Black Death study lets rats off the hook
Plague of 1348-49 spread so fast in London the carriers had to be humans
not black rats, says archaeologist
Bubonic plague victims of 14th century London, uncovered in the 1980s in
an excavation at the Old Royal Mint. Photograph: Rex Features
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 previously 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
While some suggest that 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 their tax bill cut on the grounds that a
third of all property in the city was lying empty.
nearly 10 years researching his book, poring over records and excavation
reports. Many records have gone missing, while there was also a
documentation shortfall as disaster overwhelmed the city. 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 panic-striken wealthy citizens realised their deaths were probably
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
It appeared to the citizens that everyone in the world 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.
youth, and formerly robust good health were no protection. Edward III's own
daughter, Joan, sailed for Spain with her trousseau, her dowry and her
bridesmaids, 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 at the height of the plague.
As many wills were
being made in a week as in a normal year. Usually these would only be
activated months or years later: in the worst weeks of the plague there was
barely time to get them written down. Many, like Johanna Ely, probably made
their wills when they felt the first dreaded sweats and cramps of the
disease. Others left property and the care of their children to people who
then barely outlived them.
The archaeology of the plague also reveals
that most people, however, were buried with touching care, neatly laid out
in rows, heads facing west, with far more bodies put in coffins than in most
medieval cemeteries � but possibly through fear of infection.
few jumbled skeletons hint at burials carried out some time after death and
decomposition; those cases probably arose because bodies were found later on
in buildings where every member of the household had died.
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 in the crowded city.
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 14th-century sites, but not in high
enough numbers to make them the plague carriers, he said.
beside the Thames, where most of the city's rubbish was dumped and rats
should have swarmed, and where the sodden ground preserves organic remains
excellently, few black rats have been found.
Sloane wants to dig up
Charterhouse, where he believes 20,000 bodies lie under the ancient alms
houses and modern buildings, including the Art Deco block where the
fictional character Hercule Poirot lives in the television series. And, if
anyone finds a mass medieval rat grave, he would very much like to know.