The Black Death
Death comes into our midst like black smoke,
A Black Death which cuts off the young,
A rootless ghost which has no mercy for good looks.
Woe is me of the mark in the armpit!
It is throbbing, terrible –
A head that gives pain and causes a loud cry,
A painful, angry lump.
Great is its throbbing like a burning coal,
A horrible thing of grey colour –
Like the seeds of black peas, or broken bits of sea-coal,
The early jewellery of black death,
A black Black Death like pennies, like berries.
A Welsh poem (fourteenth century)
The Triumph of Death, a wall-painting by Francesco Traini (c. 1350). A hunting party comes across three open coffins. The corpses are rotting. Vipers crawl over them. The smell is terrible. Even the horses and the dogs are scared.
'What you are, we were. What we are, you will be,' the corpses tell the nobles.
In 1348 a terrible Black Death came to the British Isles – though nobody called it the 'Black Death' at the time (they called it the 'pestilence', or the 'mortality'). The epidemic spread gradually through the country, and was still killing people in Scotland in 1351.
This is my summary-account of the Black Death, written after researching from primary documents from the time:
The coming disaster
1. The Black Death came from India, through Greece and Italy, and then into France.
2. In 1348, two ships landed in the fishing village of Melcombe in Dorset. The sailors came from France, and they were infected with the Black Death; they brought the Black Death to Britain.
3. The Black Death killed countless people, especially the poor.
4. Few of those who became infected lived longer than three days.
5. Boils and abscesses broke out on people's legs and in their armpits.
6. Other victims got little black pustules all over their whole body.
7. Another symptom was a violent headache, so bad that it drove some people into a frenzy.
8. The sickness was so contagious that people who touched the sick seemed to be infected immediately themselves.
9. Doctors could not cure it; some writers guessed that only a tenth of mankind remained alive.
10. It was said that there were hardly enough people left alive to bury the dead.
11. An animal epidemic followed the pestilence.
12. In Ireland, Brother John Clyn, the last monk alive in his monastery, wondered if any human being would escape death.
A different world
13. The shortage of workers was so bad that more than a third of the land was left unfarmed. In some places, knights and lords had to farm the land themselves.
14. Poor people became rebellious, bitter and angry. It seemed as though no-one would take orders from anyone.
15. 'There was so much sadness,' wrote one chronicler, 'that the world could never return to its former state.'
Study this webpage, then answer the question sheet by clicking on the 'Time to Work' icon at the top of the page.
In this lesson, you will be doing some original research from primary sources; you will find it very difficult and confusing ... but you will be doing REAL History!
• History Learning Site
cures for the Black Death
'Fleas on rats'.
• History Learning Site cures for the Black Death
• Some medical detail
• HistoryTeachers: 'Fleas on rats'.
1 An Account from Norfolk
From a chronicle written at the time by the monks of King's Lynn in Norfolk:
In 1348 two ships, one of them from Bristol, landed at Melcombe in Dorset a little before midsummer. In them were sailors from France who were infected with an unheard of epidemic illness called pestilence. They infected the men of Melcombe, who were the first to be infected in England. The first inhabitants to die from this illness did so on 23 June, after being ill for three days at most.
In 1349, about Easter, pestilence broke out in East Anglia and lasted the whole summer.
2 Thomas Walsingham, Historia Anglicana
From Thomas Walsingham's, Historia Anglicana. Walsingham was a monk at St Alban's Abbey in Hertfordshire. He wrote his account of the Black Death in the 1390s.
1348. This year there was a great downpour of rain which lasted from midsummer until Christmas, and it was speedily followed by a mortality in the east among the Saracens.
In 1349, a great mortality of men spread across the globe. Hardly half mankind was left alive. Towns once packed with people were emptied of their inhabitants, and the Black Death spread so thickly that the living were hardly able to bury the dead. It was said by some people that barely a tenth of mankind remained alive. A murrain of animals followed this pestilence. Rents fell and the land was left unfarmed for lack of people. There was so much sadness that the world could never return to its former state.
3 Chronicle of Meaux Abbey
This account was written by Thomas Burton, the abbot of Meaux Abbey in Yorkshire, in about 1390.
When Abbot Hugh had ruled the monastery for 9 years, he died in the great pestilence, along with 32 monks; of whom the abbot and five monks were buried together on a single day. When the pestilence stopped, only 10 monks were left alive. From this time the rents and goods of the monastery began to fall.
At the beginning of 1349, an earthquake was felt throughout England. Our monks were in church and were singing the words 'He has put down the strong', when they were thrown from their seats and sent sprawling to the ground. T he earthquake was quickly followed in this part of the country by the pestilence.
In 1349 there happened the great and world-wide pestilence. It was said that it had first broken out among the Saracens. The pestilence was so strong in England that there were hardly enough people left alive to bury the dead, or enough burial grounds to hold them. Men and women dropped dead while walking in the streets, and in countless houses and villages not one person was left alive. However, God's blessing made sure that, in most places, the priests stayed alive until the end of the pestilence, so they could bury the dead. But, after the funerals, the priests died in great numbers.
