Victims of the Black Death in the 14th century, whose remains were discovered during excavations for London's new Crossrail railway line. Photo: Crossrail Ltd
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Gerbils and squirrels, not rats, may have been responsible for the Black Death

New research has found that rats alone can't have been responsible for Europe's medieval plague outbreaks - and giant Central Asian gerbils may have been an alternative accessory to the crime.

The political and cultural impact of the Black Death, which is usually seen as beginning in the period 1347-1353, on European life was immense. At least a hundred million people were killed (and possibly more than twice that by some estimates), reshaping the economy of feudalism and influencing the wars and politics that followed for at least the next four centuries, as plague outbreaks struck cities and villages over and over again. The bacteria responsible, Yersinia pestis, has long been believed to have originated in China, and to have been carried from east to west in fleas living on black rats that migrated with the merchants moving along the Silk Road, first by camel across central Asian steppes and deserts, and then across the Black Sea and Mediterranean by ship to major trading ports like Venice.

This distributional jigsaw may be missing some pieces, however - a new study by Norwegian and Swiss bioscientists and climatologists instead points the finger at some different rodents as bearing some of the responsibility for spreading plague: grey marmots, long-tailed squirrels, camels and Mongolian gerbils.

In the paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the authors looked at 4,119 records of historical plague outbreaks across Europe, and cross-referenced them with 15 climate records derived from analysing tree rings within the same regions as the outbreaks. They were testing the hypothesis that the plague, once it arrived in Europe, dug itself in by living among rat populations (or "rat reservoirs" as the authors call them), which then experienced regular population swellings and shrinkings as the climate adjusted to become more or less rat-friendly over the centuries. They expected to see that plague outbreaks correlated neatly with warmer, drier summers, and that periods with fewer outbreaks were wetter and colder - yet it didn't quite work.

Most of the outbreaks in the records could be traced to other outbreaks nearby, but there were a select few - 16 in total, all in port cities like London, Lisbon and Hamburg - which had no connection with other outbreaks nearby, and where brand new imports of Y pestis via trading ships must have been responsible.

This, in itself, isn't too remarkable, but the researchers did notice a strong correlation between the climate records of east Asia and these 16 outlier European plague outbreaks. For each of them, certain climate conditions in east Asia would, 15 years later, be followed by a large outbreak. Something was linking the two sides of the Eurasian continent, and the researchers see a number of different rodents as responsible.

Consistently, a warming climate followed by a sudden cooling seemed to kickstart the transmission of plague bacteria across the Silk Road. The researchers theorise that warmer summer made it easier for fleas to find hosts to live and feed on - but the crash in temperature kills those same hosts, meaning fleas jump to new species, including humans. The model they propose has this happening over the first couple of years after the climate event; then, as those fleas move through the human population, they hitch onto humans on the edge of the Silk Road trading networks of central Asia.

From there, the plague moved slowly over a decade or so along trading routes, surviving in the large populations of rodents that live in those areas. Once the migration hit the eastern edge of the Black Sea, the journey was then sped up thanks to the speed of ships - within two or three more years, the plague will have successfully travelled from one side of the world to the other, to infect those living in European cities. "This association strongly suggests that the bacterium was continuously reimported into Europe during the second plague pandemic," writes lead author Boris Schmid of the University of Oslo, "and offers an alternative explanation to putative European rodent reservoirs for how the disease could have persisted in Europe for so long."

This doesn't get the black rat (Rattus rattus) off the hook - it's still the key vector for plague transmission once the bacteria arrived in Europe with each new wave. But it does mean that other members of the rodent family lose some of their ability to act all cute and innocent.

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

Roosh V via YouTube
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Men's rights activist Roosh V isn't just a sexist: he hates the modern world

Roosh and his community have seen that cultural change is chipping away at their privilege, and they're having none of it. 

When an activist known as Roosh V organised 165 “meet-ups” for like-minded men in 43 countries for this Saturday, the backlash was instantaneous. Signatures on petitions to keep Roosh away (even from countries where he wasn't planning to visit) stretched into the thousands. Police in many of the cities where meet-ups were planned said they would be keeping an eye on the events. Counter-protests were organised. And so today, Roosh announced that the meetings would be cancelled, since he could “no longer guarantee the safety or privacy of the men who want to attend”.

