Robin's Blog

Rats got unfairly blamed for bubonic plague

It's amazing what gets covered in lectures when you're studying geography...

Today in my GEOG2006: Quaternary Environmental Change we were learning about extinctions during the Holocene (last 10,000 years ish). In a slight aside from the topic, while talking about the Black Rat (rattus rattus) and the Brown Rat (rattus something elseus) our lecturer (Tony Brown) told us that actually most of the evidence now points to rats not being involved in the bubonic plague in Britain.

Maps showing the extents of rat populations in the UK. Black rats on the left (mainly confined to coastal areas) and brown rats on the right

Maps showing the extents of rat populations in the UK. Black rats on the left (mainly confined to coastal areas) and brown rats on the right

He suggests that various bits of evidence point towards this:

  1. Rats move very slowly - at least compared to various other creatures. The bubonic plague spread from south east Kent to Derbyshire in about six months - the rats would have had to have been running for the entire six month period to get there that quickly!
  2. The bubonic plague flea lives only on Black Rats. These are nowhere near as widespread as brown rats (in fact at the moment they're on the endangered species list) and, as far as we know, have never been widespread in Britian - they only existed in small pockets around points of entry (normally ports like Southampton, Liverpool, London and Bristol).
  3. It is almost possible to predict who in each village will get the bubonic plague - it seems to be almost always related to contact with other people. For example, the vicar and the doctor are likely to get it - even though they are likely to be relatively upper class and therefore less likely to have rats living in their houses.

Overall this seems to suggest that bubonic plague was an entirely human-spread contagious disease.

(NB: This entire post may be wrong. If so - it's not my fault! I'm just reiterating information I heard from my lecturers...)


Categorised as: Short Interesting Things


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