Tag Archives: Black Death

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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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.



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A Garter and Chivalry

Edward III and the garter

Edward III was his father’s son and the early years of his reign, at least, were informed by the disastrous end of his father’s. Edward III was at pains to show that he was a different kind of king in the hope of hanging on to his crown… and his life.

Although far from a coward, Edward II didn’t seem to enjoy fighting as much as his son and he certainly possessed none of Edward III’s military genius. Edward II had little in common with his barons, and his wife and her lover found it fairly easy to depose him and then murder him. Edward III wished to escape a similar fate.

The creation of the Order of the Knights of the Garter was an important step in the process of creating a new kind of kingship for England. Edward had been considering ways in which to bind his knights to one another and to him for some time. He had originally considered something similar to the Round Table. Arthurian legends were popular at the time and it wouldn’t hurt the king to be considered a second Arthur.

In the end he decided to create a chivalric order that included an element of the spiritual.

After the surprising military successes of 1346 (victories against the French at Crécy and the Scots at Neville’s Cross) the king was in a position to his ideas into effect and the Order was created on St George’s Day 1349 (probably).

There are only ever 24 Knights of the Garter, plus the monarch and the Prince of Wales. These days they tend to be rather elderly – 4 are in their 90s and the youngest is 64. When the first Knights of the Garter were created they were much younger, mostly in their 20s. The Black Prince was 18 and the king himself was one of the oldest at 36.

The first knights included men who had fought beside the king and the Prince in France, such as the earl of Lancaster (the king’s most trusted general), the earl of Warwick, the Captal de Buch (a trusted Gascon lord) and the Prince’s friends Sir John Chandos and Sir James Audley, as well as Thomas Holland, first husband of Joan of Kent who later married the Prince.

The Knights would meet on St George’s day, usually at Windsor and their meeting would often be accompanied by a tournament. The tournament provided a spectacular entertainment for those in attendance, but it also had a more serious purpose. The Order of the Garter was an order of chivalry and the tournament allowed its members to demonstrate their chivalry by feats of arms.

Orders of knighthood were being formed in other European countries at the time, as the modern methods of warfare were beginning to make their rôle in it less important. Soldiers were being paid rather than providing their services as a feudal duty and had little personal loyalty to those who paid them.

The Garter Knights have a motto ‘Hony soi qui mal y pense’, which probably refers to Edward III’s claim to the French throne. Since one of the objects of the Order was to bind the members to him so that they would support him in foreign wars, this makes sense. It means ‘Shamed be he who thinks evil of it’.

No one knows why the garter was chosen as the emblem, although there are lots of theories, some of them rather salacious. It probably symbolized something relating, again, to the king’s claim to the French throne.

Windsor was important to Edward III as it was his birthplace. It was also his favorite residence outside London, although Woodstock, where three of his children were born, including the Black Prince, was another place where he liked to stay. It was in Windsor that he chose to institute the Order and where he built their spiritual home, which reflected the increasing attribution of English military success to St George and the cross of St George was used to represent the king as much as his own royal standard.

One of the more surprising things about the institution of the Order is that it happened while England was in the grip of the Black Death. It’s easy to imagine that everything just stopped for the time during which Europe was expecting the world to end, but things did continue, although there were some comments from contemporary chroniclers that this might not be the best time for what many considered frivolity. Since he lost one of his much-loved daughters to the Black Death, Edward III was as aware as anyone else of the impact the plague was having on the country.

The kind of kingship he created certainly worked for him. Unlike his predecessor and his successor, he died a natural death and was king for 50 years.



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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.


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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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The Black Death – An Introduction

black death

I’ve been interested in the Black Death for a long time, specifically in how it changed people’s lives and how people managed to get life ‘back to normal’ afterwards. This post is by way of an introduction to the subject and there will be other posts about more specific aspects of the plague later.

There has been a lot of research into how the plague started, how it was transmitted and how it arrived in each country in Europe from the East. All of this research is about the beginning and middle of the plague, whereas I’m interested in the end and afterwards.

I set one of my novels The Traitor’s Daughter some years before the arrival of the Black Death in England and it was only after I finished it and was thinking of Alais’ and Hugh’s life after the end of the novel that I realised that, excluding accident or death in childbirth, they and their children and friends would have to face the horror that the plague brought with it, perhaps succumbing themselves. I haven’t had the courage to set a novel before the Black Death since.

It is believed that the plague arrived in England via Melcombe in Dorset in the summer of 1348 and spread west, north and east from there. There were three types of plague: bubonic (the version with the black boils and black fluids), which took several days to kill; pneumonic, which killed in hours; and septicaemic, which caused bleeding under the skin and diarrhoea, but would often kill before any symptoms were displayed. None of this, however, is certain, as there is still disagreement about what the Black Death really was and how it was spread. One current theory blames Asian gerbils Gerbils replace rats as main cause of Black Death. For those who are interested, the full text of the paper is here.

Estimates of the death toll vary from one third to two thirds of the population, with historians accusing the medieval chroniclers of gross exaggeration. In some ways it doesn’t matter whether they exaggerated or not; the death toll was such that society broke down in many places and people thought the end of the world had arrived. You only have to think for a few minutes about how frightening it would be if a third of the people you work with died in the space of a few weeks, or a third of the people in your street, or your village to understand why they thought it was the end of the world.

