2022 Riggsby Lecture: “A Mediterranean Divide: Islamic versus Christian Experiences of the Black Death”

Monica Green Discussion

Thanks to the generous support of donors Stuart and Kate Riggsby, the Marco Institute is hosting this year's 2022 Riggsby Lecture. I have the great honor to be talking on the topic of “A Mediterranean Divide: Islamic versus Christian Experiences of the Black Death.” The talk, which will be held at 5pm EDT, on Thursday, 22 September 2022, will be virtual and open to the public. For details, see: https://marco.utk.edu/riggsby-lecture/.

Here is the abstract:

When plague started to move across the Black Sea and into the Mediterranean sometime in the summer of 1347, it was moving into an environment that had been defined for thousands of years by its shared physical environment. Some of the most famous books in History in the past century assume the common ecology and shared cultural traditions of the societies surrounding the Mediterranean. Virtually unceasing trade across the “middle sea” continued between its northern and southern shores throughout the Middle Ages. It is hardly surprising, therefore, to find that plague struck all sides of the Mediterranean—east and west, north and south—with equal ferocity in 1347 and 1348.

How the disease was received in different areas, however, differed dramatically. This talk will present evidence from an epidemiological history of the Black Death as a pan-Afroeurasian pandemic. Although palaeogenetic evidence has not yet been retrieved from the southern shore of the Mediterranean, there is no reason to doubt that the same disease struck Christian and Islamic polities equally and at the same time. Why, then, do we see such different responses under different regimes? I argue that it was not simply “religion” that determined those differences, but differing cultural memories of the disease. The Islamicate world maintained a living memory of the late antique experience of plague in its moral system, while its medical system maintained a category for plague as it developed in the Abbasid period. Thus, even though early responses to plague in the Maghreb and the Mashriq were independent of one another, they had structural parallels. In Christian Europe, in contrast, plague had been forgotten and so struck as a “new” disease, provoking trauma both physical and cognitive.


Monica H. Green, PhD

ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0001-8978-9631

Fellow, Medieval Academy of America

Independent Scholar



Twitter: @monicaMedHist