Ole Benedictow. What Disease was Plague? On the Controversy over the Microbiological Identity of Plague Epidemics of the Past (History of the Environment, Volume 2)


     In recent decades, alternatives to the established bubonic-plague theory have been presented as to the microbiologcal identity and mechanism(s) of spread of historical plague epidemics. In this monograph, the six important alternative theories are intensively discussed in the light of the historical sources, the central primary studies and standard works on bubonic plague and the alternative microbiological agents, insofar as they are testable. These seven theories are incompatible and at least six of them must be untenable. In the author’s opinion, the arguments against the bubonic-plague theory and for all alternative theories are untenable. This monograph therefore also has been written also as a standard work on bubonic plague, giving a broad and in-depth presentation of the medical, epidemiological and historical evidence and the methodological tenets for identification of historical diseases by comparison with modern medical knowledge.


Table of contents

List of Figures and Tables


Part One. The Issue

1. The Issue and the Problems


The Human-Flea Theory of Plague Epidemiology

The Revisionists

Part Two. How S.K. Cohn Makes Physicians and Historians “Square the Circle”

2. The Ethics of Scholarly Work


How Cohn Makes Medical Scientists “Square the Circle”

Hankin 1. Cohn’s Attack on Hankin’s Observation of Inverse Correlation between Mortality and Population Density

Hankin 2. A Brief Study of Cohn’s Technique of Argument

“The Ugly Americans”

Cohn’s Accusations of Racism against J. Ashburton Th ompson and L.F. Hirst

How Cohn Makes “Historians Square the Circle”

The Attack on Schofield (and Benedictow and L. Bradley)

Part Three. Basic Conditions for Bubonic Plague in Medieval Europe

3. Rats

Introduction. How to Study Rats in History

The Nature of Rats and the Frame of Reference of the Medieval Mind

The Question of the Presence of Rats and the Methodological Fallacy of Inference ex silentio

Ars Moriendi Rattorum. Where Have all the Dead Rats Gone?

Zoobiological and Zoogeographical Arguments on the Question of Signifi cant Presence of Black Rats in Medieval Europe

The Signifi cance of Evolutionary Theory and Adaptation by Selection

Rat Bones. Material Evidence of the Presence of Rats in the Middle Ages

Sociology of Rat-Based Plague

4. The Spread of Bubonic Plague over Distances

Contiguous Spread and Metastatic Spread

5. Mortality in India

Effects of the Anti-epidemic Efforts by British Colonial Authorities

6. Was Historical Plague a Viral or Bacterial Disease? The Question of Immunity


Re-infection or Immunity?

Did Plague Become a Child Disease after the Black Death?

Plague according to Social Class, Age and Gender

A Demographic Case Study. The Necrology of the Monastery of San Domenico in Camporegio

The Real Problem and its Solution. Marriage Rates and Fertility Rates after the Black Death

Part Four. Defining Features

Introduction. Concept of Defining Feature

7. Defining Feature 1. Latency Periods

8. Defining Feature 2. Inverse Correlation between Mortality Rate and Population Density


More Data on the Inverse Correlation in India and Historical Europe

Scott and Duncan and the Correlation between Population Density and Mortality

Epilogue. Sweating Sickness and the Inverse Correlation

9. Defining Feature 3. Buboes as a Normal Clinical Feature in Epidemics

General Introduction

Contemporary Notions and Observations of Buboes (and Associated Secondary Clinical Manifestations)

Scott and Duncan. The Problem of Buboes

Cohn. The Problem of Buboes

Cohn and Boccaccio. Buboes, Pustules and Spots

10. Defining Feature 4. DNA of Yersinia pestis from Plague Graves

11. Defi ning Feature 5. Seasonality of Bubonic Plague

Introduction. Bubonic Plague’s Association with Moderately Warm Temperatures and Seasons

Seasonality of Historical Bubonic-Plague Epidemics with emphasis on the Transseasonal Form

The Seasonality of Plague and Mortality in England 13401666

Duration of Vacancies in Parish Benefices during the Black Death

Temporal Relationship between the Territorial Spread of the Black Death and Increase in Institutions

Summary and Conclusion

Part Five. The Alternative Theories

Introduction. The History and Essence of the Alternative Theories

12. The Beginning. The Alternative Theories of Shrewsbury and Morris

Shrewsbury. The Composite, Low-Intensity Theory

Morris. The Primary Pneumonic Theory

13. Gunnar Karlsson’s Alternative Theory. That Historical Plague was Pure Epidemics of Primary Pneumonic Plague


Karlsson and Benedictow

Could Plague Have Come to Iceland from Anywhere?

Pure Epidemics of Primary Pneumonic Plague. Fact or Fiction?

Primary Pneumonic Plague in Manchuria. A Model for Iceland?

The Spontaneous Decline of Epidemics of Primary Pneumonic Plague

The Icelandic Climatic Theory of Primary Pneumonic Plague

Mortality Rate of the Purported Plague Epidemics in Iceland

Summary. Why There Never Was a Plague Epidemic in Iceland

Was the Black Death in Bergen (Norway) 1349 Primary Pneumonic Plague?

Summary and Conclusion

14. Twigg’s Alternative Theory


The Alternative Theory of Anthrax

The Historical Basis. The Use of Obsolete and Peripheral Studies

The Telluric-Miasmatic Theory of Anthrax

The Pace of Spread of Plague

Anthrax and the Name Black Death

Anthrax’s Historical Association with Other Epizootics among Domestic Animals and Plague

The Black Death’s Origin and Spread and the Anthrax Theory

Twigg’s Demographic Argument

Concluding Remarks

15. The Alternative Theory of Scott and Duncan


Disparaging Views of Historians and Physicians. Motive and Objective

The Material Scholarly Basis of Scott and Duncan’s Alternative Theory

The Demography of Historical Plague

The Reed-Frost Theory of Epidemiology

The Filoviridal Theory of Historical Plague. A Study in Academic Fiction

The Significance of Autopsies

The African Confinement

Summary and Conclusion

16. Cohn’s Alternative Theory


Appendix 1. Black Death Mortality in Siena, The Material Provided by the Necrology of the Monastery of San Domenico in Camporegio and Summarized in Table 5

Appendix 2. The Accounts of the Icelandic Epidemics of 14024 and 14945 Given in Icelandic Annals

Appendix 3. The Extrinsic Incubation Period and the Structure and Composition of the Latency Period



Index of Subjects

Index of Geographical Names and People

Index of Names


Publisher Brill Publishers
Language English
Pages 800
Illustrations color figures, maps
Binding hardback
ISBN 978-90-04-18002-4
Creation date 2010
Size 16 х 24 cm

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