Black Death: Some context on the new research

April 2, 2014 § 4 Comments

The interwebs are all a-glow with news that Black Death in the 14th century wasn’t actually the bubonic plague.  Rather, according to a new British study, it was pneumonic.  This means that rather than being transmitted from bites from fleas (which originally came to Europe aboard the black rat, or rattus rattus, which itself was a stowaway in cargo coming from China and Mongolia), it was an airborne illness.  Suddenly, every time I go to a news site in the past couple of days, I’m seeing headlines like this classic from FoxNews: “Black Death wasn’t actually bubonic plague.”

While I am certainly no expert in the matter, I have read a fair bit on Black Death because I have taught many sections of Western Civ and World History, and Black Death is central to the narrative.  Plus it’s great fun to go into excruciating detail of the physical symptoms with my students, seeing who turns green first.  And what I’ve learned from my reading is this: Black Death was actually three kinds of plague:

1) Bubonic plague: transmitted by bites from infected fleas and the most common of the three strains of plague.  This is characterised by High fever, aching joints, swelling of lymph nodes, and buboes (which are red lesions on the body and from whence the term we used as kids for cuts, booboos, comes from).  The bubonic plague had an 80% mortality rate.

2) Pneumonic plague: airborne, infects the lungs; symptoms include high fevers, cough, coughing up blood, throwing up blood.  The mortality rate for the pneumonic plague was 95%.

3) Septicemic plague: infects blood and the least common strain. Symptoms include high fever and purpura, purple skin patches, bleeding from mouth, nose and/or rectum, vomiting, organ failure.  The mortality rate was 100%.

So what appears to be the results of this new study in London doesn’t actually overturn all that we think we know about the plague, as the news reports are suggesting.  At most, it changes percentages, in terms of how many people came down with bubonic v. pneumonic v. septicemic plague.  Not exactly the earth-shattering news the media is claiming this to be.

And then I wonder if this is a research #fail or if this is a journalism #fail?

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§ 4 Responses to Black Death: Some context on the new research

  • Brian Bixby says:

    I’d presume journalism hype, since any historian would know the difficulty is relating the myriad of symptoms reported in the 14th c. with what we know of the diseases today, keeping in mind that symptoms from infectious diseases vary over time and by population.

    • Well, this is the part that scares me. Every article I’ve read on the matter quotes the epidemiologist who did the study in London, and in every article, he says something to the effect that the flea-borne explanation “doesn’t cut it.” I presume he said a lot more, too, and, or that he said that in a very narrow context, but that’s the sound bite that keeps getting repeated.

      Having been quoted, and mis-quoted, by journalists, including one who kept trying to get me to say something that was patently not true, I can only guess what’s happened here. But…

  • daseger says:

    Very perceptive for a MODERN historian–there’s nothing new here; the bubonic/pneumonic/septicaemic mix has been standard theory for about 20 years–and the main explanation why the plague was so comparatively virulent in Europe.

    • Lol! Yeah, what can I say, Dr. Seger, I know a thing or two about a thing or two. Actually, I find Black Death fascinating, the disease and the responses to it, and The Decameron. If it wasn’t for the Latin language, I’d study it more.

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