Medical History

Dan Lusthaus vasubandhu at EARTHLINK.NET
Thu Oct 30 06:40:43 EDT 2008

Dear Mary,

I need to correct what I wrote earlier about there being no epidemics during
the Tang. Indeed there were. I was writing from memory, which these days is
not as reliable as it once was. But they were regionally limited to port
cities, particularly in the Chekiang province (south of Shanghai and north
of Guangzhou).

> From Paul Katz's book , _Demon Hordes and Burning Boats: The Cult of Marshal
Wen in Late Imperial Chekiang_ (1995) SUNY Press, p. 43:

"During the latter years of the T'ang dynasty, contagious diseases carried
by foreign traders operating along the southeast China coast had a
devastating impact on the province. More than half the population is said to
have died from a series of epidemics which struck the Chiang-tung region...
in 762, while an epidemic that roared through easter Chekiang in 806 also
wiped out a large percentage of the populace. Other outbreaks in 832, 840,
and 869 had less devastating but still fearful effects, especially in
coastal cities like Ningpo and Wenchow. By the end of the ninth century the
registered population of the former city had declined to less than ten
percent of its 742 level. These unidentified epidemics continued to spread
along trade routes as far north as Japan and Korea."

I haven't found any reference to epidemics in the 6th century, but won't
trust my memory until I've checked further.

Also, I assume you know about:

_Plague and the End of Antiquity: The Pandemic of 541-750_, Lester K. Little
Cambridge University Press (2006)

The blurb at

Plague was a key factor in the waning of Antiquity and the beginning of the
Middle Ages. Eight centuries before the Black Death, a pandemic of plague
engulfed the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea and eventually extended
as far east as Persia and as far north as the British Isles. Its persisted
sporadically from 541 to 750, the same period that witnessed the distinctive
shaping of the Byzantine Empire, a new prominence of the Roman papacy and of
monasticism, the beginnings of Islam and the meteoric expansion of the
Arabic Empire, the ascent of the Carolingian dynasty in Frankish Gaul and,
not coincidentally, the beginnings of a positive work ethic in the Latin
West. In this volume, the first on the subject, twelve scholars from a
variety of disciplines-history, archaeology, epidemiology, and molecular
biology- have produced a comprehensive account of the pandemic's origins,
spread, and mortality, as well as its economic, social, political, and
religious effects. The historians examine written sources in a range of
languages, including Arabic, Syriac, Greek, Latin, and Old Irish.
Archaeologists analyze burial pits, abandoned villages, and aborted building
projects. The epidemiologists use the written sources to track the disease's
means and speed of transmission, the mix of vulnerability and resistance it
encountered, and the patterns of reappearence over time. Finally, molecular
biologists, newcomers to this kind of investigation, have become pioneers of
paleopathology, seeking ways to identity pathogens in human remains from the
remote past.

(Link to page)

> I suppose the East to West theory rests on the notion of the origins
> of the black rat vector and if that is challenged then the whole East
> West spread is questionable, but there are Ibn Battuta's descriptions
> from 1345 in South India, and then the subsequent stories of the
> Genoese ships sailing from Kaffa in the Crimea in 1347, that support
> this particular narrative.

It's not that it only went in one direction, but that the Eastern
Mediterranean was the hub from which it radiated in both directions. For

"In 1333, fifteen years before the plague appeared in Europe, there were
terrible droughts in China followed by enormous floods in which thousands of
people perished. There are traditions of a plague in Tche in 1334, following
a drought, which is said to have carried off about 5,000,000 people. During
the fifteen years before the appearance of the plague in Europe there were
peculiar atmospheric phenomena all over the world, besides numerous
earthquakes. From the description of the stinking atmosphere of Europe
itself at this time it is quite possible that part of the disease came, not
from China, but originated in Southern Europe itself. From China the route
of caravans ran to the north of the Caspian Sea, through Asia, to Tauris.
Here ships were ready to take the produce of the East to Constantinople, the
capital of commerce, and the medium of communication between Europe, Asia,
and Africa.

"Other caravans went from Europe to Asia Minor and touched at the cities
south of the Caspian Sea, and lastly there were others from Bagdad through
Arabia to Egypt; the maritime communication on the Red Sea to Arabia and
Egypt was also not inconsiderable. In all these directions contagion found
its way, though doubtless Constantinople and the harbors of Asia Minor were
the chief foci of infection, whence it radiated to the most distant seaports
and islands. As early as 1347 the Mediterranean shores were visited by the
plague, and in January, 1348, it appeared in the south of France, the north
of Italy, and also in Spain. Place after place was attacked throughout the
year, and after ravishing the whole of France and Germany, the plague
appeared in England, a period of three months elapsing before it reached
London. The northern kingdoms were attacked in 1349, but in Russia it did
not make its appearance before 1351."


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