View Full Version : The Black Death in England 1348-1350

Monday, February 28th, 2005, 03:05 PM
The Black Death in England 1348-1350

In 1347 a Genoese ship from Caffa, on the Black Sea, came ashore at Messina, Sicily. The crew of the ship, what few were left alive, carried with them a deadly cargo, a disease so virulent that it could kill in a matter of hours. It is thought that the disease originated in the Far East, and was spread along major trade routes to Caffa, where Genoa had an established trading post. When it became clear that ships from the East carried the plague, Messina closed its port. The ships were forced to seek safe harbour elsewhere around the Mediterranean, and the disease was able to spread quickly.

During the Medieval period the plague went by several names, the most common being "the Pestilence" and "The Great Mortality ". Theories about the cause of the disease were numerous, ranging from a punishment from God to planetary alignment to evil stares. Not surprisingly, many people believed that the horrors of the Black Death signaled the Apocalypse, or end of time. Others believed that the disease was a plot by Jews to poison all of the Christian world, and many Jews were killed by panicked mobs.

The truth. The Black Death is a bacteria-born disease; the bacteria in question being Yersinia pestis, which was carried in the blood of wild black rats and the fleas that lived off the rats. Normally there is no contact between these fleas and human beings, but when their rat hosts die, these fleas are forced to seek alternatives - including humans!

The symptoms. The plague produces several different symptoms in its victims. Bubonic, the most common form of the plague, produces fist-sized swellings, called bulboes, at the site of flea bites - usually in the groin, armpits, or neck. The swellings are intensely painful, and the victims die in 2-6 days. The buboes are red at first, but later turn a dark purple, or black. This black colouring gives the "Black Death" its name. Pneumonic plague occurs when the infection enters the lungs, causing the victim to vomit blood. Infected pneumonic people can spread the disease through the air by coughing, sneezing, or just breathing! In Septicemic plague the bacteria enters the person's bloodstream, causing death within a day.

The speed with which the disease could kill was terrifying to inhabitants of the medieval world. The Italian author Boccaccio claimed that the plague victims "ate lunch with their friends and dinner with their ancestors in paradise."

The Black Death reaches England. The summer of 1348 was abnormally wet. Grain lay rotting in the fields due to the nearly constant rains. With the harvest so adversely affected it seemed certain that there would be food shortages. But a far worse enemy was set to appear.

It isn't clear exactly when or where the Black Death reached England. Some reports at the time pointed to Bristol, others to Dorset. The disease may have appeared as early as late June or as late as August 4. We do know that in mid-summer the Channel Islands were reeling under an outbreak of the plague. From this simple beginning the disease spread throughout England with dizzying speed and fatal consequences.

The effect was at its worst in cities, where overcrowding and primitive sanitation aided its spread. On November 1 the plague reached London, and up to 30,000 of the city's population of 70,000 inhabitants succumbed.

Over the next 2 years the disease killed between 30-40% of the entire population. Given that the pre-plague population of England was in the range of 5-6 million people, fatalities may have reached as high as 2 million dead.

One of the worst aspects of the disease to the medieval Christian mind is that people died without last rites and without having a chance to confess their sins. Pope Clement VI was forced to grant remission of sins to all who died of the plague because so many perished without benefit of clergy. People were allowed to confess their sins to one another, or "even to a woman".

The death rate was exceptionally high in isolated populations like prisons and monasteries. It has been estimated that up to two-thirds of the clergy of England died within a single year.

Peasants fled their fields. Livestock were left to fend for themselves, and crops left to rot. The monk Henry of Knighton declared, "Many villages and hamlets have now become quite desolate. No one is left in the houses, for the people are dead that once inhabited them."

The Border Scots saw the pestilence in England as a punishment of God on their enemies. An army gathered near Stirling to strike while England lay defenseless. But before the Scots could march, the plague decimated their ranks. Pursued by English troops, the Scots fled north, spreading the plague deep into their homeland.

In an effort to assuage the wrath of God, many people turned to public acts of penitence. Processions lasting as long as three days were authorized by the Pope to mollify God, but the only real effect of these public acts was to spread the disease further.

