Category Archives: Black Death

Holy Rood, Southampton

Unlike the church in last week’s post, Holy Rood, less than 200 yards away, didn’t survive the Second World War unscathed. On the night of 30th November 1940, it, along with most of the town centre, was destroyed. The ruin was dedicated to the Merchant Navy and there are memorials inside to seafaring Sotonians who lost their lives at sea, including one to members of the crew of the Titanic.

What’s left of the current building was built in 1320, replacing a church that stood in the middle of English Street. The tower is fourteenth century, but the nave, aisles and chancel were rebuilt in 1849-50. The Victorian rebuilding was a lot more sympathetic to the medieval original than many such projects and more people were able to fit inside the church and make use of the building, which was of benefit to the parish.

The site of the present church was given to St. Denys Priory by Thomas de Bynedone, probably the richest man in the town at the time. The old church was more or less exactly where the new water conduit needed to be to bring fresh water into the town from a spring outside. Thomas de Bynedone’s intention was that there would be a cemetery as well as a church, but the town’s mother church, St. Mary’s, objected. Burials of the town’s inhabitants were only to take place in St. Mary’s cemetery and none of the churches within the town’s walls had burial grounds. St. Mary’s was just a few hundred yards outside the medieval town and I’m not entirely sure how it came to be its main church. Perhaps we’ll visit some of the buildings outside the town walls later. The church was reached through the town’s East Gate. The gate is no longer there, but the road that led to it is still called East Street. Although Thomas de Byndone’s plan for a cemetery failed, he was given the right to be buried within Holy Rood itself.

At the height of the Black Death, three separate vicars were appointed to the parish on 12th March, 22nd April and 20th September 1349, their predecessors having succumbed to the plague. The whole town, which hadn’t even started to recover from a raid by the French in 1338, was badly affected by the Black Death and took a long time to regain its former wealth. For centuries it was thought that Southampton was the place where the Black Death entered England, but it’s now believed that this was Melcombe, a few miles round the coast in Dorset.

During the fifteenth century Holy Rood became the church of the wealthier inhabitants of the town, who tended to live in the southern part of the parish. At this time, the church’s bell was rung to wake the town and to announce the curfew each day.

Possibly the most important visitor the church has welcomed was Philip II of Spain. When he arrived in Southampton in 1554, he heard Mass here, then rode to Winchester to marry Mary Tudor.

Historic Buildings of Southampton by Philip Peberdy
Collected Essays on Southampton edited by J B Morgan and Philip Peberdy
Medieval Southampton by Colin Platt

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Filed under Black Death, Church, Fourteenth Century, Medieval Buildings

Geoffroi de Charny in December 1349

I said last week that we’d look at Geoffroi de Charny’s attempt to take back Calais two years after it had surrendered to Edward III. Before we get to the story I wanted to set the scene a bit. There are four main characters in this story: de Charny, Edward III, Edward of Woodstock and Aimeric of Pavia. At the time de Charny was at least 43 years old, Edward III was 37 and Edward of Woodstock, his oldest son and heir, was 19. I have no idea how old Aimeric was. I include this detail to show what was expected of young heirs to kingdoms in the Middle Ages. Edward of Woodstock had already proved himself in battle at the age of 16 and was about to prove himself again.

The other important point is that in 1349 Europe was still in the grip of the Black Death. I can’t emphasise enough how little what we’ve gone through in the last few months has resembled the Black Death. I know that people have made the comparison, but even the number of deaths in the First World War combined with deaths from Spanish flu a hundred years ago don’t come close. During the three years of the Black Death, somewhere between a third and a half of the population of Europe died and they died horribly. Despite that and the fear in which people must have lived, life seems to have gone on fairly normally, as we shall see.

After a long siege, the French town of Calais had surrendered to the English in 1347. Most of those who lived in the town and survived the siege were allowed to leave and Edward III filled the town with English merchants and soldiers. It was incredibly useful for a king who was expecting to continue to wage war on French soil to have a port in France just over 30 miles from the English coast. This, of course, presented a huge problem to the French king. Fortunately, de Charny had a plan for getting Calais back which didn’t involve besieging it.

