Everything you know about the Black Death is wrong


Don Walker, a human osteologist with the Museum of London, poses with the skull of one of the skeletons found by construction workers under central London’s Charterhouse Square on Wednesday, March 26, 2014. Twenty-five skeletons were uncovered last year during work on Crossrail, a new rail line that’s boring 13 miles (21 kilometers) of tunnels under the heart of the city. Archaeologists immediately suspected the bones came from a cemetery for victims of the bubonic plague that ravaged Europe in the 14th century. The Black Death, as the plague was called, is thought to have killed at least 75 million people, including more than half of Britain’s population. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

In the autumn of 1348, a central Asian sickness arrived in London and quickly dispatched 60 percent of the city’s population. Within a decade, in what’s believed to be the worst human calamity of all time, something like 25 million Europeans were dead. And when they died, the secrets of their demise disappeared with them.

Until now.

On Sunday, London scientists who’d studied 25 skeletons discovered in a new rail line announced that those bones held traces of the black death. Most of the ensuing coverage focused on an unrelated theory that the disease wasn’t likely spread by rats’ fleas, as has been taught in every high school in the West, but had perhaps been airborne.

But that hypothesis overshadowed a bunch of other equally fascinating findings, which provided a glimpse into how Europeans lived during the darkest chapter in human history.

According to a report in the International Business Times, the 25 skeletons, which held traces of the plague, also showed signs of malnutrition and “rickets,” a deficiency of vitamin D. What’s more, the skeletons showed upper body injuries, suggesting involvement in a lot of fights.

The poor health hints at how easily the plague swept across the continent. Expert Tim Brooks, who’s unrelated to this current finding, theorizes the disease was pneumonic – not bubonic – meaning that coughing and sneezing likely spread the sickness. Then rampant malnutrition perhaps widened its swath.

Take an outbreak of the disease that killed 60 people in Madagascar last year. That strain was exactly the same as the one found in the London skeletons, a disease that ultimately killed millions, scientists told the Guardian.

“As an explanation [rat fleas] for the Black Death in its own right, it simply isn’t good enough. It cannot spread fast enough from one household to the next to cause the huge number of cases that we saw during the Black Death epidemics,” expert Tim Brooks, who’s involved in a new documentary on the plague, theorized to the Guardian.

Their research also provided additional information about 14th century Londoners. Roughly 40 percent of the skeletons belonged to people who grew up outside London — even as far as Scotland — suggesting migratory patterns similar to today. London has always been a big draw.

Almost all of them had back damage and strain, which evinces heavy manual labor.

So while the findings debunk bubonic plague common-knowledge, the AP’s Jill Lawless notes that they affirm one Middle Ages adage: life then was nasty, brutish and short.

Clarification: This article has been updated to make it clear that Tim Brooks’ hypotheses are his own, and unrelated to the new findings.

Terrence McCoy is a foreign affairs writer at the Washington Post. He served in the U.S. Peace Corps in Cambodia and studied international politics at Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter here.
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