Could Anthrax Have Caused The Black Death?


While most people believe that the Bubonic Plague was the cause of the Black Death, there is some evidence that Anthrax might have been involved as well.

In recent years, many scientists have begun to doubt if rats, and the mosquitoes they carried, were truly the reason for the Black Death. Graham Twigg in particular has advanced the theory that Anthrax was the cause of the plague. There is evidence to support that it was at least present at the time of the Black Death.

Could Anthrax Have Been the Cause?

Unlike Bubonic Plague, which is found only in rats, Anthrax is found in many vertebrate animals (Cattle are the most common). The incubation period for Anthrax is probably two to three days. Shorter incubation periods are possible for people afflicted with Pulmonary Anthrax. Small lesions appear on the skin as small pimples and will slowly enlarge. Symptoms that accompany the appearance of the lesions are chilliness, headache, lack of appetite and nausea. Pulmonary Anthrax patients vomit our cough up blood and usually run a high temperature. Death will usually occur on the second or third day.

During the 1300s, there was an enormous increase in cattle ranching because of European’s hunger for red meat. The cattle were close together and lived in very congested conditions. A disease could have spread very quickly among the cattle. If the cattle were infected with a disease, Anthrax could have easily spread by humans eating meat from the sick herds of cattle.

Modern outbreaks of cattle diseases all have the common element of very rapid diffusion, which was also a feature present in the Black Death. A study done in England in 1969 on climatic conditions in Worcestershire showed that the wind could have carried a cattle disease from one of the first three farms infected to 26 within the next two weeks. The quick dissemination of the Black Death is more like that of a cattle disease that of a rodent spread disease.

Is There Any Evidence Anthrax was Present at the Time of the Black Death?

Archaeological evidence exists that confirms Twigg’s belief that Anthrax was present at the time of the Black Death. An archaeological excavation was done at Soutra in 1989 at a mass grave for Black Death victims that were located outside of a medieval hospital. The researchers found three Anthrax spores in a cesspool that was used to store human waste. African mammals were often infected with Anthrax, and the spores could have easily reached Europe through air currents. This evidence suggests that Anthrax was present at the time of the Black Death and was responsible for or at least contributed to the great many deaths the plague caused. But whether or not it was the cause of the Black Death, or simply aided the Bubonic Plague in some capacity in making people sick, remains unclear.