After the Black Plague ravaged the Arctic in the 14th and 15th centuries, old connections faded while new ones arose. The same will happen after coronavirus passes.

In Europe in the 1300s, the sentence, “Winter is coming,” would not have been a meme. It would have been the truth, and one that would persist for a perilous while. The Earth’s average temperature was dropping precipitously. With it would come a century of social and economic devastation exacerbated by a tiny bacteria named Yersinia pestis that would shatter Europe in the form of the Black Plague.

From 900-1300 AD, things had been looking up on the continent. The Plague of Justinian in the sixth and seventh centuries, which had wiped out 40% of Europe’s population, was a distant memory, and no similar epidemic had since struck. Four centuries of balmier than normal temperatures – a time known as the “Medieval Warm Period” – helped produce bountiful harvests. Barley and wheat were aplenty, along with endless amounts of ale colorfully described in the words of one Cornish poem:

It is thick and smokey and also it is thin
It is like wash as pigs had wrestled there in

As cited in Gregg Smith’s Beer: A History of Suds and Civilization from Mesopotamia to Microbreweries (1995), p. 24

Porcine brews were not the only beverage on offer. A mellower England also had dozens of vineyards in its south, with the farthest grape-growers supposedly in York. Well-fed and well-inebriated, the population of the continent doubled. England went from having 1.4 million inhabitants at the time of the Domesday Survey in 1086 to 5 million people by 1300, a figure that even surpasses Ireland’s current population. Prosperous city-dwellers started erecting ostentatious Gothic cathedrals, including Paris’ Notre Dame, whose construction began in 1163, and Salisbury’s ornate cathedral, on which work began in 1220.

The Vikings strike cold

Farther north, Vikings, perhaps a bit too comfortable for their liking in the fair conditions of home, may have been emboldened enough to set out from Iceland for Greenland, where they settled around 985 AD. The average temperature then may have been around 10°C, just one degree below London’s average temperature today.

With all the wealth changing hands in Europe, the Vikings had a ready market for the walrus ivory they were harvesting at sea. Elephant ivory from Africa was becoming scarce, and the rising numbers of moneyed people needed to display their wealth ostentatiously somehow. When sculpted into chess pieces, combs, caskets, and other artistic trinkets, walrus ivory satisfied their demands. With the waters of Greenland’s Disko Bay (around modern-day Ilulissat) warmer than average and the southern fjords of Greenland where the Vikings settled possibly even more temperate than today, hardy walrus hunters would not have been as exposed to the cold as we might imagine. Illustrating the size and value of the marine mammal ivory trade, in 1266, a ship from Greenland ran aground and sank off Iceland’s west coast. Its cargo hold contained mostly walrus ivory, and 41 people died in the sinking – not an insignificant number in that day.

The glory days of Novgorod

Novogorod, one of Europe’s biggest cities in the Middle Ages, was the beating heart of a trade network that extended all the way to the Arctic Ocean. Walrus tusks and furs were traded through the Russian city, as depicted in the above painting.

On the Eurasian landmass, trade networks also were expanding northward. In 1092, Russians from the trading hub of Novgorod, not far from modern-day St. Petersburg, ventured north for the first time in recorded history to the northern Siberian lands of the Ugrian and Samoyed peoples, among whom today the reindeer-herding Nenets might be the most well-known. A vigorous fur trade with the inhabitants of what were called “midnight’s lands” got underway, and in the 1300s, a fur company named after the Ugrians, “Uigorshchina,” was established in Novgorod. The city was then one of Europe’s largest, with trade connections in every direction imaginable, including the far north. Ships called lodyas sailed out from the city towards the Arctic Ocean, which was called the “breathing sea” (dyshashcheye more) Much of the walrus ivory from Greenland, for instance, passed through here and Kiev, along with other cities like London, Dublin, and Bergen. The wealthy Novgorodians also made it to the shores of the White Sea as early as the 10th century and began taxing the Sami in 1216.

Summer moved on

In the 1300s, these four centuries of summer would come to a frigid and frightful end. A series of four major volcano eruptions in the tropics began with a bang in 1256. Their emissions may have been sufficient to cool the climate to a devastating degree. Arctic summer sea ice started growing. Glaciers in Greenland, where the Norse had been living for three hundred years, were starting to advance just as they were around the rest of the northern hemisphere. In Norway, farmers tried to relocate to warmer areas in the valleys, but even then, their production yields towards the end of the century were a mere 12% of what they had been in 1300.

