The mystery of plague in medieval Iceland

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This article is aimed at encouraging scholars to continue to take critical, interdisciplinary approaches to understanding the cause and scale of historic plague outbreaks. It does this by reinvestigating two recorded outbreaks of plague in Iceland in 1402–4 and 1494–5. It is argued that these were episodes of pneumonic plague, caused by Yersinia pestis, and that the likely mortality was no more than 25% of the population in both cases. This contrasts with the higher rates (50–60% and 30–50%) postulated elsewhere. Although it is recognised there are other explanations for plague in Iceland, greater caution needs to be taken in interpreting the direct and indirect evidence for its demographic effects. A lower mortality rate fits better with a less widespread and more fragmented epidemic. The numbers and types of Icelandic farms which might have been vacant during the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries are given more detailed consideration than in previous accounts. ‘Farm abandonment’ in the fifteenth century was continually driven by a series of environmental and economic factors and need not be interpreted as a demographic collapse caused solely by the plague. Greater attention is also given to understanding how plague could have reached Iceland and the biological, ecological and sociological factors which might then have sustained it.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)254-84
Number of pages31
JournalJournal of Medieval History
Issue number2
Early online date17 Mar 2016
Publication statusPublished - 2016


  • Iceland, medieval, epidemiology, pneumonic, plague, annals