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Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Black Death: A Rat Problem?

For decades, scholars have maintained that the Black Death, one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, was the result of fleas living on the hair of oriental rats. These rats then made their way via merchant ships to the shores of Europe, where poor sanitation in the highly populated (and filthy) towns proved to be a perfect breeding ground for the Bubonic Plague. Long story short, at least 1/3 (and possibly as much as 50%) of Europe's population was killed off by the plague between the years 1346-1353.

But one new scholar isn't buying the traditional explanation of how the Black Death came to Europe. Historian Barney Sloane, author of the book, The Black Death in London, claims that rats were not the carriers off Bubonic Plague. In an interview with The Guardian, Sloane reveals the reasons behind his unorthodox conclusions:

The evidence just isn't there to support it," said Barney Sloane, author of The Black Death in London. "We ought to be finding great heaps of dead rats in all the waterfront sites but they just aren't there. And all the evidence I've looked at suggests the plague spread too fast for the traditional explanation of transmission by rats and fleas. It has to be person to person – there just isn't time for the rats to be spreading it."

He added: "It was certainly the Black Death but it is by no means certain what that disease was, whether in fact it was bubonic plague."


Sloane believes there was little difference in mortality rates between rich and poor, because they lived so closely packed together. The plague, he is convinced, spread from person to person in the crowded city.

Mortality continued to rise throughout the bitterly cold winter, when fleas could not have survived, and there is no evidence of enough rats.

Black rat skeletons have been found at 14th-century sites, but not in high enough numbers to make them the plague carriers, he said.

In sites beside the Thames, where most of the city's rubbish was dumped and rats should have swarmed, and where the sodden ground preserves organic remains excellently, few black rats have been found.
It is sometimes hard for us in the modern era to understand just how horrific the Black Death really was for 14th century Europeans. There is no doubt that the Black Death effected every single citizen of the Western world. Even if they themselves survived the horrible infection of Bubonic Plague they would have certainly known several people who died from it. Sloane provides an excellent illustration of just how terrible the Black Death was for those who lived through it:

It appeared to the citizens that everyone in the world might die. Richard de Shordych left goods and money to his son Benedict when he died in early March: his son outlived him by a fortnight.

Money, youth, and formerly robust good health were no protection. Edward III's own daughter, Joan, sailed for Spain with her trousseau, her dowry and her bridesmaids, to marry Pedro, heir to the throne of Castile. She would never see her wedding day as she died of the plague within 10 days of landing.

John of Reading, a monk in Westminster, left one of the few witness accounts. He described deaths happening so fast there was "death without sorrow, marriage without affection, self-imposed penance, want without poverty, and flight without escape".

In Rochester, William of Dene wrote that nobody could be found to bury the dead, "but men and women carried the bodies of their own little ones to church on their shoulders and threw them into mass graves from which arose such a stink that it was barely possible for anyone to go past a churchyard".

Sloane estimates that people living near the cemetery at Aldersgate, which is now buried under Charterhouse Square, in Smithfield, would have seen a corpse carried past every five minutes at the height of the plague.
As for Sloane's conclusions that the Bubonic Plague wasn't carried by fleas on the backs of rats, I cannot say. I am not familiar enough with the different ways that the Bubonic Plague could have been transmitted. I am skeptical, however, of Sloane's conclusion that the Black Death may not have been Bubonic Plague at all but in fact some other type of infection. In his excellent book, In the Wake of the Plague historian Norman Cantor (who is one of the top Medieval historians today) provides a detailed look at how the Black Death infected the human body. Not surprisingly, it matches exactly with what the Bubonic Plague does.

Bubonic Plague (which is usually circulated via fleas on the backs of rodents...another massive hurdle for Sloane to jump) is a horrific infection of the lymph glands, which causes severe pain, inflamation of the glands usually under the armpit and groin area, fever, coughing, vomiting and eventuality death. The most obvious symptom is that of rotting flesh, which causes extreme pain to the victim, not to mention a horrible stench. In fact, the famous nursery rhyme "Ring Around the Rosie" is believed to have its origins in the Black Death:

1.) "Ring Around the Rosie": signifies a rosy rash that was often seen as a symptom of the early onset of Bubonic Plague.

2,) "Pocket Full of Posies": Some suggest that this line has reference to either flowers being held by the dead prior to burial or to the fact that many Europeans carried posies of herbs to hopefully ward off infection and to ward off the terrible smell of the disease.

3.) "Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down": Of course, reference to death itself and the possible cremation that came with dying from Bubonic Plague.

No matter how the Black Death was transmitted, there is no question that it completely changed Europe. Few historians will argue the fact that the Black Death changed Europe's economics, social construct and even religious perspective. Many have gone so far as to suggest that the Black Death helped to bring about the Protestant Reformation. After all, not even the priests of the church could stop the spread of the horrific plague.

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