9

Lent and Easter, 1349

England is blessed with relatively rich collections of fourteenth-century records, both local and central, but it is very difficult to construct a precise chronology of the spread of the pestilence across the country. Manorial court rolls, which scrupulously record the deaths of the lord ’s tenants, are potentially the most informative of all, but the precise dating of the epidemic depends both on courts being held at the right time and the survival of records of the proceedings, a coincidence which happens but rarely. Fortunately, however, we are exceptionally well informed about the region around Walsham. For example, it is known for certain that almost twenty tenants had died by the first days of February on the manor of Lakenheath, a village less than thirty miles west of Walsham. The early arrival of the plague in Lakenheath, which is documented in the parchment roll of the manor court held on February 11, was probably due to the direct river communications that it had along the River Ouse with the major port of Bishop’s Lynn, now known as King’s Lynn. The early onset of plague can also be revealed in a group of manors close to Ipswich in the far east of Suffolk, around twenty-five miles from Walsham. The manor of Eyke, some four miles from Woodbridge, held particularly frequent courts, and six deaths, an unusually high figure, are recorded in the roll of the session held on February 21, and a further eighteen in the next held on March 28. Relatively close by at Aldham, the manor court held on March 6 recorded ten deaths, while at Lay-ham, a small manor less than four miles from Ipswich, a suspiciously high number of four deaths were recorded in the court held on February 20, and a further twenty-eight in that held on April 8.

The forty weekdays of fasting and penitence during Lent began on Ash Wednesday, which in 1349 fell on February 25, and culminated in Holy Week. The aim of Lent was to prepare for the celebration of the Passion, death, and resurrection of Christ by purifying the heart and mind, and it understandably took on a special significance with the threat of dreadful pestilence hanging over the country. Holy Week, the period from Palm Sunday to Easter Day, was punctuated by elaborate ceremonies, and the laity of the fourteenth century attached the greatest significance to the Palm Sunday procession, the Tenebrae services on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, when candles were snuffed out one by one to symbolize the abandonment of Christ by the apostles, the “creeping to the cross” and the ritual of the burial of the Host in the Easter Sepulcher on Good Friday, and the annual receiving of Communion by all parishioners after High Mass on Easter Sunday.

As far as it is possible to judge, the pestilence struck Walsham close to Easter Day, which this year fell on April 12, was fading fast by early June, and had departed by late June. Not a single tenant death was reported at the Walsham manor court session of March 6, but no fewer than 103 were reported at the next session, which was held on June 15. That the pestilence was virtually over by this latter date is indicated by the proceedings of the next Walsham court of August 1, in which a mere five further deaths were registered. Fortunately, additional evidence of the duration of the epidemic in the parish is provided by the proceedings of the courts of High Hall, where eleven out of the total of fifteen tenant deaths suffered on the small submanor occurred before May 25. It was in April and May 1349 that the plague in England probably reached its peak, in terms of geographical spread and number of deaths. At this time the pestilence not only raged in Walsham and throughout Suffolk and its neighboring counties in East Anglia, but over much of the country from Cornwall in the far southwest to Yorkshire in the north.

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Cruelly, the poisonous fingers of the pestilence began stretching toward Walsham at the same time as the sprouts of the wheat sown in late autumn were beginning to appear. And just as attention was turning to plowing the fallow land that had been set aside for the sowing of spring barley and peas and beans, hope of deliverance was all but crushed, even in the most optimistic hearts. Death was breaking out from the bounds of London and moving swiftest, not as villagers had feared along the tracks and roads which radiated northward through Hertfordshire, Essex, and Cambridgeshire, but seemingly carried on the ships and boats which transported goods and people around the coasts and up and down the navigable rivers.

The terrible news of the proximity of the pestilence was first delivered to the residents of Walsham by a young man who had lodged in the village for a couple of years, earning his living from casual labor. Hearing that his eldest brother had died, the young man set out at the end of the second week in February for Lakenheath, where his brother had a small farm. Lakenheath lay an easy walk away, a little more than twenty miles to the northwest on the far side of an expanse of sandy heath land. The young laborer, who like all his fellows yearned for land of his own, could hardly contain his excitement. He told his friends, as well as anyone else who would listen, that he was in line to inherit a cottage and a small plot from his unmarried brother, together with all its household possessions, livestock, and tools. But just a few days after setting off for Lakenheath, he returned considerably distressed to his lodgings in Walsham, saying that another brother older than he, long believed to be dead, had unexpectedly turned up to claim his inheritance. People were curious, however, and some of the replies he gave to the many questions that were fired at him, about his journey and happenings in the wider world, were thought more than a little odd and evasive. In the climate of fear which had recently gripped the village, suspicions soon multiplied, and it was decided that Walter Osbern, the reeve, and Geoffrey Rath, the hayward, should interrogate him further. After a few weak denials the young laborer blurted out that he had arrived in Lakenheath to find that it had been struck by an awful new kind of disease, and that huge numbers of men, women, and children were dying there.

