Tuesday, January 16, 2018

History belongs to everyone, sad to say

Historians like to think that their paticular skills and professional knowledge are uniquely important, both for individuals and for society as a whole.  Not much point in arguing these points -- you either agree or disagree.

But if you agree, there is a big price to be paid -- non-historians are always piling in, insisting that their discipline can do a better job of solving the great questions, such as why the Roman empire fell -- if it did.

Sometimes, though, an outsider's approach seems to to hold promise.  Just today I read in a BBC site of a study that suggests that the Black Death (pretty certainly established as the bubonic plague by earlier genetics-based studies) was  not spread by rats, but by human beings.  Here's what they said:
But a team from the universities of Oslo and Ferrara now says the...Black Death, can be "largely ascribed to human fleas and body lice".
The study, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, uses records of its pattern and scale.
The Black Death claimed an estimated 25 million lives, more than a third of Europe's population, between 1347 and 1351.We have good mortality data from outbreaks in nine cities in Europe," Prof Nils Stenseth, from the University of Oslo, told BBC News.
"So we could construct models of the disease dynamics [there]."
He and his colleagues then simulated disease outbreaks in each of these cities, creating three models where the disease was spread by:
  • rats
  • airborne transmission
  • fleas and lice that live on humans and their clothes
In seven out of the nine cities studied, the "human parasite model" was a much better match for the pattern of the outbreak.
It mirrored how quickly it spread and how many people it affected.
"The conclusion was very clear," said Prof Stenseth. "The lice model fits best."
"It would be unlikely to spread as fast as it did if it was transmitted by rats.
"It would have to go through this extra loop of the rats, rather than being spread from person to person."


Prof Stenseth said the study was primarily of historical interest - using modern understanding of disease to unpick what had happened during one of the most devastating pandemics in human history.
But, he pointed out, "understanding as much as possible about what goes on during an epidemic is always good if you are to reduce mortality [in the future]".
Sounds good to me,but then, what do I know?   When it comes  to the fall of the Roman empire (if it did fall), bright, enthusiastic people have grabbed at  a shiny idea (lead in the water supply) and built an elaborate but false explanation on it.  Many other theories about Rome are flawed by the reluctance to face basic questions.

Like, what does it mean that the Roman empire fell?  And was Rome all that great before the so-called fall. Whenever it was.

Image:  This plague map, like many others, shows Flanders (now part of Belgium) asa plague-free zone.  How can that be true?  Flanders was a center of international trade and Flemish merchants went everywhere?  The big white blob that represents Poland is equally in need of explanation.

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