WAS IT JUST THE RATS? (Illustration) Famous Historical Events Geography Medicine Medieval Times Social Studies World History STEM Disasters

Did rat-fleas on rats cause the devastating pandemic during the 14th Century?  Some scientists are currently questioning that assumption. 


In 1894, during a Hong Kong plague outbreak, scientists finally figured out what causes Bubonic Plague. The bacterium Yersinia pestis was actually named after the man (Andre Yersin - scroll down 75%) who discovered it.

But more problematic questions remain.

There had been outbreaks of plague before. Why had they not caused such massive contagion and death? If the bacteria was spread by ship-borne rodents and their fleas, how did it so quickly reach areas not close to the sea?

And ... if the plague needs more than just a few days to kill its victims, why were so many people dying within 3 or 4 days, according to first-hand accounts? Was there something besides Yersinia pestis killing people and animals?

Some scholars think the answer is more complicated than a continuum of plague, rats and fleas. Dr. Graham Twigg suggests the massive outbreak of plague could have been accompanied by other deadly, virulent diseases.

Dr. Edward I. Thompson, from the University of Toronto, found evidence of three anthrax spores in a Soutra, Scotland medieval cesspool into which human waste had been thrown. Is it possible anthrax, in a form that affects humans, was also responsible for killing some of the victims of the 14th century epidemic?

In his unpublished study, referenced by Norman Cantor in The Wake of the Plague, Dr. Thompson cites a contemporary document written ten years or so before the Black Death struck. It relates that meat from cattle "dead of murrain" (cattle disease) had been sold in local markets. Did anthrax and bubonic plague co-exist in the 14th century?

Scientists in France conducted DNA tests on 600-year-old teeth to determine whether Black Death was something more than Yersinia pestis. Dr. Didier Raoult and his team have thus far only found evidence of plague.

The search for answers, of course, will continue. High-tech historical detective work may yet prove there was something more than plague at work. Another French team has already concluded that black rats were not the only means of transmitting the deadly bacteria.

Even today, bacteria can spread like fire put to gasoline. The 2001 outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, in the United Kingdom, is a good example.

During the year 2000, there were no reports of the disease in the U.K., even though it existed elsewhere in the world.  Its unbelievably rapid spread (in 2001) is hard to comprehend.

Claims that the most-recent outbreak of "foot and mouth" may have followed the smuggling of contaminated meat into Britain are not very comforting.  One is left to wonder:

How little does it take for such a disaster to begin?

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5189stories and lessons created

Original Release: Jun 01, 2002

Updated Last Revision: Nov 11, 2019

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"WAS IT JUST THE RATS?" AwesomeStories.com. Jun 01, 2002. Dec 13, 2019.
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