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A Great Carolingian Panzootic: The Probable Extent, Diagnosis and Impact of an Early Ninth-Century Cattle Pestilence
By Timothy Newfield
Argos, Vol. 46 (2012)
Abstract: This paper considers the cattle panzootic of 809-810, the most thoroughly documented and, as far as can be discerned, spatially significant livestock pestilence of the Carolingian period (750-950 CE). It surveys the written evidence for the plague, and examines the pestilence’s spatial and temporal parameters, dissemination, diagnosis and impact. It is argued that the plague originated east of Europe, was truly pan-European in scope, and represented a significant if primarily short-term shock to the Carolingian agrarian economy. Cattle in southern and northern Europe, including the British Isles, were affected. In all probability, several hundreds of thousands of domestic bovines died, adversely impacting food production and distribution, and human health. A diagnosis of the rinderpest virus (RPV) is tentatively advanced.
Introduction:”A most enormous pestilence of oxen occurred in many places in Francia and brought irrecoverable damage.” This reference to an epizootic in the Annales Fuldenses in 870 is one of roughly thirty-ﬁve encountered in the extant written sources of Carolingian Europe. In total, mid eighth- through mid tenth-century continental texts illuminate between ten and fourteen livestock plagues, the majority of which affected cattle. In no earlier period of European history does the written record reveal so many epizootics. Cattle pestilences are reported in 801, 809-10, 820, 860, 868-70, 878, 939-42 and, possibly, 842-43 and 849;5 equine epizootics are recorded in 791 and 896; and in 887 a plague is said to have afflicted both cattle and sheep. Some of these plagues appear to have been panzootic in scope: the pestilences of 809-10 and 939-42 affected large areas of continental Europe, so too, it seems, the plagues of 820 and 868-70. The first of these, and possibly the fourth, spread into the British Isles. The manner in which these outbreaks of disease were documented significantly limits what can be known about them. The brevity and ambiguity characteristic of Carolingian accounts of epizootics prevent us from establishing with much certainty which plagues were the most significant in terms of extent or impact. The scale and mortality of several pestilences may have been far greater than the extant evidence indicates.