By the end of 1350 the Black Death had subsided, but it never really died out in England for the next several hundred years. There were further outbreaks in 1361-62, 1369, 1379-83, 1389-93, and throughout the first half of the 15th century. It was not until the late 17th century that England became largely free of serious plague epidemics.

Consequences. It is impossible to overstate the terrible effects of the Black Death on England. With the population so low, there were not enough workers to work the land. As a result, wages and prices rose. The Ordinances of Labourers (1349) tried to legislate a return to pre-plague wage levels, but the overwhelming shortage of labourers meant that wages continued to rise. Landowners offered extras such as food, drink, and extra benefits to lure labourers. The standard of living for labourers rose accordingly.

The nature of the economy changed to meet the changing social conditions. Land that had once been farmed was now given over to pasturing, which was much less labour-intensive. This helped boost the cloth and woolen industry. With the fall in population most landowners were not getting the rental income they needed, and were forced to lease their land.

Peasants benefited through increased employment options and higher wages. Society became more mobile, as peasants moved to accept work where they could command a good wage. In some cases market towns disappeared, or suffered a decline despite the economic boom in rural areas.

It has been estimated that 40% of England's priests died in the epidemic. This left a large gap, which was hastily filled with underqualified and poorly trained applicants, accellerating the decline in church power and influence that culminated in the English Reformation. Many survivors of the plague were also disillusioned by the church's inability to explain or deal with the outbreak.

The short term economic prosperity did not last; the underlying feudal structure of society had not changed, and by the mid-15th century standards of living had fallen again. Yet for most levels of English society the Black Death represented a massive upheaval, one which changed the face of English society in a profound way.


Monday, February 28th, 2005, 03:07 PM
A General Study of the Plague in England 1539-1640
With a Specific Reference to Loughborough
by Ian Jessiman:


Throughout the Middle Ages most of populated Britain suffered sweeping ravages of disease and pestilence; individually and collectively these epidemics were referred to as the plague. Examination of the Leicestershire town of Loughborough's Parish Register 1, reveals valuable statistical data, particularly in respect to burials after 1538. The History and Antiquities of the County of Leicester, Vol III part II, by J Nichols 2, offers an insight into some of the social effects of the plague. Using these and other sources, an attempt to investigate the local myths and legends has been undertaken. Furthermore, other issues, such as what was the Plague and how it did spread, are addressed.


Monday, February 28th, 2005, 03:14 PM

Black Death

By Dr Mike Ibeji

The Black Death was 'a squalid disease that killed within a week' and a national trauma that utterly transformed Britain. Dr Mike Ibeji follows its deadly path.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/society_culture/welfare/images/black_blackdeath_1348_1350.gif The Black Death had spread across Britain by 1350

The Plague

The first outbreak of plague swept across England in 1348-49. It seems to have travelled across the south in bubonic form during the summer months of 1348, before mutating into the even more frightening pneumonic form with the onset of winter. It hit London in September 1348, and spread into East Anglia all along the coast early during the new year. By spring 1349, it was ravaging Wales and the Midlands, and by late summer, it had made the leap across the Irish Sea and had penetrated the north. The Scots were quick to take advantage of their English neighbours' discomfort, raiding Durham in 1349. Whether they caught the plague by this action, or whether it found its way north via other means, it was taking its revenge on Scotland by 1350.

It would be fair to say that the onset of the plague created panic the length and breadth of Britain. One graphic testimony can be found at St Mary's, Ashwell, Hertfordshire, where an anonymous hand has carved a harrowing inscription for the year 1349:

'Wretched, terrible, destructive year, the remnants of the people alone remain.'The plague's journey across the length and breadth of Britain:

'Sometimes it came by road, passing from village to village, sometimes by river, as in the East Midlands, or by ship, from the Low Countries or from other infected areas. On the vills of the bishop of Worcester's estates in the West Midlands, they (the death rates) ranged between 19 per cent of manorial tenants at Hartlebury and Hanbury to no less than 80 per cent at Aston.... It is very difficult for us to imagine the impact of plague on these small rural communities, where a village might have no more than 400 or 500 inhabitants. Few settlements were totally depopulated, but in most others whole families must have been wiped out, and few can have been spared some loss, since the plague killed indiscriminately, striking at rich and poor alike.'
'The World Upside Down', Black Death in England by J. Bolton, ed.Ormrod and Lindley 1996The Arrival

http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/society_culture/welfare/images/black_blackdeath_ship.jpg A reconstruction of a ship carrying the Black Death to Britain.

