Mortality risk and survival in the aftermath of the medieval Black Death

PLoS One. 2014 May 7;9(5):e96513. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0096513. eCollection 2014.

Abstract

The medieval Black Death (c. 1347-1351) was one of the most devastating epidemics in human history. It killed tens of millions of Europeans, and recent analyses have shown that the disease targeted elderly adults and individuals who had been previously exposed to physiological stressors. Following the epidemic, there were improvements in standards of living, particularly in dietary quality for all socioeconomic strata. This study investigates whether the combination of the selective mortality of the Black Death and post-epidemic improvements in standards of living had detectable effects on survival and mortality in London. Samples are drawn from several pre- and post-Black Death London cemeteries. The pre-Black Death sample comes from the Guildhall Yard (n = 75) and St. Nicholas Shambles (n = 246) cemeteries, which date to the 11th-12th centuries, and from two phases within the St. Mary Spital cemetery, which date to between 1120-1300 (n = 143). The St. Mary Graces cemetery (n = 133) was in use from 1350-1538 and thus represents post-epidemic demographic conditions. By applying Kaplan-Meier analysis and the Gompertz hazard model to transition analysis age estimates, and controlling for changes in birth rates, this study examines differences in survivorship and mortality risk between the pre- and post-Black Death populations of London. The results indicate that there are significant differences in survival and mortality risk, but not birth rates, between the two time periods, which suggest improvements in health following the Black Death, despite repeated outbreaks of plague in the centuries after the Black Death.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Cemeteries
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Epidemics / history*
  • History, Medieval
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • London / epidemiology
  • Middle Aged
  • Plague / mortality*
  • Survival Rate
  • Young Adult

Grant support

Data collection was supported by funding from NSF (www.nsf.gov; BCS-1261682), the Wenner-Gren Foundation (wwww.wennergren.org; grant #8247), and the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (www.physanth.org). Preliminary analyses were conducted during a summer fellowship at the School for Advanced Research, sponsored by the Ethel-Jane Westfeldt Bunting Foundation (www.sarweb.org). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.