing that seems to correspond to the onset of plague. What about religious or cultural changes?

[00:27:19] Merle: People have said that everything changed religiously, but this seems to vary across different places. In what’s now France. Bishop Gregory of Tours, for example, describes a new religious ceremony that becomes increasingly popular, called the Rogations Days esed to stop the Plague. Now I’ll leave aside what Rogations days are in particular, although it’s one of my favorite religious ceremonies from the time period. But what’s really interesting here is that these religious prayers actually worked. Now, I don’t mean that prayer stopped the plague, since that isn’t how germs work, even if Gregory didn’t know that. But what’s important here is that Gregory and others from the time period thought that prayers worked. And this is a huge contrast to the Black Death prayers, which are recorded as not working. So what we see here is that new religious ceremonies are put into place. That, in fact, seemed to have stopped the plague, which is an interesting way in which people thought about plague outbreaks. What about from the eastern Roman Empire? From what I recall, people tend to commemorate big disaster events.

[00:28:30] Lee: Yeah. So we don’t have a lot of evidence, but we know that some authors do refer to practices and notions of significant disasters that occurred in the past. The local population of Constantinople, so again, modern Istanbul commemorated a volcanic eruption whose ashes reach that city becomes some sort of annual celebration we hear about, but no, almost nothing otherwise. Take another example in Antioch. One of the major cities of the Roman Empire at the time. Both in Antioch and other Greek cities in the eastern Mediterranean. So we know that people kept count of the number of earthquakes that hit their city over centuries. That means or seems to imply that at least some people were historically aware that such earthquakes occurred in the past in their city and they could refer to these past events, but with plague. The Justinianic plague, as opposed to the Black Death, the same Justinianic plague, which is supposed to have killed millions. We get almost nothing like this when I say almost nothing. There is one exception. One historian who is an exception and who refers to plague reaching his city four times.

[00:29:41] Merle: So many of these comparisons that are drawn seem to start with the idea of the Black Death and then stick them on the Justinianic Plague as if you can do a kind of copy and paste job there.

[00:29:52] Lee: Yes, it’s the place where you want to copy is the Black Death rather than the third pandemic. So the black death in which half the population of Europe dies and not the third pandemic in which a much smaller percentage of the world dies even though it is global and reaches everywhere.

[00:30:11] Merle: Yeah. So a copy and paste job from one and not the other for no reason. And also not even a very good copy and paste job is what I’m learning. So where are we headed now? Lee from what I remember you have a recent paper that tries to model plague as a disease. What did you find out about local conditions and its impact in your work?

[00:30:31] Lee: Okay, so I worked on this with a colleague is a disease modeler, and we should probably bring her on to the show at some point to talk about disease modeling, which is an interesting field in itself. Now, I won’t go into the details right now simply because it’s too complicated and it’s not immediately relevant to this episode. But what we tried to do is to model the deaths in Constantinople during the first outbreak results extrapolated across the empire suggested that the effects of the Justinianic plague, we’re not uniform across different cities. So some cities might have been hit quite hard. Other cities barely at all. One big limitation of our study is that we had very little historical data to work with. As we mentioned earlier, we had to make a lot of assumptions and extrapolations.

[00:31:23] Merle: Yeah, that goes back to your point about lack of population data and lack of numbers of deaths data. It’s hard to set up a model if you have no parameters to run it, from what I understand.

[00:31:35] Lee: Yeah. And those parameters we, we can talk a lot about. And that was very insightful for me to understand how disease modeling works. But again, we can talk about that once we bring her on.

[00:31:46] Merle: Yeah, I think that will probably be of interest, especially given all the disease models that we see today. Well, I look forward to reading that. It seems to me that local changes are really the key way forward here to think about economics, religion, culture and really anything else. And I think we see that going on today in Israel versus the United States, for example, during this pandemic.

[00:32:08] Lee: Yes. And more broadly, I think that we can probably assume that this debate about the Justinianic Plague is will continue for the next few years, at least partially because it’s such a slow process and humanities and that in academia, partially because I’m sure they the corona virus now will probably lead to another increase in scholarship on past pandemics. It’s something we’ve encountered in the past as well.

[00:32:36] Merle: What are some other ways we can think about using the data from the Justinianic plague?

