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If Europe’s leaders had read the history of the Black Death, they might have been prepared for this pandemic 

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If Europe’s leaders had read the history of the Black Death, they might have been prepared for this pandemic 

Flagellants, 1493. (Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images/Bloomsbury)

By the end of 1349 most people in England assumed that their year of suffering had finished. The terrible plague they called the Pestilence, the Blue Sickness or the Great Mortality – and which we call the Black Death – seemed to be over. They were wrong. It was only the first wave. The plague was to return in a second wave – and then a third, fourth and fifth recurrence.

It had all begun six years earlier in the Crimea, when, in 1343, a Mongol army led by the fearsome Tatar king Khan Djanibeg besieged a trading colony in Caffa. The siege lasted almost three years and it only ended when, in the words of one Italian notary, Gabriele de Mussis, the “hordes of Tartars”  were struck by disease characterised by “swellings in the armpit or groin caused by coagulating humours, followed by a putrid fever”. Thousands died every day. But before the remnant of the army withdrew the Tatar general ordered that the stinking cadavers of his dead troops should be catapulted into the city “in the hope that the intolerable stench would kill everyone inside”. It is said to be the first recorded use of biological warfare in world history.

Large numbers inside the city perished but a few Italian merchants escaped in an armed ship in the hope of returning to Genoa. They did not make it. They landed at Messina in Sicily where they died. They had brought the Black Death to Europe.

In 1348 the great plague swept across the entire continent. Modern scholars suggest that just under half the population was wiped out in a matter of months. And the speed with which it spread is now seen as far faster than could have been possible with a plague caused by fleas leaping to humans from dead rats – the method traditionally given by historians for the method of transmission of the pestilence. The latest archaeological and epidemiological research suggests that the disease may have been a virus as deadly as Ebola but as infectious as Covid-19. No human epidemic has ever covered so much geographical territory so swiftly  until Covid-19 struck in 2020.

The 1348 plague spread swiftly from place to place, following no obvious pattern. Everywhere it killed with devastating suddenness, usually within a few days. The first sign of illness was a sudden coldness or prickling sensation like pins and needles. The victim became extremely fatigued and depressed. Then there soon appeared painful swellings in the groin or armpit, and sometimes on the neck. They were known as buboes – hence the name “bubonic plague”. Little blisters or discoloured blotches, caused by internal bleeding, appeared on the skin elsewhere. High fever, with severe headaches, followed. Some victims fell into a stupor. The body effluvia, as Rosemary Horrox delicately puts it, were particularly noisome.

Death could take several days, though some people actually recovered. A second form of the epidemic was more fatal. It attacked the lungs, producing chest pains, difficulty in breathing and coughing up blood. This form was invariably fatal.

The epidemic first took hold in Europe in Italy, as did Covid-19, and spread rapidly. No one, rich or poor, was safe anywhere near the sick or the dead. In Venice three-quarters of the population died.  Padua was so devastated that its chroniclers deemed the plague more destructive than Noah’s Flood – following which God had, after all, left a few people alive. The city was so badly hit that its elders granted an amnesty to robbers and criminals if they would resettle in the deserted town. In Florence, the pestilence was so potent that it was said by Giovanni Boccaccio, writing some time between 1348 and 1353, that “gallant men and fair ladies and handsome youths” who appeared in perfect health “at noon dined with their relatives and friends, and at night supped with their ancestors in the next world”.  Some people tried to protect themselves, wearing waxed gowns, goggles and masks with beaks filled with herbs to “purify” the air. They carried floral nosegays to combat the stench of the rotting bodies. All to no avail.

The suddenness and scale of the catastrophe shattered both social conventions and bonds of kinship. Boccaccio recorded that almost everyone adopted “the same cruel policy, which was entirely to avoid the sick and everything belonging to them”. In Siena a tax collector, Agnolo di Tura, who lost his wife and five children, recorded: “Father abandoned child, wife, husband, one brother another… None could be found to bury the dead for money or friendship… Members of a household brought their dead to a ditch as best they could, without priest, without divine offices… great pits were dug and piled deep with the multitude of dead… No bells tolled and nobody wept no matter what his loss because almost everyone expected death… And people said and believed, ‘This is the end of the world’.”

