1348: The Black Death

Part seven in our 20-part series looking at decisive moments of the last 1,000 years in British history explores 1300–1349. Mark Ormrod looked at the year when a third of the population perished due to the Black Death, a cataclysm which was to change the nature of society in the British Isles

Miniature depicting a couple suffering from the blisters of the Black Death, the bubonic plague that swept Europe in the Middle Ages. From the Swiss manuscript the Toggenburg Bible, 1411. Pigment on vellum. (Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)

The Black Death was one of the greatest human tragedies ever experienced in the British Isles. Since the 1920s, historians have compared it to the First World War, so great was its demographic and psychological impact; more recently it has been analysed in relation to the advent of AIDS.

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In fact, the scale and effect of the 14th-century disaster is still much disputed. How many people died, and how were the survivors affected? Did the Black Death really change the course of British social history, or merely accelerate trends that would have occurred anyway? In particular, historians have recently begun to consider whether it is appropriate to make comparisons with modern First World disasters because medieval people were much more conditioned and resigned to the notion that things have a tendency to fall apart.

The “calamity-sensitive” nature of the medieval economy (a telling phrase) inured people to the prospect of hunger and disease in a way that would be unthinkable in modern Britain – even though it is still, of course, a daily reality in the Third World. Of all the outcomes of the Black Death, then, the one that is most difficult to fathom is probably the relative lack of comment on the disaster: when Geoffrey Chaucer wrote his Canterbury Tales, he made only a single allusion to a phenomenon that contemporary society must surely have held as its greatest fear.

The plague was first reported in continental Europe in 1347 and reached Britain in the summer of 1348: the historical convention is that it entered England via the port of Melcombe Regis in Dorset. The name Black Death came later: at the time, people simply called this new disease the “pestilence”. Although many different theories have been put forward, it seems most likely that the Black Death was bubonic plague, which is transmitted by fleas borne on the backs of rats; the apparent virulence of the outbreak of 1347–50 is explicable not only in terms of the lack of immunity among the population of Europe but also by the fact that the bubonic form may have been accompanied by outbreaks of pneumonic plague, which is spread by direct contagion between humans and which offered very little chance of survival. The plague raged in England over the second half of 1348 and on into 1349, then extended to Wales, Scotland and Ireland, and subsided during 1350.

1348: in context

By the mid-14th century, English rule in Scotland looked increasingly unlikely, while Welsh and Irish national identities remained strong

The first half of the 14th century witnessed huge changes in the political make-up of the British Isles. At the beginning of the period, England’s King Edward I (died 1307) appeared to be close to realising his fantasy of a “British empire”. He had subdued and assimilated the remaining independent enclaves in Wales, building the great ring of fortresses that survive as testimony to his favoured technique of rule by force.
 
He had also embarked on a war of conquest in Scotland and begun to make significant gains there: in 1305 he put to death the Scottish insurgent William Wallace and instituted a new programme for the government of Scotland as an annexe of the English crown. The English lordship of Ireland established since the 12th century apparently held firm. And Edward’s successful defence of his dynastic possessions in the duchy of Aquitaine demonstrated the continued wider reach of Plantagenet rule.
 
By the end of the period, the picture was very different. Edward’s son (Edward II, 1307–27) and grandson (Edward III, 1327–77) maintained a public commitment to English rule in Wales and Ireland. However, after the coronation of Robert the Bruce as an independent king of Scotland in 1306 and the English defeat at Bannockburn in 1314, the idea of direct English rule north of the Tweed became increasingly fantastical. In 1328 Edward III’s government acknowledged Robert’s son, David II, as an independent king, and although Edward extricated himself from this position in the 1330s, his declared aim was not to take over Scotland directly. Rather, he wanted to secure the succession of a new king, Edward Balliol, and revive the feudal lordship over the northern kingdom that had, in fact, been Edward I’s original strategy.
 
The opening of Edward III’s war with France in 1337, however, fundamentally changed the nature of the Plantagenet regime by drawing attention away from Edward I’s notion of a united British Isles and focusing English ambitions on the revival of the Norman and Plantagenet empires in western and northern France.
The long-term impact can be seen in both practical and cultural ways. Except in the case of the Welsh longbowmen who played such an important part in the French wars, it was largely impossible by Edward III’s reign for the English to move men, money and provisions between the further-flung corners of their British and continental territories.
 
More significantly still, the elites that ran England’s dependencies no longer saw it necessary to identify with the fashion trends of the Westminster court. Within a generation the “English of Ireland” would be condemned for adopting the dress and music of their adopted land. In Scotland and Wales the adoption of “native” customs by the aristocracy and gentry contributed significantly both to the preservation of ancient cultures and to the maintenance of a tradition of independence. Across the British Isles, the imperial strategies of Edward I can themselves be seen to have forged “national” identities that were to challenge the political hegemony of English for centuries to come.

