Ihave some terrific news from the Middle Ages. A recent discovery has changed what we thought we knew about the Black Death, and it will rock your world. But first, I have to tell you a story. Back in the 1980s, Michael Keaton made a classic family movie called “Mr. Mom,” where he plays a stay-at-home dad who has no idea what he’s doing. Laid off from his job, he switches roles with his wife, who merrily goes off to work and leaves Keaton at home with three small children. We would be terribly disappointed if chaos did not ensue, and it does.
In one memorable scene, Keaton has taken all three kids to the grocery store, where they manage to wreak pandemonium in every aisle. As a running joke, a voice over the intercom blares, “Irv, clean up in Produce,” and poor Irv goes running to re-stack the grapefruit. After this happens four or five times, the voice repeats once more, “Irv, clean up in Aisle 7.” At this point an exhausted Keaton looks up at the ceiling and yells, “Irv, we were never in Aisle 7!”
Now watch as I make a seamless connection between this 1983 film and the 14th century epidemic that wiped out half of Europe. According to a recent story in The Washington Post, researchers now have evidence to contradict what we’ve always believed about one of the worst disasters in human history. Just to clarify, now I am talking about the plague, not Keaton’s film.
As the story usually goes, a terrible pandemic of bubonic plague was imported to Europe by disease-carrying fleas, which had hitched a ride across the ocean on the backs of black rats. That’s why for the last 800 years, black rats have battled an awful reputation. They have since become a by-word for filth and corruption. Whenever James Cagney used to sneer at someone in a gangster movie, he would say, “You dirty rat.” Rats are seldom sold as pets, and they are hardly ever chosen as the mascot for a major sports team. Scientists won’t even use them to find cheese in those cardboard mazes. Instead, they always choose white mice.
Well after centuries of shame and disgrace, science has finally exonerated the black rat. As it turns out, some climatologists now believe the plague most likely traveled to Europe from Asia along the Silk Road, borne on the back, not of “dirty rats,” but of gerbils. That’s right. The fuzzy little pets in your children’s rooms. Those adorable furballs running around in miniature Ferris wheels are the real culprits of the death of 100 million people. Now how cute are they?
The implications of this discovery are huge. First, the vindicated rodents can finally proclaim, “Irv, we were never in the Black Death!” Second, the rats of the world are organizing a massive class-action lawsuit for defamation of character. They are hoping not only to bankrupt the Western hemisphere, but also to force all the medievalists of the world to go on an apology tour. Yet another thing medievalists have to apologize for — the Vikings, the dark ages, the near impossibility of spelling “medievalist” correctly. It never ends.
But perhaps even more significant, nearly a millennium of gerbil amnesty is over. For eight centuries they have laid low, casually wallowing in pencil shavings and eating food pellets. Faking cuteness, they have deflected blame on their less PR-conscious cousins. As a species, it seemed gerbils had committed the perfect crime: wipe out millions and let the rats take the rap. It was a caper right out of Scooby-Doo. And they would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for those meddling climatologists.
One thing is for sure: we will forever pause before we blame another world crisis on the black rat. And I have a terrible feeling that if word of this travesty spreads throughout the animal kingdom, rodents won’t be the only creatures seeking justice, if not punitive damages. If I were you, I’d watch out for some really, really mad cows.