We May Be Wrong About The Black Death

We May Be Wrong About The Black Death

The Guardian has an interesting article about a new look at the Black Death which includes a study that "lets rats off the hook." The conventional wisdom is that the plague which wiped out 1 in 3 people in medieval Europe was the bubonic plague. As the story goes, the plague was brought into the overcrowded cities by rats, and fleas were the transmission route, as they bit infected rats and then passed the infection along to humans with a second bite.
But a new study by archeologist and historian Barney Sloane turns this model on its head. Sloane has been investigating the Black Death, both the human remains and the ephemera (like wills and accounts in diaries) which were left behind. It turns out there are several holes in the standard explanation for the Black Death.
First of all, if the plague had been carried by rats, we would expect to see huge piles of dead rats. Sloane has yet to excavate dead rats in the kinds of numbers that would have been required to create an epidemic in the proportions we see with the Black Death. Dead rats would have been ankle deep, and there are no indications - either physical or written - that this was the case.
Second, the plague moved swiftly. Far more swiftly than would be the case if it were being spread via rat fleas. In his decade of research, Sloane has amassed ample evidence that the plague must have been being spread person-to-person.
The Bubonic plague was certainly active at the time. Accounts of buboes, the purplish and horribly swollen lymph nodes of the affected, are numerous. But did everyone show buboes? It seems that many people simply keeled over dead, after experiencing 24-48 hours of increasingly bad sweating and cramps.
People in the 1300's were not as picky about differentiating one illness from another, and people were dying so fast and frequently that keeping a good record of their symptoms was hardly a top priority for the few survivors.
Sloane's research raises an interesting question, though. If it wasn't Bubonic plague, then what was it? Was it a mutated form of Bubonic plague that was able to jump directly from person to person? Or was it another illness, like a viral hemorrhagic fever or a deadly "super flu"?
Bubonic plague is just as deadly today, with a mortality rate of 75% when left untreated. Luckily, it responds well to antibiotics. A quick shot, a brief stay at the hospital, and you'll be right as rain!