There are different versions of the story, mainly told by people who weren’t there, but we’ll look at the story as told by Geoffrey le Baker, an English chronicler. According to him, Aimeric Pavia, a Lombard mercenary, was the governor of Calais. De Charny bribed him to open the gates to let in some French soldiers. Aimeric was greedy, but not stupid, and he wrote to Edward III, explaining about the plot, obviously hoping to be in good standing with both sides.

Edward III wasn’t stupid either and he decided to go to Calais himself. He took his oldest son and a few other men. (Other versions say that the news reached the king on Christmas Eve and he took his household knights and the retinues of some of the lords who were celebrating Christmas with him.) Le Baker says that they entered the town secretly, which they might have done, but he also says that they managed to build a false wall behind which they hid and they also sawed through parts of the drawbridge so that it would collapse if a heavy stone were thrown down on it, all without anyone noticing, which seems unlikely.

On 31st December, De Charny went with fourteen men into the castle, through the gate opened by Aimeric, on the day before the raid was to take place. Their task was to check that everything was as it should be and to pay Aimeric part of his money. Despite checking the castle thoroughly, they noticed nothing wrong. Again, I’m not sure how fifteen Frenchmen could stroll around a castle held by an English garrison without someone noticing, but apparently they did.

The next morning they raised French standards around the castle and opened the gates. The English garrison attacked them, despite the efforts of those who were in on the plan to trap the French inside the castle.

By this point the king and his men had been in hiding for three days. One of them was hiding near the drawbridge and he dropped the huge stone onto it, trapping the soldiers inside the castle. They were swiftly defeated by the king and his men when they emerged from their hiding place.

The French forces who had remained outside retreated, realising that the plan had failed. The king took 16 of the men he had brought with him and 16 archers from Calais, who didn’t know him, and chased after the French.

He attacked a force of 800 men. When the French realised how few men were pursuing them, they turned and fought. The king revealed his identity to the archers and le Baker points out that he positioned his meagre forces wisely. He doesn’t say, for obvious reasons, how lacking in wisdom the king was to chase after the French with so few men.

The king and his men managed to kill or capture many of the French soldiers, but they were facing overwhelming odds and it was obvious that they were going to lose. In true Boys’ Own Adventure style, however, Edward of Woodstock arrived with reinforcements just in time and rescued his father.

Le Baker tells us that 1,000 French knights with 600 men-at-arms and 3,000 foot soldiers had tried to take the castle. It would certainly have needed a large force, so perhaps it’s not an exaggeration. More than 200 French men-at-arms were killed and about 30 men were captured for ransom, Geoffroi de Charny and his son among them. Many French soldiers drowned in the marsh.

There are some incorrect details in le Baker’s account. Aimeric wasn’t the governor of Calais. During the siege of Calais he had been employed by the French. After the siege he changed sides and became master of the royal galleys and crossbowmen. In 1349 he was part of the English garrison at Calais and was in command of one of the gate-towers, which was why it was easy for him to let the French in.

As we learned last week, Aimeric enjoyed his bribe and the pension given to him by the king for a very short time before de Charny tortured and killed him. This whole episode wasn’t de Charny’s finest hour. Not only was he captured, but he was also wounded in his failed attempt to retake the town. Fortunately for him, the king who had provided soldiers to support his plan died while de Charny was a captive in England. The new king paid part of de Charny’s ransom. De Charny even managed to put a good gloss on the murder of Aimeric, since he made it clear that he was avenging an act of personal betrayal.

Next week we’ll have a look at another aspect of de Charny’s life.

Life and Campaigns of the Black Prince by Richard Barber
Edward, Prince of Wales and Aquitaine by Richard Barber
Trial by Fire by Jonathan Sumption
The Black Prince by Michael Jones

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Filed under Black Death, Fourteenth Century, Hundred Years War, Medieval Kings, Medieval Warfare


And now, as they used to say on Monty Python’s Flying Circus, for something completely different.

There’s a bit of a YouTube phenomenon at the moment in which musicians make covers of popular songs in a (quasi) medieval style. Some of it’s quite fun, so I thought I’d share some of my favourites with you this week. As they also used to say a lot on 60s TV (at least in my part of the world), normal service will be resumed shortly.

Most of the covers aren’t terribly different from the original, because the performers have used a synthesizer to play what is more or less the same music and rhythms in a medievalish style. Others, the ones I prefer, have been arranged sympathetically and are recorded by musicians on medieval-sounding instruments in a fairly medieval style.