'In this year, 1348, in Melcombe in the county of Dorset, a little before the feast of St John the Baptist, two ships, one of them from Bristol, came alongside. One of the sailors had brought with him from Gascony the seeds of the terrible pestilence, and through him the men of that town of Melcombe were the first in England to be infected.' - Grey Friar's Chronicle, Lynn
'Then the dreadful pestilence made its way along the coast by Southampton and reached Bristol, where almost the whole strength of the town perished, as it was surprised by sudden death; for few kept their beds more than two or three days, or even half a day.' - Henry Knighton, Chronicon

http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/society_culture/welfare/images/black_bristol_ship.jpg A ship carrying the Black Death

The Black Death entered south-western England in Summer 1348 and by all accounts struck Bristol with shocking force. Rumours of a terrible plague sweeping like wildfire across Europe had been rumbling for some time, and it is not surprising that the vibrant trading port of Bristol was the first major town in Britain to be affected, for it had close connections with the continent. Bristol was the second largest city in Britain and was the principal port of entry for the West Country. Within it lived upwards of 10,000 souls, tightly packed together in conditions that were not altogether sanitary.

'Filth running in open ditches in the streets, fly-blown meat and stinking fish, contaminated and adulterated ale, polluted well water, unspeakable privies, epidemic disease, - were experienced indiscriminately by all social classes.' (Holt and Rosser, The English Medieval Town, (1990))The plague spreads

http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/society_culture/welfare/images/black_skull_head.jpg Hythe Ossuary: remains of Black Death victims

The foul conditions was as true of Bristol as it was of any other medieval town, if not more so because of its size and importance. People had a tendency to empty their chamberpots out of their windows into the street. Many houses owned their own pigs, which were supposed to be grazed outside the city walls, but were often allowed to roam the streets in search of food. Most townsfolk drew their water from the river, which was also used for industrial purposes by the local brewers, who were heavily regulated to prevent their fouling the water.

The Black Death was to flourish in these conditions. Contemporary writers give an apocalyptic account of its effects. Knighton claims that: 'Almost the whole strength of the town perished.' A contemporary calendar said that: 'The plague raged to such a degree that the living were scarce able to bury the dead..' and

'...At this period the grass grew several inches high in the High St and in Broad St; it raged at first chiefly in the centre of the city.' (Geoffrey the Baker, Chronicon Angliae)The Fourteenth Century Little Red Book of Bristol lists the names of the town councillors for 1349: of 52 names, 15 have been struck through to show that they are dead.

Another chronicler, Geoffrey the Baker, described the plague's arrival:

'It raged at first chiefly in the centre of the city.'

'The seventh year after it began, it came to England and first began in the towns and ports joining on the seacoasts, in Dorsetshire, where, as in other counties, it made the country quite void of inhabitants so that there were almost none left alive. From there it passed into Devonshire and Somersetshire, even unto Bristol, and raged in such sort that the Gloucestershire men would not suffer the Bristol men to have access to them by any means. But at length it came to Gloucester, yea even to Oxford and to London, and finally it spread over all England and so wasted the people that scarce the tenth person of any sort was left alive.' (Geoffrey the Baker, Chronicon Angliae)Plague reaches London

http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/society_culture/welfare/images/black_spitalfields_dig.jpg A mass grave has been uncovered at Spitalfields containing the remains of victims of the Black Death

The plague reached London in autumn 1348. According to the contemporary Robert of Avesbury:

'The pestilence arrived in London at about the feast of All Saints [1st Nov] and daily deprived many of life. It grew so powerful that between Candlemass and Easter [2nd Feb-12th April] more than 200 corpses were buried almost every day in the new burial ground made next to Smithfield, and this was in addition to the bodies buried in other graveyards in the city.'The new Smithfield cemetery was hurriedly opened by the Bishop of London, but became so swamped that a local landowner, Sir Walter Manny, donated land nearby at Spittle Croft for a second cemetery. Excavation of the East Smithfield cemeteries, revealed that the dead were neatly stacked five deep in the mass graves (cf. D. Hawkins, The Black Death and the new London Cemeteries of 1348).

