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REVISITING THE BLACK DEATH August 25, 2011

Posted by wmmbb in Social Environment.
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Rats have taken the rap for the Black Death that ravished Europe from the middle of the 14th Century. Barney Sloane, an archaeologist, has called the received historical account into question.

The usual historical account broadly is as follows from Donald Matthew’s Atlas of Medieval History (Equinox, 1983 p. 154):

The plague arrived in Europe from Asia in the autumn[fall] of 1347 and spread over the continent, most rapidly disseminated, it would seem, by contacts effected initially through shipping. The plague is clinically known to be incidentally transmitted to humans by fleas normally parasitic on the black rat, an animal normally found roosting in the roofs of timber houses. These facts now known were not observed by mend in the 14th century who had no idea how the disease spread or how it could be averted. But from what they did report, some account of the epidemic is now possible.Its origin in Asia, where it was epidemic, emphasizes how much contact western Europe had established there by 1347. A century earlier no Western Europeans had penetrated beyond the Muslim Fertile Crescent; even 50 years before, Marco Polo had barely returned to Venice from the fabulous Cathay. Second, the disease, transmitted presumably by infected rates on Genoese galleys from the Crimea, could only have spread by the fleas inflecting the rats on the coastal shipping of Europe, and then the rats of the towns and the barges and wagons that lead off into the countryside, where little by little its petered out. By 1347-50 there were few parts of Europe not plugged in somewhere to the commercial network of towns and shipping. A century earlier no epidemic of this kind could have been spread in this way.

Maeve Kennedy in The Guardian gives graphic details of Barney Sloane’s research:

The archaeology of the plague also reveals that most people, however, were buried with touching care, neatly laid out in rows, heads facing west, with far more bodies put in coffins than in most medieval cemeteries – but possibly through fear of infection.

Only a few jumbled skeletons hint at burials carried out some time after death and decomposition; those cases probably arose because bodies were found later on in buildings where every member of the household had died.

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.

So it would appear that the Black Rat has been exonerated based on this archaeological research carried out in London during the Black Death between late 1348 and 1349. The suggestion is that two-thirds out of the population of 60,000 of London died.

Comments»

1. BLACK DEATH UPDATE « DUCKPOND - October 14, 2011

[…] appears to contradict the suggestion that rats were not the primary carriers of the bacteria. The earlier post sources in part from The Guardian provides graphic accounts of the effects on people. […]


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