I’m not terribly familiar with modern popular music. There hasn’t been much that has appealed to me since the Beatles split up, so I hope you’ll forgive my idiosyncratic tastes, but these seemed to be good examples of the genre.

You can see from the number of views how popular some of these videos are. That’s not entirely surprising, since we’re living through a twenty-first century version of the Black Death, albeit with, so far, less death. Whilst concept itself is fairly light-hearted, the music produced isn’t always.

We’ll start with my favourite, and it’s not just because she plays the recorder and sings. Hildegard von Blingin’s videos are made by someone who knows a bit about the Middle Ages and is a good musician. If you listen to nothing else in this post, give this one a go, because it’s definitely worth it.

This next one is worth watching for the video, especially the last few seconds.

It’s the vocals and the lyrics on this one that I like.

This is a fun, but creepy, version of Thriller.

Finally, if you’re still here.

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Boccaccio and Chaucer


Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while will know that I’m fascinated by the Black Death. I want to know what people thought about it, how they coped while it was at its height and what life was like after it. One day, when I’m a much better writer than I am now, I hope to write a novel about it.

Last year, partly in the hope of getting a bit more insight into how people coped during the Black Death, I read Boccaccio’s The Decameron. It’s a collection of 100 stories told by ten refugees from the plague in Florence to while away the time until they can return to the city. It’s a fantasy, of course. They retreat to a lovely, secluded villa, where there are beatific grounds in which they wander until the evening, when they gather together to tell their tales, none of which has anything to do with the Black Death.

The main reason why I read The Decameron was because it’s one of the major literary works of the fourteenth century. Boccaccio had probably been collecting the stories for years and the conceit of ten young people entertaining one another gave him a structure for putting them together. Every evening (except Sundays and the day on which they move to another, even nicer villa) each of the ten has to tell one story. Apart from the first, each evening has a theme for the stories. There are stories about fidelity and infidelity. There are stories against the church and stories against ‘clever’ men. There are stories about revenge and about wives who know more than their husbands. Some of the stories are amusing and some of them are very dark indeed.

Some of the tales found their way into The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer visited Italy at least twice and he probably read some of Boccaccio’s works, as well as those of Petrarch, Boccaccio’s friend, while he was there. His Troilus and Criseyde is a retelling of Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato. The structure itself of The Canterbury Tales might be borrowed from The Decameron.

The stories weren’t, for the most part, created by Boccaccio. Some of them aren’t even Italian in origin. His genius lay, as did Chaucer’s, in the way he told them and in the way he put them together.

Although Boccaccio lived through the Black Death, it’s unlikely he was in Florence all the time. Apparently, he hated the city of his birth and preferred Naples, where he spent his early adulthood. He was born in 1313 and, while he was in Naples, he was apprenticed to a banker. Banking was very advanced in Italy and the rest of Europe borrowed from Italian bankers. Boccaccio wanted to write, though, and went back to Florence in 1341. The Black Death arrived in Italy in 1347 and had receded by 1349. Boccaccio probably started work on The Decameron around then. In later life, he travelled on behalf of the Florentine state, visiting Avignon, where the papal court was based, and Rome. He died in 1375.

As it turned out, reading The Decameron did give me some insight into life during the Black Death. In his introduction to the stories, Boccaccio describes what Florence was like in 1348. He describes the symptoms of the plague and what happened when people grew ill and died. It’s the horrors of this nightmare world that his storytellers want to escape and they do so by telling stories of life before the plague arrived.

In case you’re wondering, I enjoyed reading The Decameron. Some of the stories are very dark, but most of them are entertaining.


April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Filed under Black Death, Fourteenth Century, Medieval Entertainment, Medieval Life

Ten Things You Didn’t Know About The Black Death

Black Death in Bed

Today is this blog’s first anniversary, so I thought I would return to the ever popular subject of the Black Death. Regular readers will know that I’m ever so slightly obsessed with the Black Death, and I haven’t posted about it for a while. What comes after is not for the faint of heart.

The following are ten things that most people don’t know about the Black Death:

1. It wasn’t called the Black Death

The plague that hit Europe in the middle of the fourteenth century was not called the Black Death until much later. The name arose because of the way that parts of the victim’s bodies became blackened due to gangrene and necrosis. At the time, people called it far more expressive things, such as the Big Death or the Great Death. Personally, I find these far more terrifying names than the Black Death.