'The Thames was a polluted mess...'

London, as the country's largest city, had all the concomitant problems of overcrowding and poor sanitation. The Thames was a polluted mess and cesspits within the city were a constant source of contamination.

Attempts to alleviate the sanitation problem were not helped by the Black Death itself. In 1349, the King remonstrated with the town council about the state of the streets. The council replied that it could do nothing on account of the fact that all of its street cleaners had died of the plague.

London death toll

http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/society_culture/welfare/images/black_skull_mound.jpg Remains of victims of the Black Death (Hythe Ossuary)

What made things worse was the fact that London was almost certainly hit by a combined attack of pneumonic and bubonic plague. Robert of Avesbury says that:

'Those marked for death were scarce permitted to live longer than three or four days. It showed favour to no-one, except a very few of the wealthy. On the same day, 20, 40 or 60 bodies, and on many occasions many more, might be committed for burial together in the same pit.''...generally assumed to have killed between one third and one half of the populace.'

In January 1349, Parliament was prorogued on the grounds that: 'the plague and deadly pestilence had suddenly broken out in the said place and the neighbourhood, and daily increased in severity so that grave fears were entertained for the safety of those coming here at the time.'

Two ex-Chancellors and three Archbishops of Canterbury all died in quick succession. A large black slab in the southern cloister of Westminster Abbey probably covers the remains of the Abbot of Westminster and 27 of his monks who were also taken by the plague. It raged in London until spring 1350, and is generally assumed to have killed between one third and one half of the populace.

Spread of the Plague: Durham and Scotland

http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/society_culture/welfare/images/black_dead_man.jpg A reconstruction of a victim of the Black Death

In Durham, the Bishop's rolls records that:

'No tenant came from West Thickley because they are all dead.'The combination of plague and fear of a Scottish invasion caused such unrest within Durham itself that there were riots on the streets. These fears seem well founded, for the Scots were quick to take advantage of their English neighbours' distress, though they paid a terrible price for their opportunism:

'The Scots, hearing of the cruel plague of the English, declared that it had befallen them through the revenging hand of God, and they took to swearing by 'the foul death of England' - or so the common report resounded in the ears of the English. And thus the Scots, believing that the English were overwhelmed by the terrible vengeance of God, gathered in the forest of Selkirk with the intention of invading the whole realm of England. The fierce mortality came upon them, and the sudden cruelty of a monstrous death winnowed the Scots. Within a short space of time, around 5000 of them had died, and the rest, weak and strong alike, decided to retreat to their own country.' (Henry Knighton)The retreating army and its baggage carried the plague home with them in autumn 1349. It seems to have been checked by the Scottish winter, but broke out with renewed virulence in the spring of 1350:

'In 1350, there was a great pestilence and mortality of men in the kingdom of Scotland, and this pestilence also raged for many years before and after in various parts of the world. So great a plague has never been heard of from the beginning of the world to the present day, or been recorded in books. For this plague vented its spite so thoroughly that fully a third of the human race was killed. At God's command, moreover, the damage was done by an extraordinary and novel form of death. Those who fell sick of a kind of gross swelling of the flesh lasted for barely two days. This sickness befell people everywhere, but especially the middling and lower classes, rarely the great. It generated such horror that children did not dare to visit their dying parents, nor parents their children, but fled for fear of contagion as if from leprosy or a serpent.' John of Fordun (d.1384), Scotichronicon Another chronicle, the Book of Pluscarden says that the victims were: 'attacked with inflammation and lingered barely four and twenty hours.' Given the virulence of the plague and the symptoms described, it seems likely that the cold Scottish weather provoked an outbreak of pneumonic plague, with the complication of septicaemia.

