Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Your History Books are Wrong About the Black Death

   When I was in elementary school, I read that the cause of the Black Death, which I thought to only really affect Europe, was the Bubonic Plague spread by rats and fleas. "Ring Around the Rosie" is famously said to refer to the Black Death. And that was that. This is the probably the case for most of you as well. Most people don't think all that much about it. "Black Death" and "bubonic plague" are often used simultaneously. We all have higher standards of living now, so we're all safe, right? No need to ever think about it.
   Fast forward to last year (last decade, technically), but really only a few months ago. I was about to start researching my presentation in my college Western Civ class about the Black Death when my mom read an article by a UK doctor about how some vaccines simply fail to produce antibodies in some people, and he brought up, in a somewhat related topic, how the Black Death most likely was not the bubonic plague at all, but some sort of viral illness.
   Given that I was about to prepare a presentation on this subject, I was very intrigued. I, my mom, and everyone else I'd ever talked to had been told that the Black Death was definitively the bubonic plague, no questions asked, end of story. And while there is a slight possibility of that being the case, the evidence is heavily against it.
   First of all, some basic facts about the Black Death:
  • The Black Death was just as disastrous as are the calculated effects of nuclear war, devastating populations throughout Europe, Africa, and the Middle and Near East, stretching as far as Greenland, and possibly as far as India and China
  • An estimated 33% of the European population died of the disease
  • The Black Death wiped out entire villages, killing as high as 1/2 to 2/3 of the population in some countries
  • The Black Death's mortality rate was almost 100%, killing almost all if not all of those infected with the mysterious disease
   While widely reported to come from Asia because rats infected with Y. pestis, or bubonic plague, live in the steppes of Central Asia, the first documented cases of the Black Death were in Kaffa in 1347 in Crimea. Though the origins of the war that spawned it all are too complicated to get into here, basically, Catholics and Muslims around the region and with significant ties to major ports in Italy wound up breaking out into war in the town of Tana, where Catholics and Muslims brawled, with one Muslim being killed. The Mongol inhabitants, being Muslim since the 1200s, threatened the Catholic assailants. The Catholic, and generally Italian, assailants, fled to the nearby port town of Kaffa, with the Mongols following and deciding to lay siege to the town.
   Enter the Black Death.
   Somehow, from somewhere, no one has any clue how, though there are plenty of theories, the besieging Mongol army caught the Black Death. The mysterious disease ravaged their army, although unfortunately for historians, there are no records as to where it could have come from. Not ones to let a bad disease keep them down, the Mongol army decided to catapult the dead and living bodies of victims of the Black Death into the town of Kaffa to spread the disease to the besieged army as well. The inhabitants tried to get rid of the bodies to minimize the spread of disease, but caught the Black Death from the bodies while trying to get rid of them. Interestingly enough, this is also the first recorded case of biological warfare in history.
   The bodies over the wall were the last straw. The inhabitants of Kaffa boarded ships and fled to Italy. Unfortunately, they brought the disease with them. Everywhere their vessels stopped showed signs of infection a week or more later. When inhabitants of these towns began showing signs of symptoms, seemingly healthy residents fled in panic to other parts of Europe, unknowingly showing signs of infection several weeks later and spreading the infectious disease throughout all of Europe. The French port of Marseilles was infected soon after the disease first hit Italy, and, since Marseilles was a major trade hub, the Black Death soon spread throughout all of Europe, throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and possibly much farther. The Black Death was particularly fast-acting and fast-moving. The initial infection was in 1347, and four years later, when the disease reached northern Russia in 1351, the Black Death had already run its course throughout the rest of Europe, completely ravaging the population.

Aw, rats!
   While a disease colloquially referred to as simply "the plague" seems at first glance a perfect fit for the Black Death, one of the most, if not the most, devastating pandemic the world has ever seen, when closer examined, almost none of the evidence fits. The first problems arise with the rats themselves.


   The problem is, we've witnessed several breakouts of the bubonic plague before, and they have never even remotely resembled what happened in the Black Death. The fact is, rats just don't travel. The Black Death traveled about 4 kilometers or 2.5 miles a day through France, but jumped between towns sometimes 300 kilometers, or 186 miles, apart within just a couple of days. This is much too far for rats or fleas to travel in such a short amount of time. In contrast, the bubonic plague moves very slowly, in India, taking six months to move 300 feet, and in South Africa in 1899, traveling only 20 kilometers a year, even with the aid of trains. The Black Death, however, spread to all of Europe, including Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, England, Greenland, and Russia, North Africa, and the Middle East in just four years. Many of these cold-weather places are not conducive to widespread rat populations at all. Furthermore, fleas are known to like rat bodies much more than human bodies, and documented outbreaks of the bubonic plague, including recent ones in Arizona and New Mexico, were preceded by a massive, incredibly noticeable, die-off of rats. Not only is a significantly higher number of dead rats not reported in any contemporary documents, there are very few rat skeletons to be found in any 14th-century sites. And to top this all off, the Black Death in London is documented to have arrived in November and reached its height by April, spreading very quickly throughout the winter months when rats and fleas are most dormant. The Black Death also spread throughout many very cold regions, such as Norway, Iceland, Greenland, and Russia, all places not very friendly to fleas or rats.

