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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 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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