Black Death was a pneumonic plague pandemic, which reached England
in June 1348. It was the first and most severe manifestation of the
Second Pandemic, caused by
Yersinia pestis bacteria. The term "Black
Death" was not used until the late 17th century.
Originating in China, it spread west along the trade routes across
Europe and arrived on the British Isles from the English province of
Gascony. The plague seems to have been spread by flea-infected rats,
as well as individuals who had been infected on the continent. Rats
were the reservoir hosts of the Y. pestis bacteria and the Oriental
rat flea was the primary vector.
The first known case in England was a seaman who arrived at Weymouth,
Gascony in June 1348. By autumn, the plague had
reached London, and by summer 1349 it covered the entire country,
before dying down by December. Low estimates of mortality in the early
twentieth century have been revised upwards due to re-examination of
data and new information, and a figure of 40–60% of the population
is widely accepted.
The English government handled the crisis well, and the country did
not experience the extreme reactions that were seen elsewhere in
Europe. The most immediate consequence was a halt to the campaigns of
the Hundred Years' War. In the long term, the decrease in population
caused a shortage of labour, with subsequent rise in wages, resisted
by the landowners, which caused deep resentment among the lower
Peasants' Revolt of 1381
Peasants' Revolt of 1381 was largely a result of this
resentment, and even though the rebellion was suppressed, in the long
term serfdom was ended in England. The
Black Death also affected
artistic and cultural efforts, and may have helped advance the use of
In 1361–62 the plague returned to England, this time causing the
death of around 20% of the population. After this the plague continued
to return intermittently throughout the 14th and 15th centuries, in
local or national outbreaks. From this point on its effect became less
severe, and one of the last outbreaks of the plague in England was the
Great Plague of London
Great Plague of London in 1665–66.
1.1 England in mid 14th Century
1.2 The Black Death
2 Progress of the plague
3 Medical practice
4.1 Death toll
4.1.1 Impact of the Black Death: 1349
4.2 Social distribution
5.1 Economic, social and political effects
5.2 Religious and cultural consequences
7 See also
England in mid 14th Century
Battle of Crécy
Battle of Crécy established England as a military power.
It is impossible to establish with any certainty the exact number of
inhabitants in England at the eve of the Black Death, and estimates
range from 3 to 7 million. The number is probably in the higher
end, and an estimate of around 6 million inhabitants seems likely.
Earlier demographic crises − in particular the Great Famine of
1315–1317 − had resulted in great numbers of deaths, but there is
no evidence of any significant decrease in the population prior to
1348. England was still a predominantly rural and agrarian society;
close to 90% of the population lived on the countryside. Of the
London was in a class of its own, with perhaps as many
as 70,000 inhabitants. Further down the scale were Norwich, with
around 12,000 people, and
York with around 10,000. The main export,
and the source of the nation's wealth, was wool. Until the middle of
the century the export had consisted primarily of raw wool to cloth
makers in Flanders. Gradually though, the technology for cloth making
used on the Continent was appropriated by English manufacturers, who
started an export of cloths around mid-century that would boom over
the following decades.
Politically, the kingdom was evolving into a major European power,
through the youthful and energetic kingship of Edward III. In 1346,
the English had won a decisive battle over the Scots at the Battle of
Neville's Cross, and it seemed that Edward III would realise his
grandfather Edward I's ambition of bringing the Scots under the
suzerainty of the English crown. The English were also
experiencing military success on the continent. Less than two months
before the Battle of Neville's Cross, a numerically inferior English
army led by the king himself won a spectacular victory over the French
royal forces at the Battle of Crécy. The victory was immediately
followed by Edward laying siege to the port city of Calais. When the
city fell the next year, this provided the English with a
strategically important enclave that would remain in their possession
for over two centuries.
The Black Death
Main article: Black Death
The migration of the
Black Death across Europe
The term "Black Death" – which refers to the first and most
serious outbreak of the Second Pandemic – was not used by
contemporaries, who preferred such names as the "Great Pestilence" or
the "Great Mortality". It was not until the seventeenth century
that the term under which we know the outbreak today became common ,
probably derived from Scandinavian languages. It is generally
agreed today that the disease in question was plague, caused by
Yersinia pestis bacteria. These bacteria are carried by fleas,
which can be transferred to humans through contact with rats. Flea
bites carry the disease into the lymphatic system, through which it
makes its way to the lymph nodes. Here the bacteria multiply and form
swellings called buboes, from which the term bubonic plague is
derived. After three or four days the bacteria enter the
bloodstream, and infect organs such as the spleen and the lungs. The
patient will then normally die after a few days. A different
strain of the disease is pneumonic plague, where the bacteria become
airborne and enter directly into the patient's lungs. This strain is
far more virulent, as it spreads directly from person to person. These
types of infection probably both played a significant part in the
Black Death, while a third strain was more rare. This is the
septicaemic plague, where the flea bite carries the bacteria directly
into the blood stream, and death occurs very rapidly.