2. It was caused by gerbils

There is still a lot of debate about how the Black Death was started and how it spread. Rats and their fleas are still the favoured cause, although there were no rats in Iceland at the time and Iceland did not escape the Black Death. Recent research has indicated that the plague might have originated in gerbils in Asia. There’s an article on the BBC website  which talks about this.

3. It wasn’t always fatal

Some of those infected did survive: about a third of them. It’s not known exactly why they recovered.

4. There were three different manifestations

There wasn’t just one form of plague, but three. The three types are bubonic, pneumonic and septicaemic. There is constant debate about this as well, with many researchers believing that the fourteenth century plague was not bubonic, because mortality rates would have been much lower than they seem to have been, even allowing for the probable exaggerations of the medieval chroniclers.

Bubonic plague took three days to a week to kill the infected person. It is this type that we most associate with the Black Death since it was the most common. Buboes (large pus-filled swellings) appeared in the armpit, neck, groin and upper thigh. Bubonic plague was spread by fleas. It was the least virulent form and had the highest survival rate, although ‘highest’ is a relative term here.

Pneumonic plague was the most virulent, but rarest form. It was a respiratory infection spread by coughs and sneezes. Once people were infected they were usually dead within thirty-six hours. Survival rates were less than ten percent.

Septicaemic plague resulted in uncontrolled bleeding. It was spread by exposure to another plague victim and fewer than one in a hundred who were infected survived.

5. It entered England through Melcombe Regis

It’s now fairly certain that the Black Death came into England via Melcombe Regis, brought by sailors from Gascony. Melcombe Regis is on the south coast and is now part of Weymouth. In the fourteenth century it was a significant port.

6. It wasn’t just a one-off occurrence

The initial occurrence of the plague in Europe was between 1347 and 1352, but it didn’t just disappear after that. It returned to England in 1361–62, 1369, 1379–83, 1389–93. There were also recurrences through the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries culminating in the Great Plague of 1665. There have been other occurrences into the twenty-first century in other parts of the world. There is a lot of debate as to whether or not all the manifestations of plague since the fourteenth century have been the same plague.

7.  An English royal princess was a victim

One of Edward III’s daughters, Joan, was on her way to marry Pedro, the heir to the Castilian throne when she was infected. This is the same Pedro who was later aided by Joan’s older brother, the Black Prince, in his fight to regain his throne from his brother. Joan was only fourteen when she died near Bordeaux in 1348. Edward III wrote a very moving letter when he received news of her death. Medieval parents have often been accused of being unfeeling about their children, in part because of the large number they tended to have, but also because life was so precarious that they would always be grieving if they allowed themselves to love their children. There is no doubt that Edward III loved his many children and he and his wife grieved when they lost them.

8. Its victims were once compared to lasagne

In a particularly evocative passage from his chronicle, Marco di Coppo Stefani compares the way in which the dead were buried in Florence with the way in which a lasagne was made. In the morning when a large number of bodies were found in the pit, they took some earth and shoveled it down on top of them; and later others were placed on top of them and then another layer of earth, just as one makes lasagne with layers of pasta and cheese.

9. It could travel one mile a day

This rather surprising fact makes many researchers question the traditionally accepted methods of transmitting the plague and even whether or not the Black Death was really bubonic plague. Modern outbreaks of bubonic plague have travelled much slower, even with modern transportation methods. An outbreak in India at the end of the nineteenth century (from 1896 to the mid-1920s) travelled on average only fifteen metres a week, despite the availability of trains and motor cars.

10.  Some places were spared

A large area around Milan seems to have been spared, as was a lot of Europe east of Krakow and an area north of the Pyrenees. In many countries small areas were unaffected, but there’s no real understanding of why this was.



Filed under Black Death, Fourteenth Century

Popes, Antipopes and Avignon: Part Five


Clement VI

If you’ve come across any of the Avignon popes before it would probably have been Clement VI. He was the only one I’d heard of before I started this series. He was the pope who sat between two fires in the attempt to keep the Black Death at bay. He also put an end to the Flagellants when he saw that what they were doing was getting out of hand.

He was born Pierre Roger in 1291 in Corrèze and became pope in 1342. He finished building the Palais des Papes and the palace reflected his efforts more than those of any other pope. This can still be seen today. The extravagance of his papal court was said to rival that of any European monarch.

Pierre Roger studied theology and was made Archbishop of Sens at 28. At 29 he was Archbishop of Rouen. Not long after this he became Philip VI’s chancellor.

When the time came to elect a new pope after the death of Benedict XII, Philip wanted Roger to take the position. Since the cardinals also wanted this, he was elected. The new pope was known for his oratory and preaching. His intelligence also made him a good choice.

Most of the 25 cardinals he created during his papacy were French and, of these, twelve were related to him. It was said that Gregory XI, last of the Avignon popes and made a cardinal by Clement, was his son. Gregory is recorded as being Clement’s nephew, but his birth name was Pierre Roger de Beaufort, which might be considered a clue to his parentage.

In 1348 Clement bought Avignon and the surrounding area, clearly signaling that he had no intention of returning the papacy to Rome. This was also the year in which the Black Death reached the town. Avignon suffered dreadfully. Clement’s extravagance and outrageous nepotism could lead an observer to think that there wasn’t much to him, but his actions during the Black Death showed the kind of man he really was. Many senior clerics fled their posts to sit out the plague in the country, but Clement stayed in Avignon, leaving only for a short period in the summer when it was too hot to remain in the palace between his burning braziers. He returned to Avignon in the cooler weather. He was a charitable man, concerned for those in his care and he created new cemeteries for the dead and arranged for gravediggers to bury them.

Initially he supported the Flagellants, even joining their processions when they came to Avignon, but he soon realised that these processions were helping to spread the plague, not stopping it.  In 1349 he declared the Flagellants heretics, thus effectively making them unwelcome wherever they travelled. When the Jews were blamed for causing the plague and massacres began, he published bulls against the perpetrators and said he would excommunicate those who killed Jews. More than two hundred Jewish communities were wiped out at that time.

Clement was frequently in dispute with Edward III as the king tried to retrieve some of the rights in clerical appointments that previous popes had taken for themselves. The king also complained about the extravagance of the papal court. The biggest problem for Edward was that Clement was French and an open supporter of the French king with whom Edward was engaged in a war. When Edward tried to get back some of the rights over appointments, it was partly out of fears that the money going from those dioceses into the papal coffers was going straight out again to those of the King of France, thus enabling him to continue in the war. This was Edward’s constant fear during the period of the Avignon papacy and it was not without justification.

Clement VI died at the end of 1352.


Filed under Black Death, Fourteenth Century

The Black Death by Philip Ziegler: A Review

Philip Ziegler

All the citizens did little else except to carry dead bodies to be buried… At every church they dug deep pits down to the water-table; and thus those who were poor who died during the night were bundled up quickly and thrown into the pit. In the morning when a large number of bodies were found in the pit, they took some earth and shovelled it down on top of them; and later others were placed on top of them and then another layer of earth, just as one makes lasagne with layers of pasta and cheese.

This graphic and harrowing image of the plague pits of Florence appears in Philip Ziegler’s book ‘The Black Death’. Although fairly outdated in terms of understanding the causes of the Black Death and how it spread, this is a good synthesis of research available at the end of the sixties.

Ziegler takes each major country in Europe (Italy where the Black Death was first encountered, France, Germany and England) in the order in which the plague reached them and looks at the impact of the plague on them. Italian literature has some poignant and eye-opening descriptions of the plague, which Ziegler quotes at length. Boccaccio’s Decameron is a collection of short stories supposedly told to one another by a group of people who escaped the plague in Florence by leaving for the countryside, but Boccaccio’s is one of the best descriptions of the signs and effects of the plague and portrays the horror of the Florentines as it took hold of their city. It’s too long to quote here, but worth looking at. Since France was the forerunner in medical achievement at the time, the chapter on France is mainly about the way in which doctors dealt with the plague and tried to understand it. The chapter on Germany examines the religious response (including the Flagellants, which I dealt with in an earlier post and persecution of the Jews).

The chapters on the British Isles are divided into counties for England, then Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Whilst you may think it’s because of cultural bias that he spends more than half the book on the British Isles, it’s simply because the records here are more extensive and more complete than anywhere else in Europe. Since most of the records are ecclesiastical, the most reliable information available relates to lands held by monasteries and abbeys and clergy deaths.