The "filth" commonly cited wasn't everywhere the Black Death was
   Let's assume there was a species of super-rat that lived in the 14th century that traveled at almost Flash-like speeds around the world, taking their superfleas with them, then massively dying off by the thousands, instantly vanishing when dead so that no one could ever see their bodies, then or now. Even supposing rats and fleas were capable of traveling this fast and under all climate conditions, where do rats always, always, always breed? In filthy, dirty conditions. And while medieval Europe was indeed a cesspool of filth at the time, not everywhere that the Black Death spread was. In Northern Africa and the Middle East, Islam was and still is the predominant religion by a large percentage. Muslim cities were known for their cleanliness (nowadays, most of the world is much cleaner than before so these cities don't stand out). This is because the founder of Islam, Mohammed, was a bit of a neat freak and wrote daily baths into the religion. All properly Muslim cities were required to have many constantly flowing fountains so that all devout Muslims could bathe regularly. And they did, and clean habits became part of the culture of these regions. Regular bathing and clean habits cuts down majorly on rats, but even more severely on fleas. Regular bathing habits are also a part of the Jewish religion, and the presence of a Jewish population in any of the places in the Middle East or the high population of Jews in Poland that was present there all the way until Hitler came did nothing to stifle the spread of the Black Death.

The symptoms don't match
   You heard me right. The symptoms of the Black Death don't actually quite match the symptoms of the bubonic plague. The incubation period of the Black Death was about 20 to 30 days. This means an infected person could carry the disease in their body for up to 20 or possibly 30 days without showing any signs of infection, but being able to spread it everywhere. This is in contrast to the two to six day incubation period of bubonic plague, but interestingly matches the incubation periods of several incredibly deadly hemorraghic fevers, such as Ebola. Once the infected person began to show symptoms of the Black Death, the victim would suffer pains, fever and delirium, boils, swollen lymph nodes, blotches, vomiting blood, and then death within three days. If infected, a person was almost certain to die, few if any cases being recorded of victims recovering from the horrid disease. These boils were what is characterized as buboes, a common symptom of many diseases, but the symptom which gives bubonic plague its name. However, buboes in the bubonic plague only occur in specific areas such as the groin and hardly ever spread over the entire body while the boils in the Black Death spread over the entire body, and even the swollen lymph nodes swelled in several areas never seen swollen in the bubonic plague. In addition, the Black Death was accompanied by a horrid stench, blotches, and disrupted nervous systems leading to delirium and stupor, none of which are found in the bubonic plague. Blotches all over the body are found, however, in Ebola, where the blood vessels burst under the skin, creating symptoms almost identical to what the medieval communities called "God's tokens". I also mentioned the mortality rate more than once. The mortality rate for the Black Death was almost 100%, but the bubonic plague is extremely curable, and even untreated, the bubonic plague has a mortality rate of only 60%. 

The origins of quarantining
   Funnily enough, the practice of quarantining originated during the Black Death. In what is now known as Istanbul, officials reported that the disease killed rich and poor equally, no treatments or conditions making any difference in mortality rates. The Black Death killed all it infected equally. The only method that wound up effective in preventing the spread of the disease was quarantine. The city-state of Milan, after hearing reports of the illness sweeping the Italian peninsula, cut themselves off from the rest of the world, ordering their walls closed and allowing very few visitors, as they had significant food stores and multiple wells inside the city. Anyone showing symptoms was barricaded inside their house, and sometimes even burned inside their homes. They managed to wait out the Black Death and not suffer any significant losses. Not a small number of cities, villages, and houses, infected and uninfected either protected themselves from the Black Death or prevented the spread of the disease by staying inside and not leaving. This made the practice of quarantine popular and even invented the word "quarantine". Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but rats and fleas don't honor quarantines. If a rat or a flea saw the red paint on the doors warning people to stay away, he wouldn't see it and go, "Oh, I better not go in there or I'll get sick." And conversely, rats and fleas don't listen to governmental decrees stating they can't leave infected houses or villages or they'll spread disease. If the Black Death was spread by rats or fleas, quarantining wouldn't have worked as rats and fleas don't pay attention to quarantines. Also, many, many contemporary accounts attest that the Black Death was spread through person-to-person contact. If someone touched the living or dead body of an infected person, or anything that came in contact with the infected person, they would most likely get infected too. Like the Black Death, one of the most known hemorrhagic fevers, Ebola, can be spread through any contact with living or dead persons or their things, as it is spread through any bodily fluids, similar to how the common cold spreads. Like the Black Death, an outbreak of Ebola in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Libera from 2013-2015 was kept from infecting the rest of the world by very strict quarantines imposed by world health organizations.

