Merchants of doom: the traders who profited from the Black Death

When the Black Death tore through Europe, it wreaked havoc on England’s trade networks with the continent. Yet not all merchants were pitched into penury. Robert Blackmore introduces the traders who made a mint in the wake of a human catastrophe

Illustration showing the traders who made a fortune during the wake of the Black Death

“The year 1348 was the great death for all the world, and this was so severe in Bordeaux that La Rousselle, the Pont Saint-Jean and the Rue Poitevine were burned.” So reports the Petite Chronique de Guyenne on the cataclysmic pandemic now known as the “Black Death”.

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The plague was a human catastrophe, killing between one-third and a half of the population of Europe between 1346 and 1353. But, as was evident during my research into the mercantile history of this period, it was also an economic disaster, triggering one of the toughest periods in history to conduct trade. The example of Bordeaux, the commercial hub of Aquitaine in today’s south-west France, captures the cost to both lives and livelihoods perfectly. Here, the people were so desperate that they set fire to their own city in an effort to stop the spread of the pandemic. It was a futile effort. They were not spared the disease – and the act destroyed large parts of their mercantile district.

Historians have written much about the consequences of the Black Death: not just the misery, but also the relative prosperity of some survivors. Long-distance commerce illustrates both of these trends. Many merchants and their agents suffered ruin or death just like the rest. However, for those who endured, it could be a time of great possibility. While scant sources survive detailing people’s personal experiences, it has been possible to piece together evidence from medieval trade and begin to reconstruct their world.

England in the mid-14th century was tightly bound, both politically and economically, to continental Europe. The Duchy of Aquitaine, comprising the territories of Guyenne and Gascony, had been in a union with the English crown since the accession of King Henry II in 1154 – the result of his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine. This had promoted a flourishing trade route along the Atlantic seaboard. Commodities such as wool, cloth, tin, grain and fish were carried south. Returning north was some dye, honey and iron but overwhelmingly wine, to be consumed in vast quantities in courts, castles, households and taverns. Taxes on these goods made an increasingly important contribution to royal finances, and their documentation can tell us a great deal.

Commerce between England and Aquitaine had declined significantly during the opening years of the conflict with France now known as the Hundred Years’ War (1337– 1453). The onset of the Black Death soon brought another severe recession. Surviving customs records from Bordeaux show how, during the 12 months from September 1348, just 74 vessels left carrying wine, where in previous decades there would have been many hundreds each year. Merchants and shipowners were possibly put off by news of the terrible state of the city and the knowledge that, over the summer, Princess Joan, beloved daughter of King Edward III, had perished of plague nearby. But, more likely, their absence was because, by then, the disease was already spreading through their own home ports (see box below).

A doctor lances a bubo in a 14th-century fresco
A doctor lances a bubo in a 14th-century fresco. The Black Death devastated markets and made stepping aboard a merchant ship a terrifying prospect. (Image by Alamy)

Of those who did brave the voyage, the highest number of English ships, 10 in total, were based out of Dartmouth in Devon. This was such a crucial town for maritime transport to Aquitaine that the poet Geoffrey Chaucer later made it the home of the shipman in his Canterbury Tales – described in the General Prologue as having “drawn very many a draft of wine, while coming from Bordeaux, while the merchant slept”.

Larger ports like Bristol (which experienced plague from the summer of 1348) and London (which was affected from the autumn) still contributed a few ships. There were also eight vessels from Hull and six from Great Yarmouth – their relative abundance perhaps explained by the fact that plague did not reach that far north until 1349. A further 11 ships from the southern Gascon city of Bayonne made the journey north, but just one from fire-ravaged Bordeaux itself.

Food for vermin

Merchants, agents, shipmasters and sailors were all accustomed to the threats to their lives and livelihoods of shipwreck and piracy. Plague at sea must have been something even more terrifying. Given the prevalence of the disease both in Bordeaux and in southern England, most ships operating that year would have carried some Yersinia pestis (plague bacilli), either in the blood streams of people on board, or in the fleas living on rats in the hold. Grain cargoes would have, of course, provided ample food for vermin.

There was plenty of time for the passengers to suffer fever, vomiting and festering buboes

How long the journey took between the south coast and the duchy depended on the weather. It could take just four to five days, though one royal official spent three weeks at sea in 1357. So, given that the incubation period of plague is two to six days, there was plenty of time for symptoms to appear – the fever, the vomiting, the festering buboes – and for infection to spread among the passengers and crew.

