There were two major plague epidemics in this country – the Great Plague of the 1600s, and The Black Death of the 1300s. Today we will be looking at the latter.
The less than cheery title is more than apt for this dreadful happening. So what is the Black Death? A horrible illness, similar in symptoms to those I described in my last blog post, the Black Death is thought to have originated in Egypt. There
was also a major epidemic in China, which spread throughout Asia, Europe and then to Britain. The Black Plague in Europe began around 1347 and killed over a quarter of the population. One year later it had reached England.
One of the theories of how the plague spread points to the Mongol Empire. Rulers, who had been in battles across Asia and Europe, would settle in various places across the continents for trade. Italian merchants would come for silks and spices, which had a very high value in Europe. However, the traders brought with them Asian black rats, which were carrying the fleas which had been infected by the plague. The rats made their way into the traders’ supplies. By the time the supplies had arrived back in Italy, half the supply ships’ crews had already died or were dying of the plague. It did not take long for the disease to spread throughout Europe.
So victims of the plague were dropping dead everywhere. The disease was fast-moving and ruthless, and could spread around an entire town within weeks. Death became so commonplace that people of the Middle Ages thought that the world was going through an apocalypse. Of course, poor sanitation and a lack of scientific and medical knowledge certainly didn’t help matters.
From large towns to small villages, people prayed fervently to God but their prayers went unanswered. And for those struck down, even their religion held little comfort. Not all the sick could be given religious last rights because there simply were not enough clergymen to deal with the rapidly dying population. Worse still, some men of the church simply refused to provide these blessings for fear of catching the plague themselves.
When God wouldn’t answer their prayers, a group of people decided to go to extreme measures to make God listen. They were the Flagellants. They would gather around in towns and beat themselves to atone for their sins. This group had been in existence before this time, but their extreme nature, and the fact that the traditional church was not helping out as much as people would have liked during this terrible time, meant that more and more people joined them.
A famous Italian writer, Giovanni Boccaccio, wrote his book The Decameron during the time of the plague. This tells us a lot about how the plague spread and affected people. He said: “The years of the beatific incarnation of the Son of God had reached the tale of one thousand three hundred and forty eight when in the that deadly pestilence, which, whether disseminated by the influence of the celestial bodies, or sent upon us mortals by God in His just wrath by way of retribution for our iniquities [sins] had had its origin some years before in the East.” (page 26 of the link)
“The evil went yet further for not merely by speech or association with the sick was the malady communicated to the healthy with consequent peril of common death; but any that touched the cloth of the sick or aught else that had been touched or used by them seemed thereby to contract the disease.” (27)
“Many died daily or nightly in the public streets; of many others, who died at home, the departure was hardly observed by their neighbours until the stench of their putrefying bodies carried the tidings; and what with their corpses and the corpses of others who died on every hand the whole place was a sepulchre” (31-32)
All in all, a grim time, and what’s worst, it wasn’t the last the people of England, and in particular London, had seen of the plague.
NEXT TIME: THE GREAT PLAGUE OF THE 1600s
Here is an interview I did last week at The Sweet Bookshelf