Roosh V is a prominent member of the section of the internet known as the "manosphere": he runs popular websites including Return of Kings and his own blog, and began his career by writing guide books about how to pick up women in countries from Poland (“What to do when a Polish guy inevitably tries to cockblock you”) to Colombia (including “an explanation into the Colombian prepago female (gold digger)").

Yet as demonstrated in a recent Reggie Yates documentary programme about men's rights activists, 36-year-old Roosh seems a lot more interested in his own theories about society than in handing out pick-up tips. "This is starting to sound like a conspiracy theory," Yates notes at one point. 

Roosh actually distanced himself from the Men's Rights community, or MRAs (though he arguably does fight for what he sees as men's rights) in 2009, when he argued that the group was filled with men incapable of taking action or improving their "game" with women. He would be more likely to self describe as a pick-up artist, or PUA, though his writing usually focusses on issues beyond simply "how to pick up women". 

While Roosh's views are objectionable and off-the-wall, they’re also subscribed to in full or in part by what may be millions of men around the world. So what does he believe? And how did this alternate worldview develop in the mind of a well-travelled, university-educated American son of immigrants?

Roosh isn't “pro-rape”, but he thinks rape is the fault of its victims

Many headlines this week called the proposed meetings "pro-rape", with evidence taken from a single post entitled “How to Stop Rape” which Roosh wrote in February 2015 (and which he recently claimed was satire). In it, he writes that since “women are not getting raped by violent offenders . . . they are getting raped by men they already know”, then rape (or as Roosh medievally puts it, “violent taking of a woman”) on private property should be made legal. This would, he argues, force women to “take responsibility” for their conduct on dates or while alone with men.

This appeals to a popular trope within the manosphere: that men will be "falsely" accused of rape under progressive rape laws that dictate that drunk women can't give consent, or accused by women who later regret the sexual encounter. The community is particularly aerated about Califiornia’s Yes Means Yes law, which rules that silence or lack of resistence doesn’t mean someone has consented (though consent can still be non-verbal).

Roosh's bizarre “legalise rape” argument is an apt symbol of his general appraoch: it’s a kind of devil’s advocacy, mixed with a form of upside-down rationality. He takes a common complaint among men’s groups and pushes it to an extreme conclusion, to the delight of his fans.

It’s also worth noting that some of Roosh’s pick-up tactics and advice could be seen to encourage rape – it’s probably fairer to call him “pro-rape” on these grounds, rather than his blogpost. In another trope common to the MRA community, he believes women say no in order to play “hard to get”, and that any self-respecting pick-up artist would override "no" up to a certain point. In a two-hour Skype interview with feminist artist Angela Washko, he argues:

“If a girl says no, that's no. But if she's still there and she allows you to touch her again and kiss her again that's not rape. That is not.”

In "When no means yes", a post from 2010, he gives the following "tip": "‘No’ when you try to take off her panties means . . . ‘Don’t give up now!’”

He knows his audience

In some of his writing, or while speaking to certain interviewers, Roosh can seem almost harmless – misguided, yes, but intellectually engaged and cautious about offending. 

In his interview with Washko, the pair manage to agree on the idea that it’s in the economic interests of the world’s richest to force all women to both work and have families, as wages can be lower: “The more people you force into the workforce, the cheaper labor is.”

The fact that women should have the choice to raise children instead of having a career is something both can agree on. 

But elsewhere, Roosh's concerned citizen mask slips. Earlier this week, he told members of his website forum to pool the details of journalists who write mean things about him with the ominous phrase: "We're going after the root of the problem". Elsewhere, he has said he won’t be interviewed by female journalists unless they give him a blowjob, and has stated that, “my default opinion of any girl I meet is worthless dirty whore until proven otherwise”.

This dual personality is something he shares with the comedian Dapper Laughs, who appeared on Newsnight to apologise for his rape joke-heavy comedy and explain that he was satiring men’s sexism, but now tells audiences that at the time he wanted to tell interviewer Emily Maitlis to “get your f***ing gash out!”  

