Christmas and New Year, 1347-1348

The spread of the pestilence into Europe depended primarily on the traffic of people and goods and for a time may have been restrained by the limited number of trade routes from the East. By the closing months of 1347, however, it had reached the Mediterranean Sea and was advancing with considerable speed in a multitude of directions. The dense networks of regular contacts between the ports and cities around the Mediterranean saw Sicily hit by October and Marseilles by November; multitudes were dying in Sardinia, Corsica, and Genoa before the end of December. Thence the pestilence began to strike up the west coast of Italy and inland into southern France, and during January it was reported to be raging in many more cities, including Pisa, Venice, Aix-en-Provence, Arles, and Avignon. There are a number of detailed accounts of the havoc wrought by the pestilence in Avignon, where the papacy had resided since its move from Rome in 1309. One of the best descriptions of the symptoms of the disease is given by Pope Clement VI’s physician, Gui de Chauliac, who lived through the epidemic in Avignon and observed it firsthand. Chauliac commenced his account: “ The mortality began with us in the month of January [1348], and lasted seven months. It had two phases. The first lasted two months; with continuous fever and the spitting of blood, from which victims died within three days. The second lasted for the whole of the remainder of the time, also with continuous fever, and with abscesses and carbuncles in the extremities, principally under the armpits and in the groin; and death took place within five days. The disease was extremely contagious.”

In contrast to tiny Ixworth priory adjacent to Walsham, the abbey of Bury St. Edmunds was one of the greatest and wealthiest abbeys in England. Before the Black Death it housed a community of some seventy to eighty Benedictine monks, as well as numerous chaplains, servants, and lay residents. Only scanty physical traces of its former glory survive, but in the fourteenth century the abbey church was over 500 feet long with an aisled nave of twelve bays, and the east end was formed by a transept almost 250 feet long. Bury St. Edmunds abbey was one of the foremost centers of learning in fourteenth-century England with a particularly fine library, comprising more than two thousand volumes at its peak, acquired by purchase and gift as well as by the copying carried out by monks in the scriptorium. Henry Kirkstead was a notable abbey librarian in the late fourteenth century. Over the centuries many of the abbey’s monks wrote chronicles that recounted historical and contemporary events. Like every large monastery, Bury St. Edmunds abbey had its infirmary for the care of sick monks and an infirmarer who dispensed medicines, supervised the care of the sick, and organized the regular bleeding to which the brethren were subjected.


In the week before Christmas 1347 Master John returned breathless from what should have been a routine visit to Ixworth priory. As he arrived at St. Mary’s, it was bustling with parishioners making preparations for the supreme feast and the great midnight Mass. His eye briefly alighted on a group decking the interior of the church with holly and ivy, but in uncharacteristic fashion he hurried past them; nor did the priest seem to hear the little choir practicing a particularly difficult carol. Despite calls to come and look, he scarcely acknowledged an excited huddle in front of the altar assembling a large, brightly painted wooden model of the stable at Bethlehem. Master John had gone to Ixworth to give the prior one of his regular reports on the state of his parish and the revenues it was producing, but just before he left he was given a letter sent by his good friend Richard, the keeper of the infirmary at Bury St. Edmunds abbey. It was the letter that caused his agitation.

Master John summoned his two chaplains, who were reluctant to leave the altar just as the life-size wooden figure of the Christ child was placed in the arms of an adoring Mary, and hastily ushered them to a quiet place to read the letter to them (see figure 10). The letter was brief and to the point. After a few words of greeting, his friend, who was most expert in medical matters, informed him that the pestilence from the East was moving swiftly westward across Europe. According to a number of unimpeachable sources, it had now crossed the Mediterranean Sea and was raging in many of the seaports of Italy and France, and possibly Spain too. The letter concluded ominously, “Nothing it seems can halt its progress; we can only pray that God’s infinite mercy will cause him to stay his hand before it reaches our shores.”

