‘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,.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Duff, M.C. January 31, 2017 at 11:49 am

Dr. A. Rutherford in “Creation”, p. 138, speculates briefly on the possible effect of pneumonic and septicaemic forms of the plague in the Early Bronze Age. On p. 137, he writes, “Yersinia murine toxin … [was] in place by 1,000 B.C.” and that the bubonic form of the plague is more easily transmitted. He does not suggest any causal link with Late Bronze Age collapse, but the timings, admittedly only approximate, do seem to be something of a coincidence.


Edward Pegler January 31, 2017 at 8:32 pm

Thanks for the very interesting comment. I’d love to know the reference for Yersinia being recorded in 1000 BC. I know there’s some argued cases of smallpox in mummys from about the 12th century in Egypt (analyses done in the 1920s sadly, and nothing much newer).

The timings are interesting. If you look at one of my other posts you’ll see the evidence I’ve been able to gather on timings. There’s about 150 years’ gap between the evidence of plague (fourteenth century BC) and the Bronze age collapse (about 1200 BC). Having said that, there’s a similar delay between the Antonine/Cyprian Plagues (170-250 AD) in Rome and the collapse of the western empire (400-460 AD). Who knows what to make of that. If I were being bullish, I’d compare this with the Black Death, where populations reached their lowest in western Europe about 150 years after the initial outbreak.


Harriet Vered November 3, 2013 at 10:39 am

There is no evidence of untoward population decline in the so-called Late Bronze Age Collapse. Labelling an era (and its end) is a convenient way of signalling technological change, in this case literacy.


Edward Pegler November 17, 2013 at 6:01 pm

Dear Harriet

Are you sure of this? I thought the evidence from places like Greece and Turkey (e.g. Hattusa) was pretty unequivocal, at least in those areas which had been previously well populated. The impoverishment of the archaeological record is the reason for calling the period from 1200 to 800 BC a ‘dark age’. I suppose that you could argue for economic impoverishment with a similar population level but I think the post-Roman dark age tends to contradict this argument as most historians accept both economic decline and a population decline at this time, whatever the reason.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that the late Mediterranean Bronze Age world was victim to an epidemic as I have no evidence for anything much. However, advances in technology by themselves (e.g. iron working) cause local economic decline on the scale of cities or regions, not extensive economic decline. Generally, their effects on economic systems is to make them grow, not shrink.
As for literacy this is indeed a similar story. The spread of literacy in the eastern Mediterranean is a long process and in this case the use of alphabets was a great innovation to add to this spread, allowing more people access to literacy. This improvemnt would not, I think, cause the economic impoverishment seen at this time.

best wishes



Harriet Vered December 5, 2013 at 1:02 am

Hi Ned,
I agree that new technologies are beneficial, at least in the long run. But I’m puzzled that historians are assuming an ‘economic collapse’ in an era that, as you point out, is so little understood that it’s been dubbed “dark age”. When plague was at its height in fourteenth-century Europe, the general consensus seems to be that in spite of, or because of, an appallingly high death rate the economy carried on as before, if not better, in Britain at any rate. A fall in population doesn’t seem to presuppose economic decline.



Edward Pegler December 21, 2013 at 11:16 pm

Dear Harriet

Sorry. Not very good at replying fast these days.

The plague of the fourteenth century is an interesting case as you’re probably right about the economics. The extreme version of this idea is Gregory Clark’s ‘A Farewell to Alms’, which puts the full ‘Malthusian’ case. Interestingly, he also argues for a rise in warfare following the plague (at least in one of his graphs). The post plague world was also the period of Balkan conquest and European incursion by the Ottoman Turks (e.g. The Battle of Kosovo).

I was wondering if Rome experienced not one but perhaps three epidemics, the first smallpox and the last the Justinian plague (can’t remember the name of the one in the middle). All of these happened within four hundred years of each other. The effect would, perhaps, have been economically beneficial to the peasant inhabitants of the Roman Empire if the empire could have been free from external influence or attack. The economically advantageous situation of the peasants may explain the ?Theodosian Laws to restrict movement of people. However, this is pure speculation.

With a repeatedly plague-weakened army, the empire would be subject to repeated violent ‘immigration’. Some of this would be seen as useful to the empire in order to redress the reduction in peasant population. However, much would be uncontrolled. Efforts to increase military manpower to prevent such a situation would lead to employment of immigrant armies. Etc etc. The rest of this story is well told by collapsophiles like Bryan Ward-Perkins.

Already, by the fourth century the problems of population decrease were making skilled workers hard to find (cf. the change in medieval architecture from gothic to simpler perpendicular). In Rome’s case I suspect it was more extreme as they resorted to reuse of art (‘spolia’) on a large scale in establishing Constantinople. I can’t help thinking that Constantine was gathering the surviving elite of the population into a new concentrated centre in the east in order to save the empire. Frankly, it worked as a strategy, but it didn’t do much for western Europe.

Of course, the above story is all speculation, but everybody thinks the population went down in later Rome and the evidence for late Roman economics (e.g. coinage supply/debasement, manufacturing) suggests problems.

Either way, it’s a story.
best wishes


Edward Pegler December 22, 2013 at 7:23 pm

Dear Harriet

Just to continue, I ended up thinking more about this early this morning.

Both late Ancient Rome (LAR) and late Medieval Europe (LME) suffered what’s known as deflation. Historically, this is the result of money being made of some particular kind of object (in these cases silver and a little gold). Both LAR and LME suffered a shortage of silver (and gold to a lesser extent). This is thought to be due to purchasing consumable goods (e.g. silks, spices) from the east and paying in silver and gold. What should have offset this is the mining of new metals. However, there was not enough mining in both LAR and LME, possibly due to a shortage of labour prepared to do what was a crap job.

The method that both societies chose to remedy this was coinage debasement, where coinage had reduced quantities of valuable metals in it. However, as a result of a phenomenon described by Gresham’s Law, this simply results in economic stagnation due to the hoarding of good coinage and the unwillingness of capital investors to lend, as well as a reluctance of people to pay for goods if they can defer payment.

For LME the problem was eventually remedied by the opening of silver mines in the Harz Mountains and, of course, by the import of silver from the South American mines, using cheap forced labour in the latter case.

Interestingly, one of the big reasons for opening up the sea connections was to extract spices on the cheap from the far east, bypassing the high prices of the Arabic middlemen. Presumably this was a response to the high price of silver. Either way, the discovery of cheap African labour partly solved the problems of population shortage. On the other hand, the price reductions in spices were not passed on to the European consumers.


Thought I should add this.


Edward Pegler January 31, 2017 at 8:40 pm

I’m making this reply years after this comment was made. The difference, I think, is the presence of a large border to barbarian incursion. The Roman Empire’s border in the north was directly onto barbarian, semi-migrant northern Europe. Any loss of people made this difficult to defend.

In medieval western Europe, the border to the east was to other settled states of eastern Europe (albeit somewhat poorly populated and semi-organised). Western Europe’s luck was to have this buffer. Nothing like it existed for eastern Europe, which faced semi-migratory barbarians to the east and south, and many of the traits seen in the later Roman Empire (tied workforce, tied peasantry etc) happened in eastern Europe as well.


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