In the 1980s a mass burial pit from the 1340s Black Death was discovered at Spitalfields in London. This report was typical, stating “it contained two mass burial trenches and a mass burial pit, densely filled with several hundred articulated skeletons, as well as many individual graves…it was…one of two emergency burial grounds created to cope with the Black Death epidemic. It is currently the largest and most comprehensively excavated Black Death cemetery in England.”
Except that it now seems that it isn’t. This report from yesterday’s Observer suggests that recent research, “including radiocarbon dating of the bones and geological data from across the globe – shows for the first time that mass fatalities in the 13th century were caused by one of the largest volcanic eruptions of the past 10,000 years“. As one monk put it at the time, “The north wind prevailed for several months… scarcely a small rare flower or shooting germ appeared, whence the hope of harvest was uncertain… Innumerable multitudes of poor people died, and their bodies were found lying all about swollen from want… Nor did those who had homes dare to harbour the sick and dying, for fear of infection… The pestilence was immense – insufferable; it attacked the poor particularly. In London alone 15,000 of the poor perished; in England and elsewhere thousands died.”
This is not a small reworking of the edge of an argument; rather it is a complete and fundamental reevaluation, made possible by advances in carbon dating. The message for us is clear, History, and historical interpretation has never been static, but now more than ever our assumptions are being challenged by science..