‘Plague’, language change and ‘dark ages’ – a general link?

by Edward Pegler on 1 November, 2013

Pandemics may have caused the collapse of the Roman Empire, the last European ‘dark age’ and the resulting changes of languages across North Africa, Europe and the Middle East. As wild speculation, could they have done the same in earlier dark ages?

Skeletal victims of the plague perform the dance of death, from the 15th century Nuremberg ChroniclesRecent work has been starting to fill in an old story about a link between ‘plague’ and the end of the Roman Empire. The story, as far as I can tell, was first put forward my William H. McNeill in his classic ‘Plagues and Peoples’. McNeill argued that various diseases, including Bubonic Plague and perhaps Smallpox and Measles, significantly reduced the population of the ancient Mediterranean from the 2nd century AD onward, starting with the unidentified Antonine Plague and finishing with the Justinian Bubonic plague from the 6th century onward.

McNeill’s case depended on the idea of linking up separate populations by relatively high speed exchange links. These links would have allowed disease vectors to spread fast enough not to wipe out the hosts before they had made contact with new candidate hosts. He therefore suggested that at least some of the diseases were due to the opening up of trade links with the East.

McNeill went on to add that Christianity itself with its ‘dying is good, as long as it’s not suicide’ attitude, may have gained a significant advantage during this prolonged period of population decline, a decline that continued perhaps until even the 7th or 8th century. And, of course, the effect on classical civilisation was to unravel it.

Archaeologists have now shown that urban populations around the Mediterranean dwindled between the 5th and 7th centuries, with only a few places, such as Constantinople and Alexandria having numbers of people appropriate to genuine city life. Such a population crash would have disrupted trade, due to declining demand, and made the world a very odd place indeed. In fact, one of the things that seems to have caused a pick up in merchant life in the later 7th and 8th centuries seems to be the trade in Roman antiquities (‘spolia’) for the new elites.

There is another aspect of this putative population crash which fascinates me. If some populations, due either to previous exposure to the pathogens or little exposure, did not experience a simultaneous crash then the advantage for these populations would have been enormous. They could spread to depopulated areas and, given sufficient numbers of them, come to dominate, replacing languages and cultures. Such a scenario seem particularly appropriate in the case of the Arab conquest of North Africa and perhaps the Slavic spread of peoples into the Balkans and the Turkic spread of peoples into Anatolia.

But could such a model be applied to older ‘Dark Ages’ recognised by archaeologists and historians? There are two obvious candidates for such dark ages: the first recorded early Bronze age ‘dark age’ around 2200 BC (Egypt’s 1st Intermediate Period) and the ‘Late Bronze Age Collapse’ around 1200 BC (on conventional dating). Such dark ages are often credited to climate change. However, why not a pandemic (or economic, for that matter) cause.

The only justification I can make for suggesting a causal link between some pandemic and the first Dark Age at 2000 BC is that this is a period of surprising globalisation, and there is clear evidence of links made between east and west (e.g. Mesopotamia to India) and of the first opening of the Silk Road to India through the Taklamakan desert at this time (and even the arrival of the Dingo in Australia).

The other possible disease associated dark age is the ‘Late Bronze Age Collapse’. This collapse is shown most clearly by the inability of urban economic centres in the Levant to resist the influx of ‘marauding’ immigrants and the subsequent depopulation of large areas of the eastern Mediterranean. However, the case for this being a pandemic is even weaker than the earlier one as no new trade links with the east are known (at least to me) from this time. This could simply be a case of changes in economic patterns in the eastern mediterranean due to the decline of bronze use as iron smelting localised markets… but there is that population decline.

Whatever, if the Arabs could cause major language changes in North Africa and the Middle East in the first millennium AD then this does allow the possibility that Indo-Europeans, of at least some flavours (e.g. Indo-Iranians, Greeks, whatever) even if not the whole package, could have done the same in these earlier dark ages, allowing for mass-migrations of the type that Indo-European linguists have sometimes proposed.

And if Christianity could make signficant gains at a time of falling population then could other contemplative religions with much to say about life after death, such as Buddhism and Zoroastrianism, have done something similar at times of falling population a thousand years before?


McNeill, W.H. 1976 Plagues and Peoples, Anchor Press (and various others).

Harbeck, M. et al. 2013 Yersinia pestis DNA from Skeletal Remains from the 6th Century AD Reveals Insights into Justinianic Plague, PLoS Pathogens 9(5).

Little, L.K. 2007 Plague and the End of Antiquity: The Pandemic of 541-750, Cambridge. pp382.

Cunha, C.B & Cunha, B.A. 2008 Great Plagues of the Past and Remaining Questions. In: D. Raoult and M. Drancourt (eds.), Paleomicrobiology: Past Human Infections,.

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