The Pestilence Graveyard in London

From an article in Saturday’s issue of The Guardian:

“Archaeologists and forensic scientists who have examined 25 skeletons unearthed in the Clerkenwell area of London a year ago believe they have uncovered the truth about the nature of the Black Death that ravaged Britain and Europe in the mid-14th century.

“Analysis of the bodies and of wills registered in London at the time has cast doubt on “facts” that every schoolchild has learned for decades: that the epidemic was caused by a highly contagious strain spread by the fleas on rats.

“Now evidence taken from the human remains found in Charterhouse Square, to the north of the City of London, during excavations carried out as part of the construction of the Crossrail train line, have suggested a different cause: only an airborne infection could have spread so fast and killed so quickly.


“The Black Death arrived in Britain from central Asia in the autumn of 1348 and by late spring the following year it had killed six out of every 10 people in London. Such a rate of destruction would kill five million now. By extracting the DNA of the disease bacterium, Yersinia pestis, from the largest teeth in some of the skulls retrieved from the square, the scientists were able to compare the strain of bubonic plague preserved there with that which was recently responsible for killing 60 people in Madagascar. To their surprise, the 14th-century strain, the cause of the most lethal catastrophe in recorded history, was no more virulent than today’s disease. The DNA codes were an almost perfect match.

“According to scientists working at Public Health England in Porton Down, for any plague to spread at such a pace it must have got into the lungs of victims who were malnourished and then been spread by coughs and sneezes. It was therefore a pneumonic plague rather than a bubonic plague. Infection was spread human to human, rather than by rat fleas that bit a sick person and then bit another victim. “As an explanation [rat fleas] for the Black Death in its own right, it simply isn’t good enough. It cannot spread fast enough from one household to the next to cause the huge number of cases that we saw during the Black Death epidemics,” said Dr Tim Brooks from Porton Down.”

Read the entire article here:

And though the scientific conclusions are oddly missing from the text in this SF Chronicle article, the photos are wonderful:


6 Comments on “The Pestilence Graveyard in London

  1. I read this in The Guardian and wondered if any of the scholars working on the Pestilence have questioned this. The assertion that the article seems to be making is that the bacillus in the flea on the black rat was not at all responsible. Yet, all the books I’ve read on this give credit to both the pneumonic strain and the bacillus-carrying flea! Hmmm. Thank you for posting more provocative pieces!


    • I wondered the same thing–is this simply more support for the theory that it began with the flea bacillus and then moved to the pneumonic strain, or have they somehow proved the flea bacillus was never involved? I’m not convinced, but I’m excited to learn more.


  2. Interesting. I am currently reading Geraldine Brooks’s novel. “Year of Wonders” about a visitation of the plague in 1666. I wonder if it was different than that one in the 1300s.


      • As I’ve read further in Geraldine Brooks’s “Year of Wonders” I see that These folks living in the village of Eyam in 1666 believed the plague was spread by human contact and so quarantined themselves in order to protect the neighboring communities. At one point the main character, Anna Frith, says, “So much we knew; proximity to the ill begat illness…What remained a puzzlement was why some lived who dwelt all together in one house, sharing with the ailing their food and bedding and even the very air they breathed.” [BTW, as a writer would you write Brooks’ or Brooks’s? I have seen no definitive answer to this question.]


      • Although it looks awkward, Brooks’s is the form my publisher would use.


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