Master John was anxious that his flock should not be unduly alarmed and swore his chaplains to keep this terrible letter to themselves. But in the days and weeks that followed there was such a flow of unnerving news into Walsham, and from such a variety of sources, including the monastery at Bury, that even he found it increasingly difficult to sift fact from fiction. The priest resolved to travel to Bury to visit his friend early in the new year to hear more of the truth and hopefully dispel some of the wilder rumors. But he found his departure continually delayed by the pressures of work arising from the ever-mounting concerns among his parishioners, as well as the heightened demands for confessions and absolution which flowed from them. In addition, he was confronted by constant questions and requests for detailed explanations of the most complex and taxing kind, which even with his learning and long experience he found difficult to answer in an appropriate manner. John was constantly left without sufficient time for his own prayers and contemplation, and each night he was physically and emotionally drained as he retired late to bed. For these reasons, but perhaps also because he feared that his sober and learned friend might confirm the inexorable approach of the terrible pestilence, it was not until the third week in February, long after Candlemas had been celebrated, that he set out for the short journey to Bury.

John arrived at the abbey close to noon, which was dinnertime and the high point of the day for most of the monks. Despite his ascetic leanings, he was looking forward to some fine food and wine, congenial company, and stimulating conversation. After the exchange of exceptionally warm but unusually brief greetings at the gate, however, Richard hurried John past the refectory to the library to meet one of the most learned monks in the community. He was an elderly man, renowned throughout England as a scholar, who had held the office of librarian for many years and had spent most of his life delighting in the study of the renowned collection of old books housed in the great library of the monastery, which were stuffed full of the deeds of long-dead kings and knights, of descriptions of invasions, conquests, and battles in far-off days. But the librarian was also the abbey chronicler, and he took great pains to keep an accurate and comprehensive journal of contemporary as well as historical events, assiduously acquiring every piece of news about happenings in the wider world. As Master John readily appreciated, since the abbey of Bury possessed a magnificent library and hosted a constant stream of travelers from all parts, many of whom were welcome to stay and enjoy the lavish hospitality of the brethren for as long as they entertained and informed their hosts with the latest news and gossip, this learned monk was well placed for pursuing both of his special interests.

Richard breathlessly explained to John, as they drew toward the old man writing at an oak table at the far end of the vast room, “This abbey’s librarian not only has a great talent for gathering information, he has a rare ability for grading and sorting it into order. He is singularly adept at prompting guests to divulge all they know, or think they know. But he also probes them deeply, to discover how much reliance he should place on their stories. Always he takes care to ask those with significant news to tell him how they have come by their knowledge, and then he rejects from it what is trivial or unreliable and raises to prominence what is not. Most importantly, he is always searching for connections and confirmations between the many stories that reach his ears.”

John readily accepted that all this praise was fully deserved. It was for these very qualities that the librarian had been chosen to continue writing the great chronicles for which the abbey had been famous since the late twelfth century. But he was shaken when Richard took his arm and stopped him just before the table and whispered urgently, “You must trust the word of this man above all others on how the great pestilence has been spreading its poisonous tentacles across Europe in the past few months.”

“Come and sit down,” the old scholar said to John, as he beckoned a stern welcome with his hand. “What I am about to tell you is shocking. But it is not mere gossip designed to excite simple minds. It is carefully distilled essential information that I must pass on so that as many souls as possible can be saved in the little time that remains to us. I have agreed to inform you of my carefully researched findings because the infirmarer has assured me that you are a sober and learned priest, a man who can be trusted to make good use of what you will hear from me. In order that there should be no doubt about the importance of what I am about to impart, I will begin with the conclusion I have reached through deep study and calm and careful deliberation.

“As you know well, a pestilence of unprecedented ferocity started some time ago in the far east of the world, in the heathen lands of the Great Khan and the Golden Horde, and then, having grown in vigor in Turkey and Greece, spread from there over the whole Levant and Mesopotamia, and into Syria and Chaldea and Cyprus and Rhodes and all the Greek islands. This much is common knowledge, but what I am about to tell you is not. Although many travelers are claiming to know more than they do, and some are prone to falsify what little they actually know, I can confirm that last Michaelmas the dreadful scourge leaped to Sicily and then to Sardinia, Corsica, and Elba. You may be unaware of the existence of these places, but I can tell you that, beyond any doubt, this terrible plague is at this very moment spreading along the shores around the Mediterranean Sea. Not only this, but from there it is already starting to penetrate inland to strike many great cities in Italy and France.”

