Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants - Robert Sullivan (2005)
Chapter 14. PLAGUE
ONE REASON THAT rats have a bad reputation is that they have been at the scene of some of humanity's greatest calamities, chiefly as carriers of the plague. Plague is often referred to as bubonic plague because of its symptoms, which include a fever and swelling of the infected person's lymph nodes, or buboes, followed by convulsions, vomiting, giddiness, severe pain, and dark spots on the skin. Death results from heart failure, internal hemorrhaging, or exhaustion. Other versions of plague are pneumonic plague, which is a kind of pneumonia, and septicemic plague, which is plague that invades the bloodstream so quickly that death can occur within twenty-four hours. The plague is also known as the Black Death, though it was not called the Black Death during the Middle Ages when it wiped out as much as 80 percent of the population of most towns and villages. It was first called the Black Death by Scandinavian chroniclers writing in the sixteenth century. Though the plague can cause parts of the body to turn black, when the Scandinavian writers used the term black, they used it to mean terrible or dreadful or horrible.
Plague can live indefinitely in communities of small rodents, such as marmots and gophers and various kinds of rats; rodents are considered the natural reservoir of plague. In fact, plague infects rats and kills them too, so that it could be argued that rats are as much victims of the plague as humans. When rats get the plague, they get it from fleas—most likely, a rat fleasuch as a Xenopsylla cheopis, A rat fleais about the size of this letter o and is shaped like a miniature elephant. A flea injects its trunk like proboscis into the rat to suck blood. When a rat flea sucks in rat blood infected with plague bacteria, the plague bacteria multiplies and eventually clogs the guts of the flea; the flea starves to death. In the meantime, before the flea dies, it feeds again and regurgitates the plague bacilli into the next rat as it feeds on the rat's blood. As many as one hundred thousand bacilli can be injected into a rat by a flea, but one plague bacillus could kill an animal as large as a monkey. When the rat dies, the flea senses the temperature change of its host and leaves the body of the cold, dead rat to find a warm, live rat. The flea then infects that rat, which either stays alive and breeds the plague for a time, or dies, causing more fleas to move on to more rats. Rat fleas prefer to feed on rats, and in areas where plague-infected rodents do not regularly come in contact with humans, there may be no human plague epidemics; the disease can live without consequence to man. But because rats live so closely to man, rat fleas will feed on humans (or any warm-blooded mammal) as a kind of second choice. The rat flea can wait a while for a human to appear; it can live for six months without a meal of blood. It can live in old rat nests or in fabric.
Plague epidemics begin when plague fleas begin jumping from rats to humans, as the rats die. Epidemics turn into pandemics when the disease spreads through wider areas, like a continent. There is a mention of what historians believe may be a plague epidemic in the Bible, thought to have occurred amongst the Philistines in 1320 B.C. The first plague pandemic swept the Roman Empire in the time of Emperor Justinian; between 25 and 50 percent of the population died. The Black Death of Europe was the second pandemic. It broke out in 1338, the end of a chain of events that may have begun with an infected community of a kind of large marmot, called a tarbagan, that lived on the arid plateau of central Asia in what is now Turkistan—a disease that would nearly wipe out whole cities originated in the most rural part of the world. It is theorized that the nomads who lived in the area were spared plague death because the fleas on the tarbagans were apparently repelled by the smell of the tribe's horses; a balance existed between flea-infected tarbagans and humans. Then something happened to the area that disturbed that balance. Historians speculate about earthquakes, but no one knows for certain. Another change occurring at the time was the building of a road, a great silk-trading route that connected Europe with China. Italians were especially interested in trading for silk, and they set up colonies along the eastern shore of the Black Sea, which was from where people like Marco Polo made their way to China. Along with silk and other trading goods, the traders brought back rats, probably black rats, which preceded Rattus norvegicus into Europe and were migrating along the human routes from Asia. First trading stations grew up along the routes, then towns. Unlike the nomads, the people in the towns became infected with the plague, probably due to infected rats.
The plague moved west along the silk route. It traveled with the human settlers and travelers and rats along the Volga Paver; it arrived on the coast of the Black Sea. David Herlihy, the plague scholar, wrote, "To spread widely and quickly, and to take on the proportions of a true pandemic, the plague must cross water. Contact with water ignites its latent power, like oil thrown upon fire." A famous plague story involves a khan of the Golden Horde, a Mongol state conquered and ruled by a grandson of Genghis Khan that got its name from the gleaming tent camp it set up along the Volga River. In 1347, in the Genoese Black Sea trading port of Kaffa, what is today the Ukrainian city of Feodosiya, the local khan battled the Italian merchants. The khan used a catapult to hurl plague victims into the Genoese port. The Genoese dumped the bodies but sailed back to Italy with plague-infected rats and fleas.
