History explorer: the catastrophe of the Black Death

As part of our series in which experts nominate UK locations in order to illustrate wider historical topics, John Hatcher visits the Suffolk village of Walsham le Willows, which lost half its population to bubonic plague in 1349

The Black Death, the effects of which are pictured in this medieval miniature, took little more than seven years to wipe out around half of mankind. (DeAgostini/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the Christmas 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine 

Walsham le Willows is a picture-postcard village, heavily sprinkled with historic thatched and half-timbered houses, set deep in the west Suffolk countryside some 14 miles from Bury St Edmunds. The meandering stream that runs along the main street, the medieval church of St Mary the Virgin – set in a spacious tree-shaded churchyard – its highways and by-ways, greens and fields, exude a settled peacefulness and a certain definable Englishness. So it is all the more shocking to learn that in the mid-14th century villages like this all over Britain were ravaged by a disease from east Asia that killed one in two of their inhabitants in just over two months.

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