Details were urgently demanded, and the young man readily recounted how the large and normally bustling village had been unexpectedly quiet when he arrived. The few people he encountered hurried away from him without speaking. Eventually he found his brother’s tiny cottage sitting at the front of its couple of acres and went to enter, but the neighbors called to him not to go in because the owner had died of the pestilence and his body had only just been collected for burial. They told him that a pestilence had arrived in Lakenheath a week or so before, which was killing all who became infected by it. It had been brought, or so they thought, on one of the many barges that plied along the River Ouse carrying goods from the port of Lynn on the north coast of Norfolk, and now each day more people were dying than on the day before. More than fifty in the village had already perished, along with the bargee and his wife, and many more had been taken ill.

At this point the young man’s tale was interrupted by the hayward, who accused him of exaggerating and spreading alarm. “No, this is all true,” he protested. “My brother’s neighbors told me of the court session they had attended only a few days before I arrived, where the deaths of a score of tenants had been sworn and registered. By my own eyes I could also see that people were sick and dying all about, and everyone was saying that it was the same in many of the other villages around. So, not wanting to die myself, I decided to leave after spending only one night in my brother’s cottage. I sold his sheep, pigs, and chickens to the neighbors for a few pence, then I nailed the door of the cottage shut and hurried back here, carrying what I could with me. You can see the brass cooking pot, spade, and blanket over there, and I also have these three latten spoons which I am willing to sell.”

The inquisitors nodded to each other as if they were convinced, and the young man was pleased that they believed him at last. But instead of offering the hand of friendship as he had hoped, they shrank from him in fear and shouted at him to leave Walsham immediately. They threw him out of the door and hurled his few possessions after him. He spent that night and the next few days hiding in a barn on the edge of the village, but he was soon discovered and driven out of the village.

It was not long before the story of the young laborer’s encounter with plague little more than a day’s walk to the west was confirmed. By the first week in March, even the most skeptical villagers were convinced that the plague was raging close by to the south and east of Walsham, as well as to the west. Carriers with packhorses whose itineraries included the cloth-making towns and villages to the south of Bury, such as Sudbury and Lavenham, reported that they were no longer able to go there to buy cloths because death had advanced from the southeast. Other travelers also revealed that the pestilence was traveling along the coast and being brought inland toward Walsham along the Deben and Waveney valleys.

A peddler who regularly visited Walsham selling trinkets and shoddy clothing told how he had been stopped a mile or so outside Stoke-by-Nayland near Colchester, where he was due to collect some combs and brushes, and warned that the pestilence was in the village. He had fled northward and soon learned that Stoke was far from alone in its suffering, and that a whole string of prosperous settlements close to Colchester had been hit by death. His audience solemnly noted this would have occurred around the same time as the pestilence had settled in Lakenheath. The peddler went on to tell them that he had come across a man, a woman, and two children huddled by an old handcart. He thought they were sleeping but on drawing closer, he found they were dead. Within just a few miles of that terrifying sight, he had seen many dead or dying people from a distance and encountered others acting very strangely, some almost dancing with agony, some seemingly fit but threatening to kill him if he came near. After that he had made his way back to Walsham across the fields avoiding the tracks and roads he normally tramped along.

News of the imminence of the pestilence provoked a fresh wave of hasty departures from Walsham, despite warnings from the peddler and other travelers that they would be safer if they remained where they were. Most of the manor court session on March 6, which was only sparsely attended, was taken up with the registration of large numbers of sales and exchanges of small pieces of land, which fearful people had hastily concluded before they left the manor. As few other items of business had been brought before the court, the steward soon called the proceedings to an end and allowed the tenants to return quickly to the relative safety of their homes and farms.