[00:32:43] Lee: One way to approach this would be through large scale datasets. So the same method we used for the PNAS paper, the one we just talked about, where we compiled a lot of these big data sets. So the pollen inscriptions burials, when you compile these datasets together, you can try to use them as indicators for population levels maybe, or economic activity. Now, I’m sure there are many, many other data sets we haven’t thought about. So we encourage others to approach these same questions. And it’s really an interesting time to work on this.

[00:33:18] Merle: Yeah, I think the other thing we’ve come to realize from compiling some of these data sets is to make them and we have freely available to anyone else who wants to use them for any other types of questions you want to ask. So maybe you have questions about later economic data. Earlier economic data or specific cities or regions. Our data is freely available and we encourage everyone to use it, since I’ve never seen anyone compile similar datasets.

[00:33:45] Lee: Yes, I think it’s really something new. It’s a new approach. It’s still experimental. It might not be as precise as we’d like, but I believe it can provide insights or can complement more traditional ways of looking at the past. More qualitative ways historians have been used to work with could be complemented by these more quantitative methods.

[00:34:11] Merle: I also think another approach to this is through teaching, where you assign all types of sources from various disciplines and see what your students make of what you’ve presented to them. If you want to use this approach, I have linked on our website to a short video I made, along with primary sources for an educational Web site I’ve created with a couple of colleagues called the Middle Ages for Educators. It has a lesson plan on how to approach using all these different types of sources from different disciplines.

[00:34:42] Lee: Yeah, I tried running an entire course on the Justinianic Plague and results. There were mixed. Let’s say so. On one hand, deconstructing the narratives surrounding plague I felt was very useful for my students. It’s important to challenge these naratives outside the classroom as well. And that’s one of the things a thought out of the course. They kept thinking about challenging narratives in the context of fake news. On the other hand, I do think they could have done a better job framing the course. So I thought I think students were disappointed and frustrated that there wasn’t more written evidence about the Justinianic plague, as several of these students did in Black Death course in the previous year. So they expected more of the same, that the plague should be a big deal. It was probably not clear enough from the beginning that we actually don’t have all that much evidence on the Justinianic Plague.

[00:35:36] Merle: Yeah, that’s one thing that’s much harder in our time period versus the Black Death. We just don’t have those good stories about what happened to individuals such as it is for the deeper past. So what did we talk about today? First, we talked about the traditional maximalist history of the Justinianic Plague plague. Then our version of how to approach it and how to think about it. And then finally, local effects as the way forward.

[00:36:04] Lee: So next episode will be our first thematic one with a guest.

[00:36:08] Merle: I’m really looking forward to that. It will present some new logistical hurdles as we figure this all out as we go forward.

[00:36:15] Lee: I’m sure that will be interesting. We’ll be discussing quarantine with an expert on quarantine. Alex Chase-Levenson, since for all stuck at home and hearing a lot about quarantine, I think that would be a very relevant episode actually following are well established tradition. We’ll finish this episode as well, discussing different non pandemic aspects during this crisis. So I’ve noticed people are cooking a lot more. So is there anything fun you’ve made recently?

[00:36:44] Merle: So I was chatting with friends last night and they all mentioned that everyone is cooking a lot more. I like to cook with my kids because it keeps them busy and gives us a good activity to do. So, we don’t tend to make anything too crazy because, again, small children. But we made a very nice red sauce with a little bit of ground turkey meat that they really liked and they helped in all parts of that process. The only problem is, is when they want to stir. They tend to touch the pot, which obviously gets very hot. So that creates some, some noticeable problems. What about you? What have you made?

[00:37:19] Lee: So you have small children. I have a newborn daughter is two months old now. So we are cooking as much as we’d like.

[00:37:29] Merle: Congrats.

[00:37:31] Lee: & Crosstalk Thank you. So it’s usually a lot of pasta, pasta in different forms and shapes, but it still pops. Do you have a particular shape of pasta that you like? Yeah, I like the spiral ones. The little spirally that Fuseli ones. Yeah, my kids like that, too.

[00:37:47] Merle: And what’s really good about those is they can get nicely coated on all the inside with the sources rather than just one layer.

[00:37:54] Lee: Yeah, that with pesto works very well. I think that on this more cheerful note, we can conclude our episode until next time.

[00:38:04] Merle: Stay safe. Stay indoors and watch some TV.