Post-classical history

13

THE PLAGUE IN A MEDIEVAL VILLAGE

STATISTICS alone cannot provide an adequate picture of the Black Death. That 48.6 per cent of the beneficed clergy in a given diocese died between April and September 1349 is an imposing but somewhat flavourless concept which, in itself, gives no very vivid impression of the sufferings of the people. That a quarter, a third or even half the population died as well is more striking, but the figures still convey no proper idea of what so brutal a depopulation meant to those who survived. In every country the great majority of those who lived and those who died were village dwellers, dependent on agriculture for their existence.

The academic historian rightly distrusts, even if he does not despise, the work of imaginative reconstruction produced by the historical novelist. A fortiori, there must be excellent reason to justify the introduction into a book of this kind of any detail which lacks some sort of documentary evidence. But if the effect of the Black Death is really to be understood then it must be studied at work in a small village community and some attempt be made to evoke the atmosphere which it created and which it left behind it. Not enough is known about any one village to make this possible, but, by piecing together scraps of authenticated material, it is possible to construct a coherent picture which, in essence, is plausible and valid. Only by such an exercise can one hope to put flesh on the dry statistical bones provided by the records of the period.

The village of Blakwater, then, is imaginary; that is to say it is not to be found on any map and was unknown to the compilers of the Domesday Survey. But in its organization and its composition it is not in the least a work of imagination; on the contrary it is very ordinary, and every feature could be duplicated in many hundreds of similar villages scattered over the face of England. It is perhaps a little richer and better run than most and it has for this reason been endowed with a poorer neighbour, Preston Stautney, which is decidedly worse off than the average village of the county. Together these two villages present a reasonably accurate picture of a rural community of the open or ‘champion’ country in the south of England around the middle of the fourteenth century.

Blakwater, then, was a medium sized village of some thirty families and a total population of about a hundred and fifty. Four of these families belonged to freemen paying rent to the lord of the manor but owing him no feudal service, other villagers were still all bound to the lord and had to do various works on his land in exchange for their cottages and strips of field. It did not seem likely that this would change rapidly since the landlord was William Edendon, Bishop of Winchester, and the Bishop, like most of his colleagues, was decidedly conservative in his attitude towards his tenants. He accepted that the commutation of labour services for money had already gone a long way in the English countryside and that – a point which caused him some distress – it was even to be found on his own estates. But he deplored the process, for social more than economic reasons, and it was well-known that his villeins would be unusually privileged if they were ever allowed to change their status.

The village lay about eight miles south-west of the King’s road between London and Winchester; a broad river of mud in winter and of choking dust in summer. The traffic along this road was as heavy as on any in England, not of horsemen and pedestrians only but also of horse-drawn carriages, some of them, belonging to the families of the great magnates, vast and sumptuously decorated. Needless to say, no such carriage, nor indeed any sort of wheeled vehicle, ever found its way down the meandering footpath which led from the highway to Blakwater. Perhaps more surprisingly, very few of the villagers ventured any distance in the other direction. Not a single inhabitant of Blakwater had been as far as London, let alone to any foreign country. Only half a dozen had reached Winchester; the parson, the steward, the reeve and one or two of the more adventurous villagers. For the rest of the people, it was an expedition to walk even as far as the rickety wooden bridge which spanned the stream of Blakwater barely half a mile from the edge of the village.

They felt no sense of deprivation. The village was closely knit, introverted and, by and large, content with its condition. Certainly it conducted some minor trade with the outside world, exported a little wheat and cattle to the market, imported some cloth and the odd manufactured article. But such trade was conducted by foreigners from Winchester through the intermediacy of the reeve or steward; so far as the other villagers were concerned it seemed to have little or no relevance to their daily life. What happened in the next village, let alone the next county, was a matter, if not of complete indifference, at least of minor and academic importance. It was entertaining to listen to the tales of travellers in the same spirit as, today, one might crowd to hear the words of an astronaut; but only the romantic or the reckless actually want to go to the moon and the inhabitant of Blakwater was no more likely to want to go to London or to Calais.

Beyond Blakwater the track became even worse, winding circuitously over the hill to the little village of Preston Stautney some four miles away. It was inevitable that there should be a certain amount of intercourse between the two communities. The young people met in the woods to play games or to poach the lord’s deer, sometimes they carried their games a little further and two or three of the families were linked by marriage. But on the whole the two villages kept themselves to themselves. There was no bad blood between them but the Blakwater folk tended to think themselves considerably better than their neighbours. For Preston Stautney was poor and small. Its land was nowhere near as fertile but this alone was not enough to explain the contrast. Twenty years before, indeed, it had been by no means so marked. But Sir Peter Stautney, the lord of the manor, was something of a wastrel. He liked to spend his time as a soldier on the Continent when he should have been tending his estates at home. Nor was his performance as a soldier likely to win much glory for himself or vicarious satisfaction for his tenants. Once, indeed, he had got himself captured by the French and his steward had had to sell a couple of villages and extract the last possible penny from the others before he could raise the necessary ransom. Discouraged by the lord’s indifference the bailiff had grown slack and was believed to be lining his own pockets at Sir Peter’s expense. The villagers took advantage of his idleness but were none the less resentful of what they felt to be his unfair exactions.