Faith among the pious that exemption would be somehow granted from God’s punishment and hope by the worldly that good fortune might intervene to save them had helped Walsham sustain a grip on normality. But now these comforts were being steadily supplanted by a broad spectrum of emotions ranging from extreme terror to calm resignation. The particular emotion that each person experienced naturally depended on individual character and circumstances. Although, in truth, as the days and weeks passed, many people found themselves running through a whole range of feelings. Yet much of the routine of life had to continue as usual—land had to be plowed and sown, weeds pulled up, livestock tended, produce bought and sold, and wages earned. However, a coldness shrank the dealings that people had with each other, and sometimes also with their families and closest friends. Most business was conducted curtly, with conversations kept to a minimum and contacts restricted.

Except, that is, for those reckless folk who felt that, as the end of the world was nigh and all would soon perish, they might as well live for the present and spend what money they had on pleasure. Within the confines of Walsham this usually meant passing long hours in the alehouses which were liberally sprinkled across the parish. The wanton, both men and women, drank excessively, gambled recklessly, and enjoyed each other’s intimate company. This crowd of seemingly carefree folk, who were more numerous than might be imagined, even found it diverting to make jokes about death and the pestilence. However, there was general agreement among this dissolute crowd that fat Simon went too far when he cleared Alice Pye’s packed tavern by suddenly falling off his bench, screaming and gesturing to a large swelling on his upper thigh. The horrified carousers who glanced at him writhing on his back on the floor, and did indeed see a great lump in his crotch, ran screaming from the tavern. When Simon chased after them into the road laughing and exposing his huge erect cock, he was given a sound beating and had the door locked against him. For many years after the regulars at the Pye’s alehouse took grim delight in telling of the prank of Simon Greathorn, as he was henceforth dubbed.

As each day of March passed, the plague spread ever more widely through the towns and villages of Essex, Cambridgeshire, and Suffolk, and drew ever closer to Walsham. As if it were an invisible cloud blown by the wind, the deadly infection made its way, never ceasing to disperse itself despite all the precautions taken to halt it. At the manor court held on March 6, the steward, at the prompting of his lord and lady, uttered some words of comfort, but just two days later a violent mob raised the hue and cry against a band of travelers who had fled in fear of the pestilence from Aldham, which lay little more than a day’s walk to the south. The fugitives had been spotted by a patrol hiding in a clump of trees close to the path which led to Westhorpe, and at least two of them were said to be bearing signs of the plague on their faces. Over the next couple of weeks desperate runaways were apprehended from towns and villages no more than ten or fifteen miles distant, and after just a few more days signs of pestilence began to make their appearance in adjacent villages to the south and east—Wyverstone, Wetherden, Elmswell. Then two Walsham carters who had taken grain and wool to Botesdale market returned in great haste. They had seen a young man dying by a hot pie stall. At first an angry crowd had surrounded the pie seller, blaming his pies for poisoning a customer. However, someone pointed out a large blue and black swelling on the young man’s neck and they all ran off. Walsham was being encircled by an ever-tightening band of death.

It was too late to flee. During the remaining days of waiting for the death to come the last few miles to Walsham, the village lay under an eerie calm. Most felt helpless in the face of divine anger and found their resistance drained by the infinite power of the earthly terror which had cornered them. The pestilence was now everywhere all around, and there was nothing to do but suffer God’s will.

So near was the Death, and so ineffective were the prayers, processions, and pilgrimages in halting or slowing its march toward their village, that even Master John found himself succumbing to the collective hysteria which repeatedly broke out in St. Mary’s church. He had wracked his brains, read and reread all his sacred texts and guides many times, and searched every corner of his experience, but he could not identify any of the profoundly grave sins in the people of his parish which could justify this awful punishment from God. Perhaps it was indeed the end of the world, when the very last stains of sin would be washed from every soul before it entered eternal bliss.

Master John, though widely respected for his learning, wisdom, and compassion, was repeatedly made to feel hopelessly inadequate by his inability to give answers to the questions fired at him by anxious and often angry parishioners. Most folk seemed visibly strengthened by anything he told them, however ephemeral or labored it appeared to his scholarly mind. But try as he might, he was unable to find his words of comfort passably convincing. In one sermon he even found himself joining in the hunt for scapegoats by attacking the sins of dealers and traders in Walsham and nearby markets, who were certainly no worse than those found anywhere else. From the pulpit, Master John railed against the brewers, bakers, butchers, and cooks who, in addition to overcharging the poor, were so ruled by avarice that they used false oaths to swear to the quality of their products, weighed them with false weights and measures, and adulterated their wares.

