PLAGUE OUTBREAKS in London continued well past the period of this study, throughout the fifteenth century and beyond, and the first four epidemics of pestilence in particular, all occurring within a twenty-eight-year period, cannot but have had significant effects on the behaviour and lifestyle of London’s residents. However, the first outbreak arrived at a time of significant change and upheaval – a generation earlier England had experienced a significant and prolonged famine, while wars with France and Scotland ran a parallel track with the disease. In addition, important cultural changes in architecture, ceramics and textiles were already under way before 1348. As many historians have been at pains to point out, it is extremely hard, therefore, to differentiate between changes in the late fourteenth century which would have arrived in any event, from those that were catalysed, accelerated or shaped by the experience of four epidemics and, finally, from those changes which could be laid squarely at the door of the disease itself. This chapter builds on the immediate impacts identified in Chapter 3 and sets out some broader aspects of change in later fourteenth-century London which appear to be related, sometimes quite clearly, to the advent of the plague and which may deserve closer scrutiny.
The most obvious change in London was that there were far fewer people by the end of the century than there had been in 1348. London lost perhaps 55–60 per cent of its population in the first outbreak. The critical information – the gross rate of replacement – is unclear, and will probably elude any accurate calculation. However, the estimates from the will rates presented in earlier chapters allow some basis for the rather more robust figures included in the Poll Tax of 1377. For this tax, a total of 23,314 lay persons over 14 years of age were assessed in London. This figure did not include children under 14, homeless paupers, clergy or aliens. We know that avoidance was likely and that this figure is likely to have been a considerable underestimate. Over the river in Southwark, the 1381 Poll Tax assessed 1,060 individuals, calculated to represent up to 2,100 residents, inclusive of paupers, children, aliens and clergy. In Westminster, the 1377 Poll Tax assessed 280 persons but it has been shown that the more likely population for the vill by the end of the century was around 2,000, and that inward migration and growth cannot have been the cause. In London itself, the assessed figures have been suggested to represent 35,000 residents, assuming that 30 per cent of the total adult population was under 14.467A figure of 40 per cent is now more commonly applied to the cohort under 14 years of age, which would give a number of about 39,000 inhabitants.
Such figures are broadly consistent with suggestions made above about the mortality rates from each pestilence outbreak and subsequent population recovery. In the absence of any more detailed information, we can suggest that the net reduction in population was in the region of 40–45 per cent between 1348 and 1380. Accepting this figure, it seems unquestionable that the character of the city changed dramatically. It was now nearly half-empty of residents, if not necessarily of visitors, even though it had probably been topped up by inward migration throughout the decades as newcomers sought to take advantage of the opportunities. Such migration can be seen in the fact that as many as 65 per cent of grocers’ guild members listed in 1373 had no previous known connection with the trade in the city and many seemed to be new to London entirely.468
The composition of this reduced population may also have changed. Using evidence from the London Court of Orphans, it has been calculated that the average sex ratio (males to females) was 1.33:1 between 1309 and 1348. This figure dropped to 1.17:1 from 1349 to 1398. A more detailed consideration of the period 1375–99 suggests a ratio of 1.12:1. This can be considered in the light of evidence from the Husting wills. As seen above (Chapter 3) for the decade from August 1349 to July 1359, the sex ratio of children mentioned in the Husting wills was 1.27:1, dropping to 1.22:1 for the period August 1349 to December 1375. On the face of it, the numbers of men and women were becoming more equal. The London tax return for 1377 suggests a ratio of 1.07:1, and work on other towns in England indicate even lower ratios by 1381, including Southwark at 1.02:1. It has been suggested that this phenomenon is partly related to an increase in female migration from rural districts to the town.469