By the summer the terrible disease had spread to France, and by the autumn to Germany and then to England. The epidemic crossed the Channel in June 1348. “The dreadful pestilence made its way along the coast by Southampton and reached Bristol, where almost the whole strength of the town perished, as it was surprised by sudden death; for few kept their beds more than two or three days, or even half a day,” wrote the chronicler Henry Knighton later that same century. In Bristol nine out of ten inhabitants died. The epidemic reached London at the Feast of All Saints, on the first day of November. Then it spread north – to St Albans in April 1349, York by late May – despite the prophylactic processions ordered by the Archbishop there – the Lincolnshire Wolds by July, and Meaux Abbey in the East Riding of Yorkshire in August where the Cistercian Abbot was among those who perished, leaving only 10 monks alive.  The plague hit capriciously; some places were hardly touched while elsewhere whole villages and hamlets ceased to exist with their entire populations totally wiped out.

That was just the first surge of the infection. The plague returned not once but in four later waves before the end of the century. Thomas of Walsingham, a Benedictine monk of St Albans Abbey who died around 1422, referred to the first wave as “The Great Mortality in England, Now Called the First Pestilence”.

Each time the virus reappeared it seems to have mutated, for it targeted different groups. In 1361 another ten per cent of the population died in an outbreak which lasted four months and killed “many men but few women,” according to the contemporary writer Ranulf Higden.  So imbalanced did the population become that widows “as if degenerate and not restrained by any shame, took as their husbands foreigners and other imbeciles or madmen,” he wrote. Worse still some women “forgetful of their honour” began “to couple with their inferiors”.

The 1361 outbreak particularly impacted children, especially males, other chroniclers record. This “pestilence of boys” was seen as the death of the innocent in divine retribution for the sins of their parents, though it may have had more to do with the fact that the young had not acquired the immunity secured by the surviving adult population.

But it also went on to kill the elderly.  Then a third pestilence came in 1369 – again particularly fatal to children, but also to larger animals. The fourth wave in 1374 lasted five years and wiped out whole towns and villages.  All in all, King Edward III saw his subjects reduced from some four million to perhaps two and a half million souls. A fifth wave from 1390 to 1393, during the reign of Richard II, “suddenly attacked healthy men, who then died  raving, out of their minds,” according to Thomas Walsingham.

The aftermath of the plague saw the population continue to decline until the second decade of the 1400s and then only very slowly began to recover. It was a human disaster of almost unimaginable proportion.

The meaning attributed to the pestilence by the medieval mind has echoes today. Writing in the mid-1360s, John of Reading, a monk at Westminster Abbey, suggested that the plague was a punishment from God. Today Covid-19 has been seen by some as the revenge the planet is taking upon humankind for the prolonged despoilation of the environment in the decades since the Industrial Revolution began the process of anthropogenic global warming. With the Black Death the people of the 14th century felt that the Last Judgement had arrived. Today’s may be a judgement of a different kind.

The return of the plague – in those second, third, fourth and fifth waves – was because, suggested John of Reading, the population had returned to their sinful ways after the first wave – and “their greed, scorn and malice were asking to be punished”. In 2020 a parallel verdict might be reached on the hubris of both politicians and people after the first wave of Covid-19 was brought to an end by the first great national lockdown – only to have that lockdown eased in a precipitate and uncontrolled fashion by over-optimistic governments like that of Boris Johnson. A valuable breathing space in which to prepare for the inevitable second wave was wasted.

William Langland, the author of the great medieval epic poem, Piers Plowman, concluded, as many politicians have in 2020, that those who fell victim to the plague were victims of their own irresponsible conduct. Twenty-first century politicians pointed fingers at drunken young revellers in the streets in Liverpool and London even as Langland, writing between 1370 and 1390, named gaiety and gluttony as the cause of the affliction:

“Prayers have no power to prevent these plagues

God is deaf nowadays and deigns not to hear us.

But grinds the guilty into the ground.

And yet the worldly wretches are not warned by one another…

Nor portion their plenty with the poor, as pure charity prefers,

But in gaiety and in gluttony guzzle their good things

And break not their bread with the beggar, as the Book beseeches…”

The human response of hedonism and abandon in the face of a pandemic is something which we have learned is not confined to the so-called Dark Ages.

In the religious societies of the 14th century, strange practices of contrition arose to placate divine anger. Barefoot penitents travelled from town to town, arriving in procession, two abreast, chanting and publicly whipping themselves with three-tailed knotted scourges until the flagellants’ backs were covered in blood. In places where there were no priests left to perform the last rites some plague victims attempted to bury themselves alive in holy ground. The end of time seemed near.

If it was not the end of the world it was certainly the end of life as the feudal system had known it – something that was to change the relationship between the rich and the poor irrevocably. In fact, key changes had already begun within the medieval social economy. Increases in agricultural productivity in the 11th and 12th centuries had created surpluses of food and wool for trading. The rise of the merchant classes had seen the growth of towns. The economy became monetised. A new middle-class had begun to form which would break apart the tripartite system of nobility, clergy and serf.

