Mystery of the Black Death

From the BBC Programme Timewatch

First aired in 2004

For years, it has been believed that the Black Death, which swept through Europe in the Middle Ages, was Bubonic Plague. In the light of powerful new research, the true identity of this medieval killer has come under scrutiny.

Timewatch explores whether the terrifying speed and deadly impact of the Black Death could possibly be explained by an epidemic of Bubonic Plague. The gruesome details of Plague and how it is spread are examined. For hundreds of years, the way in which people became infected with this deadly disease was a mystery, until, in 1898, a French researcher braved the sewers of Bombay to catch plague-infected rats and prove that fleas jumping from dying rats onto humans were the source of the Plague epidemic.

As the film unfolds, experts uncover surprising evidence that strongly suggests that the Black Death could not have been rat-borne Bubonic Plague. An examination of medieval farm buildings in villages affected indicates that there were no rats in rural areas. A historian who has just completed the most exhaustive analysis ever undertaken of historical firsthand accounts of the Black Death, concludes that the symptoms described do not match up with what actually happens to people dying of Plague. And attempts fail to extract Plague bacteria from the ancient bones of Black Death victims dug up at dozens of sites.

So if this epidemic was not Bubonic Plague, what was it? After all, if we don’t know its identity, how can we prevent its return, or cope if it strikes again? One team of British researchers reveals why the death records of a parish in the North of England suggest that the Black Death was in fact a mutant strain of the Ebola virus, still extant in certain parts of Africa.This exciting mix of history, archaeology, cutting-edge scientific research and dramatic reconstruction forms a compelling detective story.

Click here to go to the Timewatch website

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