Useful and interesting though the book is, it is only in the final chapters that it comes to life. Ziegler describes two imagined communities, a village and a hamlet situated close to one another, and how they fare during and after the Black Death. Both lose a large number of inhabitants, but the village is ultimately stronger, as people move to it from the hamlet, and the hamlet is destroyed. This reflects the reality of the times and there was no way of predicting which way it might go for each town or village.

Ziegler succeeds in depicting the utter incomprehension with which the plague was greeted. It was unlike anything Europe had ever known, not just because of the numbers that died, but because of the speed with which it spread. Although news had come from the continent to England in advance of its arrival, few believed the stories and those that did assumed that the disease plague would not cross the Channel.

As many of the surviving manuscripts attest, those who lived in the plague’s path thought that the end of the world had come. Ziegler quotes from these eyewitnesses. There are two descriptions that always make me pause. One is the quotation at the top of the post, which comes from an unknown Florentine chronicler. Florence was one of the most populous cities in Europe in the 1340s and, like most large cities, such as London and Milan, it suffered greatly during the plague.  The other is the record of the monk John Clyn in Kilkenny. His situation was almost exactly opposite to that of the Florentines, as his monastery was fairly remote. He wrote “ So that notable deeds should not perish with time and be lost from the memory of future generations, I, seeing these many ills and that the whole world encompassed by evil, waiting among the dead for death to come, have committed to writing what I have truly heard and examined; and so that the writing does not perish with the writer, or the work fail with the workman, I leave parchment for continuing the work, in case anyone should still be alive in the future and any son of Adam can escape this pestilence and continue the work thus begun.” It is assumed that he died sometime in 1349, for someone else added later “Here it seems the author died.”

Like many writing about the Black Death, Ziegler contests the numbers of deaths given by the survivors, saying that our ancestors were prone to exaggeration. He suggests that a little over thirty per cent of the population died. I’m not sure that if thirty per cent of the people in my town died I would think it was the end of the world. I’d be worried, but I’d think the odds were on my side. If seventy per cent of them died, I’d be a lot more inclined to believe that the end of everything had arrived. There has been more research on medieval population sizes and death rates in the intervening years and I’m looking forward to what the book I’m currently reading has to say on the subject.

On the whole this is a good ‘introductory’ book. Ziegler’s intention was to gather as much as he could about was known about the Black Death into one place. There is no original research. Many find his style of writing dull, but I found the book easy enough to read and, as far as it’s possible to say this about a book written about such a terrible time, enjoyable.

For readers in the UK interested in plague, and who isn’t, there’s a programme on Channel 4 on Sunday 19th July at 8.00 p.m. (repeated on Thursday 23rd at 3.15 a.m. on 4seven) with the catchy title of ‘London’s Lost Graveyard: the Crossrail Discovery’. This is about the Great Plague of 1665 (amongst other causes of death), but it does promise to throw some light on the Black Death.

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The Black Death and Death

This is the last of a short series of posts about the Black Death. I haven’t come close to doing it justice as a subject and there will doubtless be more posts in the future, but there’s one last thing I want to look at before I move on. Life in the first half of the fourteenth century was precarious. There had been famines due to bad weather and many people had starved to death. There was war with France or Scotland almost constantly. In an age without antibiotics even a simple scratch could become infected and kill, so no one was a stranger to death. Despite this Europe’s experience of the Black Death changed the view of death held by the Christian West. Most people didn’t live long and death from childbirth, disease or accident was common, but the Black Death had shown that death was even more unpredictable than people had thought.

Ian Mortimer has suggested in his book Centuries of Change that the only way that modern people can understand the effect of the Black Death is to imagine an atomic bomb exploding in a different town every day for a year and three months. I can’t even begin to imagine that and I have a good imagination. In such circumstances I think most of us would believe that the end of the world was near. The number of deaths would be devastating.

