|THE BLACK DEATH 1348-1351
The Black Death was the name given to bubonic plague, a terrible disease that first appeared in Europe at this time. After the initial outbreak, it returned on many occasions, until it finally died out in the eighteenth century. It is still in existence today (a form appeared in India in 1994). It was a very infectious disease, with a high mortality rate.
The disease was first reported in Asia and China in 1334. It spread west through India and towards Europe, carried along the spice and silk trading routes. In 1346 it reached the city of Kaffa in the Crimea, where Turkish warriors were besieging Italian merchants in this trading port. As losses grew amongst the besiegers, they loaded plague-ridden dead bodies into catapults and fired them over the walls and into the city. The Italian merchants fled in their ships, carrying the disease to Constantinople and on to Europe.
Although attempts were made to stop the merchants landing/ by then it was too late. It spread rapidly/ killing between a third and a quarter of the population. By 1348 it had reached France/ and soon it crossed the Channel to England. Wherever it reached there was chaos and panic, and a breakdown in daily life and organization.
What was the Black Death ?
We now know that it was probably BUBONIC PLAGUE, a deadly disease not seen before in Europe. It spread along trading routes, carried by the flea that lived on the Black rat
Bacillus (germ) > Flea > Black Rat > Ship > Rat leaves ship and enters new town > Flea bites victim
However/ this alone would not account for the rapid spread of the disease. Once infection spread, two new forms of the disease developed. These were PNEUMONIC PLAGUE and SEPTICAEMIC PLAGUE. Both of these were even more deadly, and could be spread by coughing and breathing, rather like /flu.
a) Feeling dizzy, weak and feverish.
b) Boils (buboes) and a red rash under armpits and in the groin c) Fever, coughing and vomiting.
d) Black spots, coughing blood.
e) Death in most cases. Recovery is rare.
At the time, germs were unknown, and people had no idea what caused the disease. There were many guesses, some of which were pure superstition, others of which were more sensible:
1} The wrath (anger} of God.
2} The position of the planets Jupiter, Saturn and Mars close to each other. 3} The explosion of a giant volcano in Asia.
4} Blockages of the bowels, and certain types of food.
5) "Bad air".
6) Poisoning by Jews or foreigners.
The plague in Britain
Word of this terrible disease had spread across Europe. People in England were expecting it, but were as helpless as anyone else to stop the spread.
The first reports of the plague in this country occur in Dorset in June 1348. The black rats crossed the Channel in ships trading wool with France.
Once here, it spread quickly, reaching London in January 1349. By the end of that year it covered the whole country. Efforts were made to stop the spread; towns blockaded themselves, turning away travelers and refugees, but it only needed one person to slip through, and plague spread once again. In the countryside it tended to work in pockets, missing some villages altogether and wiping out most of the population of others. In the towns the death rate ran at about 30%, whilst some villages were abandoned, the survivors fleeing, creating "deserted villages".
Mediaeval towns provided an ideal breeding ground for both types of plague. Rats thrived in overcrowded houses, and in piles of rubbish, rotting food and debris dumped in the streets. The houses were overcrowded, warm and humid, and people rarely washed themselves or their clothes.
In addition, the overcrowded conditions allowed the rapid spread of airborne germs. Even the rich suffered, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, who died. Out of the 60,000 inhabitants of London, some 18,000 died. Dead bodies sometimes lay in houses for days before discovery, before being piled into carts and buried in huge pits outside the city walls. Soon, infected houses were sealed for forty days in order to allow the plague to run its course, marked by a red cross on the door. Grass grew on the streets as people were too frightened to venture out of doors.
The Church was particularly badly affected as priests went about their duties with the dying. Religious communities were almost wiped out; they provided an easy target due to their crowded conditions, and many poor and sick came to them for treatment and help, bringing the plague. For this reason, many religious writers tend to exaggerate the effects of the plague, based upon their own experiences.
Medicine and the Black Death
During the Middle Ages medical facilities were poor at best, based upon simple herbal remedies. As no one knew what caused the plague, little could be done to prevent it. Doctors wore a "bird" costume, made up of a long leather cloak and gloves, and a leather headpiece with a "beak" stuffed with herbs. This gave some protection against the fleas and airborne germs.
There were dozens of strange and outlandish cures, or methods for avoiding the plaque:
1. sit next to a blazing hot fire (as the Pope did) right through the hot summer of 1348.
2. Live in a house sheltered from the wind, and close all the doors and windows.
3. "The swellings should be softened with figs and cooked onions mixed with yeast and butter." Guy de Chaulliac
4. "Toads should be thoroughly dried in the sun, then laid on the boil. The toad will swell and draw the poison into its own body. When it is full, it should be thrown away and a new one applied." (A doctor's advice)
5. "All human excrement and other filth lying in the city is to be removed." Letter from Edward III to the Lord Mayor of London, 1349.
6. "Consume a medicine made from boiled onions and the gall bladder of a hare." (Another doctor's advice)
Other reactions varied, some people lived riotous lives, partying and enjoying themselves on the basis that they would probably be going to die anyway! Others spent many hours fasting and praying, hoping to escape death.
Religion and the Black Death
In an age where everyone was religious, and most were superstitious as well, many people tended to blame God for the plague, or at least for allowing to happen. Many accounts mention supernatural occurrences, such as fire falling from the sky, sulphur and brimstone (a volcano errupting?), or plagues of animals or insects -linked with the Old Testament stories of the wrath of God.
The most famous religious group from this time, who believed that they must punish themselves, so that God would take away his own punishment, were the FLAGELLANTS. They moved around the countryside from town to town, halting to whip themselves with weighted whips until they collapsed from pain and loss of blood!
In fact, they were mainly found on the continent, and a small group who turned up in London were deported by Edward III as undesirable aliens. This sect soon died out, either literally, or because their suffering seemed to bring little change in the situation.
Another form of relief came from the persecution of other religious groups. A belief was held that the Jews, always a popular scapegoat, had caused the plague by poisoning the water. Several massacres took place, including the murder of 20,000 Jews in Strasbourg. In addition, any foreigners were at risk as people desperately searched for someone to blame.
The Results of the Black Death
1. The population dropped by about 30% -in the case of England, from about 4 million to about 2 1/2 million. This led to a shortage of labor in the countryside.
2. Some villages and communities were wiped out, creating "deserted villages".
3. Ihe Church
Many members of the Church died, for reasons already mentioned. They were hard to replace, and many poorly trained clergy were recruited. This coincided with a loss of faith in the church generally, as it was blamed for failing to prevent the Black Death.
At first, prices dropped, due to a surplus caused by so many deaths. For example, with fewer people around to buy them, the price of a horse would drop. However, in the long term, prices rose due to shortages caused by the lack of workers and the disorganized nature of society in general.
5. The Peasants
Before the Black Death, the peasants had lived very steady and organized lives. It was common to allow villains to pay rent instead of performing labor services on the land -this was known as COMMUTATION. However, now that there was a shortage of labor, the lords could not afford to pay the wages freemen demanded, and so the villains were forced to work on the land again.
As prices rose, the peasants began to demand higher wages in order to buy food and basic necessities. In order to keep costs down, the barons passed the STATUTE OF LABOURERS in 1351. This was a law stating that peasants had to work for the same wages that they had done so before the Black Death. Although landowners did not always follow this law if they were desperate to recruit labor, it had the effect of making life very much harder for the peasants. Many fled from their villages and tried to make a new life in the towns.