A study reported in 2011 of skeletons exhumed from the "Black Death"
London found Yersina Pestis DNA. An
archeological dig in the vicinity of
Thornton Abbey in Lincolnshire
was reported in the science section of The Guardian for November 30,
2016 not only confirming evidence of the Yersina Pestis DNA in the
human remains exhumed there but also dated them to mid-1349.
Genotyping showed that it was [at that time] a newly evolved strain,
ancestor of all modern strains and proved the "Black Death" was
bubonic plague. Modern medical knowledge suggests that because it was
a new strain human immune system would have had little or no defense
against it, which helps to explain its virulence and high death
The "Black Death" seems to have originated in Central Asia, where
Yersina Pestis bacterium is endemic in the rodent population. It is
unknown exactly what caused the outbreak, but a series of natural
occurrences likely brought humans into contact with the infected
rodents. The epidemic reached
Constantinople in the late spring of
1347, through Genoese merchants trading in the Black Sea. From
here it reached
Sicily in October that same year, and by early 1348 it
had spread all over the Italian mainland. It spread rapidly
through France, and had reached as far north as Paris in June 1348.
Moving simultaneously westward, it arrived in the English province of
Gascony around the same time.
Progress of the plague
In this year, in Melcombe, in the county of Dorset, a little before
the Feast of St. John the Baptist, two ships, one of them from
Bristol, came alongside. One of the sailors had brought with him from
Gascony the seeds of the terrible pestilence and through him the men
of the town of Melcombe were the first in England to be infected.
Grey Friars' Chronicle
According to the chronicle of the grey friars at King's Lynn, the
plague arrived by ship from
Gascony to Melcombe in Dorset –
today normally referred to as Weymouth – shortly before "the
Feast of St. John The Baptist" on 24 June 1348. Other sources
mention different points of arrival, including
Southampton. Though the plague might have arrived independently at
Bristol at a later point, the Grey Friars' Chronicle is considered the
most authoritative account. If it is assumed that the chronicle
reports the first outbreak of the plague, rather than its actual
arrival, then the arrival most likely happened around 8 May.
From Weymouth the disease spread rapidly across the south-west. The
first major city to be struck was Bristol.
London was reached in
the autumn of 1348, before most of the surrounding countryside. This
had certainly happened by November, though according to some accounts
as early as 29 September. Arrival in
London happened by three
principal roads: overland from Weymouth – through Salisbury
and Winchester – overland from Gloucester, and along the coast
by ship. The full effect of the plague was felt in the capital
early the next year. Conditions in
London were ideal for the
plague: the streets were narrow and flowing with sewage, and houses
were overcrowded and poorly ventilated. By March 1349 the disease
was spreading in a haphazard way across all of southern England.
During the first half of 1349 the
Black Death spread northwards. A
second front opened up when the plague arrived by ship at the Humber,
wherefrom it spread both south and north. In May it reached York,
and during the summer months of June, July and August, it ravaged the
north. Certain northern counties, like Durham and Cumberland, had
been the victim of violent incursions from the Scots, and were
therefore left particularly vulnerable to the devastations of the
plague. Pestilence is less virulent during the winter months, and
spreads less rapidly. The
Black Death in England had survived the
winter of 1348–49, but during the following winter it gave in, and
by December 1349 conditions were returning to relative normalcy.
It had taken the disease approximately 500 days to traverse the entire
In order to treat patients infected with the plague, various methods
were used including sweating, bloodletting, forced vomiting, and
urinating. Several symptoms of the illness included blotches,
hardening of the glands under the groin and underarms, and
dementia. Within the initial phase of the disease, bloodletting
was performed on the same side of where the physical manifestations of
the buboes or risings appeared. For instance, if a rising appeared on
the right side of the groin the physician would bleed a vein in the
ankle on the same side. In the case of sweating, it was achieved
with such medicines as Mithridate, Venice-Treacle, Matthiolus,
Bezoar-Water, Serpentary Roots and Electuarium de Ovo. Sweating
was used when measures were desperate; if a patient had tokens, a
severe version of risings, the physician would wrap the naked patient
in a blanket drenched in cold water. This measure was only performed
while the patient still had natural heat in his system. The desired
effect was to make the patient sweat violently and thus purge all
corruption from the blood which was caused by the disease.