“Do not the alewives mix thin halfpenny ale or even dregs with the good penny ale they charge you for? Do not the bakers add sawdust to their bread? The butchers sell meat and the fishmongers fish which are so rotten they would kill a dog? The hot pies you buy so willingly and consume so greedily are often stuffed full of unspeakable substances. At the moment, these traders spend their days in wealth. Yet as the prophet Job tells us, in the end they will go down to Hell because of their treachery and tricks.” Master John added, almost apologetically and certainly unconvincingly, that so great was the divine displeasure aroused by such conduct that it might well be the cause of the sundry sorrows currently being brought down on the whole community.

The Walsham flock needed no special encouragement to enter the Lenten fasts and confessions with enthusiasm. When their priest, in his first Lenten sermon, reminded his congregation of the need to come to shrift, to lift the veils from the sins in their hearts, and to make amends in prayer and penance, abstinence and almsgiving, for the evil they had committed in the last year, they eagerly embraced his admonitions: “Good people, the time of Lent is entered, the time when we must cleanse ourselves of all misdeeds we have done before. And in this holy time we should abstain more from sin and wretchedness than at other times of the year. Now shall we resolve to fast, to come to the church, and to serve God in holy prayers, and shrive us of our misdeeds.”

The Lenten fast this year was exceptionally well observed, and scarcely any villagers failed to make confession, in order to prepare themselves for receiving Communion on Easter Day and, as many felt, for their impending death. Those who were too old or sick to reach the church unaided were helped by family and neighbors out of charity, while the parish clergy tirelessly visited those unable to travel.

As Holy Week approached, there was no slackening of the intensity of devotion, but rather a quickening of fervor. The excitement of the imminent celebration of the Passion was swelled by chilling evidence that deaths were multiplying in communities within a few miles of Walsham. It rose to an almost unbearable crescendo in the scorching heat of an unseasonably warm spring when rumors began circulating that at least two or three families, and maybe even four or five, in the far southeast of the village were secretly nursing members who had been struck down by a mysterious ailment. In the Palm Sunday procession many fainted with ecstasy or with sheer terror of the horrors that surely awaited them. Despite the fears of contagion which wracked the community, it was the largest such assembly that could be remembered. So great were the crowds walking behind the cross that the procession slowed almost to a halt as it squeezed between the houses and hedges in the narrow parts of the road which led from the church up Jolycote Hill. Everyone clutched palms of yew, box, and willow that had been blessed by the priests, and at the end of the day they carried them home to serve as charms to protect their houses against the plague.

Good Friday was a day of immense grief and mourning, in which terror for the future, regrets for the past, and desperate pleading for forgiveness burst into barely controlled passion. For time out of mind, on the day of the crucifixion the clergy and people of Walsham had crept, barefoot and on their knees, down the aisle of St. Mary’s to kiss the foot of the cross which was held in front of the altar by the youngest priest. But this year many walked barefoot from their homes while others crawled on hands and knees. Some wriggled forward prostrate on their stomachs across sharp stones and through muddy puddles. Such self-inflicted pain and humility was traditionally in remembrance of Christ’s suffering, but this year it was also in fear of God’s wrath.

From the pulpit, in his Good Friday sermon, Master John gestured dramatically toward the stained glass windows on the right of the aisle, where an assistant pointed with a long stick at the first in a series of vivid pictures devoted to scenes from the Passion.

“Behold, then, that good Lord shivering and quaking, all his body naked and bound to a pillar. About him standing the wicked men, who are, without any reason and without any pity, full sore scourging that blessed body. See how they cease not from their angry strokes, till they see him stand in his blood up to the ankles. From the top of the head to the sole of his feet, whole skin saved they none. His flesh they razed to the bone, and then out of their own weariness they left him almost for dead.”

The pointer moved on. “Look then aside upon his blessed mother.” Every neck turned and every eye strained to see the figure of Mary in the adjacent window. “See what sorrow she maketh for her dear son.” The congregation sighed and began softly reciting prayers to the mother of Christ. The pointer moved on to the next window. “Turn again to thy Lord and see how they thrust on his head a garland of thorns, till the blood ran down his eyes, nose, mouth, and ears.”

Thus far, Master John had begun his Easter sermon in the traditional St. Mary’s fashion, making use of the splendid set of stained glass windows of which the church was justly proud. But then, aware not just of the threat of the pestilence from all sides but of the latest rumor, overheard at this very Mass, that it was already in their midst, he chose to stress the parallels between Christ’s Passion and the scourging and suffering which was afflicting the world and awaiting his flock.

“Now is the time for our passion; for us to be struck by the terrible scourges of pestilence, as Christ was scourged with whips in his Passion.” Master John told them how the dreadful mortification, which they almost certainly faced within weeks or even days, would help to cleanse their souls of sin. “You have only to ask God for forgiveness and it will be granted, however terrible your transgressions may have been.

“Omnis enim qui invocaverit nomen Domini, salvus erit.” Summoning all the power of his voice, John let the Latin resonate around his throat and boom from his chest. He was deeply stirred by the manner in which his words resounded through the church as if they were a pronouncement from God himself. Latin had its special magic. “Omnis enim qui invocaverit nomen Domini, salvus erit.” The message bore repeating yet again, and in the mother tongue: “Every man, whosoever he be, who calls the name of the Lord, shall be saved.”

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FIGURE 1

A reconstruction of a peasant cottage “the dwellings which peppered the landscape were of varying size and condition” (page 4)

FIGURE 2

A poor parson from the Ellesmere Chaucer “a man who was ‘rich of holy thought and work’” (page 13)

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FIGURE 3

Celebrating Mass: raising the Host “there was no shortage of clerics . . . conducting services, administering rites, and saying Masses” (page 16)

FIGURE 4

Derision “in spite of his best efforts at mediation, arguments continued to bubble up” (page 20)

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FIGURE 5

A deathbed scene “family, friends, and neighbors clustered in his house and around his bed ” (page 22)

FIGURE 6

Bust of the Virgin “‘For the Mother of Mercy will pray her Son to give him a place in Heaven’” (page 28)

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FIGURE 7

Painting of the Day of Doom “God held his arms outstretched . . . with Heaven to his right hand and Hell to his left” (page 37)

FIGURE 8

The Battle of Crécy “sturdy English longbowmen, rustics like themselves, had slaughtered a host of mounted and armored nobility and knights” (page 42)

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FIGURE 9

Gathering in the sheaves “The harvest of autumn 1347 brought no respite to the poor of Walsham, for once again it was miserable” (page 46)

FIGURE 10

A nativity scene “an excited huddle in front of the altar assembling a large, brightly painted wooden model of the stable at Bethlehem” (page 54)

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FIGURE 11

Pope leading a penitential procession in time of plague “the pope commanded devout processions with the chanting of litanies” (page 59)

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FIGURE 12

In fear of the plague “The three pious men . . . asked themselves whether there could be any doubt that this pestilence . . . would be stalking England in a matter of weeks” (page 60)

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FIGURE 13

The Thornham Parva Retable “the magnificent altarpiece in the newly built Blackfriars priory” (page 66)

FIGURE 14

Miracle of the Virgin”s Milk “a pilgrimage to Walsingham, to draw succor from the milk of the sweet Virgin Mary” (page 66)

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FIGURE 15

Figure of God “Almighty God uses thunder, lightning, and other blows” (page 83)

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FIGURE 16

Pelican in her piety “Catherine Pynfoul commissioned a carving of a pelican and its young at the end of one of the pews” (page 91)

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FIGURE 17

Scene from the Book of Revelation “And I saw the seven angels which stood before God; and to them were given seven trumpets” (page 96)

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FIGURE 18

Torments of Hell “‘what pain is ordained for your sins in Hell ’” (page 98)

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FIGURE 19

A clerical procession “every Wednesday and Sunday all the clergy of this parish will assemble in our churchyard ” (page 106)

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FIGURE 20

Pardoner from the Ellesmere Chaucer “Pardoners, unlicensed as well as licensed ” (page 129)

FIGURE 21

Preaching in a churchyard “they freely gathered audiences together in the churchyard ” (page 130)

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FIGURE 22

Lay communion with houseling cloth “helpers offered a long white towel to each communicant” (page 147)

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FIGURE 27

Burying plague victims “From Easter Day onward the bells of St Mary’s steeple sonorously proclaimed an ever spiraling toll of deaths” (page 165)

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FIGURE 28

Mass for plague victims “ministering to his flock in the valley of death” (page 171)

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FIGURE 29

Holbein: Death drives the plow “‘We may as well die of the pestilence as of hunger’” (page 178)

