Pneumonic, not Bubonic: Black death was not spread by rat fleas
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, who will put his theory in a Channel 4 documentary, Secret History: The Return of the Black Death, next Sunday.
To support his argument, Brooks has looked at what happened in Suffolk in 1906 when plague killed a family and then spread to a neighbour who had come to help. The culprit was pneumonic plague, which had settled in the lungs of the victims and was spread through infected breath.
The skeletons at Charterhouse Square reveal that the population of London was also in generally poor health when the disease struck. Crossrail’s archaeology contractor, Don Walker, and Jelena Bekvalacs of the Museum of London found evidence of rickets, anaemia, bad teeth and childhood malnutrition.
In support of the case that this was a fast-acting, direct contagion, archaeologist Dr Barney Sloane found that in the medieval City of London all wills had to be registered at the Court of Hustings. These led him to believe that 60% of Londoners were wiped out.
Antibiotics can today prevent the disease from becoming pneumonic. In the spring of 1349, the death rate did not ease until Pentecost on 31 May.