Wealthier villeins, as serfs with greater freedoms, had already, even before the Black Death, persuaded lords of the manor to release them from their feudal obligation to labour on the lord’s land, in return for cash. The systems of surplus production, trade, capital investment, credit and rent which were the foundations of entrepreneurial capitalism had begun to coalesce. New forms of philanthropy began to emerge, with control passing from the clergy to the laity. What the 20th century historian of medieval charity Brian Tierney calls “the fortuitous calamity of the Black Death” accelerated this process.

With almost half the population dead, there was an acute shortage of labour. Fields went unattended, harvests rotted, ground went untilled, weeds and bushes overgrew the manorial strips of land, and the thatch fell from abandoned peasant hovels. In some districts, famine followed plague as crops were not sown or harvested. Lords and bailiffs were deprived of their rents or had to lower them.

More radically those labourers who had survived the plague found themselves with a new bargaining power and rose in open mutiny against the old feudal law and customs. Many simply deserted the lands to which they were feudally-tied and travelled to find landlords who were prepared to hire them at higher wages. In a society where previously change had occurred at a glacial pace, the market value of labour had been doubled almost overnight.

Feudal society saw the emergence of a new social category – landless migrants, with no firm roots and no fixed prospects – “masterless men”, to borrow A L Beier’s striking designation.  Villeins, scenting freedom from the old serfdom, aspired to a better life with better conditions, and better food. As Piers Plowman records:

Labourers who have no land, but live by their own hands,

Deign not to dine these days on leftover cabbage.

No penny-ale may please them, nor no piece of bacon.

Only fresh flesh, or fish, fried or baked.

Feudalism became untenable as the manorial system began to break up. The nobility did their best to resist the changing economic climate, persuading the King to outlaw the new liberated behaviour of the serf classes.

In 1349 Edward III issued the Ordinance of Labourers which tried to outlaw these new higher wages. It required all the able-bodied under the age of 60 to work and forbade lords of the manor from enticing away the servants of their peers. It prohibited, under pain of imprisonment, the giving of alms to able-bodied beggars. The Ordinance failed and higher wages continued to be paid. In 1351 the English parliament passed the Statute of Labourers, which sought to enact similar measures, with a similar lack of success. Similar measures to freeze wages and inhibit the movement of labourers were enacted in France and Aragon.

Feudal nobles tried to enforce the new laws, instructing local justices to track down absconding villeins and drag them back to servitude”. Magistrates were also told to “exact the ancient dues” from those who remained on the land. Fugitive labourers when caught could, under a 1361 statute of the English parliament, be branded on the forehead with an “F” for Falsity. 

But many labourers simply migrated to more distant estates where they were employed by other landlords with “no questions asked”. Others fled to the woods and became Robin Hood-style bandits; it was in this historical period that the legend of the man who robbed the rich and defended the poor has its roots.

It seemed to the feudal nobility that the pandemic had turned world topsy-turvy. The lower orders were getting out of hand and all-important social distinctions were becoming blurred.  So threatened did the nobility feel that sumptuary laws were introduced to regulate the clothes which different classes of society could wear, and the food they could eat. In 1363 the same parliament passed “A Statute Concerning Diet and Apparel” to curb the alarming tendency of prosperous merchants to flaunt their growing wealth with conspicuous consumption – daring to wear the same fashions, and eat the same food, as the noble elite. The law dictated what colour and type of apparel were allowed to persons of various ranks – down to the detail of furs, fabrics and trims – to outlaw the “outrageous and excessive apparel of divers people against their estate and degree, to the great destruction and impoverishment of all the land”.

This measure did not work either. At the end of the 14th  century Henry Knighton was still lamenting in his Chronicle that “the lesser people were so puffed up… in their dress and their belongings… that one might scarcely distinguish one from another… not a humble man from a great man, not a needy from a rich man, not a servant from his master, not a priest  from another man”.

But there was no holding back the tide of change. As the great Whig historian GM Trevelyan concludes: “No statute could make two loaves or two labourers where there was only one. No Act of Parliament could repeal the Black Death or abolish the spirit of the age”. The statutory curbs on wages, the pursuit of fleeing serfs, the sumptuary laws, the imposition of a poll tax to fight anachronistic foreign wars, and the general refusal to complete the emancipation of the villeins, all created discontent. So did the huge rise in taxes which followed the plague, exacerbated by the cost of the Hundred Years War.

By the end of the century there were feudal rebellions in Italy and France and, perhaps most famously, in England, the great Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. The old order was in decline. Plague and pandemic had changed the world for ever.

Philanthropy – from Aristotle to Zuckerberg by Paul Vallely is published by Bloomsbury. 

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