Since more records of the time have survived in England than in any other European country, more is known about the effects of the Black Death in this country than anywhere else. Many communities were destroyed or came close to destruction. My home town was one that came close to being wiped out entirely. Southampton was the largest port on the south coast and hadn’t recovered from a raid by the French in 1338, which left many dead and much of the town destroyed by fire. So much had been lost that the town had to appeal against taxes in the 1340s. When the Black Death arrived in late 1348 or early 1349 it almost meant the end of the town.

The plague wasn’t choosy about its victims. High born as well as low died, beggars as well as princesses. Edward III’s fourteen year old daughter, Joan, succumbed on her way to Castile to be married. The king’s letter expressing his grief at her loss shows the depth of his feeling for his many children. The Pope in Avignon famously spent his days sitting between two braziers and seeing no one to avoid infection, only leaving for the country in the height of summer and returning in the autumn. It was not so easy for the poor to protect themselves.

A recent area of study that has yielded a lot of information about medieval life is the examination of wills written as the Black Death arrived in a town. If it looked as if you were going to die, it was only sensible to make a will setting out the disposal of your goods and chattels. These wills reveal a great deal about life in the middle of the fourteenth century. They show what people thought was worth passing on to those who survived.

Many books have been written about the Black Death. Possibly the most famous is Philip Ziegler’s ‘The Black Death’, which is a summary of published research up to 1969 when it was written. It almost gives a county by county break down of its progress and effects across England, although he does give an overview of what was happening elsewhere in Europe.

Ole Bendictow’s The Black Death 1346-1353: The Complete History’ is a very clinical study of the causes and transmission of the plague, trying to work out why it spread so quickly in some areas and why others were unaffected. He also makes a case for the death rate being about two thirds of the population. This is a very dry, academic read, but full of facts.

John Hatcher has written a book about the effects of the Black Death on a single village The Black Death: The Intimate Story of a Village in Crisis 1345-50: An Intimate History. I haven’t read this yet, but will write a review here when I have.

A good fictional account of the effects of the Black Death on a small community can be found in ‘Doomsday Book‘ by Connie Willis.

And there’s always ‘The Decameron’, an eyewitness account of the plague in Florence by Boccaccio, although some question whether he was in Florence at the time.

Whatever its causes and regardless of how it was transmitted, everything changed after the Black Death. The way people thought about death changed, the church was seen as less worthy of trust and crime levels rose. In future blogs I’ll be taking a look at each of these themes.

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Flagellation as a cure for the plague

Possibly because they weren’t welcome in England and were deported almost as soon as they arrived here, I don’t come across the Flagellants very often in my reading. It’s only because I’m reading a book that looks at the effect of the Black Death across Europe that I know a bit more about them than I did last month.

The Brotherhood of the Flagellants, or the Brethren of the Cross as they were more properly known, was a group of lay people. I’d always thought they were monks, so that was one misapprehension removed. The other was that there were no women in the movement. There were and they walked behind the men as they travelled from village to village.

The movement began long before it, but came into its own during the Black Death. By that time the Flagellants had come to be accepted by ordinary people as saint-like and able to work miracles. As the dreadful reality of the Black Death became clear and the church was shown to be as powerless as everyone else, anti-clerical movements such as this became popular.

In earlier times the church had encouraged private mortification of the flesh for one’s own sin, but the Black Death required desperate measures and even the Pope took part in a Flagellants’ procession in Avignon just before the plague arrived in an effort to avert it.

The Flagellants moved from village to village, probably taking the plague with them. They walked silently, apart from the occasional hymn. When they arrived they would, if permitted to do so, enter the church and go through their litany. Then they would go outside, stand in a circle and strip off their outer clothing, so that they were covered only from their waist to their ankles in linen. Then they would lie down on the ground and some would be whipped by the master of the group for specific sins. Then they would stand and whip themselves. The whips were vicious having three or four leather thongs with a piece of metal at the end of each thong.

It’s a wonder any of them survived, for each of them was supposed to do this thirty-three days in a row without bathing, changing their clothes or, obviously, engaging in sexual intercourse. It was said (and the squeamish amongst you should look away now) that sometimes a metal stud would get stuck in the flagellant’s flesh and require more than one pull to remove it.

In the early days of the movement the Flagellants were fairly upper middle class (had such a thing existed then), as membership required an entry fee and a demonstration that the members could support themselves whilst they were on the road. Originally clergy were not allowed to join. Later there was a change and the leaders became more undiscerning. The Flagellants gradually became more closely aligned with other heretical movements. They also accepted as members men who were little better than criminals. They became more aggressive as they travelled around and much less welcome, hence the deportation from England.

The movement itself was always associated with apocalyptic events that were thought to signal the arrival of the end times. There was a change during the Black Death, however, and the movement also took on messianic overtones. No messiah within or without the movement was ever identified, however, so that aspect of it disappeared.

One very unattractive aspect of the movement was its anti-Semitism. Most people were very quick to blame the Jews for causing the Black Death, ignoring the fact that Jews as well as Christians were dying. In many towns the Flagellants led the massacres that cost many thousands of Jews their lives. So prominent in the persecution of the Jews were they that it was one of the things listed in the papal bull that declared them heretics in October 1349. After that they didn’t survive very long, as towns and villages barred them from entry. Many of them met with violent deaths as a result.

The flowering of such a movement was just one of many signs of the way in which the Black Death caused confusion and despair in Europe.

Are there other groups that you’re aware of that flourished briefly in the Middle Ages and then disappeared?


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