Scapegoating Rats and Other Mistakes: Here's How Scholars Got the Plague Totally Wrong

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"The Plague at Ashdod," by Nicolas Poussin.
"The Plague at Ashdod," by Nicolas Poussin.Credit: Nicolas Poussin / Musee du Louvre
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

What was, will be, they say. Fine, history repeats itself. But we also tend to think that what is, was. Even the scholarly among us may perceive history through the prisms of our reality. Take the plague.

It isn’t only consumers of penny dreadfuls who uncritically assume the plague is a terrifying, civilization-destroying disease; and that if plague there was, it wreaked havoc. Modern researchers do too, and their research serves to reinforce the paradigm, argue Merle Eisenberg of the University of Maryland and Lee Mordechai of Hebrew University in a paper published in prestigious journal the American Historical Review

Hic incipit pestis” (Here begins the plague) – a priest in Stratford-upon-Avon, 1564

The standard paradigm is that there were three great plague pandemics: the “Justinianic plague” from about the year 541 to 750, the “Black Death” pandemic from about 1346 to the mid-19th century, and the “Third Pandemic,” from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century.

First of all, that paradigm shrugs off the fact that plague existed before – the bacteria didn’t spontaneously arise in the sixth century. Genetic evidence reveals its presence in the Bronze Age, and it surely arose even before that.

Column of the Plague (Pestsäule), Graben, Vienna.Credit: Jebulon, Wikimedia Commons

Secondly, research such as cutting-edge paleogenetic analyses demonstrating the existence of Yersinia pestis bacteria in graveyards of yore (for example) is sometimes taken as evidence for widespread societal devastation, even absent any proof of such ruin, Eisenberg and Mordechai argue. This is partly because we have morbid imaginations, and partly because we tend to draw false equivalencies between the different incidences of plague, interpreting them all as potential Black Deaths, they explain.

The first plague pandemic in antiquity, the so-called Justinianic Plague, is such a latter-day misrepresentation, Eisenberg and Mordechai have long been arguing. Although it is commonly assumed to have killed off between 25 to 60 percent of Eurasia’s population, i.e., between 15 million to 100 million people, a critical look at the evidence finds little for a great and terrible pandemic in antiquity. While we would expect, for example, many mass graves, the two scholars have pointed out that archaeologists have only found a few from the period – and even those are not necessarily associated with plague.

Another issue is that the plague in antiquity is believed to have slammed the Mediterranean region in the decades after the 541 outbreak, based on exactly one historical source: the late-sixth-century historian Evagrius. Yet scholarship over the past few decades has added more ambiguous outbreaks to create a pandemic that lasted for over two centuries.

Plague researchers have been fitting the evidence they find into the maximalist myth of three great horrible plagues, without critically examining their base assumption – that there were three great horrible plagues. They also tend to uncritically accept the maximalist notion that the plagues were game-changers, even causing the downfall of the Roman Empire, say Eisenberg and Mordechai.

“Over time, scholars have expanded the three main features of the Justinianic Plague concept – chronology, mortality, and geography … without querying their basis in reality,” they write. Ouch. Thus, perfectly legitimate studies of rats (which carry the fleas that carry the bacteria), paleogenetics and climate studies fanned the flames of the maximalist interpretation – plague woz ’ere and wreaked ’orrors, reifying the overarching misconception about plague, they say.

So, modern science shed light on historical plague but ultimately served the myth. It’s not unlike the discovery of medieval burials of people with bricks jammed in their mouth to avert their rise as vampires, and concluding that there really were vampires.

Bubonic plague victims-mass grave in Martigues, France 1720-1721Credit: S. Tzortzis / http://wwwnc.cdc. / Wikimedia Commons

What plague must do

Regarding the Justinianic Plague, the archaeological and paleogenetic material attests to sporadic, localized outbreaks during late antiquity, not a uniform horrific pandemic that flattened Eurasia, the authors contend. But how did we come to assume otherwise, and that the Justinianic pandemic bashed the final nail into the coffin of the Roman Empire?

The authors suggest that the modern encounter with plague starting in 1894 created a prism through which scholars viewed the past. They came to assume that local outbreaks between 540 to 750 C.E. were actually a pandemic that hit Eurasia uniformly, triggering demographic, political, social, economic and cultural changes. Sort of, by definition, proving the existence of rats and plague bacteria in an ancient town during the period in question shored up the maximalist theory of horror and destruction, whether evidence was found or not.

In fact, the lack of connection between plague and enormous societal changes the disease supposedly caused has been noted before – by one Samuel Cohn of the University of Glasgow, the authors stress; but he was ignored.

