I’m no lover of rats. At various times I’ve shot, bludgeoned and poisoned them (Warfarin Creams work best: take a standard Bourbon biscuit and mix the poison with the chocolate filling). I’d certainly never dreamed of buying a rat, much less carrying one about in my pocket; but a few months ago I walked into a Crimean pet shop with just that in mind.
I should explain. We – Dan the director, Larissa the fixer, the rest of the TV crew and I, the presenter – were in the port of Feodosia on the Black Sea, filming a series on Ibn Battutah for the BBC. When the great Moroccan traveller passed through it in 1332 on his way to see the Tatar Khan of the Golden Horde, Feodosia was a Genoese trading colony, one of the junctions on a network of mercantile routes that linked Eurasia and Africa. A decade and a half later, the port was to play a crucial part in the unravelling of that network, and in the greatest catastrophe of Ibn Battutah’s age. Relations between the Genoese of Feodosia and their Tatar neighbours had collapsed. The Tatars were besieging the city, but making little impression on it. And then the attackers were themselves attacked, by an assailant that came, like them, from far to the east – the Black Death. As his stunned and depleted army prepared to leave, the Tatar khan ordered his catapulteers to lob the plague-ridden corpses of their comrades over the city wall. The bacillus rampaged through Feodosia. There were survivors; fearing another siege, they set sail for Italy. And with them went the Black Death, still hungry from its time in the thinly peopled steppe, to gorge itself on Europe.
The story may be semi-legendary. At the very least, it is a much boiled-down account of the way the disease spread westward. But, precisely because it is boiled down, it is perfect for television. I could tell it to the camera, perched forty feet up on the Genoese battlements. I could even have dummy corpses flying past me as I spoke . . . That last idea was quickly squashed, and not only because of our less-than-Palinesque budget. The funds would, however, cover my next brainwave. ‘So I get to the bit where the Tatars get the plague, and I say, “And it was all because of this little fellow . . . ” and pull the rat out of my pocket and talk about rat fleas and Pasteurella pestis and so on.’ Dan the director agreed, and off we went in search of a rat.
The pet shop only had those cissy white rats, which by no stretch of the imagination could have played a leading role in the worst pandemic in human history. Unless . . . hair-dye!
Some readers of Slightly Foxed may already be murmuring about History Lite. I apologize to them on three grounds. First, I myself am a product of the TV age. To be sure, the odd schoolmaster of the pre-TV era warned us of the evils of the box; one detested it on purely etymological grounds – it was a Graeco-Latin monster that should have been a telopticon, or bet
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