The Black Death


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Not only textbooks but serious monographs on the Black Death and its successive waves of plague into the early 19th century in Europe go on about rats usually the black ones and fleas without qualification. But what is the evidence? Not only do contemporary chroniclers list important knights, ladies, and merchants who died during the Black Death, but administrative records also point to a wide swath of the population felled in — Furthermore, many wealthy and well-fed convents, friaries, and monasteries across Europe lost more than half of their members; some even became extinct.

However, by the third or fourth wave of plague in the last decades of the 14th century, burial records and tax registers reveal that the disease had evolved into one of the poor.

In —49, some of the worst-hit regions were in mountainous and in relatively isolated zones, such as in Snowdonia in Wales or the mountain village of Mangona in the Alpi f iorentine, north of Florence, whose communications with cities were less frequent than places further down the slopes and closer to cities. The experiences of these isolated villages may have been similar to small mining villages in Pennsylvania or in South Africa, or Inuit settlements in Newfoundland under attack by another highly contagious pandemic, the Great Influenza of —19, in which they experienced mortalities from 10 to 40 per cent — many times higher than in New York City or London.

For reasons that are difficult to explain, cities such as Milan and Douai in Flanders, both major hubs of commerce and industry, appear to have escaped the Black Death in almost totally unscathed. Meanwhile, Douai chronicles, monastic necrologies, and archival records recording, for example, the deaths of magistrates, and last wills and testaments show no certain signs of the plague entering that city until the plague of In German-speaking lands, France along the Rhine, and parts of Spain, municipal governments, castellans, bishops, and the Holy Roman Emperor accused Jews of spreading the Black Death by poisoning foodstuffs and water sources, and massacred entire communities of men, women, and babies for these supposed crimes.

The accusations and massacres, however, were not universal between and Massacres did not arise in the British Isles where , at least in England , Jews had been expelled in by Edward I , and no clear evidence pinpoints any such violence in Italy except for the Catalans in Sicily. Nor are any massacres recorded in the Middle East. The period deemed necessary to isolate suspected carriers in Milan during its plague of —75, for instance, had dropped to eight daysfor certain categories of suspicion. Cities that managed to keep plague beyond their borders were those that devised and implemented quarantine: border controls at city gates, harbours, and mountain passes; individual health passports which identified a person and certified where he or she came from , and other related measures such as spy networks to signal when a plague had erupted in a foreign city or region.

However, occasionally contemporary writers also praised those who stayed on to nurse the afflicted, and who often lost their lives in so doing. Curiously, the church did not recognise any of these martyrs during the Black Death with elevations to beatitude or sanctity. It is thought that the Black Death spread at a rate of a mile or more a day, but other accounts have measured it in places to have averaged as far as eight miles a day. It spread so slowly because modern bubonic plague was a rodent disease and often one dependent on the house rat.

These extreme differences in the spread of the Black Death and the bubonic plagues of modern times are seen despite the revolutions in transport with steam power, railway, and, by the early 20th century, automobiles. Samuel Cohn is professor of medieval history at the University of Glasgow. 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:. 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.

In January , 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 , and is generally assumed to have killed between one third and one half of the populace. 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:. 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 of them had died, and the rest, weak and strong alike, decided to retreat to their own country. The retreating army and its baggage carried the plague home with them in autumn It seems to have been checked by the Scottish winter, but broke out with renewed virulence in the spring of 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.

How You Could Have Survived the Black Plague

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. Another chronicle, the Book of Pluscarden says that the victims were: 'attacked with inflammation and lingered barely four and twenty hours.

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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 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.

The Black Death: 10 Facts About The Plague That Ravaged Europe - HistoryExtra

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. 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. 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.

Nor was the end of it.

The Black Death: The Greatest Catastrophe Ever

Plague recurred! It came back in , , , , , 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 a general mortality oppressed the people. It was called the second pestilence and both rich and poor died, but especially young people and children.

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Henry Knighton. In AD 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 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. In there was a third pestilence in England and in several other countries.


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It was great beyond measure, lasted a long time and was particularly fatal to children. In 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 the fourth pestilence reached York and was particularly fatal to children.

Anonimalle Chronicle. In 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 s, with profound consequences for the reproductive cycle of the population.


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  • By the s, the population of England had been halved and it was not recovering. The plague returned in a series of periodic local and national epidemics. The plague only finally stopped at the end of the Seventeenth century.

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