Black Death: The lasting impact By Professor Tom James

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Black Death: The lasting impact

By Professor Tom James

The long term effects of the Black Death (1348-50) were devastating and far reaching. Agriculture, religion, economics and even social class were affected. Professor Tom James examines the impact of the plague from contemporary accounts and asks, would things ever be the same again?
The onset of the plague

Contemporaries were horrified by the onset of the plague in the wet summer of 1348: within weeks of midsummer people were dying in unprecedented large numbers. Ralph Higden of Chester, the best known contemporary chronicler thought 'scarcely a tenth of mankind was left alive'. His analysis of the scale of the mortality is repeated by other commentators. The phrase 'there were hardly enough living to care for the sick and bury the dead' is repeated in various sources including a chronicle compiled at St Mary's Abbey, York. The Malmesbury monk, writing in Wiltshire, reckoned that 'over England as a whole a fifth of men, women and children were carried to the grave'. The plague did not abate in the Winter but became even more virulent in the early months of 1349 and continued into 1350.

Chroniclers and administrators make numerous references to the extension of graveyards, for example in Bristol, and to the mass burial of bodies in pits. At Rochester (Kent) men and women cast their dead children into communal graves 'from which arose such a stench that it was barely possible to go past a churchyard'. Modern excavation of such pits in London, near The Tower on the site of former Royal Mint and in the cathedral close at Hereford, testify to these extreme measures. In London the pits took the form of long, narrow trenches with bodies laid in orderly rows: at Hereford the evidence was of more haphazard committal to the earth.
'...scarcely a tenth of mankind was left alive.'

Today we have the benefit of hindsight. We know, as fourteenth-century people suspected, that the mortality caused by the bubonic plague of the Black Death was the worst demographic disaster in the history of the world. We also know that the mortality came to an end in the first outbreak soon after 1350; contemporaries could not have known this would happen - so far as they were concerned everyone might well die. Some treated each day as if it were their last: moral and sexual codes were broken, while the marriage market was revitalised by those who had lost partners in the plague.

We also know that the plague returned regularly, first in 1361 and then in the 1370s and 1380s and, as an increasingly urban disease, right through until the Great Plague of 1665 in London. But by around 1670 it disappeared from England for over two centuries until a number of outbreaks occurred either side of 1900. It was not until these modern outbreaks that the bacillus was identified and connection between rats and plague discovered. Despite all their best efforts people in the historic period had no remedy against the mysterious plague, except as Daniel Defoe put it, to run away from it.
Contemporary accounts

The sustained onslaught of plague on English population and society over a period of more than 300 years inevitably affected society and the economy. Evidence of the effects can be measured and responses traced not only in social and economic, political and religious terms, but also in changes in art and architecture. The effects of the Black Death in all these matters were disputed by contemporaries and are still hotly disputed today, which makes the topic so endlessly fascinating.

'The effects of the Black Death...are still hotly disputed today...'

By way of example, Ralph Higden, a contemporary chronicler, argued that 'lords and great men escaped'. By contrast, Geoffrey le Baker, an Oxfordshire man, noted deaths among the nobility. And so there were: one of King Edward III's daughters, archbishops, bishops, abbots, abbesses, nobles and lords of manors died in the first outbreak. In 1361 the Duke of Lancaster, a leading general, was among the victims. Le Baker also noted the immediate effects on the young and strong: 'the weak and elderly it generally spared'. In 1361 we find references to the outbreak being especially fierce among children. Later plagues were especially violent, as noted above, in towns. At Southampton, for example, in the sixteenth century, between 15 and 25% of the population was carried off every twenty years by outbreaks of plague. However, there is no doubt that proportionately the hardest-hit part of society was the most numerous: the peasantry, labourers and artisans.

Society turned upside down

Following the plague we find a clear sense of society turned upside down in England. The rulers of the kingdom reacted strongly. Some elements of legislation indicate a measure of panic. Within a year of the onset of plague, during 1349, an Ordinance of Labourers was issued and this became the Statute of Labourers in 1351. This law sought to prevent labourers from obtaining higher wages. Despite the shortage in the workforce caused by the plague, workers were ordered to take wages at the levels achieved pre-plague. Landlords gained in the short term from payments on the deaths of their tenants (heriots), but 'rents dwindled, land fell waste for want of tenants who used to cultivate it' (Higden) and '...many villages and hamlets were deserted...and never inhabited again'. Consequently, landed incomes fell. The bulging piles of manorial accounts which survive for the period of the Black Death testify to the active land-market and the additional administration caused by the onset of plague. But all too often the administration consists of noting defaults of rent because of plague (defectus causa pestilencie).

'...many villages and hamlets were deserted...and never inhabited again.'

