Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Medieval Black Death Was Probably Not Bubonic Plague

Date:
April 15, 2002
Source:
Penn State
Summary:
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.

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.”


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Penn State. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Cite This Page:

Penn State. "Medieval Black Death Was Probably Not Bubonic Plague." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 15 April 2002. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2002/04/020415073417.htm>.
Penn State. (2002, April 15). Medieval Black Death Was Probably Not Bubonic Plague. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 23, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2002/04/020415073417.htm
Penn State. "Medieval Black Death Was Probably Not Bubonic Plague." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2002/04/020415073417.htm (accessed July 23, 2014).

Share This




More Health & Medicine News

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Courts Conflicted Over Healthcare Law

Courts Conflicted Over Healthcare Law

AP (July 22, 2014) Two federal appeals courts issued conflicting rulings Tuesday on the legality of the federally-run healthcare exchange that operates in 36 states. (July 22) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Why Do People Believe We Only Use 10 Percent Of Our Brains?

Why Do People Believe We Only Use 10 Percent Of Our Brains?

Newsy (July 22, 2014) The new sci-fi thriller "Lucy" is making people question whether we really use all our brainpower. But, as scientists have insisted for years, we do. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Scientists Find New Way To Make Human Platelets

Scientists Find New Way To Make Human Platelets

Newsy (July 22, 2014) Boston scientists have discovered a new way to create fully functioning human platelets using a bioreactor and human stem cells. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Gilead's $1000-a-Pill Drug Could Cure Hep C in HIV-Positive People

Gilead's $1000-a-Pill Drug Could Cure Hep C in HIV-Positive People

TheStreet (July 21, 2014) New research shows Gilead Science's drug Sovaldi helps in curing hepatitis C in those who suffer from HIV. In a medical study, the combination of Gilead's Hep C drug with anti-viral drug Ribavirin cured 76% of HIV-positive patients suffering from the most common hepatitis C strain. Hepatitis C and related complications have been a top cause of death in HIV-positive patients. Typical medication used to treat the disease, including interferon proteins, tended to react badly with HIV drugs. However, Sovaldi's %1,000-a-pill price tag could limit the number of patients able to access the treatment. TheStreet's Keris Lahiff reports from New York. Video provided by TheStreet
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins