Monthly Archives: November 2006

Will the Red Sox–Yankee Rivalry Spread to Japan?

Japundit‘s baseball columnist, Mike Plugh, offers some interesting speculation on some possible implications of Boston’s $50 million bid to talk with Japan’s top pitching ace, Daisuke Matsuzaka.

Should those plans fall through, what’s to stop the Red Sox from splashing on Ichiro. It would do two things. One, it would add an All-Star outfielder with a great bat, legs, and throwing arm. Two, it would permanently steal the Japanese spotlight from the Yankees, who are wildly famous and popular, and reposition it on the Red Sox. The Yankees would be famous, but the Red Sox would be Japan’s team. Theo Epstein knows this and I guarantee they are working on a plan to acquire Ichiro already. With Ichiro and Matsuzaka, the Sox would not only be good, they’ll be the most famous franchise in Japan. What kind of dollar figures can you put on that?

The flip side to that situation is that the Yankees know this too. The Yankees could use a centerfielder who hits, runs, and plays defense. Johnny Damon is good, and Melky Cabrera is up and coming, but let’s face it … Damon’s defense is in decline, and Melky is probably better suited to left. If the Yankees choose to counter the Matsuzaka move by spending huge on Ichiro, they will solidify their strong hold on Japan, and perhaps do so irreversibly. That goes double if the Yankees are able to land the Yomiuri Giants’ Koji Uehara in the same 2007 offseason. What is that worth to the Yankees?

In either case, the Red Sox and Yankees rivalry is now global. The frontlines are drawn and they extend all the way around the world. For fans who are already sick of the two teams, it’s more nausea. For Yankees and Red Sox fans, it’s more fuel to the belief that the world revolves around the ebb and flow of Boston against New York. For Mariners fans, it’s something to mourn. Unless Ichiro is so intensely loyal to Mr. Yamauchi, or intent on returning to Japan to end his career, the money that will be out there for him in a year’s time will make A-Rod’s deal look like pocket change.

Coverage of baseball on Japanese TV almost always starts off with footage of individual Japanese players in the U.S. majors—referred to in Japanese as the “Big” (大, Dai) Leagues—before turning to the state of play in Japan. This will only increase the number of Japanese ads in American ball parks.

Leave a comment

Filed under baseball, Japan

Medical Professionalization in Medieval Europe, 1300s

On November 2, 1322, Madame Felicie was convicted of violating an ordinance that prohibited unlicensed healers from visiting, prescribing medications, or performing other duties for a patient, except under the guidance of a university-trained and licensed physician. The conviction was a major victory for the Paris Medical Faculty, a principal architect of the new medical pecking order, which had a pyramid-like shape. At the pinnacle was a relatively small coterie of the university-trained physicians; they practiced what we would call internal medicine. Beneath them were the general surgeons, who usually lacked academic training, although that was changing. By the early fourteenth century surgery was beginning to find a place in the medical schools. A surgeon could treat wounds, sores, abscesses, fractures, and other disorders of the limbs and skin. Beneath the general surgeon “was the barber surgeon, a kind of paramedic, who could perform minor operations, including bleeding, cupping, and applying leeches, as well as cutting hair and pulling teeth; next came the apothecary and the empiric, who usually specialized in a single condition, like hernias or cataracts. At the base of the pyramid were thousands of unlicensed healers like Madame Felicie.

To reflect their new eminence, in the decades prior to the plague, physicians began to adopt a more professional—that is, authoritative—demeanor and code of behavior. A cardinal “don’t” in the new medical etiquette was: don’t jeopardize your professional dignity by visiting patients to solicit business. “Your visit means you are putting yourself in the patient’s hands,” warned William of Saliceto, “and that is just the opposite of what you want to do, which is getting him to express a commitment to you.” A cardinal “do” in the new etiquette was to conduct a comprehensive physical exam on a first visit; the exam should include not just urinalysis, but a detailed medical history and an analysis of the patient’s breath odor, skin color, muscle tone, saliva, sweat, phlegm, and stool. Some physicians also cast a patient’s horoscope on the first visit. Another cardinal “don’t” in the new etiquette was to admit to diagnostic uncertainty. Even when in doubt, said Arnauld of Villanova, a physician should look and act authoritative and confident. For the uncertain physician, Arnauld recommended prescribing a medicine, any medicine, “that may do some good but you know can do no harm.” Another strategy was to “tell the patient and his family that [you are] prescribing this or that drug to cause this or that condition in the patient so that [they] will always be looking for something new to happen.” A third “don’t” in the new etiquette was volubility. Reticence conveyed authority, especially when combined with a grave manner; besides, said one savant, the physician who discusses his medical reasoning with the patient and his family risks letting them think that they know as much as he does, and that may tempt them to dispense with his services.

What made the university-trained physician such an impressive figure to laymen, however, was not only his authoritative bedside manner but his mastery of the arcanae of the New Galenism. Its signature principle was the theory of the four humors. For the ancient Greeks, whose thinking shaped so much medieval medicine, the number four was, like the atom, a universal building block. Everything, the Greeks believed, was made out of four of something. In the case of the physical world, the four elements were earth, wind, water, and fire; in the case of the human body, the four humors were blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm. An important element in the humoral theory were the four qualities of all matter: hot and cold, wet and dry. Thus, blood was said to be hot and moist; black bile, cold and dry; yellow bile, hot and dry; and phlegm, cold and wet.

SOURCE: The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time, by John Kelly (Harper Perennial, 2006), pp. 167-169

Leave a comment

Filed under disease, education, Europe

Human Rights Interventionism: A 1990s Flashback

The advocates of coercive interventionism have no qualms about questioning any reluctance to use force on the part of Western governments. Their response has been a consistent one of calling for more military intervention to protect human rights in Africa or the Balkans. Liberal broadsheets, like the Guardian, Independent and Observer, have been more than willing to editorialise on the need for a firmer approach. With editorials like ‘We Must Find the Stomach for Years of War over Kosovo’ and ‘There is No Alternative to This War’ the liberal press have outdone the tabloids in patriotic jingoism (Independent, 1999; Observer, 1999a). For these crusading ‘lap-top bombardiers’ even months of bombing in Kosovo was not enough. They consistently argued for ground troops and the resolve to spend more resources and effort in the struggle for human rights. Ardent interventionist Michael Ignatieff puts the case strongly:

Had we been more ruthlessly imperial, we might have been a trifle more effective. If General Schwarzkopf had allowed himself to become the General MacArthur of a conquered Iraq, the Iraqi opposition abroad might now be rebuilding the country; if the Marines were still patrolling the streets of Mogadishu, the prospects of moving Somalia forward … might be somewhat brighter; and if NATO had defended the Bosnian government with air strikes against the Serbian insurrection in April 1992 … [I]f after the Dayton peace accords of 1995, Western governments had simply taken over the administration of Bosnia … Bosnia might have been reconstructed on a more secure foundation. (1998:94)

SOURCE: From Kosovo to Kabul and Beyond: Human Rights and International Intervention, new ed., by David Chandler (Pluto Press, 2002/2006), p. 168

Leave a comment

Filed under NGOs, war

Dids Rats or Catapulted Cadavers Bring Plague to Caffa?

[In 1346] one Russian chronicle speaks of the plague arriving on the western shore of the Caspian Sea and attacking several nearby cities and towns, including Sarai, capital of the Mongol Principality of the Golden Horde and home to the busiest slave market on the steppe. A year later, while Sarai buried its dead, the pestilence lurched the final few hundred miles westward across the Don and Volga to the Crimea, came up behind the Tartar army in the hills above Caffa, and bit it in the back of the neck.

The Genoese, who imagined that God was born in Genoa, greeted the plague’s arrival with prayers of thanksgiving. The Almighty had dispatched a heavenly host of warrior angels to slay the infidel Mongols with golden arrows, they told one another. However, in de’ Mussis’s account of events, it is Khan Janibeg who commands the heavenly host at Caffa. “Stunned and stupefied” by the arrival of the plague, the notary says that the Tartars “ordered corpses to be placed in catapults and lobbed into the city in hopes that the intolerable stench would kill everyone inside…. Soon rotting corpses tainted the air …, poisoned the water supply, and the stench was so overwhelming that hardly one man in several thousand was in a position to flee the remains of the Tartar army.”

On the basis of de’ Mussis’s account, Janibeg has been proclaimed the father of biological warfare by several generations of historians, but the notary may have invented some of the more lurid details of his story to resolve an inconvenient theological dilemma. Self-evidently—to Christians, at least—the plague attacked the Tartars because they were pagans, but why did the disease then turn on the Italian defenders? Historian Ole Benedictow thinks de’ Mussis may have fabricated the catapults and flying Mongols to explain this more theologically sensitive part of the story—God did not abandon the gallant Genoese, they were smitten by a skyful of infected Tartar corpses, which, not co-incidentally, was just the kind of devious trick good Christians would expect of a heathen people. Like most historians, Professor Benedictow believes the plague moved into the port the way the disease usually moves into human populations—through infected rats.* “What the besieged would not notice and could not prevent was that plague-infected rodents found their way through the crevices in the walls or between the gates and the gateways,” says the professor….

* Khan Janibeg does have one stout modern defender, Mark Wheelis, a professor of microbiology at the University of California. The professor notes that in a recent series of 284 plague cases, 20 percent of the infections came from direct contact—that is, the victim touched an object contaminated with the plague bacillus, Y. pestis. “Such transmissions,” he says, “would have been especially likely at Caffa, where cadavers would have been badly mangled by being hurled, and many of the defenders probably had cut or abraded hands from coping with the bombardment.” Professor Wheelis also thinks the rat scenario favored by many historians ignores a crucial feature of medieval siege warfare. To stay out of arrow and artillery range, besiegers often camped a kilometer (six-tenths of a mile) away from an enemy stronghold—normally beyond the range of the sedentary rat, who rarely ventures more than thirty or forty meters from its nest. (Mark Wheelis, “Biological Warfare at the 1346 Siege of Caffa,” Emerging Infectious Diseases 8, No. 9 [2002]:971–75.)

SOURCE: The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time, by John Kelly (Harper Perennial, 2006), pp. 8-9

Leave a comment

Filed under disease, Eastern Europe, Mongolia

Ukraine Remembers While Russia Forgets

In an essay posted on Maidan, a Ukrainian civic action site, Ivan Ampilogov contrasts The Power of Memory in Russia and Ukraine.

We can say that the anti-empire tradition of Soviet dissidents has suffered defeat in the mass consciousness of contemporary Russian, while in Ukraine it can take on new meaning.

In Solzhenitsyn’s novel “The First Circle”, the author writes about camp prisoners, their future and at the same time about the future of the whole country. “Years will pass, and all these people, now oppressed, indignant, despairing and choking with rage will go to their graves, others will become weak, flabby, while a third group will forget it all, renounce it, with relief burying their prison past and a fourth will be turned around, and they’ll even say that it was all reasonable, and not ruthless – and maybe none of them will get around to reminding today’s executioners what they did to the human heart!” In contemporary Russia the idea that the terror was “reasonable” or “required” is gaining ever greater influence, most often they prefer not to remember it at all….

Over recent years many Ukrainians have become convinced that their country is freer than Russia, that their democratic institutions are much more developed and that at the end of the day, the Ukrainian state is more humane or, more accurately, less inhuman than Putin’s regime. The level of freedom both of Ukrainian, and of Russian society can be measured by the weakening or strengthening of the enforcement structures of the state – against its citizens. A Ukrainian feels that living without an omnipresent and all-powerful secret police is possible and very comfortable, whereas Russians loudly declare their attachment to unlimited power of the state and their readiness to endure its police, both secret and open. Modern Ukrainians do not face any dilemma of whether to forget the fate of their grandfathers who were left to rot in labour camps, or the fate of their parents frightened to talk with foreigners – and to forget who made their life like that – or to feel redundant in that colony of fervent patriots which Russia is once again becoming.

