Black Death

Feature, Middle Ages

A Calamity that Altered the Economy of Europe

It came on a Monday, a bright, clear, cloudless day in August; and like the sudden shower that spoilt the day in the early afternoon, it was unexpected. It had flourished in London, indeed it was gaining ground in London, but the Londoners were fifty miles away: the village, after learning the news that London had it, had carried on with its day-to-day routine of tending sheep and cattle, bringing in the harvest, quarreling, making love, and grumbling. True, the disaster had spread over half of Europe since it had struck at the Italian ports, its entry points from some source in the unknown East, but what could one expect, over there? They were strange people across the Channel and the North Sea; they had strange customs, strange tongues.

No: the “Great Dying”, as the German people called it, would never take root in England. Filthy foreigners might bring it to the port of London, but there it would stay, bottled up.

And then, on Monday, it struck the village. Young Martin Todd, just twenty and not long back from a trip to the south of the county where he had been visiting an uncle who sold him a plow, sickened and died. No one but his even younger wife knew of it until Martin was all but dead; she had nursed him in secret, put cloths soaked in water of bay leaf on his burning, blackened brow, held his pain-twisted hands in her own, put compresses on the swellings in his groin and armpits, played to him on the lute, singing from time to time to drown his groans. But it had been discovered: the miller’s wife, wondering where Mistress Todd had been these past four days, decided to call. A glance at the fevered face, the great black blotches under the skin of forehead, neck, and wrist, a moment’s harking to the grunt of anguished, rapid breathing, and Mistress Jenkins was up the road as fast as her legs would take her.

An hour later, they buried him. Some said he wasn’t dead; but that was only village gossip. If he weren’t dead, he should have been. They burnt his house and drove young Mistress Todd weeping into the wood, to move herself on to the next village, anywhere, and rid them of the plague, the Black Death.

But it was no use. The miller’s wife and her husband followed Todd into a hasty grave; the mill joined the farmhouse in ashes. The Baker family died together, all six of them, a week later, and the rest of the village dispersed, setting out in every direction with their goods in carts or on their backs. Some spread the Death to other villages, others settled themselves in a clearing in the wood, made new homes for themselves, a new village, and all of them, within the year, were dead. The first village and its hastily erected successor decayed and crumbled, the cottages fell to the ground and were buried in long grass and weeds, penetrated by trees, obliterated. The two sites can be photographed to-day from the air, through infra-red lenses, like the sites of so many other communities during the Black Death; there are squares and circles in the grass, where once stood cottage, mill and steading.

The Black Death, as it was named, from the black-seeming haemorrhages of blood under the skin, reigned supreme over most of Europe from 1348 to 1350, the worst disaster to strike mankind: an Act of God, against which man was completely, pitifully, helpless.

There had been earlier outbreaks in North Africa and another in Europe, the fifty-year cycle of the sixth century, but since then epidemics had been rare. Now, in the fourteenth century, it had struck at almost the whole of Europe, from Italy to Scandinavia, with an undreamed-of virulence. No one could tell what caused it; everyone was familiar with its horrifying symptoms: the complete prostration, burning fever, swollen glands, agonizing pain and black marks under the skin. And death.

We know now that Plague, the Black Death, is caused by Bacillus Pestis, injected into the blood-stream by a bite from a flea carried by a rat, and that it takes three forms: ”bubonic”, from the swollen glands or “buboes” which are a symptom; “pneumonic”, affecting the lungs like a drastic and incurable pneumonia; and “septicaemic”, spreading over the whole body. Various theories have been advanced and rejected concerning its origins in Europe: one of them suggests that the returning Crusaders in the eleventh century brought black rats, believed to be the most prolific carriers, with them in their luggage, but the skeletons of black rats have been found in prehistoric sites in Switzerland. A theory covering the eventual end of the pandemic was that an invasion of brown rats, which did in fact take place, destroyed all the black ones, but the Plague had begun to die out a year before. As the disease was often accompanied by outbreaks of syphilis, typhus or influenza, there were theories linking it with these diseases and a man owning to syphilis in the fourteenth century was quite likely to be driven from his home as a carrier of the Plague.

At least twenty-five million people, or a quarter of the population of Europe, were wiped out in the three years to the end of 1350; and in the next fifty years the mortality rose to a third. The city of Hamburg, harder hit than most, lost two-thirds of its population.

Over Europe as a whole, it was two hundred years before the population level of 1348 was regained. The effect, however, was farther-reaching than even this “great dying” would suggest. Families that survived were broken up, husbands and wives deserted each other, abandoned their children in panic. These were then, if lucky, adopted by other families; so that now there are thousands of people alive called Jones, Brown, Robinson, Schmidt and Leclerc, whose names, but for the Black Death, would be something quite different.

People went mad with fear, committed suicide. Criminals, the only men who could be coerced into burying the swollen, blackened corpses, were released from their prisons. Opinion divided sharply, as it so often has in times of disaster, into the two schools of “eat, drink and be merry”, and maudlin religiosity. Even the reformer John Calvin believed witches had brought the Black Death to Geneva, and he set out to rid his country of them. Others decided physicians were to blame: by their impotent meddling with the Will of God they had multiplied the rigours of His punishment. Rich people, all over Europe, locked themselves in country houses; townspeople closed their streets with chains; a gallows was erected in many a market-place, grim warning to any wandering tinker or minstrel that if he were foolhardy enough to enter he would end up hanging by the neck. Those in the town who were not praying in the churches indulged in orgies of drink and sensuality such as the world had not seen since the time of Nero.