The overall demographic shrinkage should have affected the physical structure of the city, but clear evidence is lacking. We know that in 1357 Londoners (trying to reduce their royal taxation burden) were claiming that one-third of the city’s buildings lay vacant. While this may have been exaggerated, it cannot have been implausible since the city’s proximity to the royal palace at Westminster meant that the king’s agents could easily investigate the matter for themselves. The better trading or craft zones may have been able to capitalise on this, attracting inward migration at the expense of poorer or more marginal districts. A study of the development of the drapers’ gild in London concluded that such vacant properties were colonised from the early 1350s by new businessmen taking advantage of the weakening monopoly by London merchants and purchasing the larger properties beyond the traditional gild core.470 In other larger towns it is clear that some level of contraction could be blamed on plague. Of up to 280 dwellings in the city of Gloucester rented from Llanthony priory, it is quite clear that sixty (22 per cent) had become vacant in the years after the initial outbreaks of the plague. Half of these were the poorer cottages in the suburb beyond the South Gate, from which it is speculated that survivors of the plague moved to available and better located intramural properties.471
In Norwich, of ninety-one shops, stalls and tenements listed in a 1346 rental, forty-six had changed hands before 1357 and twenty-seven (29 per cent) were still vacant in that year.472 In Coventry, it has been noted that the increase in property deeds (from fifty-seven surviving in the Coventry archives for 1348 to 177 in 1349) was accompanied by an increase in the use of the term quondam (one-time) when referring to adjacent properties for locational purposes. Thus, rather than mentioning existing tenants, the deeds referred to those who formerly held the properties. This usage went up from 21 per cent in 1348 to 46 per cent in 1349, hinting at a significant increase in the prevalence of empty properties. In Oxford, many halls formerly used for student accommodation lay empty immediately following the first outbreak, a picture supported by evidence of decaying buildings and vacant plots.473 In many other towns, the decrease in rents gathered by religious institutions hints at the same story. Henry Knighton’s chronicle noted that ‘after the plague many buildings both large and small, in all the cities, boroughs and townships, decayed and were utterly razed to the ground’.474 This glut of urban property may have impacted on the size of the properties in London. St Martin’s seld, a covered market in the parish of St Pancras Soper Lane, contained twenty-one plots in 1250; by 1360 it comprised eleven larger plots, some of which were now shops with rooms above.475
However, this picture of contraction is complicated by the fact that an interest in speculative building activities remained and indeed increased in certain areas of the city and surroundings. The wealthy merchants Adam Fraunceys and John Pyel had, in August 1348 (thus just before the plague), contracted with the prioress of St Helen’s Bishopsgate to demolish certain houses between the high road on the west and the convent garden and cemetery on the east; the aim was to build a new house and a block of five two-storey shops along the street. Despite the fact that the programme of building works ran throughout the months of the epidemic, the scheme had by December 1349 expanded to create eight shops and two houses. Before 1373, Fraunceys also built a block of at least six shops immediately east of the Austin friary in Broad Street. Other city projects included considerable redevelopment by the dean and chapter of the area south of St Paul’s Cathedral on the sites of the cathedral brewery and bakery, in 1369–70, comprising one range of twenty shops with cellars and another of eighteen shops with cellars; and a block of five shops and houses built on Addle Lane in 1383 by Thomas Carlton, a borderer.
In Southwark in the 1370s there was clear evidence of similar large-scale building along Bermondsey Street and Tooley Street. In the latter, in 1373, a master carpenter was contracted by the prior of Lewes to build eleven jet-tied shops adjacent to the gatehouse of the prior’s house in explicit imitation of the row built by Adam Fraunceys. At Westminster, rows of shops appeared in the precinct from 1354, and the site of the almonry was redeveloped by the almoner in successive blocks between 1357 and 1387, resulting in some thirty-four shops along the south side of Tothill Street. Subsidence required one shop to be raised on a new clay platform, indicating the relative simplicity of the buildings. These unitary, purpose-built developments were clearly not the only kinds of construction going on in the metropolis, but their appearance suggests a demand for a new kind of commercial property. There appears to be no evidence for new projects of this particular kind beyond 1400 for about a century, suggesting that it was a phenomenon associated with certain conditions and opportunities.476
Archaeological evidence for change to the city’s topography is not at all clear: truncation of the majority of floor levels by more recent building activities generally leaves just foundations, rubbish pits and cesspits, making it rather hard to develop any coherent picture of the changes in the late fourteenth-century building pattern. Closer analysis of cesspit disuse alongside documentary evidence for the plots may well reveal more of a pattern of change or indeed continuity. In summary, it may be possible to envisage a contrasting picture of a far less crowded city and one with many new faces, displaying some decay and vacancy alongside bold, new and sometimes extensive redevelopment.
