The spread of the Black Death — a devastating pandemic that ravaged European populations between 1348 and 1350 — has long been attributed to the black rat and the fleas it carried from port to port, while hitching a ride on merchant ships.
Now, a study examining the effects of the plague in London between 1348 and 1349 suggests that the black rat may be the victim of one of the longest-running smear campaigns in human history.
The findings of the extensive ten-year study — conducted by Barney Sloane, a former field archaeologist at the Museum of London — are published in Sloane's The Black Death in London. The book documents Sloane's detailed investigation of court records, excavation reports, and archaeological sites of the plague in London, and how his analyses led him to conclude that people, not rats, were responsible for the spread of the deadly plague.
"The evidence just isn't there to support it," Sloane recently told The Guardian's Maev Kennedy in an interview. Sloane continues:
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."
You can read more about Sloan's efforts to exonerate the black rat, and the evidence he has gathered to support his claims, over at The Guardian