It has been argued that the Black Death brought about the end of feudalism. This was the system of service in return for a grant of land, burdening the peasant with many obligations to his lord. For example, payments were due on entering a land holding, upon marriage and death and on many other occasions. The Black Death did not start the process of the commutation (substitution) of a money payment for labour and other services. However, there is no doubt that the plague speeded up the process by reducing dramatically the numbers of peasants and artisans. By how much commutation accelerated is still a matter of fierce debate.

Government and landlords tried to keep the lid on rising wages and changing social aspirations. Lords and peasants alike were indicted for taking higher wages. In 1363 a Sumptuary Law was brought through parliament. This measure decreed not only the quality and colour of cloth that lay people at different levels of society (below the nobility) should use in their attire but also sought to limit the common diet to basics. Such legislation could only occur when the government had observed upwardly-mobile dress among the lower orders. Such legislation was virtually impossible to enforce, but indicates that among those who survived the plague there was additional wealth, from higher wages and from accumulated holdings of lands formerly held by plague victims.
In Chaucer's Canterbury Tales of 1387 the well-known Prologue describes the dress of each pilgrim. Arguably, it demonstrates that apart from the knight, the poor parson and the ploughman, who personify each of the three traditional divisions of medieval society, every pilgrim is dressed more grandly that the Sumptuary Law would allow. The Canterbury Tales came six years after the Great Revolt of 1381 in which rebellion flared throughout much of England, the Kent and Essex men invaded London, chopped off Archbishop Sudbury's head and terrified the fourteen-year-old Richard II into agreeing concessions on the Poll Tax and other matters. The Poll Tax was an unsuccessful attempt by the government to combat the effects of plague by changing the basis of taxation from a charge on communities (many much less populous following successive plagues), with a tax on individuals who had survived. Chaucer, the court poet, was very aware of the anxieties of the elite in the new post-plague society. His Canterbury pilgrims, as the courtiers encountered them, were arranged 'by rank and degree' and sent back down the road to Canterbury in perfect order, led by the knight: precisely the opposite to the unruly mob which had marched up from Canterbury in 1381.
Never the same again

If lay society was never the same again after the Black Death, nor was the English Church. Contemporaries were quick to note that the Black Death killed proportionately at least as many clergy as laity. New recruits were noted as being of a lesser quality. Henry Knighton, writing in Leicester, said of these new clerks that many of them were illiterate, no better than laymen - 'for even if they could read, they did not understand'. Worse still, clergy post-plague demanded from twice to ten times more than before for a vicarage or chaplaincy. Some clergy deserted their posts, and left their churches to 'wild beasts'. A fierce argument raged in the first half of the twentieth century between F.A. Gasquet, who became a cardinal in England, and the Cambridge historian G.G. Coulton over the effects of the plague on the medieval church. Gasquet saw the plague as a catastrophe which ruined the church in England through clergy mortality, and was among the seeds of the Reformation on the sixteenth century. Coulton, by contrast, argued that clergy mortality in the Black Death was exaggerated by monkish writers and that the clergy abandoned their posts and fled. There is evidence on both sides and the argument rages!

'In a sense the Black Death was the prehistory both of enclosure and of the Reformation.'

In summary, the vast majority of the population at the time of the Black Death was rural peasants who suffered the highest mortality and in so doing, became much more expensive and choosy about where they worked, and how they related to lords. Weakened communities provided the opportunity in the century and a half after the plague for landlords to clear lands and enclose them for sheep, so that Sir Thomas More, writing soon after 1500, saw the countryside as overrun and consumed by sheep. People certainly expected and obtained higher wages even in the church, whose authority was challenged by many, including Chaucer in his mocking Canterbury Tales. Recruitment to the parish clergy fell and monastic houses never recovered. In a sense the Black Death was the prehistory both of enclosure and of the Reformation. Perhaps Cardinal Gasquet was right when he noted long ago that the plague led to the emergence for the first time of a middle class (who chatter and challenge authority) funded by accumulating the wealth of those who had died. Thus the old medieval tripartite division of society into those who fought (the nobility and knights), those who prayed (the churchmen) and those who laboured (the peasants) was never the same again.

Find out more

The Black Death by Philip Ziegler, illustrated edition (Sutton, 1991)

The Black Death by Rosemary Horrox (1994)
The Black Death in Wessex by Tom Beaumont James (Salisbury, 1998)
The Black Death in Hampshire by Tom Beaumont James (Winchester, 1999)
About the author

Author, broadcaster and lecturer Professor Tom Beaumont James teaches archaeology and history at the University of Winchester. He has published special studies of the Black Death as a turning point in history, and of medieval palaces. He contributed a history of Britain to BBC Worldwide's This Sceptered Isle. Two major publications are out in 2006: The King's Landscape: Clarendon Park (Wiltshire), with Chris Gerrard and The Winchester Census of 1871, with Mark Allen.

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