The plague might also have had an effect on the administration and governance of the city. Wider impacts on royal government included a reduction in experienced administrative staff through significant losses of the most senior officials in Chancery (three out of twelve clerks of the Ist grade died in both the first and second outbreaks), the Exchequer and the royal household. Longer-term changes in property rights, the Crown’s approach to taxation, legislative controls over employment and appointments in county administration may all have been encouraged or hastened by the effects of the epidemics, even if some of the national labour market controls may have been adopted and adapted from pre-plague attempts by the city authorities at market regulation and enforcement.477 However, these changes affected the whole nation, not specifically London. The demographic pressure induced by successive waves of plague certainly did have an impact on the stock from which the ruling city elite were drawn, and the basis for one of the city’s more important codifications of its customs and regulations, the Liber Albus (dated 1419), makes this issue plain:
when, as not unfrequently happens, all the aged, most experienced, and most discreet rulers of the royal City of London have been carried off at the same instant, as it were, by pestilence, younger persons who have succeeded them in the government of the City, have on various occasions been often at a loss from the very want of such written information, the result of which has repeatedly been dispute and perplexity among them as to the decisions which they should give.478
This change in the status quo was also evident in the evolution of burial customs of the aldermen, and was in the same volume placed firmly at the door of the plague:
For it is matter of experience that even since … 1350, at the sepulture of Aldermen the ancient custom of interment with baronial honours was observed … But by reason of the sudden and frequent changes of the Aldermen and the repeated occurence of pestilence, this ceremonial in London gradually died out and disappeared.479
These observations, compiled by Richard Whittington, Mayor of London, provide a powerful sense of the impact of a high mortality rate on the preservation of experience and learning among the ruling class of the city, and suggest that an old order had passed with the plague. The elite were primarily drawn from the merchant class and merchant families now rarely survived for more than three generations in the male line.480
Competition for apprentices for the gilds which these merchant families ran became fiercer as a result of the plague. The devastating mortality rate experienced among apprentices in companies such as the Goldsmiths’ (see Chapter 3) appears to have seriously exacerbated a problem of depressed numbers in the early 1340s. Analysis of a sample of gild ordinances shows that prohibition of ‘enticement’ or poaching of apprentices was specified in 56 per cent of cases (14/25) between 1344 and 1400, relaxing to just 14 per cent (4/28) in the period 1451–1500.481 Competition, already significant when the plague struck, grew much fiercer in its wake and required regulation and management. As well as prohibitive measures, customary entry charges fell as gilds moved to encourage a greater uptake of positions. The grocers’ fee for taking on apprentices was 20s in 1345, a sum which had plummeted to 3s 4d by 1376.482 Younger starting ages (between 10 and 14) seem to have been permitted in the second half of the fourteenth century, and greater opportunities for the apprentices may be responsible for the fifty cases of absenteeism recorded in the surviving Mayor’s Letters between 1350 and 1370.483 Such cases also indicate that civic authorities were investing considerable time after the plague helping masters to recover apprentices who had left before completing their contracts, in contrast to the position beforehand.484
Overall, the strategies employed to maintain numbers seem to have worked – despite dips, the average enrolment of the Goldsmiths’ Company was nineteen between 1334 and 1400, and seventeen between 1400 and 1500. Those who survived appear to have been able to reap the rewards: nearly 75 per cent of apprentices enrolled in the Goldsmiths’ Company had taken on their own apprentice within eight to sixteen years of enrolment, compared with under half in the last quarter of the fourteenth century.485
There is some evidence for rapid change in certain craft trades which is suggestive of a link to the Black Death. London’s trade in monumental brasses went through a process of rationalisation from a number of smaller entities to two big workshops which emerged in the second half of the 1350s, and for the next half-century these two firms would command a very large share of the English market overall. The first decade of this transformation may have been affected by skills loss, since minor compositions and not major monuments formed the principal output until around 1360.486 Pottery trading in the London area also appears to have undergone a significant change, with pottery industries formerly used commonly in the capital all but vanishing from the scene and being replaced by new products.487 Such transformations in industries would be unsurprising results of the high mortality of trained and experienced craftsmen, and it is probable that changes can be identified through closer examination of other London crafts and industries.
Civic ordinances and customs can provide a useful snapshot of changing habits and behaviours. Trading standards and controls were already in place in the city long before the advent of the plague, but there certainly seems to have been a transformation in the regulation of the city dress code, which was not governed by wider royal decree. In January 1352 the mayor and aldermen noted that ‘common lewd’ women had ‘of late’ begun to dress themselves in the manner ‘of good and noble dames and damsels of the realm’, and issued an order that neither resident nor visitor of lesser standing should wear any garments trimmed with fur, lined with sandal, buckram or samite, by day or night, in winter or summer, ‘so that all folks, native or strangers, may have knowledge of what rank they are’. Forfeiture of the offending garment and/or prison were the punishments for transgressors.488
Of itself, there seems to be no direct link to pestilence since negative observations about the change in fashion appear prior to 1348, along with dire warnings about the misfortune that would befall such sins of pride; but what is important is that two subsequent chroniclers of the 1360s saw the wearing of indecent clothing as a specific cause for the wrath of God in the form of pestilence, and one Westminster monk, John of Reading, appears to echo Whittington’s sentiments of a lost world order when he emotionally connected these outlandish fashions with a collapse of moral virtue and the readiness with which men and women would now consort with strangers, deflower virgins, and ‘pervert every convention, decency and standard’.489 Sumptuary laws of 1363 enacted into legislation similar controls to those city regulations of 1351, establishing ownership in London (and other towns) of £1,000 or more in goods and chattels to be the equivalent of esquires and gentlemen with £200 worth of land in terms of the dress code.