The Plague spreads: Wales

http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/society_culture/welfare/images/black_blackdeath_skeleton.gif The skeleton of a plague victim

'In the following year, it laid waste the Welsh as well as the English; and then it took ship to Ireland, where the English residents were cut down in great numbers, but the native Irish, living in the mountains and uplands, were scarcely touched until 1357 when it took them unawares and annihilated them everywhere.' (Geoffrey the Baker)The plague in Wales and the Marches were as pitiless as elsewhere. At Whitchurch, an inquest into the death of one John le Strange revealed that John had died on 20th August 1349. His oldest son, Fulk, died 2 days before the inquest could be held on 30th August. Before an inquest could be held on Fulk's estate, his brother Humphrey was dead too. John, the third brother, survived to inherit a shattered estate, in which the 3 water mills which belonged to him were assessed at only half their value 'by reason of the want of those grinding, on account of the pestilence.' His land was deemed worthless because all its tenants were dead 'and no-one is willing to hire the land.' The Welsh poet, Jeuan Gethin, paints a vivid picture of the fear the plague engendered in its victims:

'A rootless phantom which has no mercy or fair countenance.'

'We see death coming into our midst like black smoke, a plague which cuts off the young, a rootless phantom which has no mercy or fair countenance. Woe is me of the shilling in the arm-pit; it is seething, terrible, wherever it may come, a head that gives pain and causes a loud cry, a burden carried under the arms, a painful angry knob, a white lump. It is of the form of an apple, like the head of an onion, a small boil that spares no-one. Great is its seething, like a burning cinder, a grievous thing of an ashy colour. It is an ugly eruption that comes with unseemly haste. It is a grievous ornament that breaks out in a rash. The early ornaments of black death.'Jeuan Gethin died in March or April 1349.

The spread of the Plague: Ireland

http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/society_culture/welfare/images/black_blackdeath_grave.gif Black Death grave

It is difficult to assess the affect of the plague in Ireland, because of the scarcity of manorial records and other sources. However, it is from Ireland that we get perhaps the most poignant testimony to the effect of the plague:

Plague stripped villages, cities, castles and towns of their inhabitants so thoroughly that there was scarcely anyone left alive in them. The pestilence was so contagious that those who touched the dead or the sick were immediately affected themselves and died, so that the penitent and confessor were carried together to the grave. Because of their fear and horror, men could hardly bring themselves to perform the pious and charitable acts of visiting the sick and burying the dead. Many died of boils, abscesses and pustules which erupted on the legs and in the armpits. Others died in frenzy, brought on by an affliction of the head, or vomiting blood. This amazing year was outside the usual order of things, exceptional in quite contradictory ways - abundantly fertile and yet at the same time sickly and deadly... It was very rare for just one person to die in a house, usually, husband, wife, children and servants all went the same way, the way of death.
And I, Brother John Clyn of the Friars Minor in Kilkenny, have written in this book the notable events which befell in my time, which I saw myself or have learned from men worthy of belief. So that notable deeds should not perish with time, and be lost from the memory of future generations, I, seeing these many ills, and that the whole world encompassed by evil, waiting among the dead for death to come, have committed to writing what I have truly heard and examined; and so that the writing does not perish with the writer, or the work fail with the workman, I leave parchment for continuing the work, in case anyone should still be alive in the future and any son of Adam can escape this pestilence and continue the work thus begun.Here the narrative breaks off and is followed by a note in another hand:

'Here, it seems, the author died.'Plague recurrences

http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/society_culture/welfare/images/black_peasants_hovel.jpg The plague of 1361 struck at young people.

On average, between 30-45% of the general populace died in the Black Death of 1348-50. But in some villages, 80% or 90% of the population died (and in Kilkenny at least, it seems likely that the death-rate was 100%!). A death-rate of 30% is higher than the total British losses in World War I.

