The History Channel Discovers the REAL Cause of the Black Death

I saw part of an episode of “Ancient Aliens” on the History Channel this weekend. There were far, far too many ridiculous assertions for me to deal with them in any depth. Suffice to say, they kicked a very large number of academic fields in the metaphorical goolies. There were a smattering of academics. I’m not sure if their comments were taken out of context or if they managed to get tenure before going completely insane. Hard to tell. Most of the talking heads, though, were the usual bunch of ancient astronaut proponents, including Erich von Däniken, Giorgio A. Tsoukalos and David Hatcher Childress.

I find it interesting that these guys can read the Bible as literally as any Young Earth Creationist but just think the authors got things wrong a bit. So, if the Bible says there was a flaming chariot, you can bet there really was a flaming chariot, except it wasn’t really a chariot, it was a flaming flying saucer. And that’s pretty much how they read everything: very literally and without skepticism, but they can change the story as necessary to fit their particular nutty theory. Well, that’s how scholarship works, right?

Speaking of scholarship, one of the academics was William J. Birnes, Ph.D. He was wearing a suit and looked quite scholarly. He does have a Ph.D. in medieval English literature from New York University (1974). His dissertation was called Patterns of Legality in Piers Plowman, and he published an article called “Christ as Advocate: The Legal Metaphor of Piers Plowman” in Annuale Mediaevale 16 (1975): 71-93. But he’s also Bill Birnes, UFO Hunter. He more commonly appears in a turtleneck, bomber jacket, aviator shades and a hat that advertises his UFO Magazine (see here).

In his role as tweedy academic, he talked about Gervase of Tilbury. In his work Otia imperialia, Gervase mentions the following incident:

There happened in the borough of Cloera, one Sunday, while the people were at Mass, a marvel. In this town is a church dedicated to St. Kinarus. It befell that an anchor was dropped from the sky, with a rope attached to it, and one of the flukes caught in the arch above the church door. The people rushed out of the church and saw in the sky a ship with men on board, floating before the anchor cable, and they saw a man leap overboard and jump down to the anchor, as if to release it. He looked as if he were swimming in water. The folk rushed up and tried to seize him; but the Bishop forbade the people to hold the man, for it might kill him, he said. The man was freed, and hurried up to the ship, where the crew cut the rope and the ship sailed out of sight. But the anchor is in the church, and has been there ever since, as a testimony. (Source I couldn’t find Otia Imperialia online)

That is totally a weird story. And it involves a ship in the sky. Of course, it’s an anecdote, and the fact that it comes from an educated medieval aristocrat who served an emperor doesn’t somehow make it more reliable than an anecdote from Cletus the slack-jawed yokel. Let us look a bit more closely at Gervase and his writings. According to Wikipedia, he claimed “kinship with Patrick, Earl of Salisbury, and relations allegedly descended from a fey serpent-woman recognizable as the Melusine.” That’s a promising start. He devotes a section of his work to mirabilia or marvels, about which he says, “what constitutes the marvel is our inability to fathom the cause of a particular phenomenon” (quoted in Andrew Joynes, Medieval Ghost Stories, p. 46). He made a distinction between mirabilia and miracula. As Jean-Claude Schmitt explains,

[T]he miracle invited one to rely on one’s faith, to accept the total power of God, who was upsetting the order that he himself had established… [while] the marvelous aroused the curiositas of the human mind, the search for hidden natural causes, ones that would someday be unveiled and understood. The development of the latter attitude at the turn of the twelfth century must be seen as an early form of the scientific spirit that valued inquiry…true accounts of the facts, and even experimentation. (Ghosts in the Middle Ages, pp. 79-80)

So, hey, score one for Gervase. So, what kind of marvels did he write about? Well, ghosts, lamia, fairy creatures “the phoenix arising from the flames,” “women with boars’ tusks and men with eight feet and eyes” (Joynes, p. 74). Hmmm, perhaps we should take Gervase’s marvels with a grain or two of salt.

