Skip to comments.Cause of the big plague epidemic of Middle Ages identified
Posted on 10/20/2010 12:55:40 AM PDT by neverdem
Geographical position of the five archaeological sites investigated. Green dots indicate the sites. Also indicated are two likely independent infection routes (black and red dotted arrows) for the spread of the Black Death (1347-1353) after Benedictow.
©: PLoS Pathogens
The 'Black Death' was caused by at least two previously unknown types of Yersinia pestis bacteria.
The latest tests conducted by anthropologists at the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) have proven that the bacteria Yersinia pestis was indeed the causative agent behind the "Black Death" that raged across Europe in the Middle Ages. The cause of the epidemic has always remained highly controversial and other pathogens were often named as possible causes, in particular for the northern European regions. Using DNA and protein analyses from skeletons of plague victims, an international team led by the scientists from Mainz has now conclusively shown that Yersinia pestis was responsible for the Black Death in the 14th century and the subsequent epidemics that continued to erupt throughout the European continent for the next 400 years. The tests conducted on genetic material from mass graves in five countries also identified at least two previously unknown types of Yersinia pestis that occurred as pathogens.
"Our findings indicate that the plague traveled to Europe over at least two channels, which then went their own individual ways," explains Dr. Barbara Bramanti from the Institute of Anthropology of Mainz University. The works, published in the open access journal PLoS Pathogens, now provide the necessary basis for conducting a detailed historical reconstruction of how this illness spread.
For a number of years, Barbara Bramanti has been researching major epidemics that were rampant throughout Europe and their possible selective consequences as part of a project funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG). For the recently published work, 76 human skeletons were examined from suspected mass graves for plague victims in England, France, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands. While other infections such as leprosy can be easily identified long after death by the deformed bones, the problem faced in the search for plague victims lies in the fact that the illness can lead to death within just a few days and leaves no visible traces. With luck, DNA of the pathogen may still be present for many years in the dental pulp or traces of proteins in the bones. Even then it is difficult to detect, and may be distorted through possible contamination. The team led by Bramanti found their results by analyzing old genetic material, also known as ancient DNA (aDNA): Ten specimens from France, England, and the Netherlands showed a Yersinia pestis-specific gene. Because the samples from Parma, Italy and Augsburg, Germany gave no results, they were subjected to another method known as immunochromatography (similar to the method used in home pregnancy tests for example), this time with success.
Once the infection with Yersinia pestis had been conclusively proven, Stephanie Hänsch and Barbara Bramanti used an analysis of around 20 markers to test if one of the known bacteria types "orientalis" or "medievalis" was present. But neither of these two types was found. Instead, two unknown forms were identified, which are older and differ from the modern pathogens found in Africa, America, the Middle East, and the former Soviet Union regions. One of these two types, which are thought to have contributed significantly to the catastrophic course of the plague in the 14th century, most probably no longer exists today. The other appears to have similarities with types that were recently isolated in Asia.
In their reconstruction, Hänsch and Bramanti show an infection path that runs from the initial transportation of the pathogen from Asia to Marseille in November 1347, through western France to northern France and over to England. Because a different type of Yersinia pestis was found in Bergen op Zoom in the Netherlands, the two scientists believe that the South of the Netherlands was not directly infected from England or France, but rather from the North. This would indicate another infection route, which ran from Norway via Friesland and down to the Netherlands. Further investigations are required to uncover the complete route of the epidemic. "The history of this pandemic," stated Hänsch, "is much more complicated than we had previously thought."
More information: Haensch, S., Bianucci, R., et al. (2010) Distinct Clones of Yersinia pestis Caused the Black Death PLoS Pathog 6(10): e1001134. doi:10.1371/journal.ppat.1001134
The reason for their low infection rate was that they followed the health laws spelled out in Leviticus, mainly the practice of quarintine, washing with running water, burning of items that touched a sick person, and burying of human waste.
AKA, hygiene...now a lost art among many.
