Articles of interest
14th September 2022
Book in Focus
The Complete History of Plague in Norway, 1348-1654
The Second Pandemic
By Ole Jorgen Benedictow
1. Why Plague Can Be Important in the Study of History
A disease can be historically important only as a result of its effects on mortality. It must be a communicable disease that combines tremendous powers of spread with huge lethality rates. Sharp and long-run reductions of populations caused by recurrent epidemic disease with such properties can engender profound changes and transformations of basic structures of societies and civilizations. Such events can also change the balance of power and cultural exchange between ravaged and unravaged societies and civilizations. Thus, epidemic disease can unleash long-term societal changes that can shape or hasten the advent of new social formations (social systems) and mould central lines and directions of historical developments; in short, it can make history.
Bubonic plague is the only disease generally studied and discussed in this perspective. The primary pneumonic droplet-spread mode of plague that may arise from cases of bacteraemic bubonic plague (with plague bacteria in the bloodstream) has poor communicability and is of no consequence in this context. (Clearly, the sudden introduction of many new serious but less lethal diseases to a region may engender much the same effects, as happened in Mesoamerica in the wake of the Spanish conquest.)
This book presents the history of the Second Plague Pandemic in Norway.
2. The Study of the History of the Plague in Norway
Territorially, the Medieval and Early Modern Kingdom of Norway included several areas that were lost in the later period of the Second Plague Pandemic studied in this book (1348–1654), or a few years later. The Orkneys and Shetland formally belonged to the Realm of Norway until the end of the 1460s when the archipelagos were integrated into the Kingdom of Scotland. Continental Norway included the south-easternmost province of Bohuslēn and the very sparsely populated east-central province of Jemtland that protruded deeply into Sweden and was conquered by Sweden in the mid-1600s. Greenland, Iceland and the Faroes became dependencies of Denmark in 1814. This is the territorial framework of the history of plague in Norway. Greenland and Iceland were not ravaged by plague, and, indeed, the disappearance of the Norse settlement in Greenland and the two serious epidemics in Iceland in the 1400s that have been assumed to be caused by plague must have had other causes.
The source material for studies on plague epidemics in Norway must more generally be characterized as quite weak, especially in the 1400s. Comparatively, however, this material is better than in other Scandinavian countries.
The national historical problem associated with the Norwegian state’s decline and fall in the late Middle Ages made Norwegian historians eager to focus on this historical period. From the breakthrough of scholarly writing of history in the 1830s, Norwegian historians attempted to find political explanations. In 1920, there was a new breakthrough with a booklet published by Sigvald Hasund, professor of agricultural history at the then University of Agriculture (NLH). He developed source-critical and technical means that enabled him to show the onset of an abrupt and sharp fall in settlement and consequently in population size in the wake of the Black Death, highlighting that this was an enduring situation that deepened throughout the period. He pointed out that the Black Death and the ensuing plague epidemics were likely the explanation.
This led to the formation of the Norwegian School of Agrarian History with other pioneers such as A. Steinnes, A. Holmsen, and, later, J. Sandnes. Their studies expanded on and confirmed Hasund’s observations. In the wake of the Black Death, they found a huge contraction of settlements and agrarian production and a corresponding enormous fall in rents and fines payable by tenants, facts reflected in a steep fall in the value of landed property. This caused a huge fall in the incomes of the King and the Norwegian state, and of the ruling classes, the big landowners of noblemen and prelates. All these observations were consistent with the social effects of a dramatic fall in population size and established a demographic paradigm of explanation that from the beginning was associated closely with the Black Death. The Norwegian Agrarian School of History established a radically new demographic and economic explanation of the decline and fall of the Norwegian state in the late Middle Ages.
Hasund pointed to the Black Death and later plague epidemics as the cause of the dramatic changes in settlement, production, population size and the fate of the state. Subsequent research was, nonetheless, performed from a one-sided agrarian perspective. In no other European country were the effects of the Black Death and later plague epidemics on the economic and social structures as energetically studied as in Norway. However, in almost no other European country were the plague epidemics so consistently neglected as a topic of historical research.
