back to article Plague: The new Black Death

Scientists have warned that plague, scourge of the medieval world, poses a "a growing but overlooked threat" as it spreads slowly into hitherto unaffected territories. According to a team including Michael Begon, an ecologist at the University of Liverpool, while plague has "only killed some 100 to 200 people annually over the …


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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I thought the new Black Death was...

    The Blue screen of death, propogated by M Madidus (Microsof to the uninitiated)!!

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Just call Torchwood, Owen dealt with it Ok

  3. JP
    Dead Vulture


    Really needed to read about blood from all orifices and a general meltdown RIGHT BEFORE LUNCH.

    Off to have a paella... Or maybe just a salad.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward



    "We are running out of funding - we will play the terrosism/bio weapon card"

    As an aside, O woe is me, the planets population controls are kicking in, great shame...

  5. Menno

    Cheap cure

    Thankfully, Y.pestis is usually susceptible to doxycyclin, one of the cheapest antibiotics around.

  6. Robert

    Modern Plague neq Medieval Plague

    To the best of my knowledge the modern plague is different from the medieval plague. The medieval plague is some unknown virus infection. I remember a report where they tried to identify the medieval virus from remnants of medieval plague victims - without success.

  7. Anonymous Coward

    re : cheap cure

    Menno said:

    "Thankfully, Y.pestis is usually susceptible to doxycyclin, one of the cheapest antibiotics around."

    Ssshhhh.... don't let the big pharmacuticals hear that - if there is a hike in the number of infections you can bet the cost of the treatment will rise exponentially....

  8. Blubster

    In Africa be buggered.....

    It'll be happening here in the UK soon as the rat population continues to increase at an exponential rate (14 million at latest estimate), fed by those dirty bastards who can't master the technique of throwing their Big Mac's, KFC's and fucking pizzas into a waste-bin instead of just dropping them in the street.

    Oh, and while I'm in full-rant mode, they ought to start prosecuting those filthy twats who constantly gob in the street. Some parts where I live look they're infested with jelly-fish. Haven't these bastards heard of TB?

    Rant over.... I'll get me coat.

  9. Neal

    No Evidence the Black Death was Bubonic Plague

    There is no absolute scientific evidence that they were the same thing, so it is wrong to keep using the terms interchangeably. The precise virus or bacterium has never been formally identified. The Black Death was only assumed to be bubonic plague because of some superficial similarities between the symptoms described in the medieval texts and the symptoms of bubonic plague.

    This article outlines some of the counter arguments:

  10. Kurt Guntheroth

    black death of the brain

    "no absolute scientific evidence that they were the same thing"

    ...Except for the common symptoms, the persistence of the black death bacterium into modern times, and the absense of evidence for some other infectious agent. What do you want, surveillance camera video of Y. pestis actually entering 14th century cells?

    Dead rats on the streets might be common enough in the 14th century to be beneath notice. And flea-borne transmission from human to human in the 14th century is also pretty easy to imagine. Makes me itchy just to think about it.

    As for the heartless bastard muttering about planetary population controls, it is best to remember that you don't actually choose the victims of an epidemic. Once it gets rolling it pretty much gets on everybody, no matter where it starts.

  11. Bounty
    IT Angle


    What exactly does it mean to 'gob in the street' I shudder to think what it means... if it actually causes the streets to look like they're infested with jellyfish. I'm guessing it's some body fluid of some sort? Or perhaps it means to means to to make sandwiches or something.. with grape jelly spashing all over?

  12. Alex Wood


    Mouth, spit (n.), or spit (v.i.).

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    "gob on sidewalk"

    also known as a "pavement oyster"

    i can never eat the things again after hearing this

  14. N

    Plague Abounds Still, and Never Left

    Plague never really disappeared. Ever.

    The plague never disappeared, it just lightened. Since we have developed better sanitation, IE: complex sewer systems, killing rats on sight, antibiotics, shower daily, clean clothes.

    Sanitation has really changed since the Midieval times when most people dumped all sorts of refuse into the streets, rather than disposing of it properly. This led to rats being more common place, feeding in the streets, and living in homes.

    So, it never really disappeared, but the population decrease and our fear of rats (and killing them enmasse) had driven the plague back. Driven it back, but not erradicated.