One of the ways in which the change in attitude was shown was in art. Death, represented by a skull, started to figure in paintings where it had not before. Paintings were used to remind people that death made all equal. One of the more famous of these types of paintings is The Three Living and The Three Dead. Although they predate the Black Death as a theme, they became much more common after the middle of the fourteenth century. The three living are contrasted in their wealth and vitality with the skeleton forms of their future selves. In France these are usually three kings and they’re on horseback. In France or England one of them always has a hawk, showing that, even if they’re not kings, they’re rather well off. The illustrations include a conversation between the living and the dead. This is an example of these conversations. The living say in turn, “I am afraid”, “Lo, what I see” and “Methinks these devils be”. The dead reply, “Such shall you be”, “I was well fair”, “For God’s love beware”. There was often a homily of this nature:

“Know that I was head of my line

Princes, kings and nobles

Royal and rich, rejoicing in wealth

But now I am so hideous and bare

That even the worms disdain me.”

The same message was also given by many tombs. A particular style of tomb became popular in the beginning of the fifteenth century after the plague had returned three more times to England. These were called transi tombs. These tombs had two tiers. On top there would be a prince, bishop or lord; below the same man would be represented by a skeleton, with the whole explained by a pious verse. They showed the owner’s awareness that he was assigned to dust and maggots. The corpse would be presented with the flesh eaten away and a brittle skeleton. The intent was to shock the viewer both to repentance and to pray for the dead person.

Before the Black Death it had not been unreasonable to assume that the rich would live longer than the poor, but the Black Death showed that this wasn’t necessarily the case. A bishop was just as likely to succumb as a beggar. The Archbishop of Canterbury, who was also the chancellor, had died of plague in late spring in 1349.

People shared their lives and deaths with their community. Funerals were important community events and they had meaning. Most of the local population would be involved in a funeral. It gave the living an opportunity to help the departed person towards salvation. During the plague many people were denied the burial rituals. At its height in the larger towns family members carried the dead to the plague pits and tossed them in. The bodies weren’t even facing the right way so they would not be resurrected facing the New Jerusalem. Communities became fractured as people learned that plague was passed from person to person and they avoided contact with one another.

Even more than it had ever been in the past, death was now seen as a leveller.

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The Church and the Black Death

There were already signs that the feelings of the laity towards the church were changing before the Black Death ravaged Europe. It was more obvious on mainland Europe where there had been crusades against heretics in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. There had always been opposition to the church and heresy had always been rife, but with the arrival of the Black Death heretical sects abounded and even the most orthodox could find themselves re-examining their respect for the institution of the church.

People demanded to know why the church hadn’t seen this dreadful judgement from God coming. Since nothing happened that was not God’s will, it was obvious that he had sent the plague. Biblical plagues had been sent to punish sinful men, therefore the Black Death was a punishment sent by God to punish sinful Christians. It was partly for this reason that self-flagellation became so popular. If the Black Death was God’s punishment for sin, perhaps it was possible to ward it off with repentance and severe self-punishment. With sufficient warning it was thought that everyone could surely have repented and stopped the plague before it had begun. The church was blamed for not providing the warning.

Once the plague had begun, the prayers of the priests and bishops proved insufficient to halt it. Worse, they started dying themselves. No one could understand divine judgement that didn’t discriminate between good and bad people. It made far more sense to believe that the priests, bishops and monks were also being punished for their sins, which meant that they were as bad as everyone else and that God did not favour them.

One of the reasons why so many priests and monks died was because the church had always said that the sick had to call on them before they called for help from doctors. Such hospitals as there were were run by monks. When parish priests and monks died they were replaced by lesser men who were often no more advanced in learning or understanding of things theological than their parishioners. These men were less respected than their predecessors and that lack of respect spread to include the institution they represented.

Whilst many priests died because they stayed in their parishes and cared for the sick, many abandoned their posts and this, too, fed the negative view that people had of the church. They had been let down by their priests when they most needed them.

The church was supposed to show the laity how to live. Very few people could read and, even if they could read, books were beyond the pockets of any save the very rich and even they could not afford a whole Bible. It was the church’s rôle to interpret God’s word to the people, since few were able to read it for themselves. In addition to the Bible there was over a thousand years’ worth of teaching from the Church Fathers and various theologians. Yet none of it had been sufficient to improve the world enough to stop God having to punish it. Once again the church was blamed for not providing a correct interpretation of God’s word.

For the English it was increasingly a problem that the Pope was in Avignon. The papacy had moved there in 1309 and didn’t return to Rome until 1376. The Pope himself was seen as little more than a lackey of the French king, which wasn’t always very far from the truth and the French king was England’s enemy. The papacy itself was also seen as decadent and worldly.