Even for those individuals whose goods and persons arrived safely it was an astonishingly volatile economy in which to trade. First of all, prices collapsed. As Henry Knighton, a canon of St Mary’s Abbey in Leicester, later reported: “There were small prices for everything.” He believed this, “on account of the fear of death. For there were very few who cared about riches or anything else.” More probably, the crash was simply the result of so many consumers having died.

Those who survived and stayed solvent were ideally placed to make sizeable profits

Then, since a scarcity of labour drove up wages, “many crops perished in the fields for want of someone to gather them”, and prices would subsequently rise. In some areas there were severe shortages. In Rochester Cathedral Priory, William Dene recounted that “supplies ran short and the brethren had great difficulty in getting enough to eat”. The experience would have been similar wherever plague hit.

Reports of mortality and financial crisis in coastal trading centres were widespread. For instance, it was conveyed to the king in 1350 that in Newcastle upon Tyne “several merchants and other rich men… have perished in the mortal pestilence lately raging, and the men now in the town, who used to live of their merchandise, are so impoverished by the said pestilence and other adversities in these times of war that they hardly have wherewith to live”. In Hull it was recounted that by 1353 “a great part of the people of the said town have died in the last deadly pestilence which raged in these parts, and that the remnant left in the town are so desolate and poverty-stricken in money”.

Did the Black Death first reach England’s shores aboard a merchant ship

When and how did the plague first arrive on the shores of England? According to a chronicler in the Franciscan friary of King’s Lynn, the fateful moment occurred shortly before the feast of St John the Baptist on 24 June 1348 when a ship from Aquitaine made landfall in Melcombe (in modern-day Weymouth). “One of the sailors had brought with him from Gascony the seeds of the terrible pestilence,” the chronicler reported, “and through him the men of that town of Melcombe were the first in England to be infected.”

The Black Death’s passage across Europe had been swift and relentless. Arriving from the east, the infection passed from Sicily to Marseille by late 1347. Then, aided by a truce in the Hundred Years’ War that September, it moved quickly west across the south of France, reaching Bordeaux by mid-1348, in time for the last spring departures of wines to England. 

In Oxford, Geoffrey le Baker asserted that, following its arrival in Melcombe, plague spread through “the seaports in Dorset, and then those living inland, and from there it raged so dreadfully through Dorset and Somerset as far as Bristol”. This occurred before plague even reached the channel coast of France overland. More crucially, it would not arrive in Flanders – the other key trading route by which the plague could be brought into English ports – until 1349.

In reality, it’s improbable that the rapid spread originated from one carrier and by a single route. More likely it arrived multiple times, moving with the busy coastal trade before entering through many ports. Henry Knighton, writing later in St Mary’s Abbey, Leicester, stated that “the grievous plague penetrated the sea coasts from Southampton, and came to Bristol”. By the time it reached London – around the feast of All Saints (1 November) 1348, according to Robert of Avesbury – the disease had already spread across much of southern England.

Rallying point

But even amid such complaints are indications of some prosperity returning. Disrupted and unstable markets offered the chance of great profits for those in a position to exploit them. Here the merchants who operated into and out of Bordeaux were ideally placed. In 1349–50, the second year of the plague in England, prices of Gascon wine in the kingdom more than doubled, but then so did the quantity that was shipped. After this, though trade levels were erratic, there was an upward trend through the 1350s and into the 1360s as the slow recovery from the pandemic got under way. This coincided with a rapid growth of English cloth exports, partly because Edward III had intervened in the trade with Flanders, imposing high export duties on wool and periodic embargoes.

There are signs that this renewal – and the revenues it generated – was falling into the hands of an increasingly narrow group. You had to survive the disease itself, of course. But you also had to stay solvent – by having good credit or by building partnerships with other merchants – so as to cover unforeseen costs caused by higher wages and fluctuating prices. The skilled use of such financial tools was key, just as it was for Chaucer’s merchant, who “employed well his wit” such that “no one who knew that he was in debt”. Trade records offer plentiful success stories. Robert Selby (later mayor of Hull in 1365 and 1371) left Bordeaux on 19 November 1348 with just a few barrels of wine, yet in 1355–56, Selby was still trading: exporting at least five and a half times the quantity as before. Some Gascon traders were likewise buoyant. In 1357–58 the wine exports of Pey Gassie, a cloth merchant of Bordeaux, were almost 25 times those in 1348–49.

