Did the Justinianic Plague Truly Reach Frankish Europe around 543 AD?

Eric Faure

Aix-Marseille University


Abstract

This article focuses on the episodes of bubonic plague recorded around 543 AD in Frankish Europe which on re-reading appear doubtful. Beginning in 541 and for two centuries, the Justinianic plague ravaged the Mediterranean area over several successive waves. The first mentions concern Egypt; the plague then spreads northward to Constantinople and almost concomitantly or shortly afterward moves westward until it reaches Western Europe. For this last region, the main source is Bishop Gregory of Tours, who in both his historical and his hagiographic writings, provides numerous data on the first outbreaks that raged in Frankish Europe, episodes to which he was a contemporary (even if for the first, he was still in early childhood). According to Gregory, around 543, bubonic plague ravaged several areas under Frankish rule. However, among others, intertextual, contextualized and chronological analyses strongly suggest that these events were in fact fictional. Gregory seems to have wanted to balance during epidemics of plague, the behavior of two bishops of Clermont that were totally opposed. In the episode of 571, when plague struck the episcopal city, the unworthy Bishop Cautinus, to escape disease, had fled the city in cowardice. In the other episode, through the intercession of Gregory's paternal uncle, the virtuous Gallus, the immediate predecessor of Cautinus and that of a saint specific of the paternal branch, the city, including the diocese, was spared from the plague. Other references to similar events in which, through saints, the plague is driven out, or territories are protected from it are also dated arbitrarily from this period. Furthermore, unlike the episode of 571, the plague of 543 is never considered a punishment for sin; moreover, no miraculous healing of plague patients is recorded. Contemporary texts from other authors of Frankish Europe, although they are rare, do not mention any epidemic around 543 - especially the Vita of Caesarius of Arles, written shortly after the death of this bishop (from 542 to 547-9) by several hagiographers - while two of Gregory’s texts, which are repeated almost verbatim, indicate that the province of Arles was the region most affected. This fact underscores the decisive contribution that hagiographic texts can make in the analysis of facts considered to be historical. Finally, the dramatic deteriorations in the health situation described in Gregory’s reports could have a background of truth and be the consequence of the climatic cooling observed from 536, likely due to volcanic eruptions, but did not involve the bubonic plague.

Keywords:

Justinianic plague, Gregory of Tours, 543 AD, inguinal plague, Gaul, Frankish Europe

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Published
2021-06-15


Faure, E. (2021). Did the Justinianic Plague Truly Reach Frankish Europe around 543 AD?. Vox Patrum, 78, 427–466. https://doi.org/10.31743/vp.12278

Eric Faure 
Aix-Marseille University



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