But the show wasn’t done with the Middle Ages. No, far from it. At some point, they started wittering on about the Black Death. As someone, possibly Tsoukolas, pointed out, one theory about the Black Death is that it was carried by rats, but William Bramley has a theory that the Black Death was caused by aliens. Now at this point, I think my brain short-circuited and partially shut itself down to protect itself from damage. I liked the way the two theories were given equivalence: “well, there are two theories about the Black Death: one that it was an illness spread by rodent-borne fleas and another that it was caused by chemtrail-spraying little green men. It’s really kind of a toss up.” Now to be fair, some perfectly sensible people have questioned whether the Black Death was caused by the plague, specifically the Yersinia pestis bacterium. Some have suggested an Ebola-like hemorrhagic fever. But human-culling aliens?

In the course of the segment, various talking heads managed to call Y. pestis a virus rather than a bacterium, and they placed all the blame on the rats, rather than on the fleas. Well, of course, they actually vindicated both the rats and the fleas, since now we know it was aliens. After all, it wasn’t the first time the aliens tried to wipe out most of humankind, cuz–hey–The Flood. And they’ve got evidence for their “theory:” reports of lights and shapes in the sky as well as mists and miasmas. In addition, a black figure was often seen outside a town about to be hit by the plague. This figuring wandered about and was seen carrying a scythe and possibly making crop circles. He looked a little like this:

Oh. My. God. Death’s a frikking alien! We’ve got to find the planet Death comes from, and kill all the bastards. Then there’ll be no more death! Of course, reports of the Grim Reaper appearing outside affected towns couldn’t possibly be interpreted allegorically, nor could the accounts be made up or simply mistaken. It’s definitely aliens. Someone alert Above Top Secret! Oh, wait, they already know, and, holy crap, many of them are skeptical: attention William Bramley, when ATS forum members think your theory is a bit far-fetched, it’s time to find another theory.


Further Reading:

Gottfried, Robert S. The Black Death: Natural and Human Disaster in Medieval Europe. New York, Free Press, 1983.

Joynes, Andrew. Medieval Ghost Stories: An Anthology of Miracles, Marvels and Prodigies. Woodbridge, Suffolk, Boydell, 2001.

Kelly, John. The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time. New York: Harper-Perennial, 2005.

Schmitt, Jean-Claude. Ghosts in the Middle Ages: The Living and the dead in Medieval Society. Tr. Teresa Lavender Fagan. Univ. of Chicago Press, 1998.

Ziegler, Philip. The Black Death. Collins, 1969.

27 Responses to The History Channel Discovers the REAL Cause of the Black Death

  1. Ken says:

    I do hope they gave appropriate credit to Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe. They’ve been saying for a couple of decades now that pretty much every disease is from space. The main difference is H&W say it’s panspermia, not scythe-wielding aliens.

    To take a typical argument, the 1918 influenza epidemic must have arrived from space, because there were cases on most continents. Not explicitly stated but necessary for the theory: There were absolutely no humans traveling between continents during the last months and after the end of WWI.

  2. Eve says:

    I don’t believe they did give credit to Hoyle and Wickramasinghe–way too respectable for these guys. I mean, whatever the merits of panspermia as disease-genesis, it’s not in the same zip code as chemtrail-spewing aliens of doom.

  3. Pacal says:

    And to think I’ve been accused of being “close minded”, for refusing to watch anymore episodes of Ancient Aliens after watching just one. God that show felt like the equivalent of mental near fatal food poisoning.

    I’m not surprised that they forget that the plague is caused by a bacterium and not a virus fits the very low standards of the show. Of course how seriously can you take someone who makes that kind of error or someone who broadcasts that kind of error. Didn’t they have fact checkers?

    The History Channel should change its name to the Pseudo (fill in the blank) Channel.

    Regarding the plague. One of the problems in identifying what caused the Black Death is that when new diseases enter into a “virgin” population they often cause symptoms quite different from when the disease is endemic in a human population. Further a disease can also be a good deal more contagious when it enters into a “virgin” population.

    It is known that plague comes in two forms a bulboe form which cause a frightful swelling of lymph nodes and generally great pain and a pneumatic form that kills via a infection of the lungs that leads to suffocation via fluid build up in the lungs. It appears that untreated the pneumatic form is about 90% fatal whereas the bulboe form you had about a 33% chance of survival dispite its generally horrible nature.