In the year before the pestilence came to England, the nobles of England held great tournaments, but hardly any married woman arrived with her own husband, but went with some other man, who was sleeping with her. And, shortly before this time, there was a human monster living in England, divided from the navel upwards and both male and female, but joined in the lower part. When one part ate, drank, slept or spoke, the other could do something else if it wished. One died before the other, and the survivor held it in its arms for three days. They used to sing together very sweetly. They died, aged about 18, at Hull, a short time before the pestilence began.
4 Historia Roffensis
This account was written by William Dene who at the time of the Black Death was a monk at Rochester Cathedral in Kent.
A great mortality of men began in India. It raged through the whole of Egypt and Syria, and also through Greece, Italy and France, and came to England, where it destroyed more than a third of the men, women and children. Alas, this mortality killed so many that no one could be found to carry the bodies of the dead to burial, but men and women carried the bodies of their own little ones to church on their shoulders and threw them into mass graves, from which came such a stink that it was barely possible for anyone to go past a churchyard.
Such a shortage of workers followed that churchmen, knights and other great men were forced to thresh their corn, plough their own land and make their own bread. The shortage of workers in every kind of craft and job was so bad that more than a third of the land throughout the whole kingdom was left unfarmed. Labourers and skilled workers became so rebellious that neither king nor the law could make them obey, and almost the whole people turned to evil ways and stooped to more than their usual bad behaviour. The harshness of the time began to make men bitter. No workman or labourer would take orders from anyone, but all those who served did so with ill-will and an angry spirit.
5 Chronicle of Geoffrey le Baker
Geoffrey le Baker was a clerk in Oxfordshire who was writing at the time.
In 1349 an unexpected and world-wide pestilence from the eastern lands of the Indians and Turks infected the centre of the world and killed the Saracens, Turks, Syrians and finally the Greeks with great butchery. The destruction spread to the countries beyond the Alps, and from there, in stages, to France and Germany and to England. First it almost stripped a Dorset seaport of its inhabitants, and then it ravaged Devon and Somerset up to Bristol. Hardly a tenth of the people survived. When the churchyards proved inadequate, fields were set aside to bury the dead. Cases in the law courts came to a stop.
A few noblemen died. Countless poor people and priests and monks left this life. This disaster mainly overwhelmed the young and strong; the old and the weak it usually left alone. Hardly anyone dared to have anything to do with the sick. People who one day had been full of happiness, on the next were found dead. Some were tormented by boils which broke out suddenly in various parts of the body, and were so hard and dry that when they were lanced hardly any liquid came out. Many of these people lived, by lancing the boils or by long suffering. Other victims had little black pustules scattered over their whole body. Of these, very few got better. The pestilence raged for more than a year in England and completely emptied many villages of human beings.
6 John Clyn, Chronicle of the Annals of Ireland
Clyn was an monk from Kilkenny in Ireland. All the monks in his monastery died. He was the last to die.
Since the beginning of the world it has been unheard of for so many people to die of pestilence, famine or disaster in such a short time. Earthquakes threw down towns and castles and swallowed them up. Black Death stripped villages, castles and towns of their inhabitants so thoroughly that there was hardly anyone left alive in them. This pestilence was so contagious that those who touched the dead or the sick were immediately infected themselves and died. Because of their fear and horror, men could hardly bring themselves to burg the dead. Many died of boils, abscesses and pustules which broke out on the legs and in the armpits. Others died in frenzy, brought on by headache, or vomiting blood. It was very rare for just one person to die in a house; usually husband, wife, children and servants went the same way, the way of death.
And I, brother John Clyn, a monk from Kilkenny, have written in this book the notable events which happened in my time, for I saw for myself, or have learned them from men who deserve to be believed. So that these notable events should not be lost from the memory of future generations, I, seeing these bad things, and die whole world surrounded by evil, wrote down what I heard and investigated; and I leave parchment for my work to be continued, in case any man can escape this pestilence and continue the work I began.
7 The Anonimalle Chronicle
Little is known about the author of this chronicle. It is thought that he lived in the north of England.
In 1348, about 1 August, the first pestilence came to England at Bristol, curried by merchants and sailors. It lasted in the south country around Bristol all winter. The next year, in 1349, the pestilence began in other parts of England and lasted for a whole year, with the result that the living were hardly able to bury the dead.
8 Ralph Higden, Polychronicon
Higden died in the 1360s. He was a monk from Chester in Cheshire. His Polychronicon was a history of the world from the Creation to 1352.
In 1348 hardly a day went by without rain at some time in the day or night. During that time a great mortality spread across the world, especially in Avignon and in the coastal towns of England and Ireland.
This year, around the 24 June, this pestilence attacked Bristol, then went to all other parts of England, and it lasted in England for more than a year. Indeed, it raged so strongly that hardly a tenth of mankind was left alive. A mortality of animals followed in its footsteps, rents fell, land fell waste for lack of people to farm it, and so much misery followed that the world will hardly be able to get back to its former condition. Few – almost none – of the lords died in this pestilence.
9 Eulogium Historiarum sive Temporis
The Eulogium Historiarum sive Temporis (meaning 'Good words of history up to our times') was written in the 1350s by the monks of Malmesbury Abbey in Wiltshire.
