Rats and black death........ Interesting research. I suspect there are two (possibly unconnected) strands to this:
A: were there enough black rats and did they have sufficient contact with people to spread the disease in the way that it is known to have spread (which begs the question of What Was the disease anyway?)? And
B: have black rats got anything to do with black death?
Quite apart from Mike Baillie's assertions, there are epidemiological grounds for doubting the traditional view of rats + fleas + pathogen = transmission of bubonic plague/black death
Those interested in epidemiology of zoonoses (and this topic relates to transmission of tuberculosis etc between humans and other animals as well, and there is plenty of scope for more research about the consequences of living with domesticated animals, besides the issue of unintentional commensals) may be interested in some of the recent literature eg:
'Biology of Plagues: Evidence from Historical Populations'
by Susan Scott & C.J. Duncan (Paperback 2005) (hardback 2001) Cambridge University Press and same authors: 'Return of the Black Death' 2004 Liv Univ Press(sounds like a B horror movie!)
The blurb below is taken from Liverpool University's newsletter in 2004
" New research suggests Black Death is lying dormant
Liverpool, UK - 19 May 2004: The Black Death is lying dormant and could re-emerge at any time, according to scientists at the University of Liverpool.
The Black Death appeared in Sicily in 1347, sweeping through Europe and killing nearly half its inhabitants in three years. Over the next three centuries the disease was continually present every year, culminating in the Great Plague of London in 1665, which claimed 6,000 lives per week at its peak.
Throughout the twentieth century, the origin of the Black Death has been attributed to the transmission of bubonic plague from rats to humans via fleas. In a new book being launched this week, entitled Return of the Black Death, Professor Christopher Duncan and Dr Susan Scott from the University's School of Biological Sciences, contest this theory.
Their research involved studying original parish records, wills and diaries to create a profile of the disease, and led to the conclusion that the cause of the Black Death was, in fact, an emergent viral disease that may still lurk somewhere in the world.
The work includes eyewitness accounts of the devastation experienced by those afflicted as well as their families, accounts of several famous figures who escaped infection such as Henry VIII and William Shakespeare and a study of relationships between historic plagues and modern infectious diseases such as AIDS and vCJD.
Professor Duncan said: "Although the last known outbreak of plague occurred over three centuries ago, we believe the virus is merely lying in wait, ready to strike again. Globalisation and our increasingly mobile population make rapid transmission of infectious disease unavoidable - as demonstrated in the recent outbreaks of SARS. These factors, combined with the increased threat of bio-terrorism, may allow for the re-emergence of the virus as an even more ruthless killer." "
Personally, I would concentrate on (A) above, since the introduction, extirpation, establishment, spread etc of black rats is interesting for all sorts of other reasons relating to past human lifestyles, relationships with commensal animals, qualities of living, settlement patterns, population densities, trading networks etc etc as well as climate and vegetation changes. Good luck with collating the archaeological and ethological data.
Dr Sue Stallibrass
English Heritage Archaeological Science Adviser for North-West England,
Department of Archaeology (SACE),
Hartley Building, Brownlow Street,
University of Liverpool,
email: [log in to unmask]
direct phone: 0151 794 5046
departmental FAX: 0151 794 5057
From: Analysis of animal remains from archaeological sites [mailto:[log in to unmask]] On Behalf Of [log in to unmask]
Sent: 19 April 2007 09:30
To: [log in to unmask]
Subject: Re: [ZOOARCH] Rattus Rattus
In southern Florida (where I used to live) Rattus rattus was commonly
named the roof rat owing to its climbing agility and propensity for
inhabitating the upper storeys of buildings (including my own house!).
Regarding the early references to the different habitations of black
rats and brown rats (roofs v. sewers) there is a nice quote from a 1768
rat-catcher about this - mentioned in the book The Brown Rat by Graham
Twigg 1975 p.23. You should also be aware of Graham Twigg's book The
Black Death A Biological Reaapraisal published by Batsford in 1984 in
which he refutes the idea that the black death was bubonic plague!
You might also be interested in my paper published in Antiquity Vol 68
No. 259 1995 Unwelcome companions:ancient rats reviwed, pp.231-41.
Finally, if you have time, I highly recommend Tales of A Rat-hunting
Man by Brian Plummer 1978 reptd. 1979. Although essentially describing
the behaviour of brown rat it does provide an at times highly amusing
account of the antics of rats.
Good luck with your project.
Philip L. Armitage
>From: [log in to unmask]
>Date: 18/04/2007 14:17
>To: <[log in to unmask]>
>Subj: [ZOOARCH] Rattus Rattus
>I am writing a dissertation on Black rat population in Britain and if
>were large enough numbers to blame the spread of the black death on
>I was thinking perhaps if Black rats have some habits that would make
>bones more difficult to find, it may explain their rarity in the
>archaeological record. Cannabalism, funerals, bone scattering.Any
>information at all on black rats would be gratefully received
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