Nor was 1350 the end of it. Plague recurred! It came back in 1361-64, 1368, 1371, 1373-75, 1390, 1405 and continued into the fifteenth century. Death rates in the later epidemics may have been lower than the Black Death, but the sources reveal a new horror:

In 1361 a general mortality oppressed the people. It was called the second pestilence and both rich and poor died, but especially young people and children. (Henry Knighton)
In AD 1361 there was a mortality of men, especially adolescents and boys, and as a result it was commonly called the pestilence of boys. (Chronicle of Louth Park Abbey)
In 1361 there was a second pestilence within England, which was called the mortality of children. Several people of high birth and a great number of children died.'By the 1370s, the population of England had been halved and it was not recovering.'

In 1369 there was a third pestilence in England and in several other countries. It was great beyond measure, lasted a long time and was particularly fatal to children.
In 1374 the fourth pestilence began in England... In the following year, a large number of Londoners from among the wealthier and more eminent citizens died in the pestilence.
In 1378 the fourth pestilence reached York and was particularly fatal to children. (Anonimalle Chronicle)
In 1390 a great plague ravaged the country. It especially attacked adolescents and boys, who died in incredible numbers in towns and villages everywhere. (Thomas Walsingham)The message is clear: the plague was hitting the population of England where it hurt most, in its young. Modern research shows that it was entirely possible for the plague to have become both age and gender specific by the 1360s, with profound consequences for the reproductive cycle of the population. By the 1370s, the population of England had been halved and it was not recovering.

How the plague spread around the British Isles

Most historians are willing to agree that the Black Death killed between 30-45% of the population between 1348-50.

1317: Great Famine in England
May 1337: Declaration of the Hundred Years War by Edward III.
June 1348: Black Death arrives at Melcombe Regis (Weymouth)
Aug 1348: Black Death hits Bristol
Sept 1348: Black Death reaches London
Oct 1348: Winchester hit - Edendon's 'Voice in Rama' speech
Jan 1349: Parliament prorogued on account of the plague.
Jan-Feb 1349: Plague spreads into E. Anglia and the Midlands.
April 1349: Plague known in Wales.
May 1349: Halesowen hit.
18th June 1349: Ordinance of Labourers.
July 1349: Plague definitely hits Ireland.
Autumn 1349: Plague reaches Durham. Scots invade northern England and bring back plague with them.
Spring 1350: Massive outbreak of plague in Scotland.
Sept 1350: First pestilence dies out.
9th Feb 1351: Statute of Labourers.
1361-64: Second Pestilence: 'The Plague of Children'.
1367: Birth of Richard II in Bordeau.
1368-69: Third Pestilence
1371-75: Fourth Pestilence (variously dated 1371 or 1373-5)
1381: The Peasant Revolt
The plague returned in a series of periodic local and national epidemics. The plague only finally stopped at the end of the Seventeenth century.

Related Links


Black Death: The Disease - http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/society_culture/welfare/blackdisease_01.shtml (http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/society_culture/welfare/blackdisease_01.shtml)
Black Death: The Effect of the Plague - http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/society_culture/welfare/plague_countryside_01.shtml (http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/society_culture/welfare/plague_countryside_01.shtml)
Mummy's Ruin? Health Hazards and Cures in Ancient Egypt - http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/egyptians/health_01.shtml (http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/egyptians/health_01.shtml)
Multimedia Zone

Population Animation - http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/society_culture/society/launch_ani_population.shtml (http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/society_culture/society/launch_ani_population.shtml)
Kings and Queens Through Time - http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/state/monarchs_leaders/launch_ani_kings_queens.shtml (http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/state/monarchs_leaders/launch_ani_kings_queens.shtml)
Historic Figures

Edward III - http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/edward_iii_king.shtml (http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/edward_iii_king.shtml)
Marie Curie - http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/curie_marie.shtml (http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/curie_marie.shtml)
Edward Jenner - http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/jenner_edward.shtml (http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/jenner_edward.shtml)

British Timeline - The Black Death - http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/timelines/britain/lmid_black_death.shtml (http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/timelines/britain/lmid_black_death.shtml)
BBCi Links

BBC News: Black Death and Plague 'Not Linked' - http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/1925513.stm (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/1925513.stm)
BBC News: De-coding the Black Death - http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/1576875.stm (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/1576875.stm)
BBC Worldservice: Catching the Black Death - http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/sci_tech/highlights/010801_blackdeath.shtml (http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/sci_tech/highlights/010801_blackdeath.shtml)
External Web Links