    Medieval doctors do describe symptoms and do distinguish between two forms of the Black Death, a form that has those horrible painful swellings of Lympf nodes and a pneumatic version. It appears that that it was mainly the pneumatic version that swept through Europe, given that it was more contagious than the bluboe version of the disease. Apparently vast widespread, (continent wide) plague out breaks swiftly stopped after the original pandemic. (The only one after the original pandemic was in 1361-1362) Apparently because the disease as part of its ecology needed a steady large population of rats to live off of. Those could only be found in large cities generally and without a large population of rats it was hard for the disease to take root in rural areas. Once it was established in urban areas the bloeboe version of the diseas became more common and that was less contagious than ther pneumatic form which could be spread by breath much more easily than from swollen and supperating lymph nodes.

    I still think that Yersinia pestis is still the most likely candidate for the Black Death and that the differences between the Medieval and Modern versions of the disease are due to the effects of a new disease entering into a “virgin” population. It is these differences that have led some people to think that something else caused the Black Death. I do not think that conclusion follows.

    Of course William McNeil in his Plagues and Peoples proposed that the establishment of the Mongol Empire in the mid 13th century played a role in the spread of infectious diseases in Asia and Europe by easing the flow of people and removing barriers. In 1346 there was still a fair degree of trading contact between between China and Europe, (Marco Polo wasn’t the first neither was he the last), in fact in 1340 there were a number of Catholic Churches in what was to become Bejing, the capital of the Great Khan.

    There is also the amusing story of a “Tartar” “Mongol” army besiging Kaffa in the Crimea, held by the Genoese has a trading post, getting the plague and catipulting dead bodies into the city and people fleeing from Kaffa spreading the disease from there to Constantinpole and Italy. Good story. However it appears that the disease actually entered Europe through multiple channels not just from Kaffa.

    Just to indicate that there were barriers to the transmission of the disease probably related to density of human traffic and rats is the fact that Russia didn’t get the disease until c. 1352 after it had gone through Europe despite Russia’s subordinate tibutary and trading relationship with the Mongo Golden Horde. I can only assume it was because the nature of the contact limited the spread of disease and rats with it.

    Now all of the above is a interesting story but sigh! the History Channel doesn’t want to tell it is seems.

    • Not this guy says:

      It is too bad that you are concentrating on one topic mentioned on the History channel in the Series Ancient Aliens. That’s why it is called the Ancient Astronaut Theory. Hence the word theory. Are you a bible thumper by the way? It sure as hell sounds like it. I feel bad for people like you and people that share your common idealogies. It is because of people like you that we will remain living life in the “box”, never open to new theories and constantly trying to disprove them with personal beliefs being the cause. Why don’t you look up the definition of theory in the dictionary.

      • Eve says:

        I’m quite familiar with the definitions of “theory,” thanks. The ancient aliens “theory” is not a theory in the scientific sense. It’s not a theory that is supported by evidence. Indeed, most of the evidence directly contradicts this so-called theory. This is how creationists use the word “theory,” not the way scientists or respectable scholars in other fields use it. In the case of the Black Death, for instance, scientists have done DNA testing on skeletons from plague pits and have found protein signatures specific to the y. pestis bacterium. No sign of aliens.

        By the way, if you think we’re bible-thumpers here, you might want to look around a bit more.

      • Bob says:

        I don’t understand your gripe, but I totally get your condescending.


      • Pacal says:

        I, (or is it Eve?) sound like a Bible thumper because I, (Assuming it is actually me) think the Ancient Astronaut “theory” is pure unadulterated hokum?! Looking through my collection of books about the Bible and Evolution etc., I really don’t think I’m a Bible thumper. I’m sure my well worn copy of Creationism’s Trojan Horse is proof I’m no fundie.

        THanks for the familar and oh so dull gambit about open minded versus close minded. You do rrealize that “Ancient Astronaut” fantasists are very close minded to the idea that Ancient Humans could have done stuff on their own.

        As for “theory” you obviously don’t know what it means in a scientific sense. Hell the “Ancient Astronaut” “theory” doesn’t in my books even make it as a scientific hypothesis.

    • James says:

      So wait? You act like your a scholar and established your Ph.d In forensic science?

      First off they HAVE NEVER ever EVER established the cause of the black plague? They have over 3 theories in the “scientific” community.. but yet they’ve found evidence in samples bone morrow but yet they still think it may also be anthrax????

