Farms and Folk Tales: A Lucretian-Style Narrative of the Black Death in Late Medieval Norway and Iceland

Madeline Leeah (Texas Tech University)

How does one begin to understand plagues? Is there a single approach to understanding all plagues? These are questions that writers have posed, whether explicitly or implicitly, from antiquity to the present. One plague narrative that seeks to answer these questions is Lucretius’ account of the Plague of Athens, the conclusion of his De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things). Current scholarship – for example, Gardner (2019) and Gale (2021) – argues that Lucretius wrote this as a universal narrative that would aid his readers in understanding not just one plague, but the nature of all plagues, in order to free them from their fears. Later plague narratives, by authors including Vergil and Ovid, seem to draw on Lucretius as a universalizing model, not unlike how Lucretius drew on Thucydides. This paper attempts to test whether Lucretius’ model is truly universal. By applying Lucretius’ way of writing about plagues to later instances of epidemic disease, I aim to determine how successful his model could be for helping us make sense of plagues since antiquity. This paper takes as its case study the Black Death in late medieval Iceland and Norway. There is ample evidence for this plague scattered across sources, ranging from the Icelandic Annals to tephrochronological studies. However, there is no coherent narrative about what happened or how people understood it. This paper has created that narrative on the model of Lucretius. This serves as a way of comparing the two cultures and time periods with a view to seeing if a single way of understanding plagues could, or should, apply to them both. If so, then this narrative can be a contribution to the Classical tradition, and perhaps even point to a way for understanding the plague of our own time.

Gale, M.R. ‘Plagues and the Limits of Didactic Authority: Lucretius and Others’, in J.S. Clay and A. Vergados (eds) 2021. Teaching Through Images: Imagery in Greco-Roman Didactic Poetry. Leiden and Boston, 2021: 205-30.

Gardner, H.H. Pestilence and the Body Politic in Latin Literature. Oxford, 2019.

Lucretius. On the Nature of Things. Translated by Martin Ferguson Smith. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2005.

Thucydides. Essential Thucydides: On Justice, Power, and Human Nature. Translated by Paul Woodruff. S.l.: Hackett, 2021.

Vigfússon Guðbrandur, and Þórðarson Sturla. Icelandic Sagas and Other Historical Documents Relating to the Settlements and Descents of the Northmen of the British Isles. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.