New Study Lets Rats off the Hook for the Black Death

Archaeologists studying the Bubonic Plague in London have determined that the evidence from plague burials and water-front graves suggest that the disease was spread from human to human contact (rather than from flea infested rats).

“The evidence just isn’t there to support it,” said Barney Sloane, author of The Black Death in London. “We ought to be finding great heaps of dead rats in all the waterfront sites but they just aren’t there. And all the evidence I’ve looked at suggests the plague spread too fast for the traditional explanation of transmission by rats and fleas. It has to be person to person – there just isn’t time for the rats to be spreading it.” (Guardian)

To learn more about the archaeologists’ findings, see this article in the Guardian. Also, I am including a picture of a “Fancy Rat” as I find rats adorable.


9 thoughts on “New Study Lets Rats off the Hook for the Black Death

  1. Jim Wheeler

    I am keeping an open mind on this one, Jennifer. It is my understanding that instinct causes animals to seek solitude when they are sick and dying (except maybe elephant “graveyards”?). If so, there wouldn’t be any rat skeleton piles.

    1. Jennifer Lockett Post author

      Actually, as prey animals, rats will usually act as ‘normal’ as possible until they are essentially ready to die. It’s a unique behavior to rodents. I learned this as a pet rat owner from my vet (who gave me some signs to look for when they would get an ailment as they don’t ‘act sick.’
      Also, the plague killed rats quickly – within hours in some cases. There’s no real ability in an urban environment for them to seek solitude in this case.

      PS: I’m very ‘pro-rat’

    1. Jennifer Lockett Post author

      The disease could always be transmitted through human contact. The argument ha been however that rats were the primary transmitter via the fleas they carry (especially at port cities).
      However there is no confirmation that the black death was bubonic plague – it is an historical assumption. We’re not 100% sure what it was.

  2. stumdanger

    If it was human to human contact, would not the death rates have been more severe than the estimated 25%? I mean, this was a society that lived in very close quarters and several generations in one house. Now I believe in the power and perfection of the human form from a functional standpoint, but it seems to me that the immune system would be unable to adapt so quickly and across so diverse a population to account for the lack of another civilization going extent.

    As for the lack of rat skeletons, well most people consider rats dirty creatures and do not suffer to allow live rats among them, let alone dead ones. A port city had a great garbage disposal system…the ocean. Chances were high that, given the total time from infection to death in rats, the bodies were simply dumped overboard.

    The flea, which is regarded as the vector anyway, could easily find a home with the sailors, especially considering the standards of personal hygiene of the time before finding more suitable homes once reaching port. This would then account for the randomness of initial infections.

    I am not ruling out that human to human contact contributed to the flea spread. Of course, lacking appropriate access to adequate sources on the demographics of those infected (i.e. I’m lazy) I cannot say that this is more than speculation on my part.

    1. Jennifer Lockett Post author

      The death rate is largely determined by a lot of things like – general biological resistance, overall health of the population, and the virulence of the plague when it reached London. Bubonic and Pneumonic plague (the likely candidates for the black death) are both transmittable via human to human contact (pneumatic is far more deadly and is airborne).

      In terms of the rats – they don’t only live at port (you find them all over) and plague burials were often very quick and without formality. Dead rats would have also been shoveled in. But you’re absolutely right, lack of evidence is not in and of itself evidence.

      I have just always had an affinity for the rat and feel like it was wrongly targeted as the villain of the Black Death πŸ˜‰

    1. Jennifer Lockett Post author

      Oh Dante… you know that they’re all fancy πŸ˜‰
      I would still have pet rats if I didn’t know that my dogs would kill them. And they would. We rat sat for my cousin for a week. That was like exchanging the prisoners the whole week.


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