Not to mention that the Jews didn’t make the mistake of killing off the cats which killed the transport mechanism of the plague - rats.
Happy News about the Black Plague!
What’s your guess about the persistence of viral pathogens in an archaeologic site ? Just a few days at most? (I mean from the time of burial, like small pox)
It seems counter intuitive that the cold weather countries would nurture a flea carried pest in such numbers.
Norwegian rats were supposedly the carrier in northern Europe, because they tended to be the rodents that hitched rides on ships.
I believe I have seen articles of flu virii being recovered from bodies that died in the 1918 flu pandemic. These bodies were recovered from Alaskan burial sites, so the longevity results may not reflect other geographical locations.
Norwegian rats....tough critters. Have spread virtually worldwide on ocean shipping.
Norwegian rats were supposedly the carrier in northern Europe, because they tended to be the rodents that hitched rides on ships.
I bet they were Lutheran...............
Living in ghettos with social isolation from the rest, is one way to pose a hurdle to invading contagious diseases.
Not being a virologist, I have to wonder. Usually, they are just a genetic core of DNA or RNA covered by a capsid of glycoprotein. They might be able to persist indefinitely. The only thing they have to do is reproduce. That's why they hijack their host's genetic "machinery." They don't need energy to do any cellular housework of their own.
I think I read that the Jewish practice of cleaning out their grain storage during their religious holidays also helped to reduce the possibility of rats getting into it, then reproducing.
What numbers did you use for h and w?
Barbara Tuchman's seminal work on the social and political effects of the plague, "Through a Glass Darkly", mentioned that as the plague spread North the percentage of deaths declined.
We can flip that around to a scenario where the initial viral attack in the far North was relatively mild with a nothing more than head cold symptoms, and as the virus spread South it MUTATED (like flu) and became more deadly.
The FAR NORTH has more than its fair share of rodents of all kinds to serve as a vector for the fleas and the virus. I have no idea why the FAR NORTH wouldn't be a great home for this particular disease.
Immediately after the arrival of the plague in Norway, the Norse population numbers dropped like a rock, and vast expanses of previously farmed land turned to waste.
In those days "church authorities" (according to many Norwegian sources) were responsible for collecting "rents" and "taxes" on Coastal farmland in Norway. Other taxing authorities dealt with the fishing industry.
In order to repopulate the abandoned farms the "tax" authorities made deals with the Sa'ami who lived further North and up in the hills chasing reindeer. In just a few decades much of the abandoned territories were repopulated with Sa'ami people who were Christianized and recast as valued citizens (provided they learned the Norwegian language.
Still, the "tax" authorities had to continue this practice well into the 1700s.
The Sa'ami were also encouraged to get into the commercial fishing business which was vital to Norway's economy.
Modern Norway counts only 60,000 people as being Sa'ami, but that's a matter of legal definition, not genetics. Given the effect of the Great Plague on Souv'rn Norway, it's more like HALF are of substantially Sa'ami ancestry ~ and now that a marker gene or 2, or 3, or 82 of 'em have been identified, that could readily be demonstrated.
I suspect the Sa'ami themselves were IMMUNE to the black plague virus, and that it was a local thing that comes and goes over time, but strictly among the rodents ~ not the people.
I used w=800. If you use just one dimension in your html it maintains the aspect ratio. If you use both you can easily distort the pic.
Thanks,you know plenty, so it’s likely not an obvious answer.
thanks;interesting, and a little scary.
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People often forget the preferred and easy route from the Near East to the North using the Black Sea and the rivers of Russia.
Merchant traffic went both ways, not just from the North to the Black Sea..
“Instead, two unknown forms were identified, which are older and differ from the modern pathogens found in Africa, America, the Middle East, and the former Soviet Union regions”
Yikes - Bioweapons from the past!
Chime in OT Laws.
We have used those for the last 32 yrs and have been blessed with
Wash body fluids away down drains for the severly infirmed, bury the dead, and take care to cover/clean the honey pots.
All the above takes most of the time along with hand feeding.
Mother Theresa would understand.
There was a terrible epidemic of antiwitchcraft activity in central Europe, which included killing many women, especially old ones, and cats. I recall reading that Nostradamus encouraged using Vitamin C containing rose hips, which helped. There are 3 phases of the plague which have varying lethality. Bubonic from flea bites, characterized by swollen bloody lymph glands, the least lethal; pneumonic, spread airborne, highly lethal; and septicemic, blood poisoning, totally fatal. Defoes “Journal of the Plague Years” is very informative.
Regarding rats, the primary vector in Europe seems to have been the brown (or black?) rat which is an upper story dweller. The Norwegian rat is a basement/sewer rat. While it may have been the initial carrier from ships, apparently it was the other rats that lived more closely with people that did the most damage. Any information on Jewish practices with regard to rats and housecleaning?
The Jews in England had low infection rates because they had all been kicked out in 1290.
I know you are very busy.
I just thought this thread would confirm what your already know.
Peace Out. Chic. /Catholic PNW too Cool
Yes we are Chic. LOL
But who/history is to say that their cleansing ways were not picked up by those living amongst them aka shared culture.
Do not know, but cats are quite effective at eliminating rodent pests from upper stories of buildings. See barn cats and hay lofts. Unlike the Christians of the time, Jews didn’t have problems with keeping cats as pets or even as animate pest control.
The far north has this thing called ‘Winter’. Fleas freeze and die, and so do infected and unprotected rats.
This so weakened the Byzantines that subsequent threats (humans) could not be effectively countered.
The figure I read was that it killed 100 million altogether. Obviously there is a bit of a dispute about the totals.
Thanks - interesting topic. Hope you and KV are well! Anoreth says it’s too cool in Washington, too!
It's not like the fleas MIGRATE up from the Bahamas or something every Spring.
Does the name "NORWAY RAT" mean anything to you?
Correcting the earlier error ~ BLACK PLAGUE BACTERIA (not virus).
In areas where people just died in large numbers and no one was left to bury them, the numbers aren't known.
Some estimates rely on apparent economic activity "before" and "after".
The Chinese estimates are huge, and equally unreliable. The fact that a relatively small group ~ the Mongols ~ were able to subsequently conquer China and India ~ then, and now, the world's most populous nations ~ should give all of us some idea of who died and who didn't.
If blood type O was predominant in the pre-plague era and blood type A was predominant after, could we say that A was selected for via the plague.
Statistically, O is stronger against heart disease and cancer, but weak for anything that came from Pandora's Box. A's die like flies even today, and at younger ages, from cancer and heart disease.
Fox news last night had a mention of the French, who despite their diet had a lot of longevity. France should have been wiped out by plague, but there were pockets that refused outsiders entry. None died. They would still be heavily O’s.
It's more like a series of diseases, some viral in nature and others bacterial, require some point of attachment on cell surfaces that simply isn't there in some people. This theory has been studied to some degree and the diseases identified. There are people immune to both black plague and cholera, and they appear to be immune to several other quite deadly but common infectious diseases.
Alas, none of the studies have been able to pin down the cause of this immunity (which includes an immunity to AIDs).
Justinian’s Plague was in the 6th century, not the same plague as the black death of the 14th and 15th century.
What bugs me is that everybody knows that the Roman Empire took censuses to (among other things) set taxes, and were careful to preserve these records. If we could recover them we would be able to easily figure the numbers for the sixth century plague, since the Byzantine Empire was at its greatest extent during the plague.
:’) Never hire a rat to clean the house. ;’)
In Europe the Jews were widely blamed for the Black Death (well poisoning, spells, the usual bag of malarkey) and were driven out, murdered, and scrolls and temples were incinerated.
The lighter side of the Black Death . . . .
that “cat” item is quoted all the time, but I’ve never seen a scientific study on it.
The European “witch craze” was about 200 years after the black plague, and of course the black plague was world wide, not just in Europe.
You are correct. I think this was the first instance of Plague infestation and it spread from there.