The Making of a Pandemic

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Award Year: 
2019
Principal Investigator: 
Merle Eisenberg, SESYNC Postdoctoral Fellow
Reuben Keller, Collaborating Mentor

My project, The Making of a Pandemic: Plague, Environment, and the End of Antiquity, examines the outbreak of the first great socio-ecological disaster in recorded human history: the first plague pandemic, commonly known as the Justinianic Plague (c. 541-750 CE). This plague occurred during a pivotal period in world history, which witnessed the fall of the Roman Empire, the rise of Islam, and the transformation of political, religious, economic, and cultural life. My historical research into written sources has revealed inconsistencies in the dominant plague narrative – an environmentally deterministic argument that the outbreak of the Justinianic Plague led to these major historical changes. Scholars have drawn these conclusions from written historical sources, which, after two hundred years of study, can reveal little more about the plague’s outbreak, spread, and effects. The Making of a Pandemic will investigate non-historical evidence – archaeological, environmental, numismatic (coinage), epigraphic (inscriptions), and DNA evidence – that can be analyzed to answer questions about the plague outbreak. My project will examine how the disease emerged, how it spread, where it lingered or disappeared, and what rate of mortality it caused. My work’s main contribution is to synthesize environmental evidence with the historical narrative to create a new framework to understand the plague’s impact. Working with scholars from various disciplines at SESYNC will allow me to integrate these types of sources to create a correct socio-environmental picture of the Justinianic Plague. It will examine plague outbreaks within their socio-environmental systems to re-conceptualize these transformations in world history.

Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 
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