In contemporary Ukraine, at least two general groups are implacable opponents of the re-emerging Russian imperial spirit, being able to speak about themselves as victims of Soviet Russia – the descendents of Ukrainian nationalists and the Crimean Tatars. The link between the Crimean Tatar dissidents and the Ukrainian nationalists was strong back in the times of their common struggle with the Soviet regime.

via A Step at a Time

Leave a comment

Filed under Ukraine, USSR

Foreign Outliers in Kyoto 50 Years Ago

Fifty years ago, I was attending second grade at the U.S. Army Base on the grounds of the Kyoto Botanical Garden. I’m not sure whether it might have been called Camp Botanical Garden (Shokubutsuen, 植物園). I remember that some of my military-brat classmates had to ride a school bus from nearby Camp Otsu, which didn’t have its own school at the time.

It was my third school in as many years, and the next year I would enter my fourth. The previous year, while we were on furlough at Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, I had attended first grade at Greathouse Elementary School in St. Matthews. The year before that, I had attended the Japanese kindergarten on the grounds of Seinan Jo Gakuin, a Baptist girls school where my father served as chaplain.

After we returned from furlough in 1956, my father became chaplain of the newly established Japan Baptist Hospital in Kyoto. The military base closed down the very next year, so the local missionaries hastily organized Kyoto Christian Day School (now KIS), using Calvert School curriculum materials.

The photo above is from a KCDS field trip to the Kyoto police headquarters, maybe in 1958. Our adult chaperone was Mr. Daub, whose eldest son Philip was in my brother’s class (a year behind me). My brother is the disgusted-looking kid in the front row, with Philip to his right. I’m the angry-looking kid in the front row, with my classmate David Thurber to my left. I don’t remember much about David except that he was somehow related to the writer, James Thurber; and that he had a wide-smile contest at his birthday party, which I thought was kind of unfair because he had the widest mouth in the class (and not just because I was such an accomplished frowner).

Behind me are two more of my classmates, Danny Hesselgrave and John Hawley. I remember riding my bike to the Hesselgraves on more than a few weekends, where Danny and I would play with his sets of little plastic cowboy and Indian figures, each of us taking one side or the other. Our games would always start with the question “Peace or War?” I once experimented—only once—with the game-killing answer, “Peace!”

John Hawley was an only child with what we imagined to be a rich grandmother back in England, who used to send him much more impressive sets of little metal figurines: legions of finely crafted toy soldiers in the colors of famous British regiments. I remember only once or twice going out to visit him in a huge mansion on a large estate in Yamashina. To us, he seemed the poor little rich kid. We envied him his toys, but not what we imagined to be his solitude.

AFTERTHOUGHTS: Such, anyway, were my childish impressions at the time. In truth, we were all poor little rich kids relative to our Japanese neighbors at the time. We lived in a large American house on a lot so big that it was later subdivided to accommodate at least half a dozen Japanese houses for employees of the Baptist Hospital. We had a Japanese maid, as did most other American missionaries at the time. And we got presents of various kinds either from relatives or churches back home or from Sears or Montgomery Ward catalogs we ordered from in time for Christmas every year.

At the time, we only knew that John’s father was a writer of some kind, but I’ve just this weekend learned what an extraordinary man he was. Frank Hawley (1906-1961) was a linguist who taught at SOAS, spent the 1930s in Japan, helped found the Japanese language section of the BBC after being repatriated to England during the war, then returned to Japan where he worked as a writer and collector of well over 20,000 books, some of which were destroyed during the war, others first confiscated then purchased by Keio University in Tokyo, and others after his death now housed at the University of Hawai‘i.

