Medieval Black Death: “Mother” of Present Day Plagues

Europeans were hoping for the best and expecting the worse when the Black Death slammed them during the middle of the 14th century…and the worst is what they got. Realizing that it was only a matter of time before the plague would reach their shores from Asia, Europeans kept busy by preparing themselves with the building of a cemetery near the Tower of London, in East Smithfield, to help with the projected volume of causalities.

But even that was not enough.  The cemetery in East Smithfield was able to accommodate for 2,400 bodies: a dent in the overall death toll which wiped out approximately 30 to 50 percent of the entire population of Europe (30 million people) in the five years that separated 1347 and 1351. 

Nowadays, we still see instances of plague popping up all over the world (killing around 2,000 people evey year), but it is nowhere near as devastating as it used to be.

Medieval Europeans believed that they were present to the end of the world, that the stories they heard about God’s wrath was actually coming true. But the plague is not the same as yesteryear. The flu now kills more people every year than the plague.  It is with this in mind that researches from a conglomerate of institutions including McMaster’s University of Canada, the University of Tubingen in Germany, and others from around the world set out to sequence the genome of the Black Death.

On October 13, their findings were published—marking the first time a genome of any ancient pathogen has been so, according to a statement by Canada’s McMaster’s University.

By taking samples of DNA from the teeth of those buried in East Smithfield (as well as samples of bacteria from the soil taken from the surrounding gravesite), scientists aimed to match up segments of this DNA with that of the DNA of the modern day plague. Once the genomes were compared, they found that there was no difference between today’s plague and the Black Death.

Like any host/parasite relationship, the plague has learned to change over time in order to ensure its own survival.  “If these pathogens are going to use us as a host over a long period of time,” explains Hendrick Poinar, a geneticist at McMaster University, “they can’t completely kill us.  There needs be an evolutionary way to maintain the pathogen but still keep the host alive.”

But the question still remained as to why the plague (a product of the Y. pestis bacteria) then was much more devastating than the plague is now.  The answer, as it turns out, may be as simple as a sign of the times.

At the time of the 14th century plague, Europe was already dealing with its own fair share of troubles.  As evidenced by tree-ring data, this time period experienced a noticeable drop in overall temperatures (4 to 6 degrees cooler than previous years).  Rain that never ended ruined harvests of crops and what food did survive was of poor quality.  “And all of a sudden,” continues Poinar, “the arrival of a new pathogen from the east and it all adds up to the perfect storm.”

This “perfect storm” was relentless and proved that, with conditions permitting, the severity of such a disease is exacerbated.

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