Eisenberg and Mordechai have presented their minimalist interpretation before; here they are looking at why scholars have been so oblivious. Basically, scholarship shifted away from examining evidence for what plague might have done, to searching for evidence such as rat bones, climatic changes and ancient plague DNA, and then assuming radical changes because that is what plague must do. Through circular logic, finding this sort of evidence is understood to confirm the presence of plague – with its major historical effects.

They add that the division of plague throughout history into three great pandemics is a modern concept; past historians had not viewed these periods thusly. “The earliest reference we found to the tripartite classification of plague pandemics dates to 1905,” they write.

The tendency to refer to plague periods as a given coalesced over time. By 1969, a paper by Jean-Nöel Biraben and Jacques Le Goff solidified the “early medieval plague” (aka the Justinianic Plague), which was portrayed as causing very high mortality across two centuries and over the Mediterranean and beyond.

And thus the myth became all the more entrenched, including the story that this bout of plague ended in about 750. It did not. Outbreaks continued.

Weissensee Plague Cemetery.Credit: Gras-Ober, , Wikimedia Commons
Plague Park memorial plaque in Helsinki. The text begins:"Here was the burial ground where 1185 Helsinki residents were buried within four months in 1710."Credit: Kaihsu Tai; Wikimedia Commons

A rat is smelled

No question about it, plague is unpleasant and deadly, but many do recover. And as for its inevitably destructive societal effect, they point out that the medieval plague connected with expansion of empire for the Ottomans. Nor did the modern pandemic starting in the late 19th century define any major period in history, they add.

To cause historical change, a disease must cause a heavy death toll. Archival data on the ostensible Justinianic Plague is all but nonexistent – dark ages they were, and what reports there were are not considered accurate. Mordechai and Eisenberg suspect the scribes of yore in plague hot spots to have mightily exaggerated affairs – they weren’t census takers, the researchers point out. Yet too often latter-day scholars tend not to factor literary license into their analyses, but to accept these antique descriptions and numbers as fact.

However, as the two professors point out, the historian Procopius wrote that a four-month outbreak of plague in Constantinople, today Istanbul, caused 5,000 to 10,000 deaths a day during three of those months. A calculation on a napkin shows that the number of dead (over 675,000) was higher than the number of living before the outbreak (around 500,000), which is rather unlikely.

The authors note that in a different text, Procopius claimed Emperor Justinian was a demon and blamed him for causing a trillion human deaths, which are both impossible.

The bottom line is that if there are figures on anything, it’s the modern bout of plague. But one cannot assume that mortality in the sixth century, the medieval period and the 19th century were similar. If anything, the mortality rate in the latest plague was not particularly onerous – yet scholars persisted in treating reports à la Procopius as gospel for understanding the ancient plague. And a disease that horrible must have had significant revolutionary social effects. Where that would have happened has also become distorted in modern research by blind acceptance of fatuous sources such as Procopius, who wrote that “the whole human race came near to being annihilated … it embraced the entire world.” It didn’t.

Apropos perpetuated fallacies, give the rat a break.

Since the early 20th century, it became conventional wisdom that plague is caused by the Yersinia pestis bacteria in a flea that lives on a rat. This has even led to the mass slaughter of rodents in a futile bid to prevent the disease, in part because the murderous drive ignores the fact that fleas can happily subsist on any number of hosts. Including us, which is exactly how we get it – an infected flea bites us. Not an infected rat.

Rats in Moscow, getting a bum rapCredit: AP

If anything, the massive termination of rats may have exacerbated the plague’s spread in some communities because their hungry fleas jumped to other animals, Mordechai and Eisenberg note.

Again, circular logic has been ruling the roost: If there was plague there had to be rats, and if rat remains were found, QED. “The evidence for plague (i.e., if rats then plague) had now become evidence for rats (i.e., if plague then rats),” they write. But actually, solid evidence for this mysophobic assumption is feeble. Leave the rats alone.

What are we to learn? That our distorted view of plague (and rats) may affect the way we handle the latest pandemic, the coronavirus, which is now out of control in parts of the world and is – as had to be expected – producing new versions of itself through mutation, including super-infectious ones. Our distorted view of history may also skew our expectation that pandemic leads to revolutionary historical changes.

Yet the coronavirus has not caused revolutionary historical changes, at least so far, though some attribute Donald Trump’s failure to be elected to a second term as U.S. president to his failure to acknowledge – let alone cope with – the pandemic. But that’s short of a revolution; it’s just a rejection.

Three men dissecting rats in New Orleans, in a search for signs of Bubonic Plague. Credit: Via 1, Wikimedia Commons

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