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.
The Great Pestilence, or Black Death as it later became known, took little more than seven years to wipe out around half of mankind. It spread outwards in 1345 from the High Steppes of east Asia, scything a massive arc of unimaginable ferocity south-westwards to the Middle East, the Mediterranean and north Africa, and then another arc north and westwards that encompassed the whole of Europe from southern Spain to northern Norway, from the west coast of Ireland to eastern Russia, before finally fizzling out in 1352, close to where it had begun.
Although modern historians tend to be more scientific and cautious in assessing the scale of catastrophes in the past than their medieval chroniclers, the mortality caused by the Black Death is an exception: in recent decades, the death rate of the epidemic has been progressively raised, not lowered.
Such was the speed and comprehensiveness of the spread of the disease, and so high the death rate that, despite the abundance and persuasiveness of contemporary descriptions of its unique symptoms – especially the grossly swollen and extremely painful lymph glands known as buboes – increasing numbers of medical scientists, epidemiologists and historians began to doubt that it could have been bubonic plague. (Bubonic plague is caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis and was thought to rely for its transmission on the bites of infected fleas carried on the backs of rats.) So a host of alternatives were suggested, including anthrax and typhus, and the case was made that such devastation could only have been caused by a virus, perhaps ebola, or even by an unknown pathogen from outer space delivered on a comet.
In the last decade, however, ongoing research, utilising a combination of DNA analysis and antigen-based Rapid Diagnostic Testing on skeletons buried in more than 50 Black Death cemeteries across Europe, has determined Yersinia pestis as the causative agent of the epidemic plague that devastated Europe in the Middle Ages.
Walsham le Willows can contribute valuable information about the behaviour of plague thanks to the outstanding quality of its surviving documents. Because all tenants who died are listed in the detailed and continuous records of the courts of the lords of two manors in the village, we can see that plague began killing residents in Walsham in early April and had run its course by early June. By this time, 109 of the original enants were dead, many buried in communal graves in the village churchyard.
There were approximately 176 tenants on the two manors just before the plague struck, which means the death rate in the village was likely to have been around 60 per cent. In fact so many deaths had to be recorded during the court of Walsham Manor, held on 15 June 1349, along with the details of the lands the victims held and the heirs who were in line to inherit them, that the clerk had to sew an extra membrane of vellum to accommodate all the information.
But Walsham’s experience was not unique; the impact of the epidemic was dramatic and felt immediately. More than 300 years of population growth had left most of early 14th-century Europe overcrowded, but the massive mortality of the Black Death meant that in an instant people became relatively scarce, and land and employment abundant. Thus the balance of power between landlords and tenants, and employers and workers, shifted dramatically.
Despite the attempts of the elites to thwart change and hang on to their privileges, ordinary people were determined to take advantage of the opportunities presented by the new world that emerged in the wake of the plague. The system of serfdom began to wither, rents fell, vacant tenancies proliferated, wages rose and the position of many women improved. Once again these broad changes can be traced in the records of Walsham. In the courts held immediately after the plague a large number of previously landless folk inherited land, often from distant kin, although a good number of heirs refused to take up their inheritances, presumably because the land was too poor, too expensive or overburdened with servile obligations.
Signs of trouble ahead for lords were also evident at harvest-time the following year, when a large number of tenants did not turn up to perform their obligatory labour services on the lord’s farm. However, some lands remained in strong demand, like the rich freeholds of the prosperous Cranmer family that descended to two sisters, Olivia and Hilary, when three generations of males were wiped out within the space of a few weeks. The Cranmer sisters proceeded to make a success of their unexpected good fortune and built up large herds of cattle and flocks of sheep to supply the rising demand for meat, dairy produce and wool, as the increased incomes enjoyed by the survivors of the plague enabled them to eat more, and better, food and spend more on clothing. Manor records also detail a surge in the number of marriages as survivors sought new companions and helpers on their smallholdings to replace their dead spouses.
A further succession of virulent plagues from 1361–62 quashed any hopes landlords had of a speedy reversal of the changes the Black Death had set in train. For most people, improved incomes and living conditions were bought at the high risk of short lives and the untimely loss of loved ones to recurring outbreaks of plague. Yet unimaginably ferocious as the Great Pestilence was, and unprecedentedly massive its impact on society and economy, there was no collapse into chaos; disorder and discord were surprisingly well contained.
Today, ‘medieval’ is often used to signify lawlessness, violence and anarchy, but there are lessons to be learned from the ability of our distant ancestors not only to survive what was perhaps the greatest natural disaster ever, but to get life back to a good measure of normality and effective governance on a national as well as village level.
The Black Death: Five more places to explore
In the Middle Ages the seaside town of Weymouth enjoyed a modest prosperity by exporting wool and cloth and importing wine. In late June/early July 1348, along with the casks of wine from Bordeaux came the bacillus that caused the plague. Today, a plaque in the harbour commemorates the town as the first place in England to become infected with the Black Death.
St George’s Church, Trotton, West Sussex
The waves of plague that struck in the later 14th century left people terrified of dying suddenly with a great stain of sin on their souls.
The vivid c1390 wall painting in St George’s Church depicts Christ sitting on the Day of Judgment with the naked soul of Spiritual Man being welcomed into heaven by one angel, while Carnal Man is rejected by another. Roundels picturing the Seven Works of Mercy and the Seven Deadly Sins also feature.
St Francis’s Abbey, Kilkenny, Ireland
This abbey is famous because one of its friars, John Clynn, wrote the most informative and moving account of the pestilence in Ireland, recording how it stripped towns and villages of their inhabitants so thoroughly that there was scarcely anyone left alive in them. So great were the numbers of deaths in the region and in his own abbey that Clynn writes that he has left parchment “in case anyone should be alive in the future and any son of Adam can escape this pestilence and continue the work thus begun”. A later hand has added: “Here it seems the author died.”
Corpus Christi College, Cambridge
Corpus Christi College was founded by city guilds in 1352. The prime duties of its two fellows and six chaplain scholars were to sing masses for the souls of the guildsmen and women who had perished of plague, provide spiritual services for the surviving members and train new priests to replace those who had died. The Old Court, built in the mid-1350s, is the oldest surviving court in Cambridge.
Museum of London
So great was the scale of deaths when the Black Death struck London in November 1348 that many additional cemeteries had to be hastily consecrated.
As well as proving that the disease they died from was bubonic plague, tissue taken from skeletons buried in pits in the new East Smithfield cemetery has enabled the genome of the bacterium that caused the plague to be reconstructed. Surprisingly it is remarkably similar to strains found in parts of the world today. The Museum of London has many exhibits relating to the plague in London and archaeological work carried out in East Smithfield cemetery.
John Hatcher is emeritus professor of history at Cambridge University, and author of The Black Death: The Intimate Story of a Village in Crisis, 1345–1350 (Phoenix, 2009)