It also turns out that Danny Hesselgrave’s father was a very productive author in his own right. I had thought the Hesselgraves were Evangelical Lutheran, but now I’ve found that they belonged to a pietist, congregationalist offshoot of Scandinavian Lutheranism, the Evangelical Free Church, explained further below.

There were also Finnish Lutheran missionaries in Kyoto at the time, and at least two Finnish MKs, John and Eva Kekkonen. Eva taught the kids of KCDS a game that we used to call Finnish Red Rover, where one kid in the middle tried to tag the other kids as they ran between the endzones, turning each person tagged into a tagger until all had been caught. (Eva was also the object of my first secret boyhood crush.)

Thanks to a random, mindful act of Internet archiving [PDF], I’ve discovered more about the first school teacher whose name I remember. Miss Pilcher was the first principal and first credentialed teacher of Kyoto Christian Day School.

Reflecting the keen interest of the denomination to which they belonged, the fledgling church [Evangelical Free Church of Walnut Creek, now known as NorthCreek Church] was very missionary-minded from the start, and this was further demonstrated when Shirley Pilcher left for Japan. Shirley’s folks, Carl and Ada, often had missionaries visit in their home thus exposing their children to the spiritual needs of the wider world.

After high school, Shirley went to Trinity College, the EFCA school in Chicago, and then to San Francisco State where she completed her teaching credential. After a second grade assignment for one year in Walnut Creek, she felt God’s call to overseas work under the Evangelical Free Church Overseas Missions Department, as it was then called. This opportunity had developed on very short notice, so a commissioning service was quickly arranged and held on the evening of July 31, 1958. About 200 people attended. A few days later, with about 100 well-wishers at the airport, Shirley left for Kyoto, Japan, where she spent four years teaching mostly missionary children plus some from U.S. Embassy families. Church records show that the stipend paid to her monthly was $1,287.

Because Shirley would spend her next birthday thousands of miles from home, all in the church family were encouraged to send her appropriate greetings. For those wishing to send money, envelopes were provided. A telephone call to her was initiated from the church during a Sunday school hour; it was probably very early morning in Kyoto. In 1962 she returned home to a public school teaching assignment in Alamo. Later, Shirley met Foster Donaldson and, after they were married, they served for many years in the Philippines with Overseas Crusade where they were engaged in a Bible correspondence ministry and provided literature resources for pastors. They also opened a couple of bookstores there. Shirley lost her life to cancer in January 2004; Fos continues to be active in the church. Following is a reproduction of the farewell program for Shirley’s departure for Japan.

I must confess that, until today, I had never heard of the Evangelical Free Church of America. Here’s a bit of its history, from the document I discovered online.

Scandinavians began streaming to the United States in the late nineteenth century, settling mainly in the East and Midwest. They brought with them all of the thinking, the implements, and the practices of the culture they knew abroad. One big difference was that there was no state church in America. Most Christian immigrants attended a Lutheran Church where their own languages were spoken, Swedish, Norwegian, or Danish. Following their experiences back home, especially where they did not find evangelical messages in the churches here, many began to meet privately for worship, Bible study, and fellowship. In 1884 a Norwegian-Danish Free Church was founded in Tacoma, Washington. It was the first church with “Free church” roots on the West coast. Shortly a group of seven persons formed the next Norwegian-Danish Church, this one in Boston. Those of this European background thus organized two conferences, one “eastern” and one “western.” In time these two joined to form the Evangelical Free Church Association….

Although there were a number of leaders in those early years, the research points to John. G. Princell as the “founder” of the Swedish Evangelical Free Church of America. His counterpart was R. A. Jernberg of the Norwegian-Danish Free Church. Princell attended the University of Chicago, majoring in Latin, Greek, and mathematics. Jernberg graduated from Yale University and the Chicago Theological Seminary. So both of these men were learned and well-trained in the American tradition that the best educated men were those “of the cloth.”

