Radio Freethinker

Vancouver's Number 1 Skeptical Podcast and Radio Show

Myths about the Black Death

Posted by Ethan Clow on October 2, 2012

Last week on the show we talked a bit about the myths surrounding the Black Death. For those that haven’t heard of the black death, here’s a quick recap. The black death, or bubonic plague, was a pandemic that ravaged across Europe between 1348 and 1350, it is estimated to have killed between 30–60 percent of Europe’s population, reduced the world population from an estimated 450 million to between 350 and 375 million in the 14th century and it took Europe about 150 years for its population to return to pre-plague levels.

We’re going to discuss some of the on-going mysteries about the black death. First, where did it come from?

There are several different theories about where the bubonic (aka black death) plague came from. The most common explanation is that the disease was spread by Yersinia pestis bacterium. (and when I say most common – I mean scientifically proven) However the method of spreading the bacteria is subject to some debate. The generally accepted idea is that fleas spread the bacteria. The fleas would feed on an infected host,  which would cause the fleas’ mid guts to become obstructed by replicating Y. pestis. This blockage results in starvation and aggressive feeding behaviour by fleas that repeatedly attempt to clear their blockage by regurgitation, resulting in thousands of plague bacteria being flushed into the feeding site, infecting a new host.

An additional source of infection would also be the infected carcass – all the dead bodies laying around, which would also increase the chance of being infected.

At the time of the plague, the black death was believed to be caused by rats, specifically black rats which were introduced to Europe from Asia, what we can say with some certainty now is that it was the fleas on the rats which were the real culprits.

But what motivating factors made the plague enter Europe? We don’t know for sure but some of the theories are that: overpopulation of marmots in Asia (which spread the plague to fleas and to rats and to humans) and/or the movement of the Mongols (war is particularly good at spreading disease) or earthquakes that forced rodents out of their burrows (sending carrier rats into Europe)

The unconfirmed point of entry was when Italian soldiers defending the city of Caffa were infected and when they fled from the Muslim armies into Messina in Sicily and then Genoa, they brought the plague to Italy.

Once in Europe, the plague spread through Italy in 1347, by January 1348, it reached southern France, by June and August it traveled to Paris, and in early 1349 it crossed the channel to England. Scandinavia was devastated in 1350 and it reached the northern shores of Russia in 1352.

However, something interesting happened. While the plague spread through Europe like a hot knife through butter; it left some areas completely untouched.

Why would that be?

The areas spared by the plague included the city of Milan in northern Italy, Poland, between Cracow and Warsaw, and the city of Prague.

One rumor is that a statue of the baby Jesus in Prague kept the plague from the city.

But more likely, the answers are less magical. In the case of Milan, the government came up with a rather effective, if not gruesome method. At the first sign of infection, the rulers of Milan would have the house of the infected, along with the three houses next to it, completely walled up. With the people still inside it.

But what about Poland? Well, the truth is hard to come by. There are several theories however. One is that Poland closed its borders to Europe during the plague. Another is that Poland was so under populated and settlements spread apart that the plague couldn’t go through the country. Another idea is that many Jews, who were often blamed for the plague, fled to Poland, since Jews were often isolated from the rest of the populations, they had a much lower percentage of infected people.

Those might all seem plausible but a few of those theories don’t hold water. The idea that Poland closed its borders is unlikely. Nations in the medieval era didn’t really have the ability to “close borders” They didn’t have a wall around the whole country and couldn’t run along the border like they do in Texas. However, cities were able to wall themselves up and could enforce strict rules about who was allowed in and who wasn’t.

Poland also wasn’t that sparsely populated compared to other areas in Europe that were devastated by the black death. So it’s unlikely that theory is true either.

In reality the truth may never be found, records from that period are illusive and since there was no real idea of how the disease spread, finding the right information is very difficult to come by.

So what does the nursery rhyme “Ring around the Rosie” have to do with the black death? Let’s review, here is the rhyme we’re most familiar with:

A pocket full of posies;
Ashes! Ashes!
We all fall down.

The myth is that this creepy sounding nursery rhyme is a reference to the black death. It began around 1347. The “ring around the rosie” refers to the round red rash that is the first symptom of the disease. The practice of carrying flowers and placing them around the infected person for protection is described in the phrase “a pocket full of posies” and the words “ashes” is a corruption or imitation of the sneezing sound made by the infected person. And “we all fall down” is referring to the infected person dying.

Despite this explanation making the rhyme even more creepy and kind of cool, it’s not true. While the references are valid, the rash, sneezing and death were all attributed to the black death, the first recorded use of the rhyme is dated to 1881. For the plague origin to be true, we’d need to assume that children have been reciting this continuously for over five centuries. (meanwhile no one found the time to write down this incredible popular rhyme)

In addition, there are several more versions of this rhyme that appeared around 1881, including the version:

Ring a ring a Rosie,
A bottle full of posie,
All the girls in our town
Ring for little Josie.

Even if we assumed that the myth was true, how could we honestly say that the “plague” version is the real version and that the other variations are corruptions of that one and not the other way around?

Additionally, not only were children reciting this plague inspired nursery rhyme, but it took over six hundred years for someone to figure it out, because it wasn’t until 1961 in a book called Plague and Fire that a connection to the black death was even proposed. The myth has been repeated again and again. It’s one of those enduring stories that gets told and retold and no one along the way questions the veracity of the claims. After all, just some basic research, as I’ve done here, clearly shows the whole concept the plague origin of the rhyme is basically impossible.

2 Responses to “Myths about the Black Death”

  1. Sam E said

    Hello, I found an error in this post. The fourth to last word in the fifth paragraph is “where” and it should be “were”.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s