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23 January 2016

The Times, February 25th 2015, nearly a year ago, had a report on the Black Death – and Asian gerbils were said to be responsible. Between the winter of 1348 and the summer of 1349 the plague is said to have wiped out a quarter of England's population and half that of London. An estimated 50 million people in Europe died in such a short space of time that it makes you wonder if rodents could spread a disease that quickly. Mike Baillie in his book, 'New Light on the Black Death; the Cosmic Connection' had a different view. He suggested the deaths were caused by a cloud of noxious gases in the atmosphere, left behind by a comet. That would certainly account for the speed of the spread of plague – but is it true. Scientists are sure that it was spread by rodents and infected people passed it on to unaffected people, and so on. Actually, the spread was by fleas carried by rodents – rats or gerbils or whatever. This presumably would take even longer for it to reach Europe from central Asia, we might imagine – although it is not impossible. It reached China apparently earlier than Europe (and Italian merchants beseiged in Crimea were said to have been subject to plague victims being catapulted over the walls of their stronghold in an attempt by the Tartars to spread the disease). Apparently the merchants were able to get away in their boats so the dead bodies (propelled over a period of seige) could not have been so virulent if it waited until they got back to Europe before breaking out. Did they bring back infected rats – one of the ideas expressed over the years. Bilge rats were not common everywhere in Europe – especially far from the coast. Is that theory guesswork?

Japanese scientist Masanai Ogala in 1897 was the first scientist to claim there was a link between rodents and the spread of the plague and The Times article above is quoting scientists that are now saying the blame was down to gerbils living on the central Asian steppe. It goes on to say that gerbils were more plentiful in the 14th century as a result of warmer and wetter weather – and somewhat later the plague struck Europe. Nice idea but not a lot different from the rat theory (still involves fleas). Plague persisted in Europe for several centuries after the Black Death which has always been a puzzle. Now it seems the virus was endemic in Europe over that period – see http://popular-archaeology.com/issue/winter-2015-2016/article/plague-may…

It is interesting to note that the climate in NW Europe was also warm and wet in the early part of the 14th century, so much so there were lower crop yields as a result of a series of poor harvests. A recent article somewhere said that this resulted in famine amongst the peasants and that contributed as much to the loss of life as the plague itself – which again is just another theory. The problem here is that the plague was not restricted to the poor. The great and the good were just as likely to die. Not only that the plague came back on a number of occasions, such as the Great Plague of 1665. In Marseille there was even an outbreak of plague in the 18th century – the very last outbreak on European soil. See History Today volume 55 (2005) or go to www.historytoday.com/ole-j-benedictow/black-death-greatest-catastrophe-ever

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