Trading in Death, Black Death, That Is

The New York Times reports that new research by two separate teams of scientists confirms that waves of plague during the Roman, Medieval, and Victorian periods came from China.

The research “reported conclusively . . . that the causative agent of the most deadly plague, the Black Death, was the bacterium known as Yersinia pestis,” a disease carried on flea-infested rats.

Scientists studied DNA extracted from mass graves and not only discovered tell-tale signs of the disease, they were able to genetically match the illness found in pits located hundreds of miles apart in different countries.  The evidence suggests that the plague reached Marseilles in France in 1347, then spread north, reaching Hereford, England in 1349.

Likewise, the new findings also show that the Justinian plague (during the 6th century) made its way from China, as did a less deadly outbreak of disease in 1894.  In each case, trade provided the vector whereby disease traveled from Asia to Europe.

There are two items that should be added to this story.  The first is fairly minor.  The “Black Death” is a name assigned to the fourteenth century outbreak much later.  We should more correctly call it the “Great Mortality” or the “Pestilence” as contemporaries did.

Second, the Times article did not address the fact that separate research on northern English and Scottish burial pits suggest that there was at least one additional killer at work: anthrax.  During the fourteenth century, rising affluence in Europe (brought partly by the same trade that led to the outbreak of Yersinia pestis) generated a widespread taste for beef.  Huge tracts of land were clear-cut to raise cattle.

Anthrax spores can live for long periods in the ground and are then easily ingested by cattle.  The disease passes from beast to man quite efficiently and apparently wiped out whole monasteries in England and Scotland.  Contemporaries did not distinguish between plague and anthrax because the symptoms often seemed similar.

These teams have undoubtedly added a great deal to our understanding, but the only thing that is ever truly “conclusive” (historically speaking) is that life is fatal!

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