Who Really Caused the Black Death?

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We all know that one of the biggest problems people have with rats is their history in spreading disease. Now, before you all get upset, it was the common rat (Rattus norvegicus) that was the accused, not the beautiful fancy rat (Rattus norvegicus domestica). But, still…at Rat Ambassadors dispelling myths is a huge part of the job.

So, we at Vauxhall City Farm are reopening the case and re-examining some old suspects, in order to clear the name of some of our most favourite resident rodents.

We call our first suspect to the stand…

Fleas and Lice

The tiny bloodsuckers are a well-known conspirator in the arena of spreading illness and disease. So, they stand to be a likely suspect. National Geographic have highlighted a recent study that shows that indeed it was much more likely that parasites spread the bubonic plague (often referred to as the Black Death). The poor rat was simply the chosen vessel for these old-time superspreaders. It is more than likely that rats simply befell one of the oldest examples of ‘shooting the messenger’. Unfortunately, the stigma has never shifted and rats continue to get the blame for carrying the real culprits.

But wait, did we shoot the wrong messenger? The defence calls our next suspect…


Even as long ago as 2015, the BBC and others were writing about the mistrial of rats. It’s all about the weather you see. For rats to swell in the numbers required to spread the disease, the mid-1300s would have needed very warm summers. But, records don’t show this. There was however another Eastern cousin of the rat that can multiply rapidly in cooler temperatures…the gerbil (Meriones unguiculatis). It’s been proven that the bubonic plague ran riot in Asia before spreading to Europe and there is a lot of evidence suggesting that it was gerbils who brought it with them.

Yet, gerbils alone couldn’t have spread the disease to the levels of the Black Plague. So, who else was involved in one of history’s biggest cases of slander? You guessed it…


Have you ever heard of Occam’s Razor? The idea that the most plausible answer is usually the right one? Well, here is a prime example. Just take a look at the History Channel’s article here and you’ll see what I mean

Although rats, gerbils, fleas and lice were widely blamed – because they were considered dirty pests – there was a far more unclean animal walking around in the 1300s in much larger numbers. Homo sapiens – or, as they’re more commonly known, human beings. Hygiene wasn’t very high on the agenda for your regular Dark-Ages resident and social distancing wasn’t going to be a term for another 700+ years. This all meant that humans were in constant contact with rats, gerbils and other sewer-dwellers and the humans’ general uncleanliness meant that they became suitable carriers for the piggybacking fleas and lice. So, it was actually humans that did a better job of spreading the disease, compared to any animal.


Although this may not be conclusive evidence to some, to the Rat Ambassadors it’s huge. Whenever anyone inevitably mentions how rats carry disease and the stopwatch begins before the terms ‘plague’ or ‘black death’ are uttered. Point them in the direction to this blog. We need to change the conversation around rats and reduce stigma. They weren’t responsible for millions of deaths in the middle ages, it was us! I’m sure this isn’t too much of a stretch of the imagination in the age of coronavirus. So, be sure to get out there and spread the word instead – “Rats were wrongfully sentenced, I tell you! And the culprit is still at large.”


Interested in becoming a Rat Ambassador? Visit vauxhallcityfarm.org/rat-ambassadors to find out more. 

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