Another practice was the use of pigeons when treating swellings.
Swellings which were white in appearance and deep were unlikely to
break and must be anointed with Oil of Lillies or Camomil. Once
the swelling rises to a head and is red in appearance and not deep in
the flesh, it can be broken with the use of a feather from a young
pigeon's tail. The feather's fundament was held to the swelling and
would draw out the venom. However, if the swelling dropped and became
black in appearance since it had taken in coldness, the physician had
to be cautious when drawing the cold from the swelling. If it was too
late to prevent, the physician would take the young pigeon, cut her
open from breast to back, break her open and apply the pigeon (while
still alive) over the cold swelling. The cupping therapy was an
alternative method which was heated and then placed over the
swellings. Once the sore was broken, the physician would apply
Mellilot Plaister with Linimentum Arcei and heal the sore with
Although historical records for England were more extensive than those
of any other European country, it is still extremely difficult to
establish the death toll with any degree of certainty. Difficulties
involve uncertainty about the size of the total population, as
described above, but also issues regarding the proportion of the
population that died from the plague. Contemporary accounts are often
grossly inflated, stating numbers as high as 90%. Modern
historians give estimates of death rates ranging from around 25% to
over 60% of the total population.
The pioneering work in the field was made by Josiah William Russell in
his 1948 British Medieval Population. Russell looked at inquisitions
post mortem (IPMs) – taken by the crown to assess the wealth
of the greatest landowners after their death – to assess the
mortality caused by the Black Death, and from this arrived at an
estimate of 23.6% of the entire population. He also looked at
episcopal registers for the death toll among the clergy, where the
result was between 30–40%. Russell believed the clergy was at
particular risk of contagion, and eventually concluded with a low
mortality level of only 20%.
Several of Russell's assumptions have been challenged, and the
tendency since has been to adjust the assessment upwards. Philip
Ziegler, in 1969, estimated the death rate to be at around one third
of the population. Jeremy Goldberg, in 1996, believed a number
closer to 45% would be more realistic. A 2004 study by Ole Jørgen
Benedictow suggests the exceptionally high mortality level of
62.5%. Assuming a population of 6 million, this estimate would
correspond to 3,750,000 deaths. Such a high percentage would place
England above the average that Benedictow estimates for Western Europe
as a whole, of 60%. A death rate at such a high level has not been
universally accepted in the historical community.
Carenza Lewis reported the results of a new method of
assessing the death toll. She argues that pottery before and after the
Black Death is datable because there was a change at that time from
the high medieval to the late medieval style, and that counts of
pottery of each type therefore provide a useful proxy for long term
changes in population. She and her colleagues analysed pottery sherds
from test pits in over fifty continuously occupied rural settlements
in eastern England, and found a decline in the number of pottery
producing pits of 45%. Norfolk had the greatest drop of 65%, while
there was no drop in 10% of settlements, mostly commercial
Impact of the Black Death: 1349
Archbishop Zouche of
York issued a warning throughout the diocese in
July 1348 (when the epidemic was raging further south) of ‘great
mortalities, pestilences and infections of the air’.
The ‘Great Mortality’, as it was then known, entered Yorkshire
around February 1349 and quickly spread through the diocese. The
clergy were on the front line of the disease, bringing comfort to the
dying, hearing final confessions and organising burials. This, almost
by necessity, put them at a greater risk of infection.
Estimates suggest that the death rate of clergy in some parts of the
archdiocese could have been as high as 48%. This is reflected in the
Ordination Register, which shows a massive rise in ordained clergy
over the period – some being recruited before the arrival of plague
in a clerical recruitment drive, but many once plague had arrived,
replacing those who had been killed. The nation's population decreased
by a third causing a labor shortage and giving the lower class
negotiating power against their overlords. In 1346, 111 priests
and 337 acolytes were recruited. In 1349, 299 priests and 683 acolytes
are named, with 166 priests being ordained in one session alone in
Russell trusted the IPMs to give a true picture of the national
average, because he assumed death rates to be relatively equal across
the social spectrum. This assumption has later been proven wrong,
and studies of peasant plague mortality from manor rolls have returned
much higher rates. This could be a consequence of the elite's ability
to avoid infection by escaping plague-infected areas. It could also
result from lower post-infection mortality among those more affluent,
due to better access to care and nursing. If so, this would also
mean that the mortality rates for the clergy – who were
normally better off than the general population – were no
higher than the average.
...destructive Death (who seizes young and old alike, sparing no one
and reducing rich and poor to the same level) has lamentably snatched
from both of us our dearest daughter, (whom we loved best of all, as
her virtues demanded).
Edward III in a letter to King Alfonso of Castile
The manorial records offer a good opportunity to study the
geographical distribution of the plague. Its effect seems to have been
about the same all over England, though a place like East Anglia,
which had frequent contact with the Continent, was severely
affected. On a local level, however, there were great variations.
A study of the Bishop of Worcester's estates reveal that, while his
manors of Hartlebury and Hambury had a mortality of only 19%, the
manor of Aston lost as much as 80% of its population. The manor
rolls are less useful for studying the demographic distribution of the
mortality, since the rolls only record the heads of households,
normally an adult male. Here the IPMs show us that the most
vulnerable to the disease were infants and the elderly.
There seem to have been very few victims of the
Black Death at higher
levels of society. The only member of the royal family who can be
said with any certainty to have died from the
Black Death was in
France at the time of her infection. Edward III's daughter Joan was
Bordeaux on her way to marry
Pedro of Castile
Pedro of Castile in the
summer of 1348. When the plague broke out in her household she was
moved to a small village nearby, but she could not avoid infection,
and died there on 2 September. It is possible that the popular
religious author Richard Rolle, who died on 30 September 1349, was
another victim of the Black Death. The English philosopher William
of Ockham has been mentioned as a plague victim. This, however, is
an impossibility. Ockham was living in
Munich at the time of his
death, on 10 April 1347, two years before the
Black Death reached that
Economic, social and political effects
Among the most immediate consequences of the
Black Death in England
was a shortage of farm labour, and a corresponding rise in wages. The
medieval world-view was unable to interpret these changes in terms of
socio-economic development, and it became common to blame degrading
morals instead. The landowning classes saw the rise in wage levels
as a sign of social upheaval and insubordination, and reacted with
coercion. In 1349, King Edward III passed the Ordinance of Labourers,
fixing wages at pre-plague levels. The ordinance was reinforced by
Parliament's passing of the Statute of Labourers in 1351. The
labour laws were enforced with ruthless determination over the
Peasants' Revolt: rebel leader
Wat Tyler is killed on the left, while
the young Richard II pacifies the crowd on the right.
These legislative measures proved largely inefficient at regulating
the market, but the government's repressive measures to enforce them
caused public resentment. These conditions were contributing
factors to the
Peasants' Revolt in 1381. The revolt started in Kent
and Essex in late May, and once the rebels reached
London they burnt
down John of Gaunt's Savoy Palace, and killed both the Chancellor and
the Treasurer. They then demanded the complete abolition of serfdom,
and were not pacified until the young King Richard II personally
intervened. The rebellion was eventually suppressed, but the
social changes it promoted were already irreversible. By around 1400
serfdom was virtually extinct in England, replaced by the form of
tenure called copyhold.
It is conspicuous how well the English government handled the crisis
of the mid-fourteenth century, without descending into chaos and total
collapse in the manner of the Valois government of France. To a
large extent this was the accomplishment of administrators such as
William de Shareshull and Chief Justice William Edington,
whose highly competent leadership guided the governance of the nation
through the crisis. The plague's greatest effect on the government
was probably in the field of war, where no major campaigns were
launched in France until 1355.
Another notable consequence of the
Black Death was the raising of the
real wage of England (due to the shortage of labour as a result of the
reduction in population), a trait shared across Western Europe, which
in general led to a real wage in 1450 that was unmatched in most
countries until the 19th or 20th century. The higher wages for
workers combined with sinking prices on grain products led to a
problematic economic situation for the gentry. As a result, they
started to show an increased interest for offices like justice of the
peace, sheriff and member of parliament. The gentry took advantage of
their new positions and a more systematic corruption than before
spread. A result of this was that the gentry as a group became highly
disliked by commoners.
Religious and cultural consequences
The omnipresence of death also inspired greater piety in the upper
classes, which can be seen in the fact that three Cambridge colleges
were founded during or shortly after the Black Death. England did
not experience the same trend of roving bands of flagellants, common
on the continent. Neither were there any pogroms against the Jews,
since the Jews had been expelled by Edward I in 1290. In the long
run, however, the increase in public participation may have served to
challenge the absolute authority of the church hierarchy, and thus
possibly helped pave the way for the Protestant Reformation.[citation
The high rate of mortality among the clergy naturally led to a
shortage of priests in many parts of the country. The clergy were
seen to have an elevated status among ordinary people and this was
partly due to their closeness with God, being his envoys on earth.