    Plague is still a threat to Sewer Sanitation, as they must wear masks and get innoculated often.

  15. Anonymous Coward


    "Septicaemic", surely.

  16. Andy Bright

    Nice cuppa tea

    will sort that out, no worries.

  17. Mike Lovell

    "Sanitation has really changed since the Midieval times"

    Can someone please tell that to my neighbour, he insists on coming home drunk and taking a dump on my lawn!

  18. Anonymous Coward

    Another thing they didn't

    have then was good strong poison to kill the rats and the fleas and I see no reason to suspect those have lost their ability to cut down on the problem. I have used a lot of poison over the years and it never hurt me I'll finish this comment later when my eyes stop twitching.

  19. Steven Knox Silver badge

    Black Death/Bubonic Plague and Occam's Razor

    We know that the symptomology of the Black Death is very similar to today's Bubonic Plague.

    We know that virii/bacteria can and do mutate into strains which propagate via different vectors.

    The simplest conclusion from this is that the Black Death was either today's Bubonic Plague, boosted by the poor sanitary conditions of medieval Europe, or a mutated strain which could propagate via human-to-human contact.

    Certainly, a rigorous scientific journal should not use the terms interchangeably, but who's ever call El Reg "rigorous" or "scientific"?.

    You might as well complain about the usage of "flu".

    * or, for that matter, a "journal". I won't get into what the Register IS called.

  20. John Savard Silver badge

    Terrorist threat limited

    Although I am generally disinclined to minimize any potential hazard from terrorism, I do think that weaponizing Y. pestis is one of the least of our worries from terrorists.

    Unless they can find an antibiotic-resistant strain, what terrorist is going to think it worthwhile to attack the countries so poor they don't have access to antibiotics?

  21. Dr Dan H.

    But where's the vector?

    The medieval plague was most emphatically NOT Y. pestis. What people always forget is that the modern rat Rattus norvegicus has not been in the country for all that long; R. norvegicus was not present in medieval Britain. The black rat, Rattus rattus was present, but only in the ports; it seems to have been at the northern extent of its range and didn't breed outside warm buildings.

    Out in the countryside, there is no evidence for rats being present. In modern times, wherever there are rats and owls present, you always find the bones of rats in owl pellets, and these owl pellets persist quite well in the environment. In archaeological layers you also find owl pellets, complete with almost all the expected prey that modern owls eat; voles, mice, frogs, toads and so on.

    What you do not find in the owl pellets is the remains of rats, any rats.

    Rats were simply not present in the countryside of medieval Britain. So, the major vector for Y. pestis was not present in medieval Britain, which pretty much rules out Y. pestis for being the plague.

    The minor counter-arguments are epidemiological. Y. pestis breaks out sporadically whenever the rat population booms and gets infected; the plague then runs riot through the rat population and kills them off. The surviving homeless rat fleas then transmit plague to humans. What this causes is unconnected outbreaks of plague, always preceded by an increase in rats and a crash in their population.

    The medieval plague, by contrast, seemed to break out along the roads and rivers first and isolated country spots much later; this is consistent with a long incubation period viral disease.

    Finally, the population of Western Europe seems to be especially immunologically resistant to viral diseases, being the descendents of a widespread viral plague (the vulnerable members of the population died out then.

  22. Anonymous Coward

    Mouldy bread

    I read somewhere that the penecillin found in mouldy bread might be good for killing the plague.

    If it is, then they don't need access to drugs do they?

    Eat mould, don't die of plague.


  23. Peter Mellor

    Re: "Sanitation has really changed since the Midieval times"

    > By Mike Lovell

    > Posted Wednesday 16th January 2008 00:48 GMT


    > Can someone please tell that to my neighbour, he insists on coming

    > home drunk and taking a dump on my lawn!

    Mmm ..

    Reminds me of an old joke:

    Fred is in the pub, and he and his mates are *very* drunk. Fred

    throws up all down his suit.

    "Oh No!" says Fred "What am I going to tell the missus?"

    "Don't worry!" says his friend, "I'll put 20 quid in the breast pocket

    of your jacket. When you get home, you say that some drunk threw

    up all over you, and he gave you 20 quid to have your jacket cleaned."