These poor conditions were about to get worse. In the spring of 1315, heavy rains started and they simply did not cease. Oak trees grew tall, but poorly-fed men shrunk. Over the course of several painful months, they slowly starved to death. Malnourished survivors would often go blind or fall victim to an awful inflammation of the skin known as St. Anthony’s Fire. So great was the toll of the Great Famine from 1315-1317 that people grew desperate enough to not only eat the seeds they had saved for the following year’s planting, but perhaps even each other. Across Europe, 7.5 million people died. Mass graves were dug into the waterlogged soil, where thousands were buried at a time.

The Great Famine, of course, was not the only suffering that the continent would endure in the 1300s. The Black Plague was storming across the steppes from the east, and even the Earth’s icy fringes would fall under its shadow.

A northern pestilence

First recorded in 1346 in Russia in the city of Laishevo, Russia (in present-day Tatarstan), the plague-causing bacteria, Y. pestis, probably originated in China or Central Asia. Russian chroniclers at the time called it “a punishment from God on the people in the Eastern lands.” Genoese traders brought it from the Black Sea to Italy, from where the plague shook Europe – and the Arctic – to their very cores. While the circumpolar north was initially isolated from the epidemic, the bacteria would still wend its way there thanks to mankind’s compulsion to trade.

In autumn of 1348, denizens of Oslo began developing painful buboes, a telltale sign of the black plague. In contrast to today’s coronavirus pandemic, which many are hopeful summer heat will halt, winter temporarily stopped the pestilence’s spread. Yet the following spring, the annual bloom of Arctic wildflowers across Norway like Svalbard poppy, Arctic chickweed, and snow buttercup were a portent of disaster. With warmer temperatures came a reemergence of the plague, which another jolt of the deadly bacteria would exacerbate just a few months later.

Sometime towards the end of summer in 1349, if the Icelandic annals are to be believed, a ship carrying wool set sail from King’s Lynn, England (today a sleepy Norfolk backwater town at the end of a rail line, but then known as the burgeoning “Warehouse on the Wash”). The plague was raging, but just as during today’s coronavirus pandemic, the shipment of goods and cargo persisted. The ship, like almost all wooden ships of its era, had rats onboard, and those rats carried fleas infected with Y. pestis. All those onboard died, yet the sea currents still managed to carry the ghost vessel to Bergen, then (and still today) a major Norwegian trade and transportation hub. Off scurried the rats, delivering the dreaded flea-borne plague once more to the land of the Vikings.

King’s Lynn, Norwich, England. Not much activity these days. Who would have guessed it would be the source of the devastating Black Plague in Norway? Photo: Author.

That summer, the King of Norway and Sweden, Magnus Eriksson, implored his subjects to pay a penny to their leader, for “God has cast a great plague on the world with brutality.” In the ensuing six months, up to half of Norway’s population may have died. Such was the devastation that even the royal family could not escape. In 1359, Magnus’ son Eric, who through complicated rules of inheritance had become King of Sweden while his father was still alive, died of the plague, as did his wife and their two sons. Four years later, Magnus’ wife, Blanca, the queen consort of Norway, died at Tønsberg Castle. In her possession were merely

“a couple of table cloths which have often been on the table, and a pair of sheets which have often been on the bed; some velvet and other cloth; some pepper, ginger, and cinnamon; a few table knives and four silver spoons.”

in K. Larsen, A History of Norway (1948) p. 203.

(Still, though, it is fascinating to see recorded in her last belongings aromatic hints of the trade with Central Asia and India, the very spices that make Scandinavian baked goods like cardamom buns and gingersnaps such mouthwatering treats. Little did they know how deadly this trade would one day prove.)

Pesta, the Norwegian personification of the plague, appears even in more contemporary folk depictions from the country. Pesta and the Boatman – The Black Death, by Theodor Kittelse (1900). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Back in Russia, although the plague had already ransacked the lands of the Golden Horde and Crimea, the low population density in between the steppes and the cities of northwest Russia meant that the disease would actually spread into Novgorod and across northwest Russia via river trading routes spreading out from Germany. By 1352, Y. pestis consumed the Russian trading metropolis. From there, it would quickly spread to “all the Russian land.” (There do not seem to be any records that I could yet find, however, of whether the nomadic peoples of Siberia were affected.)

