Contemporaries of the 14th-century Black Death in Europe believed that the plague had come to them from China, thanks to the Mongols. This belief in Chinese origin gained support with the eruption of the third pandemic in the 1890s, when the plague traveled outward across the South China Sea and spread to many parts of the world, including the Americas. A few academic skeptics started to doubt the claim twenty years ago, but only on the basis of the then-current state of knowledge of the plague. Advances in microbiology and genome sequencing since 2000 have altered the debate, as has more recent discussions on whether plague outbreaks are climate-driven. In this presentation, I put some of the latest findings from science against the Yuan and Ming documentary record to ask, once again, whether China was the source of the plague.
Professor Brook is author of several prize-winning books, including Vermeer's Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World (2008) and The Confusions of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China (2000).