The crucial point is that the historians neglected to study and evaluate the (level of) tenability of the explanatory hypothesis. In the decades before the arrival of the Black Death, around 350,000 inhabitants lived within Norway’s borders, of whom around 95% lived in the countryside. This immediately raises several crucial questions, also called problems. Is it possible that an epidemic disease could move with enormous powers of spread through the sparsely populated Norwegian countryside? Furthermore, could an epidemic disease combine enormous powers of spread with enormous mortality and rapid death? It is a basic epidemiological rule that, the more dangerous and rapidly mortal a disease is for infected humans, the weaker will be the powers of spread of the disease. The reason for this is that the time of infectiousness will be short and many diseased people will die before they have had the time and opportunity to infect at least one other person. If the likelihood of transmission of infection falls below an average infection rate of 1, the disease will die out.
This was the central problem in my 1992 doctoral dissertation Plague in the Late Medieval Nordic Countries. Epidemiological studies. My work showed, somewhat to my own surprise, that it was possible to coordinate the central information in medical and epidemiological standard works and primary studies on plague with the requirements for giving plague strong powers of spread in rural districts and a short course of illness. The explanatory hypothesis was tested and found tenable. It was also solid proof that the plague epidemics had, in fact, played a highly important part in Norwegian demographic history, economic history, social history and political history through three centuries.
As can be seen from the title of the dissertation, the focus was on the epidemiological and demographic explanatory potential. Although the plague epidemics’ status as a causal explanation of pervasive societal processes in the late Middle Ages won wide acceptance, the numerous plague epidemics in the period from 1500–1654 were, at the time of the first edition of this book, almost unexplored. The ambition was to clarify, as far as the sources would allow, when and where plague entered Norway, the frequency of plague epidemics, the spread in the country, patterns of spread, seasonality and effects of climate, and types of plague. All information on these topics would be discussed in the light of modern knowledge of plague epidemiology and plague medicine. Several of the topics should also be considered in the light of trade, and other conditions that might explain conveyance of plague contagion to Norway and epidemic spread. The perspective of research was to produce a complete history of plague in Norway, a study of all plague epidemics that spread in Norway during the Second Plague Pandemic, from 1348 to 1654.
It should be expected that the transition of the social formation of the Middle Ages to the social formation of the Early Modern Period would be reflected in substantial changes in the epidemiological pattern and social effects of plague. The reason for this is that the transition included a great change in the pattern and volume of international demand for Norwegian products, great intensification of shipping and trade, and the introduction of new industries. In Norway, as elsewhere, there was a certain fascination with alternative ideas of plague, especially epidemiological alternatives such as interhuman cross-infection by human fleas or human lice and fleas or by arbitrary notions of mutations or alternative rat fleas. This book shows, however, that they, like all other alternative ideas, are untenable.
 In Norwegian scholarly writing of history, the term Medieval refers to the period following the Viking Period, from around 1050 until 1536, when the independent Norwegian kingdom became a dependency of the Kingdom of Denmark and lost national political centres such as the King and the Council of the Realm.
 Benedictow, Ole J. 2010. Which Disease Was Plague? On the Controversy over the Microbiological Identity of Plague Epidemics of the Past. Leiden: Brills, 98–9, 502–50; Benedictow, Ole J. 2021. The Complete History of the Black Death. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 616–17
 Quite a detailed presentation of the history of plague studies in Norway, from P.A. Munch (1862) to J. Sandnes in the 1970s is given in my doctoral dissertation, Benedictow, Ole J. 1992/1993/1996. Plague in the Late Medieval Nordic Countries. Epidemiological Studies. Oslo: The M Press, 34–44.
 Hasund, S. 1920. Ikring Mannedauden. Ei liti sogestudie. Krisitiania: Grøndahl & Søns Boktrykkeri, 62–7; Hasund, S. 1934. Det norske folks liv og historie gjennem tidene. Tidsrummet 1280 til omkring 1500, Vol. 3. Oslo: H. Aschehoug & Co., 136–42.
Ole J. Benedictow is an Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Oslo, Norway, and a trained medievalist with a focus on late medieval history and the early modern period. In 1992, he defended a thesis on Scandinavian medieval plague history for his PhD. His publications include The Medieval Demographic System of the Nordic Countries (1996), Svartedauen og senere pestepidemier i Norge [The Black Death and Later Plague Epidemics in Norway] (2002), and The Complete History of the Black Death (2021), among others.
The Complete History of the Plague in Norway, 1348-1654: The Second Pandemic is available now in Hardback at a 25% discount. Enter code PROMO25 at checkout to redeem.