      Your pseudo pro science mentally is exactly what Not this guy said, destroying and blanketing the ignorance in our country. You realize science doesn’t even explain 70% of the accounts it takes in? Science is based on illogical theories, backed up by SLIM to none PHYSICAL proof of anything.

      Science is just as good as saying that a Divine entity created us. We don’t know for sure? Same with the ancient astronaut theory.

      WAS YOUR 15th century relative there? Did he write down notes for you? How IN THE FUCK THEN CAN YOU SAY SPECIFICALLY WHAT HAPPENED. DID HE GET A PICTURE?? Well then SHUT THE FUCK UP!

      You sir fail, and you are IGNORANCE at its finest. Live a little, get a girlfriend do something more productive with your life.

      • I think you’re missing the broader point, bucko. Ancient Aliens’ claim that many people saw a black robed figure outside of towns before a plague struck appears to been pulled straight from their collective ass. Despite your apparent belief that there are no records on the Black Death, there actually are quite a few.

        I’ve read the chronicles of John Clyn, Guy de Chauliac, Giovanni Villani, Agnolo di Tura, Gabriele de’ Mussi, and Jean de Venette and the works of literature by Boccaccio, Petrarch, Geoffrey Chaucer, Peire Lunel de Montech, and William Langland. All of these people saw the effects of the Black Death on their local communities with their own eyes. Agnolo di Tura specifically mentions that his wife and five children all died of it. There is no mention of black-robed figures sulking around in any of these chronicles or works. None.

        As best I can figure, William Bramley probably has not read any of the actual medieval chroniclers of the Black Death. His theory rests entirely on looking at art depicting the Danse Macabre and deciding to interpret it literally.

  4. Eve says:

    There is also a third type of plague: septicemic plague, which is the nastiest of the bunch. I believe all three were in evidence during the Black Death.

    John Kelly includes a chapter on “Plague Deniers” in The Great Mortality and answers a lot of the reservations held by people who doubt that Y. pestis was behind the Black Death. I seem to recall that marmots were involved. Also, some French paleomicrobiologists found Y pestis in samples of dental pulp taken from plague pits (one from the Black Death, one from a later outbreak). Apparently, no one has followed up with more tests from other pits, but the DNA testing seems like strong evidence.

    Oddly, Kelly does not consider the alien hypothesis. [conspiracy mode]What is he hiding?[/conspiracy mode]

  5. Pacal says:

    I didn’t remember about septicemic plague. THanks for the heads up.

    What is your opinion about the Kaffa story?

    • Eve says:

      Well, I think you’re right that the plague spread into Europe through multiple points of entry. As for catapulting plague bodies, I don’t know: it sounds possible, but I’m always a little skeptical of such stories. It seems the tale originated with Gabriel de’ Mussis. According to Kelly, everyone for centuries assumed that de’ Mussis was an eyewitness, but in the nineteenth century, it was discovered that he was in Piacenza at the time (p. 5n).

      About the catapult incident, Kelly says, “the notary may have invented some of the more lurid details of his story to resolve an inconvenient theological dilemma. Self-evidently–to Christians, at least–the plague attacked the Tartars because they were pagans, but why did the disease then turn on the Italian defenders?” The catapult story would explain this problem: “God did not abandon the gallant Genoese, they were smitten by a skyful of infected Tartar corpses, which, not coincidentally, was just the kind of devious trick good Christians would expect of a heathen people” (Kelly pp. 8-9). This explanation seems reasonable. But whether the catapulted corpses were invented or not, the story still makes more sense than aliens.

  6. doveyrat says:

    Strictly speaking, the black death WAS caused by aliens, unless one lived in China at the time. Plague vectors, the Oriental Rat Fleas from that region jumped from nation to nation via the silk road and then the Mediterranean Sea in the fur of their haplessly hijacked transport, the black rat (which also died of the plague in vast numbers, btw).

    I suspect the rat is also the star of another popular television series wherein “science” dabbles where it should not, in the realm of metaphysics–a show my friends and I call “Rat Hunter” but which is more popularly known as “Ghost Hunter.” Repeating trope: “What was that noise!” Hm. You’re in an old building with spaces between the wallboard at night. I wonder what it could be? Here’s a hint: squeak squeak.