Insecta-Inspecta: The Black Death - http://www.insecta-inspecta.com/fleas/bdeath/ (http://www.insecta-inspecta.com/fleas/bdeath/)
Eyewitness: The Back Death - http://www.ibiscom.com/plague.htm (http://www.ibiscom.com/plague.htm)

Published on BBCi History: 01-01-2001
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Monday, February 28th, 2005, 03:15 PM

The Black Death, 1348
Coming out of the East, the Black Death reached the shores of Italy in the spring of 1348 unleashing a rampage of death across Europe unprecedented in recorded history. By the time the epidemic played itself out three years later, anywhere between 25% and 50% of Europe's population had fallen victim to the pestilence.

The plague presented itself in three interrelated forms. The bubonic variant (the most common) derives its name from the swellings or buboes that appeared on a victim's neck, armpits or groin. These tumors could range in size from that of an egg to that of an apple. Although some survived the painful ordeal, the manifestation of these lesions usually signaled the victim had a life expectancy of up to a week. Infected fleas that attached themselves to rats and then to humans spread this bubonic type of the plague. A second variation - pneumatic plague - attacked the respiratory system and was spread by merely breathing the exhaled air of a victim. It was much more virulent than its bubonic cousin - life expectancy was measured in one or two days. Finally, the septicemic version of the disease attacked the blood system.

Having no defense and no understanding of the cause of the pestilence, the men, women and children caught in its onslaught were bewildered, panicked, and finally devastated.

The Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio lived through the plague as it ravaged the city of Florence in 1348. The experience inspired him to write The Decameron, a story of seven men and three women who escape the disease by fleeing to a villa outside the city. In his introduction to the fictional portion of his book, Boccaccio gives a graphic description of the effects of the epidemic on his city.

The Signs of Impending Death

"The symptoms were not the same as in the East, where a gush of blood from the nose was the plain sign of inevitable death; but it began both in men and women with certain swellings in the groin or under the armpit. They grew to the size of a small apple or an egg, more or less, and were vulgarly called tumours. In a short space of time these tumours spread from the two parts named all over the body. Soon after this the symptoms changed and black or purple spots appeared on the arms or thighs or any other part of the body, sometimes a few large ones, sometimes many little ones. These spots were a certain sign of death, just as the original tumour had been and still remained.

No doctor's advice, no medicine could overcome or alleviate this disease, An enormous number of ignorant men and women set up as doctors in addition to those who were trained. Either the disease was such that no treatment was possible or the doctors were so ignorant that they did not know what caused it, and consequently could not administer the proper remedy. In any case very few recovered; most people died within about three days of the appearance of the tumours described above, most of them without any fever or other symptoms.

The violence of this disease was such that the sick communicated it to the healthy who came near them, just as a fire catches anything dry or oily near it. And it even went further. To speak to or go near the sick brought infection and a common death to the living; and moreover, to touch the clothes or anything else the sick had touched or worn gave the disease to the person touching. "

Varying Reactions to Disaster

"…Such fear and fanciful notions took possession of the living that almost all of them adopted the same cruel policy, which was entirely to avoid the sick and everything belonging to them. By so doing, each one thought he would secure his own safety.

Some thought that moderate living and the avoidance of all superfluity would preserve them from the epidemic. They formed small communities, living entirely separate from everybody else. They shut themselves up in houses where there were no sick, eating the finest food and drinking the best wine very temperately, avoiding all excess, allowing no news or discussion of death and sickness, and passing the time in music and suchlike pleasures. Others thought just the opposite. They thought the sure cure for the plague was to drink and be merry, to go about singing and amusing themselves, satisfying every appetite they could, laughing and jesting at what happened. They put their words into practice, spent day and night going from tavern to tavern, drinking immoderately, or went into other people's houses, doing only those things which pleased them. This they could easily do because everyone felt doomed and had abandoned his property, so that most houses became common property and any stranger who went in made use of them as if he had owned them. And with all this bestial behaviour, they avoided the sick as much as possible.

In this suffering and misery of our city, the authority of human and divine laws almost disappeared, for, like other men, the ministers and the executors of the laws were all dead or sick or shut up with their families, so that no duties were carried out. Every man was therefore able to do as he pleased.

Many others adopted a course of life midway between the two just described. They did not restrict their victuals so much as the former, nor allow themselves to be drunken and dissolute like the latter, but satisfied their appetites moderately. They did not shut themselves up, but went about, carrying flowers or scented herbs or perfumes in their hands, in the belief that it was an excellent thing to comfort the brain with such odours; for the whole air was infected with the smell of dead bodies, of sick persons and medicines.

Others again held a still more cruel opinion, which they thought would keep them safe. They said that the only medicine against the plague-stricken was to go right away from them. Men and women, convinced of this and caring about nothing but themselves, abandoned their own city, their own houses, their dwellings, their relatives, their property, and went abroad or at least to the country round Florence, as if God's wrath in punishing men's wickedness with this plague would not follow them but strike only those who remained within the walls of the city, or as if they thought nobody in the city would remain alive and that its last hour had come."

The Breakdown of Social Order

"One citizen avoided another, hardly any neighbour troubled about others, relatives never or hardly ever visited each other. Moreover, such terror was struck into the hearts of men and women by this calamity, that brother abandoned brother, and the uncle his nephew, and the sister her brother, and very often the wife her husband. What is even worse and nearly incredible is that fathers and mothers refused to see and tend their children, as if they had not been theirs.

Thus, a multitude of sick men and women were left without any care, except from the charity of friends (but these were few), or the greed, of servants, though not many of these could be had even for high wages, Moreover, most of them were coarse-minded men and women, who did little more than bring the sick what they asked for or watch over them when they were dying. And very often these servants lost their lives and their earnings. Since the sick were thus abandoned by neighbours, relatives and friends, while servants were scarce, a habit sprang up which had never been heard of before. Beautiful and noble women, when they fell sick, did not scruple to take a young or old man-servant, whoever he might be, and with no sort of shame, expose every part of their bodies to these men as if they had been women, for they were compelled by the necessity of their sickness to do so. This, perhaps, was a cause of looser morals in those women who survived."

Mass Burials

"The plight of the lower and most of the middle classes was even more pitiful to behold. Most of them remained in their houses, either through poverty or in hopes of safety, and fell sick by thousands. Since they received no care and attention, almost all of them died. Many ended their lives in the streets both at night and during the day; and many others who died in their houses were only known to be dead because the neighbours smelled their decaying bodies. Dead bodies filled every corner. Most of them were treated in the same manner by the survivors, wbo were more concerned to get rid of their rotting bodies than moved by charity towards the dead. With the aid of porters, if they could get them, they carried the bodies out of the houses and laid them at the door; where every morning quantities of the dead might be seen. They then were laid on biers or, as these were often lacking, on tables.

Such was the multitude of corpses brought to the churches every day and almost every hour that there was not enough consecrated ground to give them burial, especially since they wanted to bury each person in the family grave, according to the old custom. Although the cemeteries were full they were forced to dig huge trenches, where they buried the bodies by hundreds. Here they stowed them away like bales in the hold of a ship and covered them with a little earth, until the whole trench was full." References:
Boccaccio, Giovanni, The Decameron vol. I (translated by Richard Aldington illustrated by Jean de Bosschere) (1930); Gottfried, Robert, The Black Death (1983). How To Cite This Article:
"The Black Death, 1348," EyeWitness to History, www.eyewitnesstohistory.com (2001).

The plague started in China and made its way west across Asia to the Black Sea by 1347. One theory is that a group of infected Tartars besieged a Genoese outpost on the coast. To harass the trapped townspeople, the Tartars used their catapults to hurl the dead bodies of their comrades over the town walls spreading the epidemic among the Genoese. The panicked inhabitants fled the scene by ship showing up in the ports of northern Italy and bringing the Black Death to Europe. Throughout Europe, Jews along with lepers and other minorities became scapegoats for the devastation of the plaque. Thousands were burned alive in retaliation.