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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 Although fairly outdated in terms of understanding the causes of the Black Death and how it spread, this is a good synthesis of research available at the end of the sixties.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 Black Death and Crime

hanging

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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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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Ransoms: the way to riches, the way to poverty

During the Hundred Years’ War many knights were able to go into battle fairly confident that they would survive. The ransom system meant that, should they surrender, provided the battle wasn’t being fought to the death or there had not been an order not to take prisoners by the other side, there was a good chance they would be taken prisoner and released later on payment of a ransom. This made the knights more valuable alive than dead.

The chivalric code was what made it possible for Christian knights to fight one another. Earlier the Anglo-Saxons and Norsemen killed or enslaved vanquished enemies, but this was not acceptable to the church when both sides were Christians. Often men fighting one another were related or friends and killing an opponent who surrendered in such circumstances wouldn’t always be well-received. Due to the way knights were trained they often knew one another well, having served as squires together or met at tournaments. The ransom system meant that they didn’t have to kill their friends.

Knights could still be killed, of course. It wasn’t always possible to take prisoners and prisoners who were to be ransomed had to be protected, which was often difficult in the midst of a battle. Knights were essentially killing machines. They were trained to kill and it could be quite hard to restrain them once they had started. In the heat of battle they could often carry on killing, even when the enemy was surrendering to them or retreating.

The ransom system was part of the chivalric code and it applied only to knights, not to the ordinary soldier. A knight who was captured in a battle or a siege could be expected to buy his freedom by paying a ransom, or having it paid for him. Sometimes he could be set free on parole by promising that he would not take up arms against the one who had set him free and that he would pay his ransom.

Some men became wealthy by capturing and ransoming knights. Others could become poor through paying a ransom. The ransom of Jean II, who was captured at the battle of Poitiers in 1356 almost brought France to its knees, even though half of it was never paid. Jean died in captivity after his son, who had taken his place in prison to allow his father to return to France to raise his ransom, escaped. Feeling the dishonour of his son’s action, Jean returned to England where he died a few months later.

If a man could not pay a ransom he was either kept prisoner or made to redeem his ransom in some other way. For many that meant being taken to another country. It could take a long time to raise the money required and, since a captive was considered the property of his captor, the son of the captor could inherit the captive on his father’s death.

There were laws governing how a prisoner could be captured and how he could be kept and ransomed. When a man was taken prisoner for ransom there was what amounted to a legal contract between the man captured and the man to whom he had surrendered. The captive was supposed to be taken to a place of safety and protected until the battle was over. If this didn’t happen he could consider himself no longer bound by his surrender and try to escape. He was also supposed to be well-treated by his captor. In this respect being captured by the Germans or Spanish was decidedly undesirable. They were known to keep their prisoners in chains and mistreat them, even if they expected to receive a ransom for them. The ransom itself was supposed to be within the means of the captured man to pay, although this was frequently not the case.

One of the attractions of fighting in France during the Hundred Years’ War for the English was that France was known to be full of wealthy men and many Englishmen became rich from taking prisoners, just as many Frenchmen became poor from paying for their release. For a novelist this is quite a useful device for enabling a second son without property to become rich (like Henry in The Winter Love) or penniless (like Richard in His Ransom).

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Why the fourteenth century?

I write about romances set in fourteenth century England. What is it about that particular time that makes it such a good setting?

From the relative safety of the twenty-first century the fourteenth century looks like an interesting time in which to live. It was the time when national identities were becoming strong in Europe. England became so self-assured as a nation that it felt able to take on the most powerful nation in Europe, France, in what was to become the Hundred Years’ War.

It was the time of Edward III, possibly the greatest ruler England has ever had. His reign, one of the longest among English monarchs, stretches across the fourteenth century. The security of his reign contrasts strongly with the anarchy of the hundred years following his death.

English was in the process of becoming the national language. Although the ruling classes still spoke French, English gradually became the language of literature and law.

It was also a time of great disasters. The Black Death claimed between a half and two thirds of the population in the middle of the century and returned frequently for the rest of the century. As a result some people became more mobile and wealthier as more labourers were required than were available.

There were wars, not only in France, but in England and Scotland and border raids in the Marches. Associated with these was the development of the longbow – the superweapon of the fourteenth century. It gave English armies such a marked advantage over the French that the French developed a strategy of avoiding battle if they could.

It was the time of Gower, Langland, Chaucer and the ‘Pearl’ poet, all writing in English towards the end of the century. Literature in English started with a bang.

Wyclif began to translate the Bible into English and the century marked a change in the way that the English viewed the church and the pope, who, for most of the century, was considered to be little more than a mouthpiece for the French king.

It was a time of great change and uncertainty. Poor men could go to war and return with wealth (Henry in The Winter Love ); a Frenchman could be captured by his enemy and brought to England to work off his ransom (Richard in His Ransom) and a woman caught up in a French raid on a southern port could be rescued by a stranger (Alais in The Traitor’s Daughter). What more could a novelist want?

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