Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Black Death Rethink

April 21st, 2009 · 3 Comments

blackdeathHave plague-infected rats (as well as their attendant fleas) gotten a bad rap in the history books? A pair of Georgia-based geographers think so. Their rather unconventional theory is that an unknown viral condition, rather than bubonic plauge, was responsible for Europe’s Black Death:

“The Black Death went so fast, but we knew bubonic plague in India in 1903 moved slowly, even with modern transportation,” said Welford, a native of Suffolk, England, where the epidemic hit especially hard.

“(Black Death) was whipping across Europe in two, two-and-a-half years.”

Black Death also peaked in the summer, while bubonic plague, which is carried by rat fleas, peaks in the winter as people congregate inside. How come there are no accounts of rats dying en masse as you’d expect with the bubonic plague? And why, the two wanted to know, did some areas of Europe avoid the disease altogether?

So why did bubonic plague get the blame? The geographers say it all started with the infamous 1894 plague outbreak in Hong Kong, when scientists first discovered the bacteria that causes the disease. Leaps of logic were then supposedly made, based on Medieval accounts of lumpy boils that covered victims.

Though the new hypotheses is certainly appreciated, Microkhan remains (to be charitable) highly skeptical that run-of-the-mill vermin deserves to be let off the hook. But maybe that’s just because we have a tortured history with Rattus norvegicus.

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3 Comments so far ↓

  • Johnny

    Bossak and Welford aren’t the only researchers with non-bubonic theories about the Black Death. The faith-based encyclopedia has what looks like a fairly good summary of alternate theories:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Causes_of_the_Black_Death

  • Jordan

    One possible explanation for the disparities in virulence: diseases tend to become less deadly over time. If a disease kills its host more slowly or even becomes non-life threatening, it has much more time to multiply and being transmitted to other hosts. Both the pathogens and our immune systems evolve in step, weeding out both the more deadly strains and the most susceptible human beings.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Johnny: Thanks for the Wiki link, which I’ll check out this evening. I also want to read up a bit more on the 1894 Hong Kong outbreak. Would help to know the thought process of the bloke who connected the dots on the Black Death.

    @Jordan: This is why bacteria are far more successful, from a purely evolutionary standpoint, than any mammal. So “smart,” if that word makes any sense in this context.

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