“Avoid like the plague”
“A plague on both of your houses”
Chances are you’ve heard one of those sayings in modern conversation, and you also probably know where they come from. The plague or “the black death” was the greatest pandemic in history, sweeping continents in deadly waves between 1300 and 1700. Back in the 1600s when the black death hit Europe extremely little was known about how it was being transmitted. Many thought that God was punishing them for their sins or that the air was corrupt. However, we now know that the plague originated in rodents and was transmitted to humans through infected fleas. In 1668 the plague blew through France, demolishing town after town. Paris braced itself for what they thought was inevitable, but strangely the plague never came. This mystery has caused much speculation as to why the French capital was spared from tragedy.
Fortunately Tom Nealon, author of Food Fights and Culture Wars has a convincing hypothesis. Around the time that the plague was ravaging France’s towns, a new beverage was introduced to Paris. Parisians could not get enough of the new drink lemonade, and “limonadiers” wandered the streets peddling the wildly popular beverage. As you may know, in 1600s Europe it was not uncommon for trash to litter the streets, and lemon peels were no exception. Interestingly enough, lemon peels contain limonene, which is a natural pest repellent still used today as an active ingredient in bug sprays and flea repellants. Nealon suggests that the limonene in the lemon peels killed the fleas before they could hop off the rats and onto humans. Sound crazy? To me, it sounds crazy enough to be true.
Want to learn more? Check these out:
Web MD information on bubonic plague
National Geographic’s explanation of the plague
Daily Mail: Black Death may have been lurking for centuries: DNA of plague victims in France backs up theory that bacteria lay dormant