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Rat Kings and the Plague
Posted In: Ancient Civilizations  9/8/11
By: Chris Capps

The words rat king may bring about images of a folktale fueled robed creature wearing a crown in some long forgotten underground palace.  But the rat kings of this sort actually are not one particularly well dressed rat, but several conventional rats that have somehow found their tails intertwined in a strange, but unexplained way.  Also, they were though to bring plague and misfortune to whoever might find one.

Of course this belief was different from the traditional understanding of rats that prevailed in the Dark Ages.  Rats were certainly not the most loved of creatures, but they were by no means hated as much as the only creatures that could have saved many cities from the Plague aside from doctors and inventors (who were often hated just as much as the cats).  But the rat king was seen as a sudden transformation of the cuddly little mischievous varmints that eat your food and whose wicked bite can drive its victim mad (with rabies).  Suddenly the rat would go from simple nuisance to a harbinger of at least localized apocalypse in the form of the most feared thing on the planet - the plague.

In the 16th century, Europe was still reeling from the effects of The Black Death, and emerging from the period between the 5th and 15th centuries that are historically known primarily for being one of the worst times to be alive.  The Black Death may not have been the last, but it was certainly the biggest.  No one knows if a Rat King was discovered somewhere in Europe just before the Black Plague, as written accounts only go as far back as the period just prior to the Great Plague of Seville.  Other Rat Kings were discovered just before the Great Plague of London, the Great Plague of Vienna, and the Great Plague of Marseille.

Interestingly, the rat kings would not be immediately burned according to accounts from the time.  Often they would be taken and paraded around, sometimes even becoming part of a side attraction for visitors to look in on.  The problem was, the fleas that often found themselves on the backs of the rats would contain an incredibly deadly pathogen for which there was no cure.  Even if they did not touch the rats, people could still get infected if they leaned in to, for example, stare at the disturbing spectacle that had been wheeled to their market square.  The fleas could then jump from the rats onto them and infect them with the plague.  Understanding of medicine and, perhaps even more deadly, sanitation and quarantine, was still at near zero.  As a result the plague almost wiped out human life in some regions leaving behind only those who were lucky or who had random mutations making them slightly more resistant to the pathogen.

It is still remembered in history as one of the darkest times of history, and yet very little is understood about the rat king.  Most will agree that it's not an actual naturally occurring phenomenon, and likely was created as a hoax to gather spectators.  But there have been reports of similar "Squirrel Kings," "Kings" of wood mice, and other woodland rodents.


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