Then, as prayers to God seemed unanswered, a few people began to celebrate their own versions of the Black Mass, worshipping the Devil and his works, holding their own “services”, with skulls, crossed bones, beasts’ entrails and hideous effigies, on the altars of churches from which the clergy had fled.

There is a theory that the Protestant Reformation was brought about by the Black Death and there is much to suggest that it hastened it. The Church was powerless against the disease; no amount of prayer could keep the Black Death at bay: and soon, one by one, priests began to desert their parishes, leaving the dead and dying. Many, of course, did not, and died at their post, a sad testimony to the futility of their own prayers. Clearly, reasoned the men and women left behind, something was very wrong with the clergy and with religion. But it seems probable that the arrival of a Gautama Buddha or a Mahatma Gandhi might have converted the whole of Europe to some totally different religion, to anything that would take the place of a discredited Catholic Christianity, anything that would make a change. The pace of disillusionment was hastened by the disappearance of so many lords, ladies, knights and squires, people whom the ordinary man looked to for leadership and guidance, who were now shut up in castles and great houses with a cannon or a musket in the window and a gallows on the lawn, and, as often as not, a hastily dug moat between themselves and the rest of the world.

The economy of all Europe was drastically affected. Labour grew short, its market value doubled, trebled. The free labourer demanded higher wages; the villein, whose labour was not free, who was tied to a master, struggled to rid himself of this condition in a new society where labour had suddenly become valuable, could be sold for money or goods. Originally the lord of the manor had taken from his villein service or money as it had suited him: from many villeins it had been money for a generation or more; they had not been called upon to work other than for the good of themselves and their families. Now, when the landlord, faced with a catastrophic shortage of hands, willing or unwilling, to till his fields, bring in the crops, refused money and demanded labour, the villein was enraged.

The landlord’s dilemma was serious. Half his rent-paying farms, his domain land, were untilled, the turf and weeds were growing over them. His cottages were falling to bits for lack of inhabitants to keep them dry, workmen to keep them in repair; the thatch blew from their roofs like thistle-down. And the few labourers surviving, these now rose in open mutiny: their labour was a valuable commodity, they would sell it dear. The landlord solved a part of his problem by turning over arable land to sheep pasture. King Edward Ill’s importation of Flemish weavers to teach his own their continental skills, coupled with a rapidly growing demand on the Continent for English wool, made this obvious move a profitable one. There were still a hundred years to run before it would be necessary to evict ploughmen to make way for sheep: in 1350, there was room and to spare.

Wages rose sharply and it is interesting to compare prices before the Black Death and after. Things like wheat, rye, oxen stayed at much the same level; everything involving labour, iron nails, a jerkin, a re-thatching, doubled, so that the position of the labourer, with his as yet modest wants, improved greatly after the Plague. The depopulation of the country, which the contemporary poet Petrarch had described as that “vast and dreadful solitude”, doubled his wages and kept his foodstuffs at much the same price. His wage, if he could hang on to it, would buy a bellyful.

The next and so far final epidemic of Plague in England was in the years 1664 and 1665. It had recurred briefly in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, had seemed to disappear until its return in the autumn of 1664. A few cases were noted in London, in October, but these were not unusual, and it was not until May, 1665, that it began, in the words of the contemporary Dr Boghurst, to “creep down Holborn”. The process, from western suburbs to eastern, took six months, and as records were kept carefully we can, if we look at them, almost share the panic which the inhabitants of London must have felt: 43 people died that May; in June, July, August and September the figures were 590, 1,370, 17,036 and 31,159. After September the numbers declined. Of a London population of 460,000 (of whom two-thirds are believed to have fled during the epidemic) 68,596 are listed as dying of the disease, and it is likely that there were more, that people whose relatives claimed they died of “spotted fever”, had the Plague. It was no longer called the Black Death—but it was just as deadly.

There is a theory, Plague has lent itself to many, that the disease vanished because of the Great Fire of London in 1666, but as it simultaneously disappeared from other towns, this seems doubtful.

Since 1666, there have been outbreaks in other parts of the world, the most recent (on which the novel The Plague by the late Albert Camus is based) being in the late 1940s, in North Africa. The last accurately documented ones were in Australia in 1900, South Africa in 1901 and Manchuria in 1910. An epidemic in Egypt from 1833 to 1845 had provided the first opportunity for medical science to study the disease in situ and much valuable data was collected; this was supplemented in Sydney and in Cape Town. It was discovered that there was virtually no cure, any serum had to be injected before the symptoms became manifest, but that injections with a vaccine gave good protection to those who had not contracted the disease. Bubonic cases, which accounted for three-quarters of the total and lent the inaccurate name of “bubonic plague” to the disease, were often mild, whereas the pneumonic and septicaemic cases were usually fatal within six days. Research showed that not only rats but marmots and ground squirrels could spread the disease Mortality rates varied from 95 per cent (Hong Kong in 1899) down to 34 per cent (Sydney in 1900).

The study of the Black Death-the Plague, during its most catastrophic, fourteenth-century visitation, has recently become a subject for scientists and sociologists. It is the only calamity of which we have record which approaches that of a nuclear war. Perhaps by finding out how people behaved under the impact of that disaster’ we can profit from the troubles of the fourteenth century, work out a plan for keeping civilization alive in the twentieth. And by preparing for disaster we may avoid it.