Press and Pop Culture

A Dozen Medieval Plague Victims?

The Crossrail project in London is attracting attention lately for having unearthed numerous graves. Today reports claim the project has run into the tip of a plague cemetery. The Guardian states unambiguously:

Seven centuries after their demise, the skeletons of 12 plague victims have been unearthed in the City of London, a find which archaeologists believe to be just the tip of a long-lost Black Death mass burial ground.

Sky News was more cautious:

Archaeologists say 12 skeletons found beneath a building site in London could provide evidence of a Black Death burial ground.

Workers uncover skeletons in Crossrail shaft.
Workers uncover skeletons in Crossrail shaft.

Experts claim that the evidence suggests this was a 14th-century “emergency burial ground,” but other tests—e.g., DNA and carbon dating—are needed to confirm or disconfirm that these 12 skeletons were victims of the Black Death. Whether or not it was a plague cemetery may remain an open question along with how many bodies were buried there. What we have right now is 12 (CNN reports 13) skeletons. There may be another 49,988, as Nasser Saidi recklessly claims (he is not alone in making that claim), but we will probably never know—according to The Guardian, the Crossrail project does not intend to excavate beyond the shaft where the remains were found.

As interesting as the articles are the comments from readers. Many readers share an unalloyed faith in a science that has cured the plague. Some combine that optimism with a historically problematic condemnation of the church. One comment:

Science has now come up with a cure for this. These poor people relied on prayer to save them as science was being held back by the church. Next time you see a story on Sky where some celebrity is thanking god for saving them as they leave a hospital remember this photo. Science is ready to sure cancer and will one say be able to grow you a brand new heart.

Or another:

At the time — due to ignorance, and belief in mumbo-jumbo — victims of the plague were considered to be objects of God’s Wrath (for sin, or whatever).
Today, we know better.

Equally common is the apparently real fear that uncovering these skeletons risks unleashing a plauge on London. Put most simply: “Is there any chance of the bacteria being able to regenerate now that bodies have been exhumed?”

It’s worth reading the comments to get a sense of contemporary fears, beliefs, and bugbears.

One reply on “A Dozen Medieval Plague Victims?”

[…] [2.] UPDATED 16 MARCH 2013: Some of us, anyhow. A slightly strange article in The Telegraph has taken the angle of trying to scare readers about the possible dangers posed by old plague pits. Darin Hayton has also picked up on some media hyperbole and commenter anxiety about the discovery, which he discusses in his post “A Dozen Medieval Plague Victims?” […]