The Black Death and The Black Rat
Stories of a great plague in the East had reached Europe around 1346. A rain
of frogs, lizards and scorpions fell upon the land, followed, so it was rumored,
by hail smoke and fire - the atmosphere itself was diseased. Men, women and
children were dying in their thousands. But all of this was happening in
another world. The average medieval man had barely heard of Cathay, let alone
care about what was happening there. It was a lifetime away. This evil Black
Death did not touch them or their lives.
In January 1348, three merchant ships docked in Genoa. They
had come from Asia Minor, where the Tartars had attacked the cities of Tana
and Caffa - catapulting diseased corpses into the walls of the cities. The
bodies of men who had died of The Black Death.
When the Genoese saw the cargo that was carried on these
merchant ships, they forced them back from their coast. But it was already
too late. By the spring of that year, The Black Death had reached Sicily,
and from there it spread to the mainland.
Over one third of the population was wiped out, and medieval
man could only guess at the cause of this catastrophe. The Jews were blamed
for bringing this pestilence upon the world, and thousands of them were burned
alive. It was believed that even one glance from an infected person could
kill. The very air itself was blamed for the spread of the disease, but no
one suspected the true carrier - a tiny flea (Xenopsylla Cheopsis). The bacillus
was carried by the flea and injected into the bloodstream of its host. Man
and beast alike became infected.
The ship, or black, rat (Rattus rattus) is the prime suspect
for the spread of The Black Death, and she did indeed play her part. But
the earliest hosts of the disease were probably the Manchurian marmot or
the jerboa. Whether drought, flood or population explosion, something caused
the rodents of the East to leave their homes, bringing the flea along with
them - and the bacillus Pasteurella Pestis - The Black Death.
Of these rodents, the rat was the most hardy, the most agile,
and the most adaptable. She survived where the others did not. The course
of the plague followed the trade routes inland, as did the rat. However,
the bacillus can live for weeks, even months, without a living host. A bale
of cloth or a barrel of grain would have made an equally suitable home for
But surely the ship rat, as her name would indicate, was
guilty of stowing aboard the merchant ships and bringing the plague to our
doorstep. Think again. The men on board the vessels were already infected
with the plague, and the bacillus could just as easily have stowed away itself
- without the rat as host. There is no doubt that the rat crossed the seas
aboard the wooden ships, the timbers and rafters were perfect accommodation
for her. But who is to say that The Black Death would not have reached our
shores without the intervention of the rat? Would the terrible disease not
have found another way to spread its cloak of death across Europe and beyond?
I believe it would.
Let's take a brief look at society in the 14th Century. The
towns and cities were vastly overcrowded, and open sewers ran down the narrow
streets. People slept a dozen to a room, often alongside their domestic animals.
Pigs, sheep and even cows shared their sleeping quarters - and their bedding,
which was often little more than a mound of straw.
Isolation was impossible when a member of the family was
struck down by disease. Food was in short supply, and many people made their
way out into the countryside in search of greener pastures - taking with
them The Black Death.
Can the rat really be held responsible for the spread of
this carnage? I think not. For, even without the intervention of Rattus rattus,
medieval man would have managed to decimate humanity all by himself - with
a little help from a tiny flea.
(Copyright 1999 Heather J. Tomlinson)
Heather J. Tomlinson
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