    "Great!" said Fred, and went home.

    When Fred got home, his wife said: "You drunken sod! You are

    totally despicable. You've thrown up all over your own suit!"

    "No, I haven't!" said Fred. "It was someone else. And if you don't

    believe me, here's his 20 quid to get my suit cleaned."

    His wife looks in the breast pocket of his jacket, and says: "But there's

    40 quid here!"

    "Oh, I forgot to tell you." says Fred. "He shat in my pants as well."

    <Gets coat and runs away very quickly.>

  24. J
    Dead Vulture

    Lovely article

    And I, for one, welcome our new bacterial overlords.

    I the vulture vomiting in disgust or is it "just" plague?

  25. Robert Purvis

    "Scientists" - what are they

    I thought your own rules state that Scientists have to be called Boffins. Come on, keep up.

  26. Anonymous Coward

    @By Blubster

    You missed out kebabs.


  27. Anonymous Coward


    Let's be clear about this - gobbings are not just saliva, there is a goodly amount of snot in there too.


  28. Darkside
    Dead Vulture

    Black rats

    Plague spreads best from one fleabitten human to another without rat vectors. The various mediaeval and later plague epidemics were spread worldwide by travellers, and one British outbreak actually stopped spreading when public-spirited citizens sat tight.

    If you're having rat vectors, black rats are the ones. They're rare in Britain nowadays (I haven't seen one since about 1980 when I caught an immature one in a mousetrap) but then plague's rare too.

    Obviously the vulture's got plague or why's it throwing up blood?

  29. Kiwiiano

    Spreading plague

    Doesn't pneumonic plague start spreading by coughing and sneezing droplets, without the flea vector? Hence the children's song "Ring a ring of rosies (the rash) a pocket full of posies (bunches of herbs to ward off the plague) attishoo, attishoo, we all fall down"

    And our tradition of saying "bless you" when someone sneezes, in case they are coming down with the plague.

    I'd always believed that the Black Death referred to the haemorrhagic phase of the disease, when the subcutaneous bleeding left the dying patient with massive bruising.

  30. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    re:cheap cure

    -duh,seems the cure is as bad as the disease []:




    Skin reaction to sunlight (photosensitivity)

    Upset stomach (dyspepsia)

    Loss of appetite

    Unexplained rash

    Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)

    Watery diarrhea

    Stomach cramps

    Bloody stools

    Unusual headaches

    Blurred vision

    Unexplained rash

    Joint pain


    Feeling tired.

    Allergic reaction

    Liver damage

    Vision changes

    Irritation of the esophagus (esophagitis)

    Ulcers of the esophagus

    Increased pressure in the skull (intracranial hypertension)

    Worsening of systemic lupus erythematosus symptoms (SLE for short or lupus)

    Increased rate of red blood cell destruction (hemolytic anemia)

    Reduced amount of platelets in the blood (thrombocytopenia)

    Tongue swelling (glossitis)

    Serious intestinal infection (enterocolitis)

    Vaginal yeast infection.

  31. Anonymous Coward

    cheap joke

    Tongue swelling (glossitis)

    Vaginal yeast infection

    I often find those two symptoms go together.

  32. Anonymous Coward
    Dead Vulture

    moldy bread & rat poison

    The benefit or defecit depends on the type of fungus. True enough, penicillin derives from penicillium notatum, a fungus that grows on bread or grain. During those same middle ages the rye crops were sometimes infested with claviceps purpurea, also known as ergot. Since they had to either eat what they'd grown else starve, many were afflicted with ergotism, characterized by psychosis (although in those days they just called it madness). Albert Hoffman was experimenting with ergot compounds when he discoverd LSD in 1938.

    As for rat poison, for many years one of the most popular was warfarin. Dose up a rat on enough warfarin and he hemorrhages, bleeds out, dessicates and don't stink up the house when he dies inside the walls of your house. Warfarin Sodium (generic) and under several brand names, is one of the most popular anticoagulants in medical use today. Cardiologists prescribe it for a number of conditions to prevent clots that could result in stroke or other circulatory blockage.

    Two sides to every coin I guess...

    Since there's no hemorrhaging rat icon, I settled for the vulture.

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