Black Death at Tourinai

Study of Black Death skeletons reveals plague may have been airborne


An analysis carried out on 25 skeletons of plague victims discovered by railway engineers beneath London last year, has revealed that the Black Death was even more lethal than previously thought. Scientists are now doubtful that the epidemic was spread by the bites of infected fleas living on rats. Instead, it appears that the pathogen mutated into a more virulent strain that was airborne.

The Black Death arrived in Britain from central Asia in the autumn of 1348 and by late spring the following year it had killed six out of every 10 people in London. It was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 75 to 200 million people.

An analysis on the DNA extracted from the 14 th century skeletons unearthed in London revealed traces of Yersinia pestis bacterium, the pathogen responsible for the Black Death , confirming what scientists had suspected – the remains belonged to plague victims who had been hastily buried in a mass grave. Guided by underground radar scans, researchers now plan to expand their search for more victims as it is believed there could be hundreds if not thousands more nearby.



Traces of Yersinia pestis were found in the 14th century skeletons

Traces of Yersinia pestis were found in the 14 th century skeletons.  Photo source .

Scientists compared the strain of the plague preserved in the victims, to a strain that was recently responsible for killing 60 people in Madagascar. To their surprise, the 14th-century strain, was no more virulent than today's disease. That means that there must have been another factor that caused the 14 th-century strain to become a deadly pandemic, while the Madagascar one did not.

The findings cast doubt on the ‘facts’ that every schoolchild has learned for decades – the Black Death was caused by a highly contagious strain spread by fleas on rats.

“As an explanation for the Black Death in its own right, [bubonic plague is] simply not good enough,” said Dr Tim Brooks, an expert in infectious diseases at Public Health England. “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.”

The Black Death was one of the most deadly pandemics in recorded history

The Black Death was one of the most deadly pandemics in recorded history. Image source .

Scientists working at Public Health England have therefore suggested a different cause - for any plague to spread at such a pace it must have got into the lungs of victims who were malnourished and then spread by coughs and sneezes – fatal in medieval Europe’s crowded cities. It was therefore a pneumonic plague rather than a bubonic plague, which had a much lower survival rate and could kill within 24 hours.

“In a small number of people … the organism will spread to their lungs and they will then develop a pneumonia,” said Dr Brooks. “It is that critical switch, that if there were enough people in contact with them, that allows it to spread as a pneumonic plague.”

The results of the study have led to a breakthrough in our understanding of the ancient pandemic of the 14 th century, and offers new hope in the understanding of how plagues evolve and spread over the centuries.

Featured image: Black Death at Tourinai, 1349. Image source .  

By April Holloway


3 things.
1. yes I 100% agree the rat story seemed dubious and I am releaved to hear it is being debunked.
2.A scientist is supposed to gather a theory and then try to disprove it. the problem is that the general public latches onto a theory which has not been debunked and takes it as a fact.
3. As religion becomes less important in many people's lives, I think that the desire to "belive" in something often gets transfered to a new thing, be it new age healing, science or whatever. But with science it is flawed as scientific progress requires you to doubt a thing, not accept information and agree despite evidence to the contrary. As a scientist I find this disturbing and depressing.

I hear you. I think "I don't know" is to admit that looking for answers is a human construct and suddenly if we don't know something, what defines us? As scientists are defined by the knowledge they pursue, to not be able to have that knowledge is to lose their identity, I think. Maybe they need therapists. Haha I don't know, maybe that's a little harsh. 

What really pisses my off about modern science is that it always requires an "answer" even if one is not possible, and than chastises anybody who disagrees, thus science often is nothing more than a modern form of religion. Why is it so hard to say "we don't know"?

angieblackmon's picture

The rat theory never made much sense to me, even as a kid. 

love, light and blessings



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