Twist in the tail as rats found not guilty over spread of plague
18 Aug 2011
Archaeologist says evidence shows Black Death was actually carried by people
Rats weren’t the carriers of the plague after all. A study by an archaeologist looking at the ravages of the Black Death in London, in late 1348 and 1349, has exonerated the most famous animal villains in history.
“The evidence just isn’t there to support it,” said Barney Sloane, author of The Black Death in London. “We ought to be finding great heaps of dead rats in all the waterfront sites but they just aren’t there. And all the evidence I’ve looked at suggests the plague spread too fast for the traditional explanation of transmission by rats and fleas. It has to be person to person – there just isn’t time for the rats to be spreading it.”
He added: “It was certainly the Black Death but it is by no means certain what that disease was, whether in fact it was bubonic plague.”
Sloane, who was a field archaeologist with the Museum of London, working on many medieval sites, is now attached to English Heritage. He has concluded that the spread of the 1348-49 plague, the worst to hit the capital, was far faster, with an impact far worse than had been estimated previously.
While some suggest half the city’s population of 60,000 died, he believes it could have been as high as two-thirds. Years later, in 1357, merchants were trying to get a tax cut because a third of all property in the city was empty.
Sloane spent nearly 10 years researching his book, poring over records and excavation reports. Many records are missing. Names of those buried in three emergency cemeteries seem not to have been recorded.
However, Sloane found a valuable resource in records from the Court of Hustings, of wills made and then enacted during the plague years. As the disease gripped – in October 1348 rather than the late summer others suggested, reaching its height in April 1349 – the numbers of wills soared as panicstricken wealthy citizens realised their deaths were probably imminent.
On 5 February 1349 Johanna Ely, her husband already dead, arranged provision for her children, Richard and Johanna. She left them property, spelled out which beds and even pots and pans each was to receive, and placed them in the guardianship of her own mother. She was dead within 72 hours.
It appeared to citizens that everyone might die. Richard de Shordych left goods and money to his son Benedict when he died in early March: his son outlived him by a fortnight.
Money, youth, and formerly robust good health were no protection. Edward III’s own daughter, Joan, sailed for Spain to marry Pedro, heir to the throne of Castile. She would never see her wedding day as she died of the plague within 10 days of landing.
John of Reading, a monk in Westminster, left one of the few witness accounts. He described deaths happening so fast there was “death without sorrow, marriage without affection, self-imposed penance, want without poverty, and flight without escape”.
In Rochester, William of Dene wrote that nobody could be found to bury the dead, “but men and women carried the bodies of their own little ones to church on their shoulders and threw them into mass graves from which arose such a stink that it was barely possible for anyone to go past a churchyard”.
Sloane estimates that people living near the cemetery at Aldersgate, which is now buried under Charterhouse Square, in Smithfield, would have seen a corpse carried past every five minutes.
He believes there was little difference in mortality rates between rich and poor, because they lived so closely packed together. The plague, he is convinced, spread from person to person.
Mortality continued to rise throughout the bitterly cold winter, when fleas could not have survived, and there is no evidence of enough rats.
Black rat skeletons have been found at some 14th century sites, but not in high enough numbers to make them the plague carriers, he said.
Vote for this storyWell Written