But...but...the scientists and historians argue
   In the late 90s, a group of paleomicrobiologists extracted dental pulp from skeletons in mass graves in France and reportedly found Yersinia pestis, or the bubonic plague. For years, scientists examined skeletons from several grave sites all over Europe and couldn't replicate any of the findings. Finally, in 2010, Y. pestis was found in two teeth from another mass gravesite. Now, this finding is hailed as "proof" that the Black Death was the bubonic plague.
   First of all, these scientists clearly didn't understand one of the first rules of science:
   Science can't prove anything
   This is due to the fact that all science is done through inductive reasoning, which is basically studying what you see and making hypotheses off of that. Because no one can ever have all the evidence or be sure the evidence was collected without any human error, no one can be absolutely sure of any of their hypotheses, but one piece of evidence can disprove a hypothesis, theory, or even scientific law. For instance, there were theories for years that Mars had water canals, upheld by so much evidence that it became a scientific law. However, technology improved, Mars was studied closer, and we found out that these so-called canals were just scratches on telescope lenses and eye fatigue. What a let-down.
   Second of all, the claim that this evidence supports the bubonic plague theory is flimsy at best. The mass gravesite the teeth in 2010 were pulled from was not started until after the first outbreak of the Black Death was over. While it is true that there were outbreaks of the Black Death in isolated areas until the 17th century, this mass grave was used for burying people who died from many mores causes than just the Black Death. DNA in older skeletons is fragile and can be hard to analyze, and diseases can only be found if one knows what one is looking for. All this test "proves" is that two people buried in this gravesite were infected with the bubonic plague at some time over a period of several centuries. After all, people did still get the bubonic plague; it's just not the pandemic-causing killer the Black Death was.

The AIDS mutation
   A mutant form of a protein involved in the immune system called CCR5 arose in northeastern Europe 2,000 years ago​. This mutant form gives protection against diseases such as HIV and AIDS. About 700 years ago, or in the 14th century, the number of Europeans with this mutation rose from 1 in 40,000, which is 0.0025%, to 1 in 5​, which is 20%. This mutation also gives greater resistance to hemorrhagic fevers. Between the 14 and 17th centuries, Europeans grew more and more resistant to the disease causing the Black Death. When tested, however, it was found that the bubonic plague affects people with and without this mutation equally​.

   The Black Death has an incubation period very similar to many hemorrhagic fevers. Ebola victims, for examples, don't show symptoms from five to twenty-one days after infection. The bubonic plague, however, only has an incubation period of two to six days. The symptoms match up more with several different hemorrhagic fevers, as hemorrhagic fevers infect and liquidize all internal organs, essentially dissolving them, causing excruciating pain, such as found in the Black Death victims. This liquidation of internal organs causes a black stinky goo also found in the victims of the Black Death. This goo was basically dissolved organ sludge. I know, disgusting. The quick spread and contact does not correlate with how bubonic plague is known to spread, but is similar to how viral hemorrhagic fevers such as Ebola, yellow fever, and the Marburg virus. DNA evidence in favor of the bubonic plague being the Black Death is flimsy at best, but molecular evidence suggests a viral hemorrhagic fever caused the mutation that increased in frequency dramatically after the Black Death first came to Europe. The Black Death had a much higher mortality rate than the bubonic plague does.
   Sadly, my presentation was not as put together as this blog post, since I had to work with a partner in the project and it was very hard actually getting him to meet with me and devote time to the project. Our presentation got a B, but, since we're both honors students, I know we could have done better. Nevertheless, I enjoyed doing the research for my project, as strange as it sounds. I am a history major after all. I was watching a video the other day about the Ebola outbreak in 2014 and was reminded again of the strong similarities between Ebola and the Black Death. Do I think the Black Death was actually Ebola? Maybe. I do think it was a viral hemorrhagic fever. Ebola could have mutated into a particularly viral strain, ravaged the world for a while, then disappeared. It happened in 1918-1919 with a strain of the avian flu that doctors and scientists still aren't sure why that particular strain was so very deadly. The Black Death could have been a strain of a similar viral hemorrhagic fever that wasn't actually a strain of Ebola. I do not think, though, that we need worry too much about the Black Death ravaging the world again. True, viruses have no cure (at least almost always). But it was shown in 2014 that with careful care and quarantine we can prevent an epidemic from becoming a pandemic. It was pretty scary, though, when the few infected American medical personnel were flown into my former hometown, a fairly small place with a very small airport, because I lived near the CDC in Atlanta, but thankfully, Ebola did not break out in Georgia. I think, with careful handling, most pandemics can be avoided. And, if we're lucky, the particular strain of the Black Death died away like smallpox or became less dangerous like measles.
   Don't just take my word for it, though. Check out my sources and decide for yourself.

   Also, here's the video about Ebola that reminded me of my project and inspired me to write this post. 

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