In 1348, on about 7 July, the cruel pestilence, hateful to all future ages, came from countries across the sea to the south coast of England at the port of Melcombe in Dorset. Travelling over the south country it wretchedly killed countless people. Next it came to Bristol, where very few were left alive, and then went northwards, leaving not a city, town, village or even, except rarely, a house, without killing most or all the people there, so over England as a whole, a fifth of the men, women and children were buried. As a result, there was such a shortage of people that there were hardly enough living to look after the sick and bury the dead. Most of the women who survived could not have children for many years, and those who became pregnant usually died, along with the baby, giving birth.
By the time the Black Death stopped at God's command it had caused such a shortage of servants that men could not he found to work the land, and women and children had to be used to plough the land, which was unheard of.
10 Chronicle of Robert of Avesbury
Robert of Avesbury was a clerk who lived in London. He died in 1359.
The pestilence, which first began in the land of the Saracens, grew so strong that it visited every place in all the kingdoms from that land northwards, up to and including Scotland. It began in England in the county of Dorset, about 1 August, and immediately spread without warning from place to place. It killed a great many healthy people, taking away their life in a morning. Those marked for death were hardly allowed to live longer than three or four days. It spared no one, except a few wealthy people.
The pestilence came to London about 1 November. It grew so strong that, between February and April, more than 200 corpses were buried every day in the new burial ground made next to Smithfield, as well as those buried in the other churchyards in London. It then went north, where it ended about 29 September 1349.
In that same year of 1349, more than 120 men arrived in London from Holland. They walked round barefoot twice a day, their bodies naked except for a linen cloth round their waist. Each wore a hood painted with a red cross and carried in his right hand a whip with three thongs. As they walked they hit themselves with these whips on their naked, bloody bodies.
11 Chronicle of John of Reading
John of Reading was a monk at Westminster Abbey in London. He died in 1369.
In 1348 rain poured down from Midsummer to Christmas, hardly stopping by day or night but still drizzling. It was followed by the mortality of men which grew throughout the world but especially around Avignon and other coastal and watery places. It left hardly enough people alive to give the dead a decent burial; instead, they dug broad, deep pits and buried the bodies together, treating everyone alike, except the most important people.
In this year, and in the next, a fierce mortality killed men from east to west by pestilence. Ulcers broke out in the groin and armpit, which tortured the dying for three days. And there was in those days death without sorrow, marriage without love and flight without escape. Many who fled from the face of the pestilence -were already infected and did not escape death. Hardly a tenth of the population survived.
In the same year a remarkable thing was noticed for the first time: that everyone born after the pestilence had two fewer teeth than people had before.
It was because of the sins of men, or so it was said, that God allowed the human race to be poisoned and killed by the pestilence, but people did not turn away from their hateful crimes. On the contrary, the usual respect due to their betters was lessened. Their greed, scorn and anger were asking to be punished.
12 Chronicle of Henry Knighton
Knighton was a monk from Leicester. He wrote his chronicle in the 1390s.
In 1348 and 1349 there was a mortality of men throughout the world. It began first in India, then it reached the Saracens and finally the Christians and the Jews. On a single day, 1,312 people died in Avignon. Not one of the English monks in Avignon survived – not that anyone will be upset by that. At the same time the Black Death raged in England. It began in the autumn in various places and after racing across the country it ended at the some time in the following year.
It arrived through Southampton and came to Bristol, and virtually the whole town was wiped out. It was as if a sudden death had marked them down beforehand, for few lay sick for 2 or 3 days, or even for half a day. In Leicester, cruel death took just two days to burst out all over the town. In all, 1,480 died, a multitude.
In the same year there was a great murrain of sheep throughout the kingdom, so much so that in one place more than 5,000 sheep died in a single field, and their bodies were so foul that no animal or bird would touch them. Sheep and cattle roamed through the fields and through the crops, and there was no one to round them up. For lack of watching, animals died in countless numbers; for there was so great a shortage of servants and labourers that no one knew what needed to be done. Crops rotted unharvested in the fields. The workers were so above themselves and so bloody-minded that they took no notice of the king's command. If anyone wanted to hire them he had to pay them what they demanded. And as a result, all essentials were so expensive that something that had cost 1d. was now worth 3d. or 4d. And all food and other necessities were extremely dear.
13 John of Fordun, Scotichronicon
John of Fordun was a clerk from Aberdeen in Scotland, who was writing at the time of the Black Death.
In 1350 there was a great pestilence and mortality of men in the kingdom of Scotland, and this pestilence also raged for many years before and after throughout the whole globe. So great a Black Death has never been beard of from the beginning of the world to the present day, or been written about in books. For this Black Death poured out its hatred so thoroughly that a third of the human race was killed. At God's command, moreover, the harm was done by an extraordinary and new way of death. People fell sick of a kind of horrible swelling of the flesh, and lasted barely two days. This sickness killed everyone, but especially the middling and lower classes, rarely the great people. It was so horrific that children did not dare to visit their dying parents, or parents their children, but everyone ran away for fear of catching the illness, as if from a snake.