However, as the church itself had given the cause of the Black Death
to be the impropriety of the behaviour of men, the higher death rate
among the clergy led the people to lose faith in the Church as an
institution − it had proved as ineffectual against the horror of Y.
Pestis as every other medieval institution. The corruption within the
Catholic priesthood also angered the English people. Many priests
abandoned the terrified people. Others sought benefits from the rich
families who needed burials. The dissatisfaction led to
anti-clericalism and the rise of John Wycliffe, an English priest. His
ideas paved a path for the Christian reformation in England. Some
people didn't lose their Christian faith, if anything it was renewed;
they began to long for a more personal relationship with God −
around the time after the
Black Death many chantries (private chapels)
began to spread in use from not just the nobility, but to among the
well to do. This change in the power of the papacy in England is
demonstrated by the statutes of Praemunire.
Black Death also affected arts and culture significantly. It was
inevitable that a catastrophe of such proportions would affect some of
the greater building projects, as the amount of available labour fell
sharply. The building of the cathedrals of Ely and Exeter was
temporarily halted in the years immediately following the first
outbreak of the plague. The shortage of labour also helped advance
the transition from the Decorated style of building to the less
elaborate Perpendicular style. The
Black Death may also have
promoted the use of vernacular English, as the number of teachers
proficient in French dwindled. This, in turn, would have contributed
to the late-fourteenth century flowering of English literature,
represented by writers such as
Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower.
In his diaries,
Samuel Pepys gave a vivid description of the Great
Plague of London; one of the last outbreaks of the Second Pandemic.
Black Death was the first occurrence of the Second Pandemic,
which would continue to strike England and the rest of Europe more or
less regularly until the eighteenth century. The first serious
recurrence in England came in the years 1361−62. We know less about
the death rates caused by these later outbreaks, but this
so-called pestis secunda may have had a mortality of around 20%.
This epidemic was also particularly devastating for the population's
ability to recover, since it disproportionately affected infants and
young men. This was also the case with the next occurrence, in
1369, where the death rate was around 10−15%.
Over the following decades the plague would return – on a
national or a regional level – at intervals of five to twelve
years, with gradually dwindling death tolls. Then, in the decades from
1430 to 1480, the disease returned in force. An outbreak in 1471 took
as much as 10–15% of the population, while the death rate of the
plague of 1479–80 could have been as high as 20%. From this
point on outbreaks became fewer and more manageable. This was to a
large extent the result of conscious efforts by central and local
governments – from the late fifteenth century onwards –
to curtail the disease. By the seventeenth century the Second
Pandemic was over. One of its last occurrences in England was the
Great Plague of London
Great Plague of London in 1665–66.
Globalization and disease
Crisis of the Late Middle Ages
Popular revolt in late medieval Europe
Bubonic plague outbreaks
List of epidemics
^ The Black Death, 1347, George Deaux, Weybright and Talley, New York,
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^ Prestwich 2005, pp. 531–32
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^ Eminent Physician, 1721, pp. 21–22
^ Eminent Physician, 1721, p. 20
^ Eminent Physician, 1721, p. 21
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^ Ziegler 2003, p. 227
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^ Russell 1948, pp. 220–3
^ Russell 1948, p. 367
^ Hatcher 1994, p. 9
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^ Goldberg, Jeremy (1996). "Introduction". In Mark Ormrod & P.G.
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^ a b Benedictow 2004, p. 383
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^ Gottfried 1983, pp. 65–66
^ Bolton 1996, p. 23
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^ Russell 1948, pp. 216–18
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^ The three were Gonville and Caius (1348), Trinity Hall (1350) and
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^ a b Harper-Bill 1996, p. 107
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^ Lindley 1996, p. 143
^ Lindley 1996, pp. 129, 137
^ Ziegler 2003, p. 253
^ The first was the Plague of Justinian that affected the Byzantine
Empire in the sixth to eight centuries A.D., while the Third
Pandemic – active from the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth
century – had its greatest effect on China and India;
Benedictow 2004, pp. 35–44
^ Bolton 1996, p. 27
^ a b c Gottfried 1983, p. 131
^ Bolton 1996, p. 37
^ Ormrod 1996, p. 147
^ Ziegler 2003, p. 25
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