Women in London were subject to other kinds of control in the later fourteenth century. The pillory, a high wooden platform in Cheapside reached by a ladder upon which stood a frame that constrained the body in an extremely uncomfortable manner, was known to be in use from at least 1310, but the Letter Books and other sources mention only eight examples of its use between that date and the outbreak of plague in 1348. In contrast, no less than seventy-three cases are registered between 1350 and 1400 (59 per cent of all 125 cases identified between 1310 and 1500). Either crime was rife or the detection of cases and their prosecution was much more rigorous. Of these seventy-three cases, sixty-three were men, committed for one or more hours for a range of crimes including deception, impersonation of officials, cheating, theft, selling counterfeit or putrid goods, oath-breaking and prostitution. However, ten cases (13.6 per cent) were women, punished for a similar range of crimes, and of these, nine were sent to a specific type of pillory or punishment structure called the thewe, about which we know very little.
The thewe seems to have been a pillory specifically built for women, or perhaps a form of ducking stool. It is first mentioned in 1364 when Alice de Caustone, an ale-seller, had been caught thickening the bottom of a quart measure with pitch covered with rosemary to defraud buyers.490 The pillory (and presumably thewe) were not simply irritating, stressful and humiliating punishments. A case in 1350 brought against seventeen men and five women for forestalling poultry (selling it before it arrived at the regulated market) made clear that one, previously convicted, would be pilloried while the remaining twenty-one would be let off with prison as it was their first offence. It is clear that the pillory was considered worse than a prison sentence. A specific focus on the punishment of women is also hinted at by the bequest by Thomas Gauder of money to both a house of women and a house of felons at Newgate.491 There is, therefore, a sense that regulation and punishment had become much more of a public focus and that within this new regime, the transgressions of women had been specifically singled out. The influx of many new families as a result of the plague losses, and the perceived transformation of the old order in consequence, may have stimulated this need to establish control.
This attempt to exert controls extended to those who may not have transgressed specific regulations, but who nevertheless appeared guilty of avoiding work and attempting to live by means of charity alone. As far as government was concerned, the need to maintain a cap on earnings and wages had to be met in part by the increase in labour supply, at a time when this was in very short supply. The Ordinance of Labourers, enshrined in statute in 1351, encouraged disapproval of the ‘sturdy beggars’ – the undeserving poor – and subsequent city regulations made it an offence for those who could work to avoid it. Furthermore, those tempted to help them should be dissuaded, even forcefully through penalties of their own.492 The reduction in dole money for major obituaries at Westminster has already been suggested as a result of this change in attitude (see Chapter 3), and this shift in emphasis may have triggered a change in the way hospitality, almsgiving and care for the sick manifested itself physically, through the arrangement and architecture of almonries and infirmaries.
The almonry of Westminster Abbey provides an important example of this. From 1290, the almonry was marked as a space separate from the abbey by a ditch and hedge. Principal buildings were visible from Tothill Street to the north and access was relatively uncontrolled. After 1350, the range of shops and houses described earlier, and, significantly, a gatehouse, came to line the street frontages and the space became highly controlled and inward-focused. It has been argued that this was as a result of the monks responding to the new ideology where the focus was shifting (a) to the concept of a deserving poor (and thus by implication exclusion of the undeserving poor), and (b) towards greater emphasis on resident beneficiaries.493
The move towards residential charity is mirrored by a shift in the monastic infirmaries from day care to in-patient care previously described at abbeys such as Westminster,494 another change which can reasonably be ascribed to the effects of the plague. Subdivision of monastic dormitory halls into small, private rooms is well recounted and the process had begun well before 1348, but the plague may well have had a direct hand in similar evolution of the infirmary hall (and indeed the hospital hall). This has been dated generally to the period after 1350,495 supported by archaeological evidence from sites in the London region. At the Augustinian priory of Merton in Surrey, about 6 miles south-west of the city, a very deliberate subdivision of the infirmary hall into partitioned rooms with tiled floors measuring 3.7m by 2.4m has been dated to the 1360s or 1370 s, as has the insertion of timber screens at Waltham Abbey, Essex. At Westminster, documentary and architectural evidence indicates that the new infirmary, begun around 1360 and completed before 1390, provided chambers for all the beds.496
Examination of the care of Westminster monks in the infirmary between 1297–1355 and 1381–1417 may shed light on the timing for this change. Infirmarers’ records show that the custom of providing a pittance to monks visiting the infirmary ceased for day-patients some time between 1354 and 1380. Thereafter, only in-patients received this sum of money: the concept of day-patients appears to have vanished. The time that in-patients spent there changed considerably from that seen before the plague, and indeed from that witnessed in the immediate aftermath. The median duration of in–patients’ spells in the infirmary was twenty-two days in the first half of the fourteenth century, but had dropped to nine days in the second half; while 50 per cent of the spells in the earlier period had lasted between fourteen and sixty-three days, for the later period this had significantly reduced to between six and fourteen days. Treatment was therefore intensified at once by focusing much more on in-patient care, and yet significantly reduced in that those who did require such care were no longer permitted to stay there as long as they once had. Pressure on a vastly reduced convent to keep the abbey going may have been a key factor.497 Such a move away from day care towards more intensive in-patient care may have catalysed redevelopment of the infirmary here and at other monastic houses in London to include separate chambers.
Monasteries and hospitals were not the only sources of charity. Individual gifts and bequests were hugely important in this regard. It is possible to examine the trends in pious and charitable bequests from the Husting wills and to consider the degree to which the concept of the deserving poor was reflected in the gifts left by well-meaning Londoners. Care must be given to the changing character of the wills themselves in the 1340s, but it is clear from a key study of testamentary behaviour that Londoners gave consistently more to the poor as the century progressed, and a high point of giving was in the decade after the first outbreak. This giving often took place at the graveside of the benefactor on the day of their funeral. Each pauper attending the funeral might get ½d or 1d, but the overall sums could be quite significant: for example, woolmonger Thomas Broun (d. 1357) and Richard de Walsted (d. 1366) both left 20 marks to be distributed in 1d lots, thus allowing for up to 3,200 poor people to benefit.
This form of charity was intended even by those caught up in the plague. In 1361 clerk Walter de Kent left 20s to be split in ½d portions suggesting he hoped 480 paupers would benefit; Hugh Peyntour’s will drawn up in the same year similarly left ½d to 1,000 poor men. But former mayor, Richard de Kislingbury, eclipsed even these gifts by leaving £60 to be divided among the poor – at 1d each this would have benefited 14,400 paupers – and 9½ sacks (3,458lb in weight) of wool to be divided as one fleece per pauper. As a fleece may weigh as much as 12lb, this might have provided for 288 paupers.498 We know that this kind of distribution did occur en masse as the wills suggest, since the Coroners’ Rolls recorded the crushing to death in 1332 of fifty-two paupers as a result of crowding at the gate to Blackfriars during the distribution of money from Henry Fingrie’s will.499
Some bequests were more particular, donating money to poor women, poor girls for marriage portions, or to poor widows. This kind of charity was relatively infrequent, appearing in less than I per cent of wills before the pestis secunda. During and after 1361, this increases to nearly 2 per cent (see Fig. 15). This trend can be complemented by around 10 per cent frequency found in a sample of Prerogative Court of Canterbury wills for Londoners between 1400 and 1530.500 Such a pattern may show that Londoners perceived a diminishing in the marriage prospects of poor girls (nine cases), and, to a lesser extent, a stress on the ability of poor women, especially widows, to survive in the decades of major plague visitations (two cases). This sense of focus is strengthened when one considers that three of the wills were geographically specific. John Longe, a vintner, willed in 1361 money to support the marriage portions of poor girls throughout London; in the fourth outbreak, John Herlawe’s will of October 1375 left money for the relief of the poor women and widows specifically living in Lime Street, rather suggesting that they were there in some numbers; and in 1390 William Trippelow left money to poor men and sick widows in five named city parishes. Such approaches are representative of an increasing focus on particular social groups or even individuals for charitable bequests in the second half of the century, a focus that is likely to represent a response to the plague.
Religious fraternities provided charity for members and their families should times prove hard, and also undertook wider charitable works within the community. Their role in providing some form of safety net for members’ families and dependants in the first plague of 1348–9 has already been discussed, but the popularity of such groups increased significantly throughout the remainder of the fourteenth century, and, it seems clear, in response to successive epidemics. Only five fraternities are known to have existed before 1348, a number which doubled during 1349. Over the next fifty years, a further seventy-four fraternities were established in the city, their popularity witnessed by a major increase in the number of testators at the court of Husting who bequeathed goods and money to them.501 As a percentage of the overall number of Husting wills, individuals making such bequests rose steadily from 4.8 per cent in the decade immediately after the first outbreak to a high of 19.8 per cent in the 1380s (see Fig. 15). The most popular fraternities to leave bequests to were St John the Baptist, for the gild of tailors, in St Paul’s Cathedral (a total of 12.5 per cent of all 128 separate bequests recorded between 1338 and 1398), the fraternity of Salve Regina in the church of St Magnus the Martyr (7 per cent), and the drapers’ fraternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the St Mary-le-Bow (5.5 per cent).502 While the rise of such fraternities, linked often to crafts and trades as well as to local parish churches, was not solely precipitated by the successive waves of plague, it has been noted that it was ‘not by chance that every set of fourteenth-century London fraternity ordinances specifies in great detail the burial obligations of its members, and that the Black Death at least provided incentive, and means for formation of parish fraternities’;503 gifts to such bodies ensured that the charity was focused quite particularly on the testators’ neighbours, craft colleagues or friends.
Charitable bequests to assist poor hermits, anchorites and anchoresses also rapidly increased during the plague decades. These lone religious men and women, usually attached to churches, were reliant entirely on the generosity of the community. Hermits were able to leave their cells and undertake good works on behalf of the community, while anchorites and anchoresses were effectively confined, spending their lives in prayer. They were neither numerous nor widespread in London but they must have been well known. Husting wills before 1341 would not normally make any reference to them, since testators generally supported them with pecuniary bequests which were not included in the will until after this date. The great majority of the wills did not specify individual recluses, preferring presumably to leave the choice of beneficiary to the executor. These normally thus stated that a sum of money was to go to each anchorite and hermit of London, for example.
Some were much more specific, however, and from these we learn that there were anchorites associated with the churches of St Benet Fink and St Peter Cornhill (by 1345), St Giles Cripplegate (1348), St Lawrence Jewry, St Botolph Bishopsgate and Charing Cross (by 1361), the Swan’s Nest (east of the Tower of London, by 1371), St Giles leper hospital (1373), and St Katherine’s hospital by the Tower (a friar, John Ingram, by 1380). A hermit was resident at the chapel at the Newchurchehawe cemetery at West Smithfield by 1361.504 Anchoresses and ‘female recluses’ are also mentioned.
Altogether, seventy-six bequests were made between 1345 and 1398, so charity was relatively rare; but, as with the fraternities, the frequency rises from less than 2 per cent of wills in the decade 1349–58, to a steady average of 10 per cent in the last three decades of the century. The reputation of lone religious recluses lay in their particular intercessory powers – their prayers were seen to be potent, even among other forms of religious intercession – and here, surely, lies the reason for their increasing popularity in the wake of the visible sign of heavenly displeasure that was the pestilence.
Another group increasingly, and perhaps surprisingly, favoured with personal charitable bequests was London’s lepers. Fear of infection from the disease did, of course, exist prior to the pestilence. As early as 1277, the city forbade any lepers within the walls, and Edward III’s edict of 1346 requesting the removal of lepers from the city and suburbs made it clear that royal concern was in combating ‘the evils and perils which from the cause aforesaid may unto the said city, and the whole of our realm’. The impact of this edict is unknown, but following the first outbreak, the city felt able to use the concerns about mixing lepers with healthy citizens to attempt to argue for the replacement at St Giles leper hospital of (apparently healthy) members of the Order of St Lazarus with leprous Londoners in 1354; evidence of other attempts to restrict the entry of lepers followed in the 1370s. In 1372 a leprous baker was expelled from the city after being ‘oftentimes before … commanded by the Mayor and Aldermen to depart from the City’; on 27 August 1375 (so at the end of the fourth outbreak) a further city edict saw gate porters charged with ensuring no lepers entered the city, and managers at the Hackney leper hospital and the Lock in Southwark charged with not letting lepers leave those houses. In November 1375 the authorities proclaimed that ‘no lazar shall go about in the said city … and that every constable and beadle shall have power to take such persons, and bring them to Cornhill and put them in the stocks’.505
The link between plague and the control of leprosy appears to have continued into the fifteenth century.506 It could, therefore, be argued that the heightened awareness of the threat of contagion intensified efforts to segregate sufferers from the rest of society. It may be that there was a perceived link between episodes of plague visited upon a hapless populace by a wrathful God intent on punishment for sin, and the visible scourge of leprosy, itself considered to be a disease brought on by immorality and sin. However, the urgency with which the authorities appear to have prosecuted their control over access to the city by lepers needs to be examined against the broader backdrop of increasingly numerous bequests by citizens to improve the lot of these sufferers. An analysis of the calendar of Husting wills shows that specific bequests to lepers, or lazars as they were occasionally termed, only appear during the first plague outbreak of 1349. There are none earlier. During that outbreak, and the decade following, just under 2 per cent of all wills provided for lepers. This figure rose between 1359 and 1368 to 6 per cent, and then increased dramatically to 14 per cent by 1378. The numbers remained constant at about 10 per cent of Husting wills until c. 1400 (see Fig. 15). Thereafter, such bequests become very rare, but persist until the 1480s.
The importance of the three principal leper houses (the Lock just south of the Southwark urban settlement, the hospital of St Giles-in-the-Fields to the west of the city, and the leper hospital at Hackney, about 2 miles north of Bishopsgate), and the less-favoured hospital at St James Westminster, seems clear from such evidence, though it would need to be substantiated by a close analysis of the Archdeaconry and Commissary Court probates for the last two decades of the century. It is further supported from studies of Norwich, Yarmouth, Scarborough and Beverley which suggest an even greater and longer-lived popularity following the plague.507 The increasing favour in which Londoners held lepers as objects of charity after the pestilence provides a balance to the regulatory controls under which sufferers were placed, and supports recent research suggesting that the common, essentially Victorian, vision of the terrifying, unclean, contagious bell-ringers is a too simplistic way of characterising medieval approaches to this tragic disease.508 While a link between leprosy and pestilence may have been established, the inmates of the hospitals were the subject of pity and their intercessory prayers were considered to be highly effective.
The most tightly regulated and confined social group to benefit from changes in charitable giving after the first pestilence was that of prisoners. In common with others, we do not see major gift-giving at all before 1341 since the wills did not include pecuniary bequests, but a clear increase in charitable bequests can be seen over the plague period. London had five principal gaols by the late fourteenth century: Newgate, Ludgate, the Fleet (all dating to before the fourteenth century), and across the river in Southwark, King’s Bench (from 1368) and Marshalsea (from 1373).509 Conditions in London gaols were hard. Inmates were expected to live off their own means or charity, and if that was not forthcoming, it could spell disaster.
The Newgate ordinances of the early fifteenth century indicate that gaolers could and did intercept alms, and the (incomplete) Coroners’ Rolls record fifty deaths within Newgate in the years 1322–6 and 1338–40, at least two of which (in 1322) were from starvation. From the late fourteenth century, different zones existed in Newgate: imprisoned citizens had rooms with privies and chimneys (men on the north side of the prison, women on the south); foreigners and inferiors had ‘less convenient cells’ (in another part); and those guilty of major crimes were incarcerated in the basement cells (also on the south side).510 Bequests to assist prisoners emerge for the first time in the Husting wills in 1346, but rise sharply after the first outbreak, to 5 per cent in the 1360s – the decade of the second and third plagues – and an average of about 10 per cent of all wills made between 1370 and 1400. This form of charity became firmly established, appearing in an average of 25 per cent of a sample of wills from the Prerogative Court of Canterbury covering the period 1400–1530.511
The sums were sometimes significant. John de Pulteney, for example, left 4 marks annually to prisoners in Newgate. A link to the pestilence seems to be confirmed by the fact that the rate of bequests for wills specifically made within the months of the pestis secunda in 1361 was 11 per cent. The motivation behind such charity seems to focus on the poverty of prisoners; John Scorfeyn’s personal concern in his will of 1389 was ‘for poor prisoners, more especially women, in Ludgate and Newgate’.512 Citizens will no doubt have been well aware of their perilous situation and several wills refer to the redemption of poor prisoners, aiming to effect the release of those unable to find the money to pay off their debts.
Developing in parallel with this shift in charitable bequests was an increasing concern for the location and nature of burial. This manifested itself at three levels: the first was in the selection of particular churches or religious houses for burial; the second was in the decision to be buried within the church or chapel, or outside; and the third was the degree of precision provided for the burial. The clearest measure of change can be seen in the number of people who specified a location at all. The Husting wills only begin to mention burial location in 1275, but it is very rarely recorded between then and about 1339 when the practice of stating a preference for a particular church or religious house begins to gain popularity. From January 1347 through to the essential cessation of the first plague outbreak in July 1349, only 44 per cent of Husting will-makers specified where they wished to be buried. Between August 1349 and March 1361, this figure rose dramatically to 74 per cent, rising again to 88 per cent during the second pestilence. By the end of 1375 it had reached 96 per cent.
There seems little doubt that Londoners felt a greatly increased need to express their choice of burial site. Of those naming their preferred church, most felt the need to further specify either an intramural burial (averaging 67.7 per cent) or burial in a churchyard (27.4 per cent). This ratio seems not to have changed across the period in any meaningful way. Notable within this general trend is the rapid increase in popularity of St Paul’s Cathedral, and especially the Pardon churchyard there. The name appears first in April 1349, but only one will (of 392 dated between 1 November 1348 and I August 1349) makes reference during the first plague; between the first and second plagues, the frequency rose to 2.5 per cent (4 of 160 wills between August 1349 and March 1361),513 and during the three months of the second plague it jumped rapidly to 12.1 per cent (16 of 132 wills), remaining at over 9 per cent thereafter (to the end of the 1370s). This contrasts strongly with the frequency of such testators requesting burial in the new cemeteries founded at East and West Smithfield, where the numbers average less than 1 per cent throughout the fourteenth century, and suggests that the wealthy developed a preference for the city’s mother church in times of crisis, rather than adopting the newer institutions founded to cater for those crises. The friaries were poorly represented: between 1348 and 1370 only eight testators chose them for burial. This is perhaps surprising, given the fact that 175 testators left bequests during the same period to the four principal friaries.514
An increasing number of testators specified burial adjacent to a family member or loved one. The frequency was just 10 per cent up to the end of the first outbreak, but doubled to 21 per cent in the following decade, and rose again during and after the second plague to 24 per cent. It reached a height of 30 per cent in the third plague, but then appears to have fallen away to 12 per cent until the end of 1377. A comparative study on a sample of the Commissary Court wills from 1380 to 1541 concluded that between 18 and 60 per cent of testators identified a specific burial location;515 so it may be that burial preference became more frequently expressed in other documents than the Husting enrolments.