This appalling news the librarian imparted in a calm and confident manner, but his voice grew weak and tremulous as he leaned toward John and confided, “In all of this time, from its very beginnings at the ends of the world in the East, this scourge has never weakened nor ceased its movement northward and westward toward our land.”

John attempted to interrupt with an urgent question or two, but the librarian recovered his composure and impatiently hushed him: “Ordinary folk are gullible and unable to tell truth from fiction; they delight in fancies and superstitions. So we, as intelligent and literate men, have become accustomed to dismiss most of the dreadful stories we have heard as suitable only for the amusement of drunken peasants in alehouses. As mere tales that have grown massively in the telling as they passed from one careless mouth to another across countless countries. I have scorned them, and you have too. But I must confess to you that we were wrong. Now even the most remarkable of these fantastical accounts are daily being confirmed as true by those who have returned from neighboring countries and seen these terrible things with their own eyes, or spoken to those who have. Even more dreadful still, all those who have fled in the wake of the plague have spoken with one voice: nothing can stop its progress of destruction, neither the actions of city councils who close their gates against all outsiders nor the breadth of the sea. As it spreads through region after region, in towns and cities where there had once been twenty thousand people scarcely two thousand now remain, and in many villages and settlements fifteen hundred people have been reduced to barely one hundred.”

Once again Master John made as if to disagree, but he hesitated and was then shocked into silence as the wise chronicler, holding up the palm of his hand and shaking his head sadly, signaled that he had even more horrific matters to tell him: “This was the news that I sought to impart urgently to priests like you, so that you might instruct your flock to call on God’s mercy to avert this tragedy. But you hesitated to come to see me, and during the delay that you created I have learned much more. Just four days ago a young clerk lodged in this abbey as he made his way to Norwich to report to his superiors in the household of the bishop. He told us that he had just fled in terror from the city of Avignon, where he had been part of a delegation of churchmen from our country to the papal court. We all found him to be a man of the utmost intelligence and probity, and we offered him rest in our abbey. But he could not sleep, and for hours he held our brothers awestruck with detailed accounts of how the most sacred city, with its abundance of holy men, including the most holy of all, was suffering the ravages of a mysterious and most lethal plague, which nothing could assuage, not even the pope himself.

“I have his precise words here.” With that the librarian took up the parchment folio on which he had been writing and scanned it as he continued: “It was last November, he told us, when news was first brought to the papal court that thousands were dying in the port of Marseilles about two or three days journey to the south; just before Christmas the sickness reached Aix. But still the residents of the holy city believed that God would spare them. As soon as the pestilence threatened, the young visitor told us, the pope commanded devout processions with the chanting of litanies, and these were attended by at least two thousand people from all the region round about, men and women alike, many barefoot, others wearing hair shirts or smearing themselves with ashes (see figure 11). As they processed they wailed, tore their hair, and thrashed themselves with cruel whips until the blood ran. The pope himself took part in some of the processions, as did our young clerk. But sadly, their lamentations scarcely affected the work of pestilence.”

The old man then put down the vellum on which he had copied the words of the young clerk: “God knows what the end will be. The most powerful prayers and penitential processions proffered in their multitudes have not yet been sufficient to stay the hand of an angry God. The holy city is being destroyed as we speak, just as multitudes of Christian and pagan cities have been destroyed before it. There can be no doubt that our suffering will begin very soon.”

Master John had fallen silent. His questions no longer seemed so pressing, and the prudent skepticism that he had so carefully nurtured over the past months now seemed merely willful. He just listened intently as the abbey chronicler, whose words resounded with truth and wisdom, went on to explain how he had arrived at his awful conclusions. “The plague cannot be halted or diverted. Time and again city authorities have sought to stop the plague entering their cities by shutting their gates and banishing visitors, but always without success. No doctors know how to cure it, neither present experts nor ancient masters.