FIGURE 30

Corpus Christi procession “In a spirit of optimism, clergy and laity decided to . . . mount a procession for Corpus Christi feast day” (page 187)

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FIGURE 31

Laborer digging “scarcely any of the tenants were bothering to turn up on the required days to perform their work on the lady’s farm” (page 192)

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FIGURE 32

Plowman

“The plowman warned that if he did not get what he deserved, he would not stay around to undertake the plowing of the fallow land ” (page 197)

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FIGURE 33

A court scene

“Fearing a public defeat, the steward decided to move on, but only after threatening Fraunceys” (page 206)

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FIGURE 34

Drinking game

“‘I would rather sit here on my arse drinking’” (page 229)

FIGURE 35

Man and woman dancing

“if the rustics should get the upper hand, God ’s creation would be entirely ruined ” (page 231)

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FIGURE 36

Man digging up a tree

“But only for light jobs, like digging up small trees, for which he asked 5d per day and two square meals” (page 244)

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FIGURE 37

Harrowing

“Scarcely any acres received the benefits of double plowing, and the harrowing too was slipshod ” (page 248)

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FIGURE 38

Preaching to an elite audience

“ The prior’s audience, consisting largely of senior clerics, gentry, lawyers, burgesses, and merchants, nodded in agreement” (page 252)

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FIGURE 39

Flagellants

“these bands processed through towns and villages along their way, chanting in unison and whipping themselves and each other” (page 259)

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FIGURE 40

Reeve from the Ellesmere Chaucer

“So outraged was Sir Henry by the demeanor of Geoffrey Rath that he began asking around Walsham what the villagers thought of their reeve” (page 266)

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FIGURE 42

Two women driving cows and a bull

“As Olivia and Hilary were quick to appreciate, livestock could be bought very cheaply” (page 274)

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FIGURE 43

Death of a cleric

“Master John collapsed, breathless, with pains in his chest” (page 283)

But most members of the congregation were still dwelling on their priest’s former words, and on the passion through pestilence they had been sentenced to. As despair threatened to engulf them, try as they might, there were few in the congregation who could envisage that any of the sins they had committed warranted such cruel and extreme punishment as God was about to inflict on them—just as Christ on earth had been tortured “without any reason and without any pity.”

Mindful of his flock’s bewilderment and fearful that they might grow more skeptical and lose faith, John reflected aloud that it was not within his power, or even that possessed by the most holy and learned prelates and scholars, to fully understand the divine plan. Rather than seeking to find reasons why their world was being subjected to such death and destruction, he urged his parishioners to place themselves completely in God’s mercy and have faith that he would provide succor and salvation for those who were deserving.

With that Master John came down from his pulpit to perform the annual ritual of the symbolic burying of Christ, in the form of the Host which he bore aloft in the pyx. As he moved toward the wooden Easter sepulcher which had been constructed in a corner of the church, his way was temporarily blocked by a crush of people jostling for position and struggling to kiss the cross carried by his deacon. The intensity of devotion was so great that some fainted when Master John took off his vestments and sandals and wrapped the pyx containing the consecrated wafer and the cross, still moist from kisses, in linen cloths. While doing this he repeatedly intoned, “I am counted as one of them who go down to the pit.” And when he stepped forward to place the sacred items in their symbolic tomb, the surge of the crowd caused him to stumble and others to fall.

As the congregation fell silent, with many reflecting on their own possible death and burial, Master John announced that he had something more to tell them. He put on his vestments and made his way back to the pulpit, his hand reaching into his pocket and touching the letter with which his fingers had absentmindedly played many times during the sermon. The letter had been sent to him a couple of weeks ago by his archdeacon, and he was meant to read it out in church and then nail it in the porch for all to see and for those who were able, to read. But John had delayed doing so, for he was deeply troubled by the archdeacon’s message. It stated that the pope had given his permission for parishioners to choose their own confessor if a priest were not available in their hour of death, “in all the places in which the epidemic or mortality of people, which at present, by the Lord’s will, flourishes in many parts of the world, now or will in the future.” Since receiving it, he had been wrestling inconclusively to resolve the conflict between his humanity and sense of duty to his superiors, on the one side, and his theological conscience, on the other. But now he took the letter from his pocket and unfolded it. Even so, he could not bring himself to read it aloud to his congregation, as he had been instructed. Instead he gently informed them, in as matter-of-fact a manner as he could, that should the pestilence strike, and should its blows be as heavy as they had been in some other places, and should the occasion arise where a fully trained priest might not manage to reach the sick in time to hear their confession in their hour of death, then the pope, the bishop, and the archdeacon had each given their approval that a lesser qualified member of the clergy, or even a layperson, might be chosen instead to do so. With that John left the pulpit, as stunned as his congregation, muttering less than coherently that clarification of any arrangements should be sorted out with his assistants. He turned his back and walked away, closing his ears to the urgent pleas uttering from a hundred throats.

