DONDENA Seminar Series FALL 29/11/2022


"A New Definition of the Black Death: Genetic Findings and Historical Interpretations"


by Monica H. Green



For nearly 700 years, the general belief about the Black Death—the massive plague pandemic that swept the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe in the late 1340s—has been that it emerged out of an occult plague reservoir only a few years before its sudden appearance in the realm of the Ulus of Jochi (Golden Horde) in 1346. Whether arguing for a proximal origin in the Caucasus or a more distal origin in Asia, researchers have been agreed on this short time span for the whole pandemic’s course.


New narratives about plague’s history, however, have recently been put forward. These draw on two kinds of evidence. On the one hand, phylogenetic (evolutionary) histories of the causative organism, Yersinia pestis, have (with one exception) consistently suggested that a sudden proliferation and diversification of the pathogen probably occurred around the mid-13th century. On the other hand, epidemic events have been uncovered in the thirteenth century in both China and the Middle East which had not previously been delineated in the documentary record.


A dissenting view was recently published in the journal Nature which pushed back against a 13th-century origin and once again argued for a “quick transit” in the 14th century. In this paper, I argue that the quick transit theory was itself a medieval fiction arising from learned Arabic writers who compressed accounts of plague from earlier centuries with fragments of information they were gleaning from contemporary travelers. The result were accounts that collapsed past and present, geographical lore and cultural fiction. The new scientific analyses have assumed these narratives to be true and stacked up evidence to support them. When stacked up differently, however, the evidence points to a very different story that is crucial for us to understand in our own new age of pandemics.



Monica H. Green is a historian of medicine specializing in the history of the premodern period and the comparative history of global health. Trained in the History of Science at Princeton University, she has taught and held fellowships at leading institutions such as Duke University, the Institute for Advanced Study, and All Souls College. Both her research and her teaching have been honored by top prizes, and she was recently recognized by having a prize named in her honor by the Medieval Academy of America. She is currently completing The Black Death: A Global History, which melds new insights from genetics with a reinterrogation of the documentary record of the world’s most devastating pandemic. She can be followed on Twitter at @monicaMedHist.


Please note that the seminar will be in a hybrid format (presence + Zoom meetings at the following link: