The History Channel Discovers the REAL Cause of the Black Death

May 16, 2011

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.