Did millet cause the Black Death?

The latest episode of the wonderful Ottoman History Podcast is about the Black Death. Or, rather, the Black Deaths. It’s an interview with Dr Monica H. Green, an historian of medicine specializing on the medieval period, who has brought together textual, archaeological and genetic evidence to question the dominant, Eurocentric — she calls it Boccaccian — narrative of the plague.

As she explains, prior outbreaks of plague in 13th-century Asia occurred at the edges of the ascendant Mongol Empire, roughly a century before the plague arrived in Western Europe. In our conversation, we learn how Green uncovered the new story of the “four Black Deaths” and in doing so, explore the historiography of the Black Death and how genetics, archaeology, and a fresh approach to textual sources have brought us to a deeper understand of one of history’s deadliest pandemics.

What’s this got to do with agrobiodiversity? Well, Dr Green summarized her findings in a tweet back in December (slightly modified for clarity):

  1. the Black Death started in the 13th, not the 14th Century
  2. it wasn’t just a Mediterranean or European phenomenon
  3. it originated with a spillover out of the marmot plagues reservoir in the Tian Shan mountains, leading to a Big Bang expansion in four directions
  4. it likely spread through the Mongol Empire via grain supplies

Whoa, grain supplies? Apparently.

In the foothills of the Tian Shan mountains, Mongol supply chains gathered up grain to feed their campaigning troops, particularly a kind of millet unique to the region. Sacks of grain were then transported to the fortresses and cities where the Mongols laid their greatest sieges between the 1210s and the 1250s, as far distant as Kaifeng in China and Baghdad in Persia. Something so insignificant as a few sacks of millet, into which a few plague-infected rodents crawled, might account for the worst scenes of human suffering the world has witnessed.

So much for that particular superfood. Whichever millet it is.

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