Claim: London plague was spread by humans

An English archaeologist claims that humans – not rats, as has long been believed – spread the plague that ravaged London in the mid-14th century.

“The evidence just isn’t there to support it,” Barney Sloane, author of ‘The Black Death in London,’ told The Telegraph. “We ought to be finding great heaps of dead rats in all the waterfront sites but they just aren’t there.

“And all the evidence I’ve looked at suggests the plague spread too fast for the traditional explanation of transmission by rats and fleas,” he added. “It has to be person to person – there just isn’t time for the rats to be spreading it.”

Sloane added that he’s not even certain whether the disease was bubonic plague, as is believed by many.

Among reasons Sloane believes rats didn’t transmit the disease, which may have wiped out as much as two-thirds of London’s population of 60,000 during 1348-49, are:

  • Deaths continued to rise throughout the bitterly cold winter, when fleas could not have survived; and
  • Black rat skeletons have been found at 14th-century sites, but not in high enough numbers to make them the plague carriers;

Over the past decade other researchers have also speculated that the so-called Black Death may have been caused by something other than bubonic plague, including possibly an ebola-like virus or anthrax.

Sloane has concluded that the spread of the 1348-49 plague, the worst to hit the capital, was far faster, with an impact far worse than had been estimated previously, according to The Telegraph.

Nearly a decade afterward in 1357, merchants were trying to get their tax bill cut on the grounds that a third of all property in the city was lying empty.

Sloane spent nearly a decade researching his book, poring over records and excavation reports. Many records have gone missing, while there was also a documentation shortfall as disaster overwhelmed the city.

Names of those buried in three emergency cemeteries seem not to have been recorded, according to the publication.

However, Sloane found a valuable resource in records from the Court of Hustings, of wills made and then enacted during the plague years.

In October 2348, as the disease spread, the numbers of wills being written skyrocketed as wealthy citizens began to realize their deaths were likely imminent. As many wills were being made in a week as in a normal year.

John of Reading, a monk in Westminster, left one of the few witness accounts. He described deaths happening so fast there was “death without sorrow, marriage without affection, self-imposed penance, want without poverty, and flight without escape.”

In Rochester, William of Dene wrote that nobody could be found to bury the dead, “but men and women carried the bodies of their own little ones to church on their shoulders and threw them into mass graves from which arose such a stink that it was barely possible for anyone to go past a churchyard.”

“Sloane estimates that people living near the cemetery at Aldersgate, which is now buried under Charterhouse Square, in Smithfield, would have seen a corpse carried past every five minutes at the height of the plague,” according to The Telegraph.

Sloane believes there was little difference in mortality rates between rich and poor, because they lived so closely packed together. The plague, he is convinced, spread from person to person in the crowded city.

In sites beside the Thames, where most of the city’s rubbish was dumped and rats should have swarmed, and where the sodden ground preserves organic remains excellently, few black rats have been found.

The Black Death is estimated to have killed between 30 and 60 percent of Europe’s population by the end of the 14th century, and reducing the world’s population from an estimated 450 million to between 350 and 375 million in 1400.

(HT: A Blog About History)

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