Rats and the Fleas Who Loved Them

Rats:  Observations on the History and Habitat
of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants;
Robert Sullivan; 2004
Now, I'm sure that Robert Sullivan is a nice guy, but a part of me wishes that he was around during the 1600's or earlier, in the days of epidemic plague.  Most likely he would have fallen victim to it too, but I can't help but feel that his stealth powers of observation might have saved millions of people.  He would have seen thousands of rats die each day, their bodies cooling, fleas jumping off them in droves.  He would have followed the fleas to humans, watched the people get sick...connecting the pieces together, writing it all down just like Hippocrates.  Only different from Hippocrates, he would show the fate of the rats and why they died.  Had he been around then, life would be very different now.  Likely more crowded, unless epidemics of equal dimension came to kill off at least half of the population in Europe, Asia, and other areas, but we wouldn't have the art inspired, literature devoted to these times of human devastation.    You can argue that that would be a good thing.

The other part of me is glad that Mr. Sullivan was around to write this book now, inspired by John James Audubon's painting of rats.  In time of  plague, Rattus rattus or the black rat, was the one that carried the flea infected with Yersinia pestis.
The famous flea described in the book
Micrographia by R. Hooke 1665
Xenopsylla cheopis is this smitten flea who preferred to live on the rat, but alas, it couldn't go on forever.  The rat became sick and died, no longer a nice place for the flea to live.  Sometimes they would mourn and sulk [really?] and live for months without finding a rat to live on.  They would eventually need a meal, and the humans living in close quarters with the now dead rats were an okay second choice.  Thus the start of the plague epidemics, the Great Dying, and the Black Death as it would be later named.  Sullivan's book details the rats' story, the fact that rats do eat our garbage; that's why they live in more populated areas around humans.  They are also responsible for destruction of roughly one-third of the world's food supply, and they carry not only fleas, but mites, ticks, lice and many microorganisms.

Did you know that the North American continent may have been populated by Greenlanders had it not been for the plague?  Natives from Greenland would come down and visit once in a while, but the Little Ice Age and the plague wiped Greenlanders out completely.  The Europeans and Asians were too weakened and distracted by their troubles to go out and adventure.  The Byzantine Empire fell, perhaps because of the plague.  It likely didn't do wonders for the Roman Empire either.

The ultra-short history of the plague caused by Yersinia pestis is that the first epidemic may have been in 1320 BC, affecting the Philistines.  It later wiped out one-half of the Roman empire ruled by Emperor Justinian.  The first pandemic of Black Death in Europe started in 1338 AD.  During the rather large gap in time between Justinian and 1338 is interesting.  In the area which is now Turkistan, it is thought that marmots carried the plague-infested flea, but no epidemic ensued.  No one really knows why no plague is documented during this time--a peaceful coexistence between the flea and nomads, perhaps.

Woman Catching a Flea;
 Georges de La Tour; 1638

Saint Thecla Liberating the City 
of Este from the Plague
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1758-59.

Later, when the silk trade route expanded to the west from China, plague disease began again, in towns along the route, driving plague from China to Europe, up the Volga river to the Black Sea, and its ports.

At these seaports, rats would embark and disembark, with little notice.  This lead to the spread of Yersinia pestis throughout Europe. Plague spread fear, yet the cause was not known. People tried with aromas to protect themselves from the bad air--miasma.  Planet alignment was blamed.  Doctors wore masks to filter the air and keep the bad smells out as they tended to the sick [what could they do really, but try to calm their patients?].  The long coats that they wore kept the fleas off the doctors, as long as they changed their clothes frequently [not always done].  

Many statues and plaques commemorate the dead due to the plague.  A significant amount of artwork depicting the plague doctor exists. One of the more recognizable depictions is shown to the upper-right of here.  More modern art is in abundance, with masks, costumes, drawings, paintings, and sculpture.  Here is one that drew my attention, by Ekonk on deviantART.

The Plague Doctor by ~Ekonk on deviantART

Curiously reminiscent of plague doctors;
Antonia Prohias; MAD Magazine
It may be coincidence, but I think that the characters in Spy Vs Spy from Mad Magazine bear a resemblance to these plague doctors.  The artist was from Cuba, a place that has a history of plague.

America has also been touched by plague, and plague is endemic [in the wild] in some areas of the southwest.  Illness with plague continues, but is far less of a concern than it used to be.  There is treatment, which makes it inexcusable to hear of people dying from it now.

Another very readable source that describes the plague in detail, from the non-rat perspective is:


  1. very interesting post! i hadn't realised that the Greenlanders had been killed off by the plague, though I did know they used to visit the American coasts

  2. Thank you, I was stunned to learn this too...it was rediscovered by an Englishman in 1585, per Karlen book. I'm not sure how correct that date is. Thanks for reading.

  3. I honestly enjoyed reading through your article and reviewing your fresh ideas. I have to tell you, you make sense to me. I respect your views and believe you to be a very persuasive writer.
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  4. Thank you for your comments, and I hope you continue reading. Thanks for writing.


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