London’s volcanic winter, and finding causal truth

…unendurable cold, that … bound up the face of the earth, sorely afflicted the poor, suspended all cultivation, and killed the young of the cattle. 

Owing to the scarcity of wheat, a very large number of poor people died; and dead bodies were found in all directions, swollen and livid, lying by fives and sixe’s in pigsties, on dunghills, and in the muddy streets…

These quotes come from a thirteenth century Benedictine diarist, Matthew Paris, recounting conditions in southern England in 1258.

Probably not coincidentally, 1258 is the date of a mysterious cataclysmic volcanic eruption, evidenced principally by global records of sulphur and ash deposits in ice cores and sediments. Mysterious, because nobody knows the location of the eruption.

And earlier this month it was reported that 10,500-odd corpses identified in Spitalfields, London, have been dated to around the same time (using Bayesian radiocarbon dating, apparently).

Initially archaeologists assumed all these corpses were plague victims. Presumably because plague is/was the mass killer of that era which is most familiar to modern day historians. Paris mentions the word ‘pestilence’ in his writings (see linked Guardian article)— which may have lent some support to the plague idea.

The links below describe all of this much better than I can.

But I think the misattribution is interesting, and perhaps worthy of brief extra comment. Matthew Paris could have no knowledge of a volcanic eruption the other side of the world and its possible effects on food production, starvation and disease. However he might know, implicitly if not explicitly, that malnourished people are more susceptible to infectious disease, and to be fair he seems to write as much about the crop failures and cold as he does about pestilence. It’s left to modern historians and archaeologists to initially attribute the deaths to the more familiar-to-modern-historians cause of large scale die-offs, plague, rather than to an unfamiliar geological one.

So what killed all those people: wrath of God, lack of food, infectious disease, or giant volcano? Of course none of these answers are mutually exclusive and some, though perhaps not all, are likely to be simultaneously correct to some degree. Which part of the causal pathway (or perhaps causal web) you might want to emphasise depends on the limitations of viewpoint: the close-up detail of the contemporaneous diarist, or the broader context and post-hoc knowledge of researchers 750 years hence. And of course there are the disciplinary biases— those of archaeologist, historian, physician, geoscientist, and Benedictine monk.

Even with abundant geological and archaeological evidence, and voluminous historical accounts— or perhaps a time machine—would it ever be possible to settle on a universally agreed causal pathway? Matthew Paris could never completely know what caused those tragic Spitalfields deaths… but could we?

Further reading:
Current Archaeology
Wired: the missing eruption of 1258
Guradian article


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