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Friday, 12 April, 2002, 15:40 GMT 16:40 UK
Black Death and plague 'not linked'
Black rat
Fleas from black rats spread bubonic plague
The Black Death that affected Britain in the 14th century was probably not the modern disease known as bubonic plague, scientists claim.

The symptoms of the 14th century disease are similar to bubonic plague, and historically they have been referred to as one and the same.

Bubonic plague is spread by the fleas of rats and other rodents.

However, anthropologists in the US believe the Black Death was caused by any number of infectious organisms, probably transmitted through person-to-person contact.

The spread of the Black Death was more rapid than we formerly believed

Dr James Wood, anthropologist
The university research team studied church records and other documents from the UK to reconstruct the virulence and pattern of the disease.

They looked at bishops' records which show that many priests died during the epidemic.

Dr James Wood, professor of anthropology at Penn State University, said: "These records indicate the spread of the Black Death was more rapid than we formerly believed.

"This disease appears to spread too rapidly among humans to be something that must first be established in wild rodent populations, like bubonic plague."

Modern bubonic plague typically needs to reach a high frequency in the rat population before it spills over into the human community via rodent fleas.

Disease patterns

Historically, epidemics of bubonic plague have been associated with enormous die-offs in rats.

Dr Wood said: "There are no reports of dead rats in the streets in the 1300s of the sort common in more recent epidemics when we know bubonic plague was the causative agent."

The anthropologists believe that instead of being spread by animal fleas, it was transmitted through human contact, in the same way as measles and smallpox.

They say the geographic pattern of the disease reflects this too.

It spread rapidly along roadways and navigable rivers and was not slowed down by the kinds of geographical barrier that would restrict the movement of rodents.

The team is not able to pinpoint the agent that caused Black Death.

However, it has not ruled out the possibility that the Black Death might have been caused by an ancestor of the modern plague bacillus, which might later have mutated into the insect-borne disease of rodents that we now refer to as bubonic plague.


Bohemil Drasar, a bacteriologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine is unconvinced by the findings.

He said: "Black Death was the plague.

"This is fantasy."

He says it is unscientific to try to draw conclusions from historical records.

He said: "This is speculation and it doesn't explain anything extra by saying it wasn't bubonic plague.

"The only way that would tell us more is to find some Black Death victims in decent conditions and extract some bacterial DNA and compare it with various strains of plague bacteria that exist."

Black Death ravaged Europe and Asia between the 14th and 17th Centuries.

In the 14th Century alone it is estimated to have killed 200 million people.

Although bubonic plague is no longer a major health problem in Europe, it is still prevalent in some parts of the world.

About 3,000 cases are reported annually to the World Health Organisation.

See also:

03 Oct 01 | Health
De-coding the Black Death
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