The plague quickly streamed west through Europe on and in the rats—the humans following their long-established trading paths, the rats following their long-established habit of following humans. It started in seaports. A Byzantine observer noted that the plague began in the ports and moved into the countryside: "A plague attacked all the seaports of the world and killed almost all of the people." People were dying as far west as Ireland, where, in Killkeney, a monk who described himself as "waiting among the dead for death to come" left blank pages at the end of his journal "in case anyone should still be alive in the future."
What was perhaps most black about the plague was that no one knew where it was coming from or what caused it or whom it would strike next. Science attempted to explain the plague but failed. When called upon, doctors at the University of Paris, the most exalted medical faculty in the medieval world, posited, citing Aristotle, that the cause of the plague was a conjunction of Saturn, Mars, and Jupiter, on March 20, 1345, at 1 P.M. "For Jupiter, being wet and hot, draws up evil vapors from the earth, and Mars, because it is immoderately hot and dry, then ignites the vapors, and as a result there were lightnings, sparks, noxious vapors, and fires throughout the air." Other indications that experts deemed plague-related were birds restless at night, frogs sitting huddled together, fruit becoming rotten and full of worms and falling from trees, the presence of unusual insects, large spiders, strangely colored gnats, ravens circling in pairs, mad dogs, and black vapors rising from the earth.
These observations made sense at the time because scientists generally understood infectious diseases as a matter of venomous atoms—invisible particles generated by rotting matter or emanating from people or animals or even objects already infected. Air infected by the venomous particles would become bad or miasmatic—i.e., poisonous. The venomous atoms were considered sticky and to be avoided. People avoided foul airs by holding flowers to their nose or dousing themselves with perfumes, which were invented as a response to plague. Some people felt that if they doused themselves with an odor more foul than the bad air, then they would be safe. Thus, in addition to bathing in rose water, people bathed in urine or stood for a long time in latrines. To some extent, such preventative measures often worked, though often not in the manner intended. In Italy, for example, doctors took to wearing robes made of toile ciree, a finely woven linen coated with wax and fragrance. Along with the linen robe, the doctor wore a hood and a mask and a long beaklike apparatus that was designed to filter the air. It made the wearer look like a large, sinister bird. In 1657, a friar, Father Antero Maria da San Bona ventura, who treated plague victims at a pesthouse in Genoa, noted that all the plague robe did was protect him from fleas, which the friar described as legion. "I have to change my clothes frequently if I do not want to be devoured by the fleas, armies of which nest in my gown, nor do I have force enough to resist them, and I need great strength of mind to keep still at the altar," he wrote.
A reader today might shake his head at the obliviousness of the flea-covered friar wondering why flea-covered people had the plague, but that reader has to put himself in the friar's shoes. It was not just what the friar noticed that mattered; how he thought about the world in which he noticed things mattered too. In Fighting the Plague in Seventeenth-Century Italy, Carlo Cipolla, an Italian historian who died in 2000, wrote, "We should not laugh … at the doctors of the scientific revolution." Commenting on Father Antero, Cipolla says that in the friar's mind the fleas were obnoxious but innocent; the friar's remark was meant as a casual attack on the linen robe and not on the scientific system that designed it or described the natural world. "Thus the system prevailed and the observation was lost," Cipolla added. "In the course of human experience thousands of brilliant and accurate observations must have gone astray simply because the related pieces of the mosaic weren't there. Thousands of other observations suffered no less sad a destiny. Accurate observations may be manipulated to fit into a faulty conceptual system with the perverse result of lending support to it. The examples that one could quote are innumerable and would cover the past as well as the present, the sciences as well as the humanities, religion and philosophy as well as politics."
Given the absence of precise knowledge about the plague, communities worried about contracting the disease used fear and malice to guide them. People blamed indecent clothing, corrupt clergy, and disobedient children. Some people blamed it on the general morality of the contemporary populace, including the fourteenth-century poet who wrote these Hnes:
See how England mourns, drenched in tears.
The people stained by sin, quake with grief.
Plague is killing men and beasts.
Why? Because vices rule unchallenged here.
People also blamed outsiders for the plague—visitors, immigrants, drunks, beggars, Gypsies, cripples, lepers, and Jews. Jews were accused of poisoning wells and springs, which in turned caused plague, even though Jews themselves were also dying of plague. In 1349, a Franciscan friar wrote, "And many Jews confessed as much under torture: that they had bred spiders and toads in pots and pans, and had obtained poison from overseas; and that not every Jew knew about this wickedness, only the more powerful ones, so that it would not be betrayed." Christians burned Jews all over Europe to prevent the plague. Jews were also confined to their houses and starved to death. Sometimes, they were spared if they converted to Christianity. Christians also blamed Islamic nations for causing the plague. Islamic people in turn blamed Christians.