Soon after dawn on Easter Day, April 12, to commemorate Christ rising from his tomb, the clergy gathered to remove the pyx and the cross from the sepulcher while the choir sang Christus Resurgens. A huge throng of excited parishioners gathered around, some of whom had spent the night outside the church waiting for the resurrection. In unison they all recited the news over and again that “Christ dieth no more and Death hath no more dominion over him.” At the Easter Day Mass Master John exhorted the folk gathered in the churchyard in their hundreds to enter the church and its precincts, “Arrayed in God’s livery, clothed in love and charity, and not in the fiends livery, clothed in envy and deadly wrath.”

Oppressed by the unbearable weight of responsibility which the advancing plague placed on his shoulders, Master John had spent many sleepless nights over the past two weeks or more trying to compose a relevant and appropriate message for his deeply troubled flock. But he had been unable to think of anything that came close to meeting the needs of the time and his own high standards, and at the last minute from the pulpit he gave them instead the traditional Easter homily. He counseled them to retain their newly cleansed state and cautioned them how the seven deadly sins would soon stain their soul once again if they did not learn the lessons of the Wounds of Christ. And he urged them not simply to refrain from committing sins, but to act positively by forgiving the trespasses of their neighbors and behaving with charity to all.

At the climax of the highest Mass, the crowd surged forward to peer through, round, or even over the rood screen to observe Master John at the altar, some placing their children or ailing relatives on their shoulders. The priest, as was usual, turned his back on the congregation as he raised the Host above his head in celebration of the moment of transformation from wafer into the Body of Christ. But with loud and excited voices the throng called for their priest to show them more clearly the Body of Christ. Half turning by instinct rather than by design, he granted them their desire. Then, with the help of his many assistants, order was restored and the communicants were lined up, row after row, before the chancel screen for their spiritual sustenance. With prompting, they pleaded that Christ’s sufferings might be for them a means of mercy and salvation, and not of death and eternal condemnation. As they drew close to the altar, helpers offered a long white towel to each communicant, who clutched it in anxious hands to prevent any fragments of the Host falling to the floor. And when, having partaken of the Host, they moved on to grasp the proffered chalice to wash down the fragments of the Host with a draft of wine, they fervently desired that wine to be the most holy dear blood of Jesus Christ shed for their redemption, although the priest had told them it was unconsecrated and no sacrament. They were also most careful to wrap their fingers in the houseling cloth as they held the chalice to avoid contaminating it with their bare hands, for they knew in their hearts that the power of his blood leaked even into the cold hard metal (see figure 22).

Scarcely had the ingestion of the Host begun to provide the comfort and protection that was so desperately sought, than half a dozen villagers, who had been feeling listless for a few days with chills and aches, began to develop high fevers and suffer a rapid deterioration in health. When these sick folk were visited by cautious neighbors, fearful of the worst, they were found either lying prostrate in bed, unable to stir, or in the grip of a frenzied delirium. Within a further day or so large swellings appeared in the groin of four of them and on the neck of the others. As the swellings grew and blackened so the pain intensified, and in a short while some other members of their households began to feel unwell with aches and fevers. At the end of six days all the original six victims were dead, and at least another score of people in the village, including one of the newly arrived young priests, were showing the deadly symptoms. In the time it took for these new victims to pass from health to death, a further and much larger group had become sick and commenced their short and agonized journey to the grave.

The pestilence, feeding ever more greedily, grew stronger by the day, until its black shroud encompassed the whole village and, as far as anyone in Walsham had knowledge, all areas in the country around. Within little more than two weeks the mysterious contagion had broken all bounds of precedent and reason. Behaving with merciless ferocity and gargantuan energy, it proved quite beyond the capacity of prayers or medicine to resist or to heal. As the bells of St. Mary’s tolled almost without ceasing, it seemed that all humankind would perish and the whole world would soon come to an end (see figure 23).

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