THE FIRST onslaught of the Black Death in 1347–53 remains the greatest single catastrophe to have struck mankind in recorded history. A vast literature exists which examines and often vigorously debates its origins, its causes and its impacts on cities and manors, on economies and society, and on the very beliefs held by people over 600 years ago. Internationally, two major recent studies, Ole Benedictow’s The Black Death 1347–53:A Complete History and Sam Cohn’s The Black Death Transformed, set both the European stage and readily demonstrate the vigour of the debate.2 England itself has been particularly well served since Francis Gasquet’s treatise as long ago as 1893 on The Great Pestilence, and more recently by Philip Ziegler’s highly readable The Black Death (1969), the essays in Mark Ormrod and Philip Lindley’s The Black Death in England, and Colin Platt’s King Death (both 1996); as well as a host of more detailed articles. London, however, is less visible in detail, although both Jens Röhrkasten and Barbara Megson have made important contributions to the study of the city’s mortality during plague outbreaks.3
As a professional archaeologist, I came face to face with the effects of the epidemic on London during excavations at the Black Death cemetery of East Smithfield near the Tower of London, which unearthed hundreds of skeletons of the victims. But remarkably, given the relative abundance of its documentary records, the detailed story of how London succumbed, suffered and eventually adapted to this awful disease has never been told. This attempt to fill that gap reveals some rather surprising aspects of the city’s reaction to the plague, it raises some fundamental questions about the level of mortality and it examines the later outbreaks (1361, 1368 and 1375) that dogged the reign of Edward III to set out comparisons and contrasts with the first terrible blow.
This book is not specifically about the causes of the plague, its identification with one or another pathogen, or the science of its spread (although a summary of current debate is provided). Rather, it has been my aim to develop a detailed historical narrative from documents and archaeology to provide as complete an understanding of the horrifying test to which the nation’s capital was put. I hope that this analysis provides a springboard for further research into the impact of the Black Death on London. This is an essentially human story populated with many names of real people who came face to face with one of our worst nightmares and lived, or died, in London more than six centuries ago.