The Black Death

Account by monk William De Dene

To our great grief the plague carried off so vast a multitude of people of both sexes that nobody could be found who would bear the corpses to the graveyard. Men and women carried their own children on their shoulders to the church and threw them into the common pit. From these pits such an appalling stench was given off that scarcely anyone dared even to walk beside the cemeteries.

Origins of the Black Death

Kipchak Mongols besieging a Genoese trading centre on the Crimean coast catapulted their own dead into the city. The dead had been killed by a mysterious disease and the disease spread quickly in the besieged city. Some of the Genoese escaped by sea taking the disease with them. They landed at Messina in Sicily spreading the disease even further. In June of 1348 the disease landed in England in Dorset and by the winter it had reached London. The deaths were at their peak in the summer of 1349 and it is estimated that somewhere between a quarter to half of England's population were killed. Even when the worst was over England was not safe and another outbreak of the disease occurred in 1361. More outbreaks of plague occurred until the final London plague of 1665.

Bubonic Plague

The Black Death could have been what we know today as Bubonic Plague. Bubonic Plague is spread by the rat flea. The idea for a long time has been that the rat fleas spread across Asia and Europe on rats and people killing as they went. Initial symptoms of the bubonic plague appear between two to six days after being bitten by an infected flea. Flu-like symptoms, headaches, chills and a fever then begin. The plague bacteria congregate at a lymph node and multiple. The lymph node becomes infected and very painful. These symptoms are similar to those suffered by the medieval people who were infected by the black death.

A Virus

The modern belief is that the Black Death was in fact a virus and not the bubonic plague. In 1918 a virus known as Spanish Flu spread across Europe killing somewhere between 20 and 40 million people, far more than were killed during the Black Death outbreak in medieval times. It seems easier to believe that a virus can be transmitted from person to person than a disease by flea bites especially when outbreaks of flu now occur regularly in the winter months.

Effects of the Black Death

Social class was not a barrier for the Black Death. Members of royal families and high ranking religious people also succumbed. These included: -

  • Eleanor, Queen of Aragon
  • Alfonso XI of Castile
  • Joan, daughter of Edward III of England
  • John le Stratford and Thomas Bradwardine, archbishops of Canterbury
  • 25% of the papal court at Avignon

Reduced population and its effects

The population of Britain had been steadily increasing through the medieval period. After the Black Death had passed it is estimated that somewhere between a quarter and a half of the population were dead. This had severe consequences for society at the time. Many of the labourers who grew and harvested the crops were dead and the plants were left to rot in the fields. Labour became expensive and the prices of food and other necessities rose sharply. To counter this, Parliament passed a law known as the Statute of Labourers forcing labourers to work for the same pay as they did before the plague arrived.

Timeline

1347 The Black Death
   Kipchak Mongols besieging a Genoese trading centre on the Crimean coast catapulted their own dead into the city. The cause of death was a mysterious disease. The Genoese escaped by sea taking the 'Black Death' with them. They landed at Messina in Sicily. Bubonic plague, which the Black Death was, was spread by the rat flea. The name Black Death came from the colour of the swelling in the groin, armpit or neck. The person suffering went into a coma and dies soon after. In Europe an estimated 25 million people died. The plague reached Britain in 1348 and again in 1360 and the population may have been reduced by a half.
1348 Jun The Plague reaches England
   The plague reached the shores of England first at Melcombe Regis in Dorset. By winter of the year, the plague had reached London.
1349 Meaux Abbey hit by epidemic
   From the Chronicles of Meaux Abbey came the report saying 'Meaux Abbey suffered so severely that thirty-two monks, and seven conversi died, the majority being taken in the month of August.'
Summer The Plague is at its peak
   The peak of the plague was reached in the summer of 1349. Estimates of a third of the population dying from the infection have been made but being accurate is very difficult.
1351 Statute of Labourers
   Because so many people died from the plague, labour was a scarce resource. To prevent workers demanding their own prices, the costs were fixed for labourer's wages at the pre-plague levels. Labourers had to stay in their own villages, and had to appear before a steward or constable each year to swear to abide by the rules of the statute. Stocks were built in each village to punish and deter any that did not abide by the rules.
1361 Another outbreak of the plague
   Another outbreak of the plague takes its tool.

 

 

 

Medieval Castles

 
 
 

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Medieval villages