In the path of the plague

Thanks to relatively good documentation, we can track the path of the plague quite closely in some parts of the country. Bishops’ registers, which record the death and replacement of members of the clergy, and manor court rolls, which detail the transfer of tenancies on the deaths of holders, provide particularly detailed and time-specific evidence that has been the stock in trade of all modern historians of the plague. This and other statistical evidence is, inevitably, patchy. We know much more of what went on in England than in other parts of the British Isles.

In any case, one of the things that is so difficult about the evidence is its typicality: it is well understood that, even within very particular localities, the impact of plague could vary considerably, ravaging some villages but leaving others untouched. A more general qualification is that in upland areas, which had a much smaller population scattered over isolated farmsteads, plague tended to have a proportionately smaller effect than in the nucleated villages and urban communities that were a feature of lowland Britain. All that said, it is now generally agreed, on the basis of the available statistical models, that the plague of 1348–50 carried off at least a third of the population of the British Isles.

If we ask how many people that proportion actually represents, we immediately get into much more difficult territory. There is no way of calculating precisely how many people lived in Britain in the 14th century. England – and more precisely lowland England – was clearly and by far the most populated part of the British Isles: indeed, it appears that some areas, especially in East Anglia and the area around the Wash, were supporting populations comparable with those of the same rural communities in the 19th century.

The fragile human condition

Historical orthodoxy currently has it that the population of England rose from about two million at the time of Domesday Book (1086) to perhaps six million in 1300, tailing off from that point and then plummeting dramatically in 1348–50. When we get to the English poll tax returns of 1377, we can extrapolate a population figure of about 2.75 million. By that point, Britain had experienced at least four visitations of plague – after the initial epidemic, there were other national outbreaks in 1360–1, 1368–9 and 1375. One of the important points about the Black Death, indeed, is the fact that it became endemic in Britain: indeed outbreaks of plague – albeit often more localised – were a regular feature of life down to the great plague of London in 1665.

Those who experienced directly the great mortality of 1348–50 were already more than usually conscious of the fragility of their condition. The steady growth in the population over the previous centuries had put tremendous pressure on natural resources. Land already under the plough was farmed more intensively, and marginal land previously used only as pasture was increasingly turned over to the growing of cereals and pulses. In some parts of Britain, there was no further viable land available for arable farming. To maximise their profits from a hungry market, landlords gave up the traditional practice of allowing fields to lie fallow once every few years. In the absence of anything but the most basic of fertilising techniques, however, the impact was simply to drain the soil of its goodness and, in the longer term, to reduce yields.

To all of these problems was added that most British of concerns, the weather. Around 1300, Europe entered a mini-ice age that lasted until the 17th century. Longer, harsher winters and shorter, wetter summers impacted seriously on the agricultural economy. Between 1315 and 1322 harvests repeatedly failed, sending grain prices rocketing and leaving the poor with no means to feed themselves. Ten or even fifteen percent of the population of England may have died from the effects of malnutrition during this period.

These natural disasters were compounded by human-made ones. Edward I’s military interventions in Wales, Scotland and Ireland created a legacy of warfare that was deeply damaging to the economy. Farmers and merchants, the main taxpaying groups, groaned under the weight of new subsidies, while the Anglo-Scottish border suffered huge disruption as a result of the scorched-earth policies of armies on both sides. It is not surprising that the arrival of the Black Death in 1348 was seen as God’s punishment on a people gone astray. For many, it seemed, quite literally, the end of the world.

This sense of looming disaster is captured most obviously and strikingly in the chronicles of the period. They show the sense of shock that ran through the elite as the plague made its inexorable path across the country. The death of the recently appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, John Offord, was a particularly disarming event, demonstrating that not even the highest members of God’s taskforce, the clergy, were immune from risk.

Those uppity peasants

The genuine fright of the agricultural labour force was another preoccupation of monkish chroniclers, who resented the idea that their fields could not be ploughed and sown as normal. There are also hints at the moral issues raised by the plague. A few people followed the continental trend of seeking refuge in ostentatious penance through acts of public flagellation. Much more common in the years immediately after 1350 was the founding and joining of religious guilds as mutual societies designed to support their members’ physical needs in this world and spiritual welfare in the next. Disapproving moralists noted, above all, the way that the peasantry, taking advantage of the low rents and high wages that resulted from a dramatic fall in the population, grew rich, lazy and uppity.

The last word – literally – is reserved for John Clynn, a Franciscan friar from Kilkenny. His chronicle represents the only detailed contemporaneous account of the impact of the Black Death in Ireland. Having recounted what be regarded as the especially severe ravages of the plague in the urban centres of Dublin and Drogheda, Clynn concluded his chronicle with a reflection on his own position, “waiting among the dead for death to come”, and offered the idea that he had provided additional unused parchment so that his work might be continued “if anyone is still alive in the future and any son of Adam can escape this pestilence”. Clynn’s self-conscious preparation for the onset of the plague, to which he did indeed apparently succumb, is one of the really vivid memorials of the real terror and tragedy that was the Black Death.

