Isn’t it bubonic… don’t you think

April 4

The medieval blogosphere has been abuzz with news of the English skeletons from the days of the Black Plague of 1348. The Washington Post, for instance, announces that “Everything you know about the Black Death is wrong“. The find really is interesting for what it shows about the life of 14th-century Londoners — according to a Guardian article:

The skeletons at Charterhouse Square reveal that the population of London was also in generally poor health when the disease struck. Crossrail’s archaeology contractor, Don Walker, and Jelena Bekvalacs of the Museum of London found evidence of rickets, anaemia, bad teeth and childhood malnutrition.

Here’s another interesting finding:

By extracting the DNA of the disease bacterium, Yersinia pestis, from the largest teeth in some of the skulls retrieved from the square, the scientists were able to compare the strain of bubonic plague preserved there with that which was recently responsible for killing 60 people in Madagascar. To their surprise, the 14th-century strain, the cause of the most lethal catastrophe in recorded history, was no more virulent than today’s disease. The DNA codes were an almost perfect match.

How, then, to explain the virulence of the medieval plague? At this point, the news of the find merges with reporting of a theory held by unrelated researchers that this was pneumonic plague, not bubonic plague:

According to scientists working at Public Health England in Porton Down, for any plague to spread at such a pace it must have got into the lungs of victims who were malnourished and then been spread by coughs and sneezes. It was therefore a pneumonic plague rather than a bubonic plague. Infection was spread human to human, rather than by rat fleas that bit a sick person and then bit another victim. “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,” said Dr Tim Brooks, a scientist from Porton Down, who was not part of the Crossrail team, will put forward his theory in a Channel 4 documentary, Secret History: The Return of the Black Death, on Sunday.

Which is of course contrary to what most people think. Note, though, that Tim Brooks is unrelated to this current find and hasn’t examined the skeletons. Nor is the pneumonic theory brand-new. Those of you who are interested in theories of the Black Death can start with the Wikipedia page which, among other things, reports on the work of Graham Twigg:

In 1984, Graham Twigg published The Black Death: A Biological Reappraisal, where he argued that the climate and ecology of Europe and particularly England made it nearly impossible for rats and fleas to have transmitted bubonic plague. Combining information on the biology of Rattus rattus, Rattus norvegicus, and the common fleas Xenopsylla cheopis and Pulex irritans with modern studies of plague epidemiology, particularly in India, where the R. rattus is a native species and conditions are nearly ideal for plague to be spread, Twigg concludes that it would have been nearly impossible for Yersinia pestis to have been the causative agent of the plague, let alone its explosive spread across Europe. Twigg also shows that the common theory of entirely pneumonic spread does not hold up. He proposes, based on a reexamination of the evidence and symptoms, that the Black Death may actually have been an epidemic of pulmonary anthrax caused by Bacillus anthracis.

 

Sasha Volokh lives in Atlanta with his wife and three kids, and is an associate professor at Emory Law School. He has written numerous articles and commentaries on law and economics, privatization, antitrust, prisons, constitutional law, regulation, torts, and legal history.
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Jonathan H. Adler | April 4