New Study Claiming Black Women Were Most At Risk of Dying of Plague in Medieval London Prompts Mockery on Social Media

Jack Hadfield

A new study claiming that black women were most at risk of dying from the plague in medieval London has received widespread criticism after it was reported by mainstream news outlets as fact despite having a shaky methodological basis.

The study, published by the Museum of London, claimed to have investigated plague burial sites in three locations in London and inspected 145 remains dated from the 14th Century. Out of these remains, the study determined that 49 died from the plague, also known as the Black Death, and 96 died from other causes.

But the study is prompting mockery for also suggesting that females of “estimated African population affinity” were more likely to have died from plague.

“For the female-only sample, individuals of estimated African population affinity have a significantly higher estimated hazard of dying of plague compared to those with estimated white European affinity. There are no significant associations for any of the other comparisons,” the study asserted.

These findings were reported by the BBC with the headline, “Black women most likely to die in medieval plague, Museum of London says,” and the Guardian, with the headline, “Women with Black African ancestry ‘at greater risk when plague hit London’.”

According to those reports, the study argued that “many women of colour would have worked in domestic service and experienced race and sex-based discrimination,” therefore they would have faced “significant hardships and greater risk of disability” and making them supposedly more vulnerable to the plague.

“As with the recent COVID-19 pandemic, social and economic environment played a significant role in people’s health and this is most likely why we find more people of color and those of black African descent in plague burials,” claimed Rebecca Redfern, the co-author of the study.

Speaking to the Guardian, Dr. Onyeka Nubia, a historian at the University of Nottingham and author of Blackamoores, about Africans in Tudor England, said that it was “not a political matter… [or] a matter of conjecture,” but “actually an evidential fact,” that the United Kingdom has been ethnically diverse for thousands of years.”

However, the study has faced criticism online for its methods of determining the supposed race of the individual remains. The study used skull measurements, “such as the shape of the eye area,” rather than primarily identifying them using DNA patterns.

A 2003 thesis study by forensic anthropologist Joe Hefner found ample issues with such methodology, including one known as the “post-bregmatic depression,” in which a trait previously assumed to be primarily common in African ancestry was later determined to exist in other populations.

The BBC News post on X offering the link to an article on the study received a Community Note around 24 hours after it was published, with context being added by users.

“A previous study ‘failed to identify any health disparities’,” the Community Note read. “The current unpublished research found 9/49 of plague burials and 8/96 non-plague burials had African cranial measurements. This is not a statistically significant difference, even without cluster effects.”

The Community Note system only allows a note to be published on a post if people from varied political sides and opinions concur that the note adds something worthwhile to the post, or misses other serious context.

Other users on X highlighted a previously published paper by Redfern and others on the same cemeteries that revealed that out of 41 remains they selected for analysis, only 3 had any DNA analysis performed, and only 8 had complete crania.

The performed mitochondrial DNA analysis in the 2021 study only turned up a haplogroup common across Europe in the middle ages, but the authors still concluded that individuals with the haplogroup were mixed race.

Speaking to the BBC, Redfern admitted that there were “no primary written sources from people of colour and those of black African descent during the Great Pestilence of the 14th Century.”

However, she concluded that this was why her “archaeological research” is “essential to understanding more about their lives and experiences.”

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