Edward III introduced laws to control rising wages and counter potential profiteers

In an environment when merchants could make huge sums of money in a short space of time, the government of Edward III reacted quickly to suppress perceived opportunism. While the famous Ordinance of Labourers of June 1349 mainly aimed to control rising wages, it also ordered a halt to escalating prices for victuals by ensuring “sellers have moderate gains, and not excessive”. In the medieval mind, speculation and market manipulation were essentially the same. Scholastic writers were often hostile towards profits from trade, drawing on ancient philosophers – particularly Aristotle – or biblical texts, such as Ecclesiasticus: “As a nail sticketh fast between the joinings of the stones, so doth sin stick close between buying and selling.” This sentiment entered canon law in the mid-12th century. The jurist Gratian established in the Decretum that profits made from price margins were a “shameful gain”. The influential 13th-century philosopher Thomas Aquinas saw profit as justifiable for a merchant only “to compensate for his work and not his own sake”.

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The secular authorities in England evidently determined that the Black Death had unleashed an orgy of profiteering, and they fought back with mounting regulation. Further writs in December 1349 proclaimed against merchants “forestalling the market”. Forestalling primarily meant making wholesale purchases before the expected time or place. In reality, it could also cover pre-agreeing prices or stockpiling – described at the parliament of 1362 as the “connivance of various men”. Chancery rolls, which recorded outgoing government business, provide evidence for the strength of the reaction to this practice. There were 17 entries in the Patent Rolls relating to forestalling during 1325–49; by 1350–74 this had grown fivefold to 85.

Given such a high level of interference, it was best to be either close to government or avoid it altogether. Between one-fifth and one-third of trade was probably smuggled, while the people otherwise best positioned to gain from legitimate commerce were those with strong political connections. Chief among the latter were Bordeaux’s burgesses. Their loyalty was vital for any English king, and they held a distinct legal and economic status that gave them valuable commercial privileges, not least the tax-free export of the wine produced on their vineyards: a key competitive advantage over other growers in tough periods. Even before the Black Death, the most successful families had begun to join the ranks of the lesser local nobility. After the pandemic, this process intensified.

The church in Bordeaux also enjoyed this same preferential categorisation for its goods and, as a result, it increased its exports substantially during the century after 1348. At the same time, English merchants and shipowners increasingly dominated the overseas trade through the city. This was probably why the king’s great council of September 1353 agreed strict new rules regulating their activities – covering when, where and how they could trade.

The career of William Wakefield (died 1360) provides one illuminating example of this English ascendancy. It demonstrates how individuals could exploit their relationship with government – especially after war with France resumed, in fits and bursts, from 1349. Around the point of the Black Death’s arrival, Wakefield moved his business to Bordeaux and secured himself the privileges of a burgess. He then imported wheat, rye and other goods from England to supply the city’s Château de l’Ombrière, the castle that housed the duchy’s government, as well as provision garrisons in other fortresses and towns, such as that in Blaye.

Wakefield also expanded his exports of Gascon wine into northern markets to prodigious proportions, capitalising on rising prices. By 1359, after he was captured and ransomed by partisans of the king of France, Wakefield claimed to have lost wine and other goods worth £5,000. Given that one of the wealthiest contemporary noblemen of England, Henry, Duke of Lancaster, had a gross annual income of £8,380, this was an immense sum. With the support of the king’s son Edward, the Black Prince, Wakefield accumulated property around Bordeaux – including vineyards and meadows – and even the use of a tower in the city walls. After his death, these remained in his family until 1398 when his final beneficiary, Helen, also died.

The records of trade are awash with such characters making gains even in challenging circumstances. They are proof that, every time Europe was buffeted by war and plague in the 14th century, a degree of recovery was attempted, and some people made fortunes.

Historians of this turbulent period have broadly taken the view that medieval people simply reacted to environmental or societal forces rather than exercising much agency. Yet, even in the midst of one of the great crises in human history, some saw tremendous opportunities for profit and advancement – and they weren’t about to let these opportunities slip through their fingers.

Robert Blackmore is an economic historian of the Middle Ages. His book Government and Merchant Finance in Anglo-Gascon Trade, 1300-1500 was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2020

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This article was first published in the July 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine