CHARACTERISING THE specific history of epidemics, whose durations are measured in months, requires consideration of detail. There is therefore only space for the briefest introduction to fourteenth-century London and its hinterland in this book, and the numerous place names and subjects that are mentioned within it will lead some readers to wish to know much more of the topography and functioning of the city. I would recommend firstly Caroline Barron’s excellent book on London in the Later Middle Ages, which sets the social, economic and administrative scene, and Chris Thomas’ study of The Archaeology of Medieval London to provide a feel for the physical nature of the fourteenth-century city. To this I would add the very useful British Atlas of Historic Towns: City of London from Prehistoric Times to c. 1520, edited by Mary Lobel, with its unsurpassed maps reconstructing the medieval layout of the city. Finally, the flavour of city life evoked by Barbara Hanawalt’s Growing up in Medieval London: the Experience of Childhood in History provides a clear sense of daily life in the city. There is, of course, a formidable bibliography for medieval London, but just these four will help bring a long-vanished city to life.
The historical evidence considered in this book has been drawn as far as possible from detailed summaries of primary sources which have been published in calendar form, augmented by some examination of the original documents themselves. In accessing the calendars, I have made much use of the superb British History Online initiative developed by the Institute of Historical Research at University College London (www.british-history.ac.uk), which provides full access to the calendars of the City of London Letter Books, the Pleas and Memoranda rolls of the mayoral court, the Possessory Assizes, the Assize of Nuisance and many other sources. I have also used the University of Iowa’s online searchable edition of the Calendars of Patent Rolls (www.uiowa.edu/~acadtech/patentrolls), Tanner-Ritchie’s searchable CD-ROM versions of the Calendar of Papal Letters, and the digital edition of the Parliamentary Rolls of Medieval England. In converting medieval feast days to modern equivalents (all dates have been rendered in the Gregorian system), I have made much use of the online regnal calendar for Edward III at www.medievalgenealogy.org. uk/cal/reg11.htm. One secondary source deserving of special mention, itself a collation of excerpts from primary medieval documents, is Rosemary Horrox’s invaluable The Black Death.
The most important source for this study has been the two-volume Calendar of Wills Enrolled in the Court of Husting.4 Covering the period 1259–1688, the wills are especially useful for the first three-quarters of the fourteenth century, and give us a superb insight into the arrangements made by the wealthier segment of the citizenry during the plague years.5 What makes them particularly useful is the adoption, at the outset of Edward III’s reign, of the practice of recording the date on which the will was actually drawn up. This information provides us with an effective means of gauging the level of threat that people considered themselves to be under, as well as the threat that they actually did face, and is therefore a unique barometer of the impact on London citizens at the time. Previous systematic studies of the evidence from this source have been aimed primarily at examining numerical trends, and most have not factored in the dates the wills were drawn up.6 This considerably enhances our understanding of mortality trends during the outbreaks, as well as providing the intimate evidence, contained in hundreds of wills written or enrolled during the four outbreaks of pestilence between 1348 and 1375, of citizens as they prepared for and succumbed to the devastating disease. As with all historical documents, they have their limitations, and it is important to understand how the wills originated and how the court that enrolled them actually operated.
Wills were usually drawn up at a time when death seemed likely to the individual concerned. The priest who attended the dying to administer the last rites often also scribed the document. The will would then be kept by the individual or a nominated representative, to be presented by the executor or relative to the appropriate ecclesiastical court after death. The oversight of probate was reserved generally for the ecclesiastical courts, but at an early stage (and at least by 1258) the Husting court took charge of those wills which involved real estate within London owned and bequeathed by citizens.7 Very few of the wills may have been enrolled during the lifetime of their makers – which would make their use in establishing death rates nonsensical – but we can be confident that this is a tiny fraction. The rolls into which these portions of wills were entered were used principally as proof of title to land and rents.8 As such, they reflected the legal property interests of the wealthier London citizens and their heirs and executors.