The instructions could be very specific, requesting burial within the same tomb as a relative. In the case of John de Rothyng, a vintner, this was taken to considerable extremes. In his will dated 23 May 1375 he requested burial in St James Garlickhythe in the centre of the belfry floor and desired that the bodies of his mother and father be removed from their current location and buried with him.516 Possibly the fragmentation of families as a result of the disaster elicited a strong response for survivors to ensure that they were reunited in death, if not necessarily during life. Noble dynastic mausolea were already well known in major churches across the land, but it might be argued that the plague provided a significant impetus for the development of family plots and vaults for the post-epidemic merchant and artisan classes.
Preparation for the afterlife, for some, involved the foundation of chantries where Masses for the souls of the founder and their family might be sung on a regular basis. Some had elaborate chapels built to house them, within or connected to a church; others were conducted at specified altars within the church. Some were perpetual, involving the allocation of property to generate income to pay for chaplains; others were funded by fraternities from year to year, and more were temporary, paid for by a bequest of money to purchase Masses for a specified period, often one year. The impact of the Black Death was ultimately complex. The national picture of perpetual chantries is one where the plague acted to greatly decrease the number of foundations. Studies of alienation in mortmain (the requirement for a royal licence to pass property to the Church) have shown that there was a dramatic reduction in the foundation of perpetual chantries in England following 1348. This national picture appears to be confirmed by specific studies of chantries in St Paul’s Cathedral. Of eighty-four chantries founded in the cathedral between 1200 and 1548, sixty predate the plague; only seven were founded in the first fifty years after 1349. Noteworthy are the three chantries founded during 1349 as a direct result of the plague, but the trend is clear. Here, though, the plague must be seen as a contributor not the cause, for pressure was already apparent on the space available for new chantries and concerns about the impact of chantries on parish livings.
The plague brought a shortage of priests and in 1370 six chantries were vacant at St Paul’s, a situation resolved only by a major amalgamation of chantries in 1391. The impact was therefore two-fold: a drop in foundation rate and a reduction in the number of existing chantries.517 This is not, however, to say that chantry foundation as a whole decreased. A study of the bequests to chantries in the Husting wills shows that from 1259 to 1348, a total of 450 wills made mention of chantries (perpetual and temporary), an average of five wills per year. From 1349 to 1370, 383 wills made mention of chantries – an average of seventeen per year. This increase is partly skewed by the inclusion from 1341 of pecuniary bequests in Husting wills, but the trend is undoubtedly genuine.
More people left money to a greater number of temporary chantries, rather than providing larger grants to single long-term institutions. A related phenomenon appears after 1349 of large numbers of Masses being requested. To the 10,000 Masses of William de Thorneye (see Chapter 2) can be added the example of Johanna Cros, who left bequests to both plague chapels, to ‘chantries’ for the souls of her and her family, and for 11,000 Ave Marias and 11,000 paternosters to be said. In effect, the temporal dimension of a chantry foundation was being eschewed in favour of the quantity of intercession.518 Overall, therefore, the pattern of chantry support shifted significantly in response to the plague, tending away from perpetual foundations towards more immediate and more intense approaches to intercession and commemoration: faith in long-term stability appears to have been weakened.
Burial practice itself may have changed in the wake of the 1348 outbreak, probably reflecting another stratagem for ensuring intercession for the soul. The use of papal bullae as amulets or charms to accompany the dead has been described elsewhere (see Fig. 16),519 but the importance of the rite here is that the majority of known examples date to the period 1350–70. The link between the discovery of these lead seals in graves, the rise of Chaucer’s despised pardoners in the later fourteenth century, and good evidence in the same period for the counterfeiting and import of such seals, suggests a lively market in the purchase of talismans to reduce the pain of Purgatory or to ward off sudden death.
These observations on the social impacts of the plague are only part of the story. The impact on London’s economy and its relationship with its markets and its hinterland, and the longer-term changes wrought in demographic structure and population movement, have not been the subject of this study, but the potential must surely be there. The examples of social change suggest that it is reasonable to assert that the plague triggered a fundamental shift in charity and good works, linked to strategies for securing the salvation of the soul, but also, clearly, linked to simple empathy and sympathy for those less fortunate than the benefactors themselves. It is dangerous to generalise, but there is a sense that while better-off Londoners were perhaps more choosy about what they gave and to whom, they gave more than they had before the plagues, and they placed an increasing value on family, friends and neighbours through their ties with the parish, the fraternities, and through their choices for the hereafter. And this pattern developed in the face of disasters which saw whole families extinguished and neighbourhoods transformed. If there is a single word which captures the character of the city through this extraordinary trial, it is resilience.