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Rats cannot have been intermediate hosts for Yersinia pestis during medieval plague epidemics in Northern Europe

Journal of Archaeological Science
DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2012.12.007
  • Black Death
  • Medieval Plague
  • Rattus Rattus
  • Pulex Irritans
  • Archaeology
  • Biology
  • Medicine


Abstract The commonly accepted understanding of modern human plague epidemics has been that plague is a disease of rodents that is transmitted to humans from black rats, with rat fleas as vectors. Historians have assumed that this transmission model is also valid for the Black Death and later medieval plague epidemics in Europe. Here we examine information on the geographical distribution and population density of the black rat (Rattus rattus) in Norway and other Nordic countries in medieval times. The study is based on older zoological literature and on bone samples from archaeological excavations. Only a few of the archaeological finds from medieval harbour towns in Norway contain rat bones. There are no finds of black rats from the many archaeological excavations in rural areas or from the inland town of Hamar. These results show that it is extremely unlikely that rats accounted for the spread of plague to rural areas in Norway. Archaeological evidence from other Nordic countries indicates that rats were uncommon there too, and were therefore unlikely to be responsible for the dissemination of human plague. We hypothesize that the mode of transmission during the historical plague epidemics was from human to human via an insect ectoparasite vector.

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