Black Death secrets were revealed by archaeologists and forensic scientists who have examined more than 20 skeletons unearthed in the Clerkenwell area of London, England last year. In their forensic studies, the scientists believe they have uncovered the truth about the true nature of the Black Death that ravaged Britain and Europe in the mid-14th century. Examination of the excavated remains and wills registered in London at the time of the plague have cast doubt on the previously accepted explanation that the epidemic was the result of a very virulent strain spread via rat fleas. Instead, new evidence taken from the human remains found in Charterhouse Square, which is located to the north of London, during excavations carried out in connection with the construction of the Crossrail train line, have suggested that only an airborne infection could have been responsible for transmitting the plague so fast, effectively, and generating the kill rate observed during the epidemic.
The Black Death arrived in Britain from central Asia in the medieval times around the Fall of 1348 and by late spring 1349, it had killed nearly 60 percent London’s population. In modern times, an epidemic of this magnitude would result in a kill rate estimate of five million people. Additionally, DNA samples of the disease bacterium were retrieved from the human remains excavated from Charterhouse Square and the scientists were able to compare the strain of bubonic plague preserved samples with samples that were recently responsible for claiming 60 people lives in Madagascar. Amazingly, the 14th-century bubonic plague strain responsible for the most lethal catastrophe in recorded history was no more virulent than today’s disease. Moreover, the DNA codes proved to be nearly an exact match.
More Black Death secrets were revealed when scientists working at Public Health England in Porton Down determined that for any plague to spread at such an exponential rate, the disease must have infected the lungs of victims who were malnourished and then transmitted via coughs, sneezes, and direct person-to-person contact. Therefore, it was in fact a pneumonic plague rather than a previous categorized bubonic plague. Additionally, the infection was transmitted via direct person-to-person contact, rather than by rat fleas that bit a sick person and then transmitted it to another victim. Moreover, the previous explanation of rat fleas being the vectors for the plague is simply impractical. It could not have spread fast enough from one household to the next to cause the huge number of cases that were encountered during the Black Death epidemics.
To support the contention that it was, in fact, a pneumonic plague rather than bubonic plague, evidence was explored from a similar occurrence in Suffolk in 1906 when plague killed a family and then spread to a neighboring family who had provided help. The culprit in this instance was also determined to be a plague of pneumonic nature, which had infected the victims’ lungs and was subsequently transmitted through infected breath and direct human contact.
The skeletons excavated at Charterhouse Square also revealed that the general population of London was in poor health when the Black Death struck the country. According to Crossrail train officials and archaeologists from the Museum of London, physical evidence was found of rickets, anemia, bad teeth, and childhood malnutrition among the human remains. Additionally, in support of the contention that this was a rapid transmission, direct contagion, archaeologists have found documented evidence that during medieval times, the City of London all wills had to be registered at the Court of Hustings. Moreover, this evidence lends credence to the believe that approximately 60 percent of Londoners were killed during the scourge of the Black Death. Today, antibiotics can readily combat and prevent diseases from becoming pneumonic. However, during the medieval times and height of the plague, the death rate did not ease until the advent of the Pentecost in May.
By Leigh Haugh
New Zealand Herald