“On careful examination of what has been reported, the infirmarer and I have found that God is scourging the world with a variety of pestilences, the likes of which have not been seen before. The clerk fleeing from the papal curia saw with his own eyes, just days ago, that the disease now raging in Avignon is an infection of the lungs. Its victims cough and spit up large amounts of blood almost immediately after they become infected, and they all die very soon. This young man swore that he had not seen or heard reports of anyone in Avignon being afflicted with the hideous swellings in the neck, armpits, and groin that, according to a multitude of witnesses, devastated the populations of lands in the East.

“But,” the librarian cautioned, “one should not take any comfort in this. In fact, the reverse. For this new bloody pestilence is even worse than the other, if that could be true. All who catch it die within three days, and nobody recovers. It is also far easier to become infected with this affliction. From Avignon there is clear evidence that anyone who looks on a sick person is immediately infected. And so certain is it that all who catch the disease will die, without any hope of recovery, that in order to preserve the healthy in the holy city, all those who are known to be suffering from the sickness are at once borne off to the pit and buried, many of them while still alive. But still the deaths mount without ceasing.”

The three pious men sitting in the great library of the abbey of Bury St. Edmunds in late January 1348 asked themselves whether there could be any doubt that this pestilence, or another no less terrible, would be stalking England in a matter of weeks, just as mercilessly as it was now stalking France (see figure 12). They concluded that it would surely come to pass. As they contemplated what they might do or what this might mean for their community and the realm, even the sober librarian, who knew well all the great events, catastrophes, and mysteries of the past, became agitated. Richard the infirmarer, who had seen countless diseases during his many years caring for the sick, eagerly voiced his acceptance of every dismal judgment that had been uttered. John could remain silent no longer, and he vainly attempted to stem the tide of pessimism by pointing to the protection that would be offered by the sea, which set England apart from its neighbors. But his weak objection was swiftly dismissed. He was told sternly that the pestilence had moved through Europe from the East across far bigger seas than the one separating England from France. Sicily was an island, but the infection was carried there in the ships and on the persons of the Genoese merchants and seamen who had fled from Caffa when it was besieged by the Tartars.

“Far from offering protection,” the librarian sternly maintained, “the Mediterranean Sea is the prime means by which the plague has been spread across the world. Have you not understood what you have been told? The plague is spreading its fingers across the world carried by the sea, striking first in the coastal cities and then moving inland. Our only hope lies in cleansing our souls from the sins which stain them, for surely God is seeking by these plagues to turn us from our sinful ways.”

“But, lest you lose all hope,” the librarian assured John, “the finest minds in the monastery are being devoted to uncovering the mysteries of this merciless threat. We have a brother who has an unsurpassed knowledge of the planets and the stars, and he is working ceaselessly at his astrological charts. And our dear infirmarer here, who bows to nobody in his understanding of medicine, has joined with me in a search of all the ancient treatises in our library. I am certain that somewhere within these texts, which contain much of the wisdom of the world, lie the secrets of how to cure, avoid, or at the very least, God willing, ameliorate this sickness. And, of course, we are all praying ceaselessly for mercy.”

As Master John rode slowly back to Walsham, he knew that, whatever the monks might discover in their charts and ancient texts, he and his assistant clergy had to redouble their already considerable efforts to encourage his flock to confess their sins and walk in the paths of righteousness. This is where salvation lay. Piety was superior to medicine. A sick man had to be cured of sin before he could be cured of his physical malady. This most important task was the responsibility of the clergy, not the doctors.

John resolved to make the forthcoming Eastertide a time of especially great shriving, when all would be exhorted, far more vigorously than ever before, to confess their sins and receive Communion. It also occurred to him that his parishioners must urgently bring their infants to church for baptism and christening. In Walsham as elsewhere, parents had often dallied in carrying out this duty, but in these days the souls of their children were in unprecedented peril.

Despite the awful knowledge burning within him, Master John resolved to say as little as possible about what he learned in Bury, not wishing to add to the fear already gripping his parishioners.

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