People feared becoming a denomination because that word was associated with Lutheranism in Europe….

In the early history of these Scandinavian free churches, all the preaching was done in the native tongues since the immigrants still spoke them here. But their children were learning English rapidly and so English gradually took over, first in the Sunday schools. And little by little it then followed in the preaching services despite some resistance by the “old timers.” In some churches it was necessary for lay people to provide the pastoral leadership owing to the absence of ordained and capable men. So efforts to unite the two regional Norwegian-Danish associations had taken a long time, and getting those two to agree, despite their long years of political union in Europe, was not accomplished without a lot of discussion. And then there were many further discussions before they united with the Swedes!

3 Comments

Filed under education, family, Japan, religion, U.S.

Riding to Hounds with Eagles: A Reinvented Tradition

Ardent fox-hunters in Merry Old Anglistan are reinventing their traditions in the face of new laws that restrict riding to hounds, the Guardian reports:

Without the bird of prey, it would not be legal to flush out a fox using a pack of hounds. All that would be permissible would be the use of a pair of hounds to flush out a fox to be shot. Some hunts are using the latter exemption, but it is the presence of a bird of prey that permits the hounds to work as a pack of 30 or 40–the essence of hunting, in the view of connoisseurs….

Hunting a fox with a bird of prey is bloody hard, especially in the presence of a pack of 40 hounds, 70 people on horseback and large numbers of car and foot followers. If the hounds and the bird get to the fox simultaneously, mayhem is likely to ensue; or the bird might mistake a small dog for the fox and carry off Miss Ponsonby-Smythe’s Jack Russell; or a bird of prey of lesser stature than a golden eagle might get mauled by a fox.

Colby Cosh, whence came this gem, explains the “Anglistan” angle.

Leave a comment

Filed under U.K.

Sectarian Violence Continues Apace in Sulawesi, Indonesia

From the Jakarta Post, 9 November:

One of three militants charged with beheading three Christian schoolgirls last year in Poso carried out the attack as an “Idul Fitri gift” for Muslims, a Jakarta court heard Wednesday.

Reading out the indictment, prosecutors at the Central Jakarta District Court accused Hasanuddin alias Hasan of instigating the attack to avenge the slaying of Muslims during the sectarian conflict in the Central Sulawesi province between 1998 and 2002.

Hasan was charged under the antiterrorism law and could be sentenced to death if found guilty….

He along with fellow suspects Lilik Purnomo and Irwanto Irano and another six militants currently on the run, allegedly beheaded the three girls as they walked to school along an isolated jungle track leading to Poso. Another girl was also slashed in the cheek, but managed to escape….

Three Catholic militants were executed in September for instigating a deadly attack on a Muslim village in Palu in 2000, killing from between 60 and 190 people.

Tensions in the two regions have risen recently with the shooting of a Christian minister and the killing of a Muslim man by an angry mob.

The police are hunting 29 suspected Muslim militants believed to be responsible for a series of murders and bomb attacks on Christians in Poso and Palu since 2002.

via Colby Cosh

Leave a comment

Filed under Indonesia

Nepal’s Maoists and Monarchists Give Peace a Chance

After exhausting themselves, their nation, and all other possibilities, Nepal’s murderous Maoists and monarchists have finally pledged to give peace and democracy a chance, reports Christian Science Monitor correspondent Bikash Sangraula:

The two sides have also agreed to sign a comprehensive peace accord by Nov. 16, which will include provisions to compensate the families of those killed or maimed during the conflict, rehabilitate displaced civilians, and form a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to deal with cases of serious human rights violations.

Ordinary Nepalese appeared upbeat on Wednesday morning as news of the agreement screamed from the front pages of Nepal’s daily newspapers. “Congratulations to all for the success of peace talks,” wrote Raju Chhettri, general manager of Kawasaki motorcycle outlet in Kathmandu, in a text message forwarded to friends….