The numbers of wills being drawn up and enrolled in Husting form an indicator of the general expectations, and experience, of mortality among the reasonably well-off and, by extension, may form a benchmark for the city as a whole. The percentage of Londoners that used the Husting court is very difficult to calculate. Between 1327 and 1348, the drawing up of wills and enrolments had each averaged around twenty-eight per annum.9 If London’s population in 1348 was 60,000 in all,10 of which around 40 per cent were children and adult mortality was about 35 per 1,000 per annum (a figure estimated as reasonable for a pre-industrial society), then an average of 1,260 adults might be expected to have died each year. Of the annual average twenty-eight pre-plague Husting wills, they were predominantly (approx. 86 per cent) made by men.11 So twenty-four male wills might be taken to represent 630 adult male deaths – almost 4 per cent. Of course, the picture is vastly more complex than this, as many who had been formally admitted as citizens did not actually live within the walls, but it is quite clear that the percentage is low. Nonetheless, for the fourteenth century at least, the Husting rolls provide a unique measure of the impact of successive plagues.
They also provide other valuable insights. Wills which came before the Husting had already been before one of the ecclesiastical courts to determine probate, so some delay might be anticipated between death and enrolment. This potential delay is significant. There is clear evidence (presented in the main text) for wills enrolled weeks, months, or possibly even years after their makers’ deaths. Professor James Wood’s examination of the time-lag apparent in filling vacant clerical benefices across England demonstrates clearly that the speed of the spread of the plague has been consistently and significantly underestimated;12 sadly, the bishops’ registers are missing for the whole diocese of London for the years 1337–61,13 and all we have to balance this is a partial picture from the presentations made by the king during vacancies in monasteries. However, the wills evidence strongly supports this view, and it is likely that the speed of the passage of plague presented in this book may if anything be too slow. Crucially, though, the date recorded for the writing of each will acts as a terminus post quem, so the profile has an accuracy not achievable through other forms of record.
I have used the information in the Husting wills to assess wider changes in charity and religious belief, but to put this in context, it is important to understand that the nature of these wills was dynamic, and that considerable changes have been identified as dating to the periods 1339–50 and 1350 onwards. Before 1339 the wills were concerned primarily with immovable goods – essentially real estate. However, from about 1340, chattels and pecuniary bequests begin to feature much more commonly, and from 1350 onwards this trend is particularly marked. The reason for the shift is not clear but may have related to increased efforts to tax moveable goods.14 This change means that assessing trends based on the comparison of pre-and post-pestilence wills requires caution.
For the two latest outbreaks of plague about which this book is concerned, those of 1368 and 1375, an increasing amount of information survives from the ecclesiastical courts. This includes the Archdeaconry Court wills (one incomplete register from 1368), dealing with London’s ‘middling sort’, and with jurisdiction over about half of the parishes of the city (and a few nearby parishes such as Clerkenwell and Shoreditch); and the Commissary Court (beginning in 1373). The third ecclesiastical court relating to London, the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, contains wills only dated from 1383 onwards, so has not been used for this survey. Chance references in wills and charters indicate that spoken wills formed a notable part of Londoners’ testamentary toolkit. These nuncupative wills clearly leave no primary documentary trace, but probates were entered in the registers of the ecclesiastical courts in the same manner as for written wills: between 1375 and 1400 the probates of over 380 such spoken wills are recorded.15
It is clear that the Husting wills, and indeed the other ecclesiastical registers, represent the response of the adult, propertied, and mainly male, segment of Londoners. We therefore translate the experiences in them across to the thousands of poor and the women and the children in the city and suburbs at considerable risk. Our sources for these, the majority of Londoners, are sadly limited. What survives includes a small number of intermittent, sometimes poorly preserved and unpublished court and account rolls from a handful of manors adjacent to the city. Many of these have not yet been examined but one, relating to the manor of Stepney,16 provides important corroborative evidence which supports and amplifies that derived from the wills, and provides a remarkably coherent picture of the timing and impact of the disease.