If you think that Ebola is bad – and it is – the current outbreak in West Africa is small compared with another deadly epidemic that engulfed much of the globe centuries ago. It is realistic to estimate that during the Middle Ages, plague – also known as the Black Death – wiped out 40 to 60 percent of the population in large areas of Europe, Africa and Asia, according to Nükhet Varlik, an assistant professor of history at Rutgers University-Newark.
Varlik has just published research piecing together evidence on how the Black Death spread beginning in the 14th century. She says new information that she and other plague researchers have found may be very relevant to other disease outbreaks both now and in the future.
“For example, we are learning now that the earth’s climate apparently changed prior to the Black Death,” says Varlik. “In that case it was a period of global cooling. It is possible that rainfall then increased and made vegetation more available, which in turn added to the rodent population, and rodents spread plague. Evidence is increasing that each time before a large pandemic, something has happened in the environment.”
Varlik is not predicting that modern climate change will cause another pandemic, but her work – which appears in a chapter in a new volume titled Pandemic Disease in the Medieval World: Rethinking the Black Death – illustrates how events that shift the balance between humans and nature apparently can trigger calamities in ways never considered before.