“The agreements have cleared all obstacles till constituent-assembly elections,” he says, referring to the body that will write Nepal’s new constitution. “After the elections are held, the rest of the steps for peace will be taken automatically.”

In fact, the violent insurgency first changed course in November 2005, when rebel leaders admitted, after nearly a decade of fighting state forces, that they could not secure political legitimacy through violence alone. The Maoists entered into a loose alliance with seven political parties to end the king’s rule. It was only after this alliance that the popular perception of Nepal’s Maoists shifted from a rebel group with a single-minded focus on violent revolution to a serious democratic political party.

Despite the long-overdue success, Nepal’s civil society leaders remained skeptical of Wednesday’s agreement. While acknowledging that the accord is likely to steer the country toward peace, human rights officials and observers were disappointed at the lack of specific legal protections for ordinary Nepalese.

Leave a comment

Filed under Nepal, war

Ode to Rattus rattus

The black rat first evolved in Asia, probably India, sometime before the last Ice Age. At a weight of four to twelve ounces, it is only half the size of its first cousin, the Norwegian brown rat—also an important vector in human plague—but Rattus more than makes up for its unprepossessing physical stature with incredible powers of reproduction. It has been estimated that two black rats breeding continuously for three years could produce 329 million offspring, as long as no offspring died and all were paired (fortunately, all very big ifs).

Rattus also has some other remarkable qualities that make it a formidable disease vector. One is great agility. A black rat can leap almost three feet from a standing position, fall from a height of fifty feet without injury, climb almost anything—including a sheer wall, squeeze through openings as narrow as a quarter of an inch, and penetrate almost any surface. The word “rodent” derives from the Latin verb rodere, which means “to gnaw,” and thanks to a powerful set of jaw muscles and the ability to draw its lips into its mouth (which allows the incisors, or cutting teeth, to work freely), Rattus can gnaw through lead pipe, unhardened concrete, and adobe brick.

A wary nature also makes Rattus a wily vector; the black rat usually travels by night, builds an escape route in its den, and reconnoiters carefully. This last behavior seems, at least in part, learned. During a foraging expedition, one young rat was observed taking a reconnaissance lesson from its mother. It would scamper ahead a few feet, stop until the mother caught up, then wait as she examined the floor ahead. Only after receiving a reassuring maternal nudge would the young rat advance. Rats also have another rather unusual, humanlike trait: they laugh. Young rats have been observed laughing—or purring, the rodent equivalent of laughter—when playing and being tickled. Rattus is, by nature, a very sedentary animal—usually. A city rat may wonder what lies on the other side of the street, but studies show it won’t cross the street to find out. Urban rats live their entire lives in a single city block. The rural rat’s range is a not much larger—a mile or so. However, if Rattus were phobic about long-distance travel, it would still be an obscure Asian oddity, like the Komodo dragon lizard. Rats do travel, and often for reasons that highlight the role of trade and ecological disaster in plague.

For example, on occasion an entire black rat community will abandon a home range and migrate hundreds of kilometers. Research suggests that what makes the rats override their sedentary impulses is a craving for grain germ—and perhaps more particularly, for the vitamin E in the grain germ. Under normal conditions, rat migrations are infrequent, but under conditions of ecological disaster one imagines that they might become quite common.

For distances beyond the multikilometer range, Rattus relies on its long-time companion, man. The stowaway rat is the original undocumented alien. In modern studies, it has been found in planes, in suit-jacket pockets, in the back of long-haul trailers, and in sacks carried by Javanese pack horses. Trade has also been a boon to Rattus in another, more subtle but very significant way. In the wild, when rat populations grow unstably large, nature can prune them back with a prolonged period of bad weather and scarce food. The advent of camel caravans, pack horses, ships—and, later, trains and planes and trucks—has weakened this pruning mechanism. Once commercial man appeared, the highly adaptable rat was able to escape to places where food was abundant.

SOURCE: The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time, by John Kelly (Harper Perennial, 2006), pp. 66-67

Leave a comment

Filed under disease