The worst of the Black Death happened between the years 1347 and 1350, after which the second plague pandemic subsided a few times. It went from country to country and ended for good after it killed seventy-five thousand people in London. There are many different theories as to why plague ended in Europe: the climate may have gotten too cold for the oriental rat flea, or it may have been that the black rat, which lived closely with man in wooden structures in the cities, was replaced by the Norway rat, which, while also able to carry the plague, was at the time more likely to live in burrows on farms or at least a little farther from man. (The widespread development of sewers, today a natural habitat for Rattus norvegicus, was a century away.) Another reason cited for the end of the plague is that there may have been fewer fleas due to the increased use of soap. One recent theory suggests plague was not a rat-and-flea-related plague at all but an outbreak of anthrax, a disease that normally afflicts cattle but can cause symptoms similar to those described during the Black Death.* Supporters of this theory say that there are no mentions of rats dying. On the other hand, there is no mention of rats not dying, and after spending a goodly amount of time with rats and exterminators, I can say definitively that people are oblivious to the true extent of rats, alive or dead.
Daniel Defoe's book A journal of the Plague Year describes the last large epidemic of the Black Death as it attacked London in 1665. A journal of the Plague Year is a novel but is also read, correctly, as an accurate account of the plague; Defoe, who was a small child when the plague came to London, immersed himself in contemporary accounts. In the book, Defoe describes the plague causing wealthy citizens to leave the city for their country homes and the plague ravaging the low-income neighborhoods: the great plague of 1665 was known at the time as the Poor's Plague. He describes camps of people held at the edge of the city, distrusted foreigners. He describes fear as it infests the city; he details people plundering and looting abandoned homes, people taking advantage of other people's dire circumstances. There are numerous examples of cures designed solely with profit in mind. "Incomparable drink against the plague, never found out before," one handbill said. Defoe writes, "[T]hey not only spent their money but even poisoned themselves beforehand for fear of the poison of the infection … " Even people with honest intentions unintentionally exacerbated the situation; in an attempt to stop the contagion, cats and dogs and even rats were killed. Thus, fleas would more rapidly have jumped to humans.
Defoe describes the city of London reacting like an organism itself, an organism that, while not devoid of good and selfless impulses, is also governed by hunger and fear. At the end of the plague's year, London manages to hold itself together. The city survives the danger brought upon it, but as a hero, the city is flawed, simultaneously noble and base in the face of mysterious danger. "The conclusion reminds us of the moral of Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth: man comes through his ordeals and tests but only just," Anthony Burgess wrote in an analysis of Defoe's book. "In Robinson Crusoe man builds a community from scratch. In the journal Defoe asks whether man can do more than build: can he preserve as well? We are doubtful when we see how badly some of the citizens behave towards each other, but, when we have added all up, we must conclude that the city has done rather better than we expected: it has gained no high marks but it has certainly passed. This is in conformity with Defoe's qualified liberalism, which means a kind of optimism. It is neither God's grace nor innate goodness which saves man's soul alive; it is rather his need for the community, his concept of the desirable life as one lived collectively."
NEW YORK CITY FELT MORE like an organism than ever to me that September, and if it is a living, breathing, horn-honking, and fume-emitting organism during noncrisis times—pulsing with human traffic that wakes up at early-morning rush hour and slows down when the cell-like humans mostly go to sleep—then the city was an organism that was momentarily on life support after the World Trade Center was attacked: the National Guard stopping the flow of panic-ridden pedestrians, the streets blocked off by more-heavily-armed-than-usual police, sewer lines and gas lines and water lines cut and leaking and destroyed—its vital signs suspended or on hold. At the site of the World Trade Center itself, vast baseball-stadium-esque lights made the night seem like day, and cranes worked over the giant, smoke-filled hole as if they were doctors standing over an operating table, over the city's huge and still-bleeding open wound.
Reading Defoe while living in New York after the World Trade Center was destroyed made me realize that a time of crisis can sometimes offer up a test of a city's abilities—for while you inevitably see some of the worst things that people can inflict on other people, you also see some of the best. During those darkest days there were stories of people taking advantage of people, of looting and theft, but there were also moments of tremendous human generosity, examples of the resilience of the city, of people feeling the happiness of being with other people. When the twin towers collapsed, a small Greek Orthodox church across from the World Trade Center was destroyed, and I remember that the archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Church stated afterward, "We have seen the abyss, the ugliness and darkness of evil. In what followed we have seen the beauty and brilliance of good."
* David Herlihy supported this theory, as did Dave Davis, to some extent. Davis researched the record of rat mentions during the Black Death. But I have talked to plague experts who now dispute the anthrax theory, and when I read the ancient notetakers, I tend to believe the disputers. A biologist who investigates plague for the federal government told me that he had investigated ancient Roman crop records and seen that when the crop returns increased, a subsequent increase in plague cases followed. Also, just because medieval accounts don't mention rats per se doesn't mean they aren't referring to rats or ratlike creatures. Here is an example of a medieval naturalist, who pointed out that plague came "when snakes, bats, badgers, and other animals, which dwell in deep holes in the earth, come out in fields in great multitudes and forsake their ordinary dwellings." I count Norway rats as among possible hole-dwelling creatures. As for black rats, which would have lived in dwellings in the medieval cities, I think that people might have had them and not mentioned them. As any exterminator will tell you, and as I mention above, people would not believe the number of rats that are around them every day.