    • Eve says:

      I remember an episode of Ghost Hunters, possibly one of the Halloween specials, where they were talking to an “entity” that was talking back in a dark tunnel. I remember thinking, “Oh my God, they’ve found definitive proof of the existence of Siamese cats!” Someone else with a wider knowledge of animals suggested it was a raccoon. I suppose it could have been a ghost raccoon.

  7. Ken says:

    And remember, whether or not Y. pestis caused the Black Death, it does cause plague today, and remains endemic in many areas of the world including the western United States. Do not play with rodents in the national parks…

  8. Bob says:

    Rmflrp? (Takes rodent out of mouth.) Damn.


  9. Mweidemann says:

    I really enjoyed this. It made me giggle. Thank you for writing.

  10. Eric says:

    I read your article. Seems to me your just a zealot on your own ideology. Your Wikipedia source does not stand ground seeing that it is a open source reference. And, in most respectable universities, any professor in his right mind would not accept Wikipedia as an acceptable source of information and would dock you for it. Anyone can add anything to Wikipedia. I could add information to Hiters bio that says his shlong was 2 1/2 feet long. and it would be referred to as fact in Wikipedia.

    • Eve says:

      Do you have any substantive objections to my post or just an Argumentum ad Wikipediam (argument against Wikipedia)? Yes, I linked to Wikipedia, but I also provided bibliographic information for five books at the end of the post and quoted a couple of the books in the post. I agree Wikipedia shouldn’t be used as a source in a college paper, and I discourage my students from doing so. This, however, is not a college classroom. I can’t actually link to books or scholarly articles that aren’t available for free on the Internet, so sometimes Wikipedia has to do, If you have some reliable evidence that what Wiki says about Gervase of Tilbury is inaccurate, I’d be happy to hear it.

    • Not true Eric. Just try and edit that in to Wikipedia and I guarantee it will be deleted and your IP banned from editing in less than 48 hrs.

  11. mAtt says:

    I’ve never seen ‘Ancient Aliens’ so this and Bob’s guest article on skepchick amused the hell out of me and made me realize I’d dodged a major mind grenade. So thanks for that. I am curious, though, do all ‘ancient alien theorists’ use their middle names, or have I just been up too long? I may have to form my own ‘theory.’

    • Eve says:

      You know, I’ve never really considered the middle name thing–something ancient astronaut “theorists” have in common with serial killers (or famous murderers). To be fair, two of the grandpas of ancient alien silliness, Zecharia Sitchen and Erich von Daniken, didn’t/don’t use middle names.

      • john dave says:

        Because all these pestis that you have mentioned are genetically created by aliens and they knew that men in the future will knew about these things.But they are not worried because they knew that men are inferior beings- beings of little brain.They laughed at us saying,these men will never knew us because they think that we are just a product of imagination.It’s also their agenda by the way.

  12. Tommy says:

    i know im a year late but i find it very stupid for people to actually think aliens DELIBERATLY gave us plagues and disease. I do however beleive that such BAD plagues are transmitted from aliens but not intentionally, the bacteria they carry is totally foreign to planet earth and nothing on the earth has a means of defence against these diseases which is why they get so far spread and kill so many, they come down to inspect/observe/learn about us and bacteria from their bodies, or even on their clothes/vehicles can be accedentally transmitted to us, and for sure bacterias from our planet have been transmitted to their operatives that come to visit us but because they are obviously far more advanced than us technologically they have effective means of detecting and killing bacterias that are harmful to themselves.

    I found this little page by googling black death caused by aliens after thinking of the theory by myself, i had never heard of this theory untill i googled it after thinking off it. i watched these two youtubes videos that are among the best and most convincing alien theories there are. The message – Aliens and the Vatican – both well worth watching, I cannot stand pathetic idiotics who come out with random beleifs that aliens DELIBERATLY cause diseases and unfortunatly most blackdeath by aliens theorise they DELIBERATLY do it which is just a really stupid assumption to make considering how technologically advanced they are compared to us, if they wanted to kill us we’d be dead already.

  13. ralord197769 says:

    What about the yellow clouds? Why ridicule?, do you know the absolute truth? Remember karma before you use that lump of fat and water you call a brain.

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