Isolated Iceland, described by a medieval monk as a “desert in the ocean,” was able to keep the plague at bay for longer than the continent. The island’s primary linkage to the outside world was through trade with Norway, on which it heavily depended. Icelandic annals record that in both 1340 and 1345, eleven ships made the journey across the North Atlantic, an ocean which 12th-century Muslim geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi described in an absinthe-laced metaphor as a “green sea of darkness.” In 1347, eighteen vessels did, illustrating the close and frequent connectivity.

But in 1349, only one ship came calling, and in 1350, none arrived at all from plague-stricken Norway. While the absence of vessels brought tough times for the the Icelanders, it spared them from disease for half a century.

Yet by 1402, the plague came calling on the shores of the dreary, hardscrabble North Atlantic island. Exactly how it spread in the supposed absence of rats is still debated. Regardless, a quarter of the population may have died: a lot, but still fewer than the 50-60% mortality rates experienced in England and on the continent. Hundreds of farms were abandoned, too. The Bishop’s Annals, a compilation of largely first-hand accounts compiled in 1605 by a priest named Jón Egilsson, describes the horrors that befell his countrymen:

“In this plague the mortality was so great, that no-one remembered or had heard of anything like it, because many farms were devastated, and on most farms only three or two survived, sometimes children, usually two or mostly three, and some of them yearlings, and some sucking their dead mothers.”

Jón Egilsson, Bishop’s Annals (1605)

Living (and dying) with the plague’s fallout

As Europe lay dying, even those isolated from the plague itself felt its effects. Archaeological records indicate that by the mid-1400s, the Sami, who, thanks to their relative isolation mostly escaped the plague, stopped placing metal objects at their burial sites, ostensibly because trade had ground to a halt. At the same time, the plague may also have led the Sami to ultimately become more deeply integrated into Norwegian agricultural, taxation, and trade networks. Sami farms with sheep, goats, cattle, and even trays for baking flatbread began to pop up along the coast of north Norway in the 1400s and 1500s. One hypothesis is that the Norwegian government offered the Sami incentives to take over vacant farms and begin commercial fishing around places like the Lofoten Islands in order to improve the decimated tax base.

Meanwhile in Greenland, while the two Norse colonies seemed to have escaped the epidemic altogether, they, too, eventually disappeared. There are dozens of theories for their abandonment, including the changing, cooling weather, Basque pirates, an Inuit invasion, and sheer boredom.

What is clear, though, is that in 1350, the Western Settlement was abandoned, and linkages with Norway were fading. The reigning country’s pre-plague population may have been approximately 300,000-400,000 people; by 1550, it may have dropped to 125,000 (about the size of Stavanger today). Around Greenland – keeping in mind that temperatures were still cooler than average – icebergs floating down from a growing Arctic sea ice cap were making North Atlantic crossings more perilous. The King of Norway still promised an annual trading ship, but it sank in 1368 and no replacement was forthcoming. A mere four vessels arrived in Greenland between 1381 and 1406, and the last known ship left for Norway in 1410.

The haunting of the ice

The Black Plague still spooks the ice today. Ice cores from northern Greenland show a significant decline in lead pollution from 1349 to 1361 that lasted until 1448, reflecting a lack of demand for silver – and, even more crucially, manpower to mine and smelt lead-silver ores in places like England and Germany where the once-thriving industry fed currency production.

Arctic lead pollution dropped significantly between the 1350s-1450s due to the Black Plague. Source: McConnell, J. R., Chellman, N. J., Wilson, A. I., Stohl, A., Arienzo, M. M., Eckhardt, S., … & Steffensen, J. P. (2019). Pervasive Arctic lead pollution suggests substantial growth in medieval silver production modulated by plague, climate, and conflict. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences116(30), 14910-14915.

Similarly today, the environment is enjoying a reprieve from emissions due to the consequences of coronavirus-related lockdowns. Beijingers could finally look up at clear skies this past winter thanks to 100-million-ton drop in carbon emissions, and similarly, carbon monoxide emissions from cars in New York City are down 50% compared to the previous year. The ice will undoubtedly record these declines in pollution. Whether the ice will be around in 700 years for scientists to inspect, however, remains anyone’s guess.

