Indiana Jones hates them. They turn out to be NOT such great little companions if you live in the Harry Potter universe. And they helped spread the Black Plague.
Or did they?
With a burial site of plague victims unearthed and scientists looking a little closer at the bones, it seems the rats and fleas may have been wrongly accused this whole time.
The Black Death
If you ever took an interest in History at school (or more recently just an interest in the comedic genius that is Horrible Histories, the books and the show, seriously, I would marry THE SHOUTY MAN), then you know that it’s a well known fact that the Black Death was spread with the help of rats.
The history lesson goes a bit like this:
In the mid 14th Century, by all accounts, the majority of people were poor, dirty and not very healthy. The squalid conditions attracted rats. The rats had fleas. Fleas that carried The Black Death. The fleas bit the people. The people died of the Black Death in epic proportions.
The Black Death is reported to have killed 6 out of every 10 people in London. It led to a massive labor shortage and set in place a series of events that may never have occured otherwise.
Of course, in the mid 14th Century, one of the more popular beliefs was that the plague was caused by people being bad. In recent times, we’ve blamed the deaths and the severity to which it spread on the rats and the fleas that rode on them. (The cures of ‘go and live near a sewer’ and ‘drink your own urine or rub yourself in poo’ probably didn’t help stop the spread of the disease, or stem the death rates at the time.).
Thank Goodness For Trains.
In current day England, where it’s arguably much more sophisticated, excavations have been taking place for new transport infrastructure in the form of the ‘Crossrail Project’. Since the project began, The Independent news website reports that over 10 thousand pieces of archeological interest in total have been discovered. (Trains, they’re like Superman. But cooler because they’re trains).
An excavation in Farrgindon, as part of the infrastructure project, revealed what may very well be a cemetary for the plague dead.
A group of plague victims bones, from the 14th and 15th centuries, were found while work was being done. So far, 10 skeletons have been found. But it’s estimated that thousands more might be in the area as burials for plague victims tended to be communal affairs, given the sheer numbers in which people died. There could even be ‘levels’ of plague victims given that it hit England a number of times.
From the studying of the bones, scientists from Public Health England, led by Dr Tim Brooks, have been able to gain a better insight into conditions of the time and what may have contributed to the rapid spread of the disease. And…. rats might not have been the best way to spread disease!
Which means we might have been blaming them unfairly this whole time!
Rather, scientists from Public Health England are now theorising (in a new documentary “Return Of The Black Death”) that fleas would be too inefficient at spreading the disease, given how quickly it spread throughout the population.
So what do they think spread the plague?
Namely, poor people who were not very well nourished, generally had horrible jobs and terrible living conditions. These people caught the Black Plague, then proceeded to cough all over one another. If this theory is correct, then this means that the plague was not a ‘beubonic’ one (spread through the skin, like when say….a flea bites a person) but a ‘pneumonic’ one (spread in the air, like when you DON’T COVER YOUR MOUTH WHEN YOU COUGH!).
There were no real systems in place to make sure people were healthy or looked after because that’s wasn’t the main aim of the ruling classes at the time. I believe the ruling elite’s main aim was to just not be poor. This meant that when poor people, who already lived in cramped and nasty conditions, with bad health to begin with, caught the plague they were pretty much doomed from the outset. So, technically, they were close to being right in the mid 14th Century when they said that the plague was caused by people not being good.
It is all still a theory, though one that seems to make good common sense. Of course, this is all very close to April Fool’s so it could be one big prank.
No matter what science discovers is the true cause of the Black Plague being spread, I think the one thing we can all take away from it is this- Rubbing yourself with poo and chicken bottoms doesn’t solve anyone’s problems.