Because clerics were dying in such high numbers, members of the laity were allowed to hear people’s dying confessions if there wasn’t a priest available. This raised the question about the necessity of a priest hearing confession at all. If a lay person was good enough in a time of crisis, why weren’t they good enough when the crisis was past?

Some commentators have seen this change in attitude as leading inexorably to the Reformation and it’s a view that I was coming to myself, except for the fact that there were already challenges to the church’s authority before the Black Death. The inquisition had been created in 1231 to deal with the rise of heretical sects, of which there were many. I think the Black Death simply gave clarity to people who were already vaguely uneasy about the church and its rôle in their lives.

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The Black Death and Crime


When I was reading Edward the Black Prince: Power in Medieval Europe by David Green, I was surprised by his comments about the increase in crime after the Black Death had died out in England. This was unexpected and it intrigued me, so I decided to find out more.

It might be that fourteenth century society was just going that way and tending towards lawlessness and the Black Death simply broke the last bounds. Bad weather in the early part of the century had led to poor harvests and famine in England. Somewhere between ten and fifteen percent of the population died from starvation and the diseases that came with famine between 1314 and 1321. Those who survived would have been weakened by the experience. Life was already very difficult before the Black Death arrived.

In 1348 the Commons complained to the king about lawlessness in the country and the failure of the justices to deal with it properly. They asked that the shires be allowed to appoint their own justices rather than wait for the royal justices to arrive in a county before cases could be heard. Edward III refused. In his coronation oath he had sworn to uphold the law and to judge everyone with fairness. It was, therefore, his duty to ensure that justice was done, not anyone else’s. Anyone taking on this right in his stead was really taking away some of the king’s power.

It might be that the king didn’t see an increase in crime as a serious problem and it is possible that the Commons were trying to increase their own power at the cost of the king’s, but the fact that they raised it at all, and presumably presented evidence to support their case, demonstrates that they thought there was a problem of some kind in the country.

In 1346 there was another poor harvest and there were food riots in different parts of the country. When the Black Death arrived in 1348, then, there was already some tendency towards lawlessness. As people began to die from the plague, society started to break down and it became difficult to replace those responsible for law and order when they died. It never did quite break down in most of England, but there was looting from the dead and dying. Most of the increase in crime was to do with the theft of foodstuffs, not surprisingly, since there were fewer people to work the land. Those who did continue to labour and produce crops were afraid to go into the towns to sell them, so people in towns grew hungry.

Some people were desperate enough to steal the clothes off the backs of corpses, even those who had died of plague. There’s at least one recorded instance of a man breaking into a house to steal. Finding the owner’s corpse in bed, he undressed it and took the clothes. This was not an isolated incident and shows the desperation of people who were surely aware of the dangers of being in proximity to a plague corpse.

This lawlessness carried on after the plague, with public disorder growing markedly.

As people began to avoid contact with one another, realising that it seemed to spread the plague, it became more difficult to replace those who died who had been responsible for maintaining order. This also meant that the quality and experience of those holding those positions of authority decreased, which meant that the work was done less effectively.

As the effects of the plague became clear, land owners began to be afraid of what their tenants might do. The value of land fell while the cost of labour rose, which meant that the landowners were no longer making as much money from the land and so were not able to pay those working on it as much. People travelled away from their birthplaces to find work that paid enough to enable them to live. This was a cause of great unrest. Many new laws were passed in the 1350s and 1360s, indicating that those in authority felt that they needed to impose order on chaos. That they didn’t think they had succeeded is demonstrated by the number of new laws that were harsher restatements of earlier laws.

Fourteenth century was a society that really only had two punishments for crime: mutilation or death. A man could be hanged if he stole something worth more than twelvepence. Rape was another capital crime, although convictions were few. There were no prisons and death probably didn’t seem as much as a deterrent as it had before the Black Death, despite the fact that, since the death sentence was supposed to be a deterrent, the execution itself was made as painful as possible. Some people simply became more reckless when they thought the end of the world had come. If everyone was going to die, and there seemed to be no reason to believe that this wasn’t the case, then there was no reason to hold back. If you were going to die, better to do so after having enjoyed a few days of a better life.

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