When I was at school, there was no doubt about it. We were taught that the Black Death – perhaps the most lethal disease ever to afflict humanity – was bubonic plague. Then some scientists came up with revisionist theories that it might have been an ebola-type virus, or anthrax, or some combination of infections.
Well now a group of Canadian researchers from McMaster University in Toronto believe they have proved the epidemic really was bubonic plague. They analysed bones from the 14th century, and were able to extract the plague bacterium, though in a different form from the one we know today.
They hope also to throw light on why the disease carried off so many. From its first appearance in Central Asia in the 1330’s, it spread right across Europe and Asia, killing perhaps a third of the population. In some places it was even more deadly. Siena in Italy was said to have lost half of its people. Nearby San Gimignano, with its famous towers, even more.
The Black Death was a dreadful blow to the prestige of the Church which had failed to warn the faithful that God was about to inflict this dreadful punishment on them. It also produced a labour shortage, and as wages for the working class rose, the kings of England and France quickly imposed a wage freeze.