History facts

The population of London | In 1300 it was 100,000; by the 1370s, it was down to 40,000
 
Coinage | Edward III introduced the first gold coin – the noble – in 1343, and a new silver coin – the groat – in 1351
 
Wages | The Ordinance of Labourers of 1349 aimed to fix wages at pre-plague levels

Key years: Other important events in the first half of the 14th century

1306 – Robert ‘the Bruce’ becomes King of Scots. He launches a major challenge to Edward I of England’s efforts to assimilate the northern kingdom into his “British empire”. Having previously made significant inroads into Scotland and defeated and executed the rebel leader William Wallace in 1305, now Edward’s apparent invincibility begins to be questioned openly.

1307 – Death of Edward I and accession of Edward II. Edward dies at Burgh by Sands in Cumberland on his way to yet another campaign against the Scots. Although his reputation has become somewhat tarnished in his last years, Edward is now mythologised as a new Arthur and held up as a model of kingship for his successors. Edward II makes an unpromising start to his reign and is soon locked in political dispute with the barons over the influence of his favourite, Piers Gaveston, whom they put to death in 1312.

1314 – Battle of Bannockburn. Edward II’s forces suffer humiliating defeat from Robert the Bruce. The Scots make effective use of the shiltrom, a tightly-packed contingent of infantry pikemen; English cavalry forces prove ill-disciplined and many prominent knights are cut down. Edward II’s subsequent withdrawal from Scotland leaves significant parts of northern England vulnerable to regular and devastating Scottish raids and creates much political discontent.

1320 – Declaration of Arbroath. A group of Scotland’s political leaders appeal to the pope for assistance, declaiming – in words that have had resonance ever since – that “as long as a hundred of us are left, we will never submit on any condition to English rule”.

1327 – Deposition of Edward II, accession of Edward III. The disastrous and tyrannical regime of Edward II and his cronies, the Despensers, is brought to a violent close in a coup led by his own wife, Isabella, and her lover, Roger Mortimer. Edward, taken prisoner while fleeing through Wales, is forced to abdicate the throne and is imprisoned at Berkeley Castle. A parliament called in the name of his 14-year-old son is summoned to Westminster and the new regime of Edward III begins. Edward II is subsequently murdered and buried at Gloucester Abbey (now the Cathedral), though some historians suggest that he escaped to the Continent. Isabella and Mortimer run the country for three years, but in 1330 Edward III launches an attack on Mortimer at Nottingham Castle, puts him to trial and execution, and assumes control of his regime.

1328 – Treaty of Edinburgh. The new regime of Edward III acknowledges the independence of Scotland. In the following year, Robert the Bruce dies, succeeded by his young son David II. Later, in 1333, Edward III re-opens the war in support of a rival claimant for the throne, Edward Balliol.

1337 – Beginning of the Hundred Years War. Tensions between the English and French crowns over the Plantagenet possessions in Aquitaine have rumbled on since the Treaty of Paris of 1259, and the English argue that the duchy should be theirs in full sovereignty, not a fief held under the lordship of the king of France. In 1337 Edward III renounces his homage to Philip VI of France for the duchy and sets about defending his rights there by force; for the first years of the war, however, diplomatic and military strategy is focused on the Low Countries and Northern France. In 1340 Edward announces himself king of France by right of descent, through his mother, from the house of Capet.

1346 – Battles of Crécy and Neville’s Cross. Edward III achieves a major victory over France’s Philip VI, at Crécy. His commanders in northern England capture David II of Scotland at Neville’s Cross. The victories transform Edward’s status, and the reputation of his armies, throughout Europe.

1348 – Foundation of the Order of the Garter. Edward III celebrates his recent military successes by setting up what remains today as England’s oldest and most important order of chivalry.

More turning points in British history

Read next: 1381: The Peasants’ Revolt

Go back: 1295: Edward I Consolidates English Rule

The Peasants' Revolt of 1381 in England began in Brentwood, Essex as a protest at the collection of poll tax and reached a climax at Smithfield, London. Richard II (1367-1800) met the Kentish peasants who, under Watt Tyler (d1381), were demanding the end of serfdom. During the meeting William Walworth (d1385) Lord Mayor of London, wounded Wat Tyler who was taken to St Bartholomew's Hospital but was later dragged out of the hospital and beheaded. 19th century lithograph. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

The late Mark Ormrod was professor of history at the University of York and the author of The Reign of Edward III (revised edition, 2000), and co-editor of The Parliament Rolls of Medieval England (2005) and A Social History of England, 1200–1500 (2006)

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This article was first published in the October 2006 issue of BBC History Magazine