The History of the Plague: Every Major Epidemic in an Animated Map

All of us have tried to come to grips with the coro­n­avirus in dif­fer­ent ways. Here on Open Cul­ture we’ve fea­tured online cours­es to get you con­ver­sant in the sci­ence around the pan­dem­ic, but read­ers of this site will also have sought out the most per­ti­nent works of his­to­ry and lit­er­a­ture. That goes espe­cial­ly for those in need of read­ing mate­r­i­al while in states of quar­an­tine or lock­down (self-imposed or oth­er­wise), and any list of rec­om­mend­ed books must include Daniel Defoe’s A Jour­nal of the Plague Year and Albert Camus’ The Plague. (I recent­ly wrote about the expe­ri­ence of read­ing that last in Korea, where I live, for the Los Ange­les Review of Books.) Both fic­tion­al­ize local out­breaks of the bubon­ic plague, but how far and wide did that hor­rif­ic and much-mythol­o­gized dis­ease actu­al­ly spread?

You can see exact­ly how far and wide in the ani­mat­ed his­tor­i­cal map above, cre­at­ed by a Youtu­ber called Emper­or­Tiger­star. It main­ly cov­ers the peri­od of 431 BC to 1353 AD, dur­ing most of which the plague looks to have occurred in Europe, the Mid­dle East, and Africa with some reg­u­lar­i­ty. Up until the 1330s, the out­breaks stay small enough that you may have to view the map in fullscreen mode to ensure that you even see them.

But even the most casu­al stu­dents of his­to­ry know what hap­pened next: the best-known occur­rence of the Black Death, whose peak last­ed from 1347 to 1351 and which claimed some­where between 75 to 200 mil­lion lives (includ­ing rough­ly half of Europe’s entire pop­u­la­tion). Ren­dered, suit­ably, in black, the plague’s spread comes even­tu­al­ly to look on the map like a sea of ink splashed vio­lent­ly across mul­ti­ple con­ti­nents.

The plague hard­ly died with the 1350s, a fact this map acknowl­edges. It would, writes Emper­or­Tiger­star, “take years to go away, and even then there would be local out­breaks in indi­vid­ual cities for cen­turies.” These Black Death after­shocks, “big in their own right,” include the Great Plague of Milan in the 1630s, the Great Plague of Seville in the 1640s, and the Great Plague of Lon­don in the 1660s — the sub­ject of Defoe’s nov­el. When Camus wrote The Plague in 1947, the Alger­ian city of Oran in which he set its sto­ry had expe­ri­enced its last out­break of the dis­ease just three years before (at least the fifth such expe­ri­ence in its his­to­ry). Though har­row­ing sto­ries are even now com­ing out of places like mod­ern-day Milan, the coro­n­avirus has yet to match the grue­some dead­li­ness of the plagues fea­tured in either of these books. But unless we under­stand how epi­demics afflict­ed human­i­ty in the past, we can hard­ly han­dle them prop­er­ly in the present.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Cours­es on the Coro­n­avirus: What You Need to Know About the Emerg­ing Pan­dem­ic

Bill Gates Describes His Biggest Fear: “I Rate the Chance of a Wide­spread Epi­dem­ic Far Worse Than Ebo­la at Well Over 50 Per­cent” (2015)

The 1855 Map That Rev­o­lu­tion­ized Dis­ease Pre­ven­tion & Data Visu­al­iza­tion: Dis­cov­er John Snow’s Broad Street Pump Map

The Strange Danc­ing Plague of 1518: When Hun­dreds of Peo­ple in France Could Not Stop Danc­ing for Months

200,000 Years of Stag­ger­ing Human Pop­u­la­tion Growth Shown in an Ani­mat­ed Map

Ani­mat­ed Map Shows How the Five Major Reli­gions Spread Across the World (3000 BC – 2000 AD)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (4)
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  • peter josvai says:

    “every major epi­dem­ic”…

    ours now is not only NOT list­ed in this col­lec­tion,
    but it is a pan­dem­ic in the age when glob­al­iza­tion has been com­plet­ed…

    I mean: every­thing is so much dif­fer­ent now…

  • Tori says:

    I am dis­ap­point­ed that “every major plague” does­n’t include small­pox wip­ing out the Native Amer­i­cans.

  • Liam says:

    the video is about track­ing plague. the prob­lem with small pox in the Amer­i­c­as is there is no writ­ten reports or any­thing that shows the path it took. only the esti­mat­ed death toll and dates. the video is also focus­ing on the “plague” which ref­eres to Bubon­ic plague and its 3 forms.

  • Evelyn Murray says:

    The path of the Euro­pean Bloc Black Death? Was mapable and tractable? Now the map includes north & east­ern Africa? Yet the maps dur­ing the old­er maps of the, time period,Africa nor Asia
    were includ­ed?

    Yet? Africa, Asia are now mys­te­ri­ous­ly a part of cur­rent maps? Please explain how can this pos­si­bly hap­pen?
    His­tor­i­cal­ly the Euro­pean Bloc of Nations had rewrit­ten world his­to­ry? Explain this as well?

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