After the Black Plague ended, cold temperatures continued in Europe until the mid-1800s, a period known as the “Little Ice Age.” In 1683, the Thames River froze for two months with ice up to a foot thick. This time, however, people didn’t die of starvation from the cold temperatures. After the plague, a smaller population meant that survivors and their descendants were hardier, wealthier, more urban, and well-placed to make the most of the cold. Naturally, then, they held “frost fairs.” In England’s capital, people played games like ninepins on the ice and vendors took over the 19-span London Bridge to sell beer and – incredibly – roast ox in the bridge’s archways. As one recorder of the festivities notes:

“The remaining archways were given over to the roasting of oxen. Despite the heat, which surely rivalled the furnaces of hell, the ice did not melt.”

The archways became known as “starling ovens,” and with all the bovine grilling, representing an odd anthro-geological record similar to the ice cores, they became “thickly blackened with soot and have remained so ever since.”

Ox were roasted under London Bridge’s archways during the frost fairs held over the frozen Thames in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
The Frozen Thames, Looking Eastwards towards Old London Bridge, London
Abraham Hondius (c.1625–1691), painted in 1677. Source: Museum of London

The ox-roasted-over-ice tradition would continue for decades: in 1739, a butcher from St. James Market named Mr. Hodgeson announced that, as his father had roasted an ox on the ice during the Great Frost Fair of 1683-1684, he had the right to do so again, and with much flair. As one chronicler described the process:

“The beast is to be fixt to a stake in the open market, and Mr. Hodgeson comes dress’d in a rich lac’d cambric apron, a silver steel, and a Hat and Feathers, to perform the office.

R. Thomson, Chronicles of London Bridge (1827), pp. 493-494

In the centuries post-plague, based on the butcher’s ensemble, it appears that silver production had picked back up again. More importantly, the English, never known to turn down a roast of any sort, got right back to it.

Post-pandemic connections and disconnections

Europe and its ice-encrusted hinterlands recovered from the tragic twinning of climate change and the Black Plague, just as they will come back from coronavirus. Measures taken to contain the current pandemic are coming more quickly than they ever could have in the 1300s. On March 15, 2020, Svalbard kicked out all visitors. (The restriction is making things tricky for the European Union-funded MOSAiC research expedition onboard the German icebreaker Polarstern, which is supposed to have a crew change through Svalbard in the next couple of weeks.) On March 20, Greenland halted all air traffic to (and even within) the island, and on March 29, Russia closed its borders – including its maritime ones (lest you forget that yes, Russia does have those). Alaska has largely banned non-essentially travel within state, particularly to protect rural villages.

Yet the coronavirus pandemic is also traveling through the Arctic with a speed that far outpaces the Black Plague. While took fifty years for Y. pestis to infect Iceland Iceland from Europe, only a couple of months passed between the outbreak of coronavirus in Wuhan, China and the first known case in Iceland: a 28-year old man who had returned from a ski trip in Italy. Then, just yesterday, the first case on Alaska’s North Slope emerged, again involving a man, an employee at BP’s oil fields, traveling back from the south.

And just as Norway was hit especially hard by the Black Plague, coronavirus is causing a significant degree of suffering: not so much due to deaths, at least not so far, but because of the global collapse in demand for oil, which has led unemployment in the wealthy nation to surge.

The world is more connected now, and so is the Arctic. But the spread of the Black Plague and the ability of the scourge’s socioeconomic consequences to affect even the places the disease did not actually reach, like Greenland, confirm that the region was not cut off from the rest of the world in the 1300s. Nor, for better or worse, is the Arctic isolated today.

Undoubtedly though, just as happened in the 15th and 16th centuries, in the post-pandemic stage of the 21st century, new connections will form while old ones fade.

Iceland will probably emerge more poorly connected. The country’s air travel industry was already suffering due to Wow Air’s collapse and a slowdown in tourism. Today (2 April), just two out of the regularly scheduled 33 flights arrived at Keflavik, the country’s main airport: one from Poland and one from London. (I suppose the Polish connection remains just that strong.) Relatedly, the tenuousness of illicit black market networks in the north is also being uncovered, with people starting to “FREAK OUT!” about a “massive cocaine shortage” as air traffic grinds to a halt.

After coronavirus, Norway may have to take a good hard look at its oil industry. Alaska likely will, too.

And in Russia, well, oil drilling will probably continue, as will most everything else. Despite the seven-day-long lockdown in Moscow this week, one man on the street expressed, “It’s like a normal day.” The stereotypical Russian, of course, is stoically confident that the more things change, the more things stay the same. Or, as anthropologist Alexei Yurchak eloquently titled his haunting book on the collapse of the Soviet Union, Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More. An apt title for all of us living in a time of coronavirus, too.

Categories: Global Arctic

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