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  • Medieval and Ancient Rats January 18, 2012

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Medieval , trackback

    One of the mysteries of the Black Death in the Middle Ages is how the victims never – with one curious Scandinavian exception – cottoned on to the fact that rodents, particularly rats were disease bearers. In some cases there were infestations of rats before the disease struck and many rats also died, which should have been a clue. Of course, the populations in questions had other things on their mind at the time: burying spouses and children, getting food, avoiding passers-by with suppurating sores on their faces… But apparently earlier populations were better at this. The wanw Adrienne Mayor in her recent book Greek Fire, Poisons, Arrows and Scorpion Bombs deals with knowledge of the transmission of plagues in the Ancient Mediterranean.

    In the ancient world, mice and rats were believed to be controlled by plague-bringing divinities, such as Apollo, Ptah, and Yahweh.


    Further proof that the ancients understood the connection between rodents and epidemics can be found in the Old Testament story of the Philistines who were smote by disease after they captured the Ark of the Covenant during the war with the Israelites in the twelfth century BC. In what may be the earliest account of rodent-bourne bubonic plague, the Philistine lands were afflicted by an onslaught of mice that coincided with an epidemic marked by ‘swellings in the Philistines’ private places’… As pointed out earlier, a classic sign of the Black Death is grotesquely swollen lymph glands in the groins and thighs. And 1 Samuel 5-6 clearly indicates that the Philistines themselves recognised the connection between rodents and the disease.

    Beachcombing is always interested in good ideas before their time: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    Interestingly there has been a modern attempt to back the Middle Ages on this and argue that there was no or little connection between rats and bubonic death. Samuel Cohn particularly made his name in the early 2000s by arguing that rats could not explain the rapidity of the spread of the disease and the description of the disease and the levels of deaths were inconsistent with the Bubonic Plague. It is a fascinating question and one that will presumably be thrashed out through science rather than history in the next generation.


    18/1/12:  MCCP writes in with an objection: ‘Well (harummph) the account of the capture of the Ark in I Samuel as it is currently translated has “tumors” as opposed to swellings of the buboes, and, the King James version I first read it had “emerods” which, as a boy, I imagined were some precious stone similar to emeralds but turn out to be King James’ pronunciation of hemmorhoids. Now it’s true that modern scholars try to rationalize the mice, rats, and swellings into plague, but I wonder if Yahweh didn’t have other, less deadly but more irritating curses in mind (cf., the scabs, emerods, and itching which, with the “botch of Egypt” is mentioned in Deuteronomy 28:27 right before madness and astonishment of the heart). After all, King James’ scholars were more familiar with swollen buboes then most people today. (BTW, I wonder what a gold emerod crafted by a Philistine would look like. This is the sort of thing to contemplate with a glass in your hand.) And those scholars trying to denigate bubonic plague as the Black Death have been pretty much silenced by DNA analysis of corpses. So: Black Death = bubonic plague, yes; bubonic plague = curse put on Philistines, not proven.’ Thanks a million MCCP!
    21/1/12: Neville has a serious objection: Sorry to muck in on the plague and mice bit, but really “Adrienne Mayor, in her recent book Greek Fire, Poisons, Arrows and Scorpion Bombs, really should do the decent thing and actually check up on her sources for mice and the Philistines mentioned in I Samuel 5 and 6. There is no talk there whatsoever of a plague of mice, simply that the Philistine chappies needed to make little golden mice to accompany little golden ’emeroids’ (and not ‘buboes’) as an offering to Jehovah. A strange requirement on the part of the unnamable One, but no mention of a pestilence of mice. Unless, of course, there is something hidden in the Hebrew text that hasn’t come through in the English translation, revisions, revisions, revisions …’ Then KMH: If the Black Death were so important (and I believe it was) why is it not found in the Bible?   There happens to be a verse which may apply. It is found in  Revelation under the message to Thyatira, which is generally considered to apply to the time period  of c. 800 to c.1500. The verse is 2:.23 “And I will kill her children with death…If it is true that this disease was a divine retribution, then the extremely rapid spread across Europe may be  due to non-natural causes.’ Thanks KMH and Neville!
    5 Feb 2012: Prof Mayor herself has written in with this. Beachcombing should say that this is his failure for not putting this passage in better context, apologies to Neville and the prof. ‘If Neville were to read the chapter and notes of Greek Fire/Scorpion Bombs, ancient understanding of the connections between rodents and epidemics in the Near East/Mesopotamia are widely attested in numerous religious texts and dedications to “gods of plague and mice.” The Philistine example is just another bit of evidence for this ancient, pre-scientific of course, understanding. The passage in Samuel shows, as I stated, that the we can safely surmise that the Philistines did recognize a link btw mice and their swollen “emerods,” because they dedicated small figurines of both of these specific objects in a direct response to the epidemic. Other cultures in the Near East also connected rodents and epidemics in their worship of gods thought to send and cure rodent-borne plagues, Apollo and Ptah are just two examples given in my book in the context of the story of the Ark and the Philistines.’ Thanks Prof Mayor!!