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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 Pasteurella Pestis.

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

Planet-Pets is not responsible for the opinions of our featured authors.

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