Thursday, December 30, 2021


The bacterium Yersinia pestis, bubonic plague, originated in China and had long lived harmlessly in the burrows of marmots and gerbils on the Tibetan plateau. Highly unstable climatic conditions, at their worst in the 1340s, caused changes in the disease and its hosts, and it spread to rats, rat fleas and humans. It was carried to the frontiers of Europe by Mongol armies, whose attack on a Genoese outpost in the Crimea led to the first recorded outbreak of the plague in Europe in 1346, the year of the English victory over France at Crécy. The disease reached Constantinople in 1347, and arrived in Weymouth in a ship from Gascony in May 1348. It was probably now being carried by humans and their fleas and lice, and was thus readily transmissible between people, which explains its rapid spread along established communication routes: from Weymouth to Bristol, Ireland, and up the Severn into the Midlands; then in the autumn from the east-coast ports into East Anglia.

During 1349 it crept across the whole island, averaging a mile or more a day. Soon after it arrived came the first deaths. Two weeks after that, the disease reached epidemic proportions: “Many died of boils and abscesses, and pustules on their legs and under their armpits; others frantic with pain in their head, and others spitting blood.” It was almost universally explained as a divine punishment for sin. The disease was unknown in Europe, so natural immunity was low, and 80 percent of those contracting it died, some within hours. The mortality rate was highest for the vulnerable, already weakened by a succession of harvest failures. Children, pregnant women and the elderly were particularly hit. So were the poor, living in more verminous housing, badly fed and clothed, and without servants to look after them once they were ill. So were carers—women and priests. But no earls died, and only one of the royal family.

Where entire households or communities were struck down, the direct effects of disease would be worsened by absence of basic care and by economic paralysis. In England, as across Europe, perhaps half the population died. Some communities were wiped out—in the manor of Wakefield it was noted that “the vill of Shelf is dead.” In Winchester, six parish churches were abandoned. Crops remained unharvested, livestock wandered. Yet if society was shaken, it did not collapse. Even the dead were usually buried properly: although half the population of London died, excavations at the plague cemetery of East Smithfield show that bodies were not just thrown into pits, but were buried neatly in individual graves—proof that family, confraternity and Church carried on. Vacant tenancies and offices were filled.

Even scaled-down war in France soon restarted, with its inevitable consequence, taxation. The unparalleled trauma left surprisingly few visible traces: England did not see the extreme religious reactions that appeared in places on the Continent. Though a large band of flagellants came to London from the Low Countries in 1349, whipping themselves and singing hymns outside St. Paul’s, few joined in. Subjected to unimaginable horror, people carried on, and so the disaster was survived. This resilience even created the opportunity for greater freedom and prosperity.

Robert Tombs, The English and Their History (117-118). [2014] Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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