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Medieval Black Death Was Probably Not Bubonic Plague
Science Daily ^ | Posted 4/15/2002 | Penn State

Posted on 04/15/2002 11:36:11 AM PDT by Gladwin

The Black Death of the 1300s was probably not the modern disease known as bubonic plague, according to a team of anthropologists studying on these 14th century epidemics.

“Although on the surface, seem to have been similar, we are not convinced that the epidemic in the 14th century and the present day bubonic plague are the same,” says Dr. James Wood, professor of anthropology and demography at Penn State. “Old descriptions of disease symptoms are usually too non-specific to be a reliable basis for diagnosis.”

The researchers note that it was the symptom of lymphatic swelling that led 19th century bacteriologists to identify the 14th century epidemic as bubonic plague.

“The symptoms of the Black Death included high fevers, fetid breath, coughing, vomiting of blood and foul body odor,” says Rebecca Ferrell, graduate student in anthropology. “Other symptoms were red bruising or hemorrhaging of skin and swollen lymph nodes. Many of these symptoms do appear in bubonic plague, but they can appear in many other diseases as well.”

The researchers, who also include Sharon DeWitt-Avina, Penn State graduate student in anthropology, Stephen Matthews and Mark Shriver, both professors in the Population Research Institute at Penn State, and Darryl Holman, assistant professor of anthropology, University of Washington, Seattle, are investigating church records and other documents from England to reconstruct the virulence, spacial diffusion and temporal dynamics of the Black Death.

They are looking especially closely at bishops’ records of the replacement of priests in several English dioceses. Although these records are often incomplete and difficult to interpret, they clearly show that many priests died during the epidemic period of 1349 to 1350.

“These records indicate that the spread of the Black Death was more rapid than we formerly believed,” Wood told attendees today (April 12) at the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in Buffalo, N.Y. “This disease appears to spread too rapidly among humans to be something that must first be established in wild rodent populations, like bubonic plague. An analysis of the priests’ monthly mortality rates during the epidemic shows a 45-fold greater risk of death than during normal times, a level of mortality far higher than usually associated with 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 the flea vector. Historically, epidemics of bubonic plague have been associated with enormous die-offs of rats.

“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,” says Wood.

Instead of being spread by animals and insect vectors, the researchers believe that the Black Death was transmitted through person-to-person contact, as are measles and smallpox. The geographic pattern of the disease seems to bear this out, since the disease 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.

“It is possible that the Black Death was caused by any of a number of infectious organisms, but we are not ready to pinpoint the causative agent,” says Wood. “The Black Death was too quickly identified with bubonic plague in the past. Indeed, historians took what was known about the bubonic plague and used it erroneously to fill in the many gaps in our picture of the Black Death. We do not want to make the same mistake by identifying some other possible cause prematurely.”

The researchers do not rule 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 call bubonic plague. The fact is that we can only trace modern bubonic plague reliably back to the late 18th century or early 19th century, according to Wood. Who knows when it first emerged?

“We too often make the assumption that while a lot of things change in the interaction of infectious diseases and human hosts, the microbe itself stays more or less the same,” says Wood. “This is wrong. If anything is likely to change, it is a microbe that goes through millions of generations and an equal number of chances to mutate over a few centuries. We see no reason to think that the Black Death pathogen still exists in anything like its original form.”


TOPICS: Miscellaneous
KEYWORDS: antonineplague; archaeology; blackdeath; blackplague; bubonicplague; crevolist; ggg; godsgravesglyphs; helixmakemineadouble; history; msbogusvirus; plague; plagueofathens; plagueofjustinian; yersiniapestis
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Evolution in action
1 posted on 04/15/2002 11:36:11 AM PDT by Gladwin
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To: *crevo_list
I am a little curious what they think could be the Black Death, if it wasn't bubonic plague.

It is too bad that they couldn't sample dead bodies from that time period for bacterial genetic material. I don't know if that is even possible.

2 posted on 04/15/2002 11:40:40 AM PDT by Gladwin
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To: Gladwin
...not the modern disease known as the bubonic plague...

Uh, duh. It could have been a different strain of the bubonic plague. It could have included a bunch of different diseases that were lumped in with bubonic plague. I hope these folks have got an infectious disease specialist or two on their team.

3 posted on 04/15/2002 11:43:11 AM PDT by mewzilla
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To: Gladwin
This article was posted a few days ago, and anyway, I think it's bunk. As though rats couldn't find a way to get across rivers. These scientists need to take a trip into the real world.
4 posted on 04/15/2002 11:43:39 AM PDT by SpringheelJack
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To: Gladwin
"You know, medicine is not an exact science, but we are learning all the time. Why, just fifty years ago they thought a disease like your daughter's was caused by demonic possession or witchcraft. But nowadays, we know that Isabelle is suffering from an imbalance of bodily humors, perhaps caused by a toad or a small dwarf living in her stomach."
--Theodoric of York
5 posted on 04/15/2002 11:44:50 AM PDT by KarlInOhio
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To: SpringheelJack
And bone up on the lifestyles of the furry and flea-infested.
6 posted on 04/15/2002 11:47:09 AM PDT by mewzilla
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To: Gladwin
Ask and ye shall receive.

Suicide PCR Identifies Yersinia pestis DNA in Black Death Victims
7 posted on 04/15/2002 11:49:40 AM PDT by Black Agnes
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To: KarlInOhio
"You know, medicine is not an exact science..."

"Broom Gilda - more leaches..."

8 posted on 04/15/2002 11:49:41 AM PDT by Psalm 73
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To: Gladwin
Once people are infected, they infect other people very rapidly. So all the stuff about barriers to rats would only apply to the earliest stage of the plague. When it hit heavily populated areas, it became a person-to-person disease.
9 posted on 04/15/2002 11:49:53 AM PDT by firebrand
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To: Gladwin
Whatever it was, it sure killed a lot of people and actually resulted in a significant reduction in the supply of able-bodied workers. The surviving peasants shamelessly exploited that dislocation by demanding and receiving a totally unjustifiable improvement in their standard of living at the direct expense of their employers.
10 posted on 04/15/2002 11:50:13 AM PDT by humbletheFiend
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To: Gladwin
I am a little curious what they think could be the Black Death, if it wasn't bubonic plague.

I've got a book called "Diseases and History", a very interesting read, that suggests that the Black Death was actually two diseases working at once: the Bubonic plague, which is spread by rats, and Pneumonic Plague, which is spread by airborne droplets and was highly,highly contagious, which would correspond to the theory in this article, that "the researchers believe that the Black Death was transmitted through person-to-person contact, as are measles and smallpox.

The book I own is fairly old, so I don't know why the researchers in the article do not address Pneumonic Plague at all.

11 posted on 04/15/2002 11:51:31 AM PDT by wimpycat
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To: firebrand
I didn't know that the bubonic plague could be spread person to person? I thought fleas were the vector? And that a flea had to bite an infected person, then bite another victim in order to spread the disease?
12 posted on 04/15/2002 11:52:21 AM PDT by mewzilla
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To: Gladwin
Modern bubonic plague typically needs to reach a high frequency in the rat population before it spills over into the human community via the flea vector.

Here in the US bubonic plague is endemic in the West due to prairie dog populations and their flea vectors. Don't these so-called scientists have anything better to do with our tax dollars than to spend their time trying to debunk accepted science.

13 posted on 04/15/2002 11:52:46 AM PDT by scholar
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To: wimpycat
Yup, that makes a lot more sense.
14 posted on 04/15/2002 11:53:10 AM PDT by mewzilla
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To: SpringheelJack
I don't know how far rats travel, or really much about the bubonic plague.
15 posted on 04/15/2002 11:53:39 AM PDT by Gladwin
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To: wimpycat
Probably because they neglected to talk to anyone with actual infectious disease experience?
16 posted on 04/15/2002 11:54:27 AM PDT by mewzilla
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To: wimpycat
Actually, both bubonic and pneumonic are the same organism, y. pestis. In the case of pneumonic, the patient has bubonic and some respiratory disease simultaneously, causing the cough droplets to be infected with y. pestis as well. The deadliest and most scary form of the disease is actually septicaemic plague. In that form, it infects the blood stream and few or no 'buboes' form. This was the form it took in patients who went to sleep healthy and never woke up.
17 posted on 04/15/2002 11:54:51 AM PDT by Black Agnes
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To: Gladwin
"I am a little curious what they think could be the Black Death, if it wasn't bubonic plague. "

Before they are done, they might well try to prove that the people were infected with that fatal disease called Conservatism.

18 posted on 04/15/2002 11:56:43 AM PDT by Don Myers
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To: Gladwin
FWIW, two excellent books on infectious disease:

Evolution of Infectious Disease, by Paul Ewald; and The Coming Plague by Laurie Garrett. Garrett has another book out on public health issues that I haven't read, but it's supposed to be very informative.

19 posted on 04/15/2002 11:58:26 AM PDT by mewzilla
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To: Black Agnes
That is a good link that you posted, and has a lot of real science.
20 posted on 04/15/2002 12:02:07 PM PDT by Gladwin
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