He’s a savvy businessman

Which raises the question: how much of Roosh’s bluster is an act? Roosh must have learned by now that his more incendiary statements earn him attention, and even money through traffic to his sites. Dapper Laughs knows he needs to undercut his earnest, turtlenecked performance on Newsnight to keep earning as a comedian. 

Roosh told Reggie Yates he receives around a million combined hits to his websites every month, but this month, the figure must be far higher. A Vice journalist has pointed out that Roosh boasts about his online metrics on Twitter, and seems to be in competition with fellow controversy-chaser Milo Yiannopoulos. 

Which brings us to another question: did Roosh ever think the meet-ups would go ahead? Was he in fact expecting a media backlash, which would then allow him to show his followers that they are victimised and under attack, just as he's told them?

The whole thing does seem built as a vehicle for media attention: the covert meetings complete with a special code ("Do you know where I can find a pet shop?") which somehow found its way into every mainstream media story about the meetings – including, of course, this one.

Roosh advertised them on public sites, despite the fact that he probably could have contacted many supporters through more private forms of social media and regularly keeps the locations of his own talks a secret. His attempt to smear journalists is playing out in a private forum – strange that he couldn't use similar channels to arrange Saturday's meetings. 

He thinks the Western world is on the verge of a “cultural collapse”

Roosh claims that his science background taught him how, as he tells Washko, “to know what is a lie . . . when someone is full of shit I can tell because they’re just using what? Emotion.”

Travelling, meanwhile, has exposed him "to different ideas, belief systems than other people – I have more data and background in my mind that allows me to reach conclusions that are more accurate”.

This, in turn, prompts this surreal exchange:

Image: Angela Washko.

This defence – of science and worldliness, in the face of closed-minded emotion on the part of feminists – is important to Roosh precisely because his worldview actually seems to rely on an emotional, kneejerk hatred of change. 

Beyond the more typical MRA beliefs, Roosh has a comprehensive argument for how feminism and other liberal, progressive attitudes are about to ruin the modern world. In a document titled “Cultural collapse theory” he outlines a world where women earn “25 per cent more than women on average”, children are taught to “respect all religions but that of their ancestors”, and the reproductive rate falls because women have careers.

Here is the progression of a “cultural collapse”:

This, of course, is a dressed-up version of the familiar dystopia imagined by those who think liberal ideas and cultural change are driving us to disaster. In this context, Roosh’s ideas about women begin to look more like a refusal to get on board with the modern world: the way he sees women would have been very familiar a few centuries ago.

His hatred also extends to other social groups who have recently gained privilege, including transgender people (“If you are genetically a man, but you all of a sudden have this need to dress up like a girl . . . you should seek help"), gay people ("they're trying to encroach on what normal humanity is”), and stay-at-home fathers (“I mean if you ever see me pushing a stroller or changing a diaper, something is wrong. I must be on drugs"). 

The best proof of Roosh’s affection for the past is his opinion on where it all went wrong: I’m pretty sure giving women the right to vote was the start.”

In one particularly pathetic plea during his interview with Washko, he cries “You can’t even have sexy babes in games anymore!” 

…so any kind of cultural change is bad

When speaking to a group of London men in Reggie Yates’ documentary, Roosh emphasises the idea that "women and gays are seen as superior to straight men", and that straight men are, effectively, an oppressed group. “Men are not allowed to speak the views that I am speaking,” he tells his rapt audience. The cancelled meetings, it seems, function as proof of this. 

Yates may think Roosh is touting a conspiracy theory, but at heart, it may be simpler than that. Roosh’s pseudo-intellectualism can be boiled down to a single point: the modern world is chipping away at his privilege, and he – and his followers – don’t like it at all. Roosh is furious that, in his eyes, the media is “encouraging” children to be gay, asking Washko: “Why is the media all of a sudden in the business of shaping the sexuality of human beings?”

As Washko writes in her transcript, she resists the urge to reply: “But it always has been!” The difference now is that the narrative (if it exists, which I’d argue it doesn’t particularly) just doesn’t favour Roosh’s demographic anymore. As one of Roosh’s fans tells Yates, “We’re losing ground.”

While equality isn’t a zero-sum game, true cultural and political change will require privileged groups to lose some ground – to give up some of that privilege. Behind the long words and cultural theory, Roosh and his followers are the men simply refusing to do so.  

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.