Was it the Black Death or the Bubonic Plague? During the life of William Shakespeare who lived in the Elizabethan era many people died of a terrible disease. There is often considerable confusion regarding whether this disease was the Bubonic Plague or the Black Death. This article clarifies whether the disease was the Bubonic Plague or the Black Death. The team at William Shakespeare.info would like to extend our grateful thanks to Rev. Dr. Leigh A. Ladd, BVBiol, BVSc, PhD, MACVSc, MAIBiol, MIBiol, CBiol at the Charles Sturt University for writing the following article.
Was it the Black Death or the Bubonic Plague? The Black Death was not, and could not possibly have been, bubonic plague. The latter is caused by a bacterium, Yersinia pestis, named after Yersin, (pupil of Louis Pasteur), who discovered the life cycle of the disease with its unusual association with rat fleas as vectors and the differing infectivity of Rattus norwegicus and Rattus rattus cosequent to the distances they keep from man in their normal habit. The original argument was that the R. norwegicus deposed R. rattus from its niche when it came across Europe (not from Norway as the name would suggest, this was a "racist" title, akin to polish jokes and the like) and because its habit was not to dwell in such close proximity to man, the rat fleas did not bit people so frequently, thus the rate of reinfection was not continuing. However, there was no significant rat mortality associated with the Black Death in records.
Was it the Black Death or the Bubonic Plague?
While the pneumonic form of bubonic plague (which occurs in a few cases) can cause rapid spread between people, it could still not account for the Black Death of the 1300s to 1600s. The global warming experienced at that time (also resulting in vast changes in agriculture and a large population explosion throughout Britain and Europe) was followed by a global cool-down 300 years after, and this seemed to admit the Black Death to the area by providing viable surroundings, and then to extinguish it just as rapidly as it had started.
Was it the Black Death or the Bubonic Plague? The Black Death turns out to have been an "ebola-like" virus with an incubation period of about 7 days and a symptomless infectious time of in excess of 21 days. Once symptoms appeared death usually occurred 5 to 7 days later. This can be demonstrated from town records of towns that would be cut off in winter, and an epidemiological study has been carried out most effectively and written for public reading in the book: "Return of the Black Death" by Susan Scott and Christopher Duncan (2005) Wiley & Sons, Chichester, West Sussex, UK. The problem with this was that you could infect hundreds of people before you knew you were sick. Records demonstrate the foot migration of workers carrying the plague from London to Scotland resulting in outbreaks in small towns weeks walk from London.
Was it the Black Death or the Bubonic Plague?
Quarantine was designed for Black Death, and attempts for less than 40 day quarantines failed (indeed, the meaning of the word), but bubonic plague quarantine does not need to be so long.
Moreover, The Black Death was Europe-wide, and spread as far as Iceland, in which there were, alas, no rats, thus the required vector, the rat flea, did not exist.
The disease was passed from one person to another, and the airborne transmission was written of in historical documents from the time.
Was it the Black Death or the Bubonic Plague? Unfortunately, an idiot scientist (I can say that because I am a scientist, although hopefully not an idiot one), decided that it must have been bubonic plague only about 100 years ago (no references exist to link the 2 earlier than that), merely on the basis that both diseases have a common symptom: they both cause buboes, or large black necrotising lesions similar to abscessing carbuncles. The course (pathophysiology and symptom/timing) and the mortality rates differ, however, and on the basis of exceptional evidence, it's time we correct our misguided fear of rats and misunderstandings of history...
Unfortunately we did not have enough medical equipment to make accurate diagnoses then, but let us hope that plague does not return. We know that bubonic plague is endemic in the rat populations of London, Sydney and most other large cities. But an ebola-like virus with long symtomless infectious period and 60% death rate would be disastrous. Having said this the CR35 gene allele seems to have survived from Europe: Black death concentrated this gene by killing those without it, and this gene happily confers some immunity to HIV/AIDS also. If Black Death recurred, those who are immune to AIDS would also be immune to it. So we'll have a death rate of around 75 to 85 % in Europe, but higher elsewhere if this comes back. An horrific thought: God be gracious to us that it do not so.