Preston Stautney, in short, was an unhappy village. It had dwindled to some fifteen families, a little over sixty inhabitants in all, and several of those who remained were talking of trying their luck elsewhere. It was, of course, against the law for a villein thus to desert his master but the bailiff would be unlikely to take any very vigorous steps to recapture the fugitive – especially if he had been softened up with a shilling or two in advance – and by the time Sir Peter discovered what had happened the refugee would be far away and beyond discovery. Not that they needed to go very far to be lost to Sir Peter. One of the free tenants at Blakwater was known to be an escaped villein from over the hill. He was a good worker and an honest man and the reeve had no intention of handing him back. Even if Sir Peter found out and complained to the Bishop he would not be likely to get much satisfaction.

For William of Edendon was one of the great magnates of the kingdom, attaching little importance to the protests of a country knight. More to the point, he was a capable and conscientious landlord, always ready to invest some part of his great riches in improving his estates and, though determined to get his due, never harsh or unreasonable in his exactions. He knew Sir Peter as an inefficient absentee, of interest only in that the chaos of his finances might make it possible to snap up one or two of his manors cheaply at some future date. The Bishop had put in the present steward some three years before, paid him well – fifty shillings a year, clothing, stabling for his horse, the use of part of the manor house and a peck of oats each day for his horse – and expected good service in return. The steward was responsible for seven manors in all but Blakwater was one of the largest and the most central and it was there that he had made his home. He came from somewhere the other side of Winchester, for the Bishop believed in putting foreigners in positions of authority on his manors, but he had been accepted by the villagers, if not as one of them, then at least as the next best thing.

On the whole the people of Blakwater thought themselves fortunate. But though they knew that they were more prosperous and more secure than their neighbours in Preston Stautney, from time to time they hankered wistfully after the greater freedom which the instability of the smaller village had incidentally bestowed on its inhabitants. For not only could the men of Preston Stautney leave their homes with impunity if they wanted to but the bailiff was always so short of ready money that it was easy, in exchange for a small payment, to get out of almost all the services which they were supposed to perform on the lord’s demesne. Indeed, most of the former villeins had by now commuted all their services for life and worked on what little was left of the demesne only for a money payment. But though their neighbours might boast about their liberty, the Blakwater men were satisfied for most of the time that their own full stomachs and well-built houses made their lot the happier. Only now and then, when their reeve seemed more than usually exigent, did they wonder whether freedom might not after all be worth the price of poverty.

But it was not only in its steward that Blakwater was fortunate. The vicar, though not a particularly strong or dynamic character, was a good man; genuinely fond of his flock and conceiving it his duty and his pleasure to serve them diligently. It could have been of him that Chaucer wrote:

A good man was ther of religioun,

And was a poure PERSON of a toun …

… He sette nat his benefice to hyre

And leet his sheep encombred in the myre

And ran to London, unto Seint Poules,

To seken hym a chaunterie for soules;

Or with a bretherhed to been withholde;

But dwelleth at hoom and kepte wel his folde.*

* A holy-minded man of good renown

There was, and poor, the Parson to the town …

… He did not set his benefice to hire

And leave his sheep encumbered in the mire

Or run to London to earn easy bread

By singing masses for the wealthy dead,

Or find some Brotherhood and get enrolled.

He stayed at home and watched over his fold.

The reeve, too, was fair and honest. He looked after the day to day administration of the village and understudied for the steward during the latter’s frequent absences. He was one of the villagers, the brother of the thatcher indeed, and had been reeve for more than twenty years. Now he was an old man and he had told the steward that he wanted to retire at the end of the year. In theory his successor would be elected by all the tenants of the village at a Manor Court but in practice the steward and vicar between them made sure that their candidate was the only one to be nominated. The identity of the new reeve was already decided on and known to all the village. It was to be Roger Tyler; descendant of tilers perhaps, but with no knowledge of the trade himself. Instead he was said to be the best handler of cattle in the neighbourhood and a sensible, determined man whose authority would willingly be accepted by the other villagers.

As befitted one of the richest of the villeins, Roger Tyler lived in a large, three-bayed house with matting on one of the floors and, a feature of rare luxury, a strip of oiled linen-cloth over one of the four windows. With him lived his old and invalid father, his wife, his sister and his four children – three sons, the eldest aged fourteen, and a girl of six. The family lived well, eating meat more often than any other household in the village except that of the steward. Certainly Roger’s standard of living was higher than the parson’s. Eggs were to be had most days, fish at least once a week and cabbages, leeks, onions, peas and beans were all available in season. For the main meal of the day it would be quite usual to eat a vegetable gruel, rye bread, meat and a piece of cheese, washed down with cider or a thin beer made without hops. He had a few fruit trees as well: apples, pears and a medlar, and he took a share of the walnuts and chestnuts from the garden of the manor. In winter, of course, things were harder, but there was almost always a piece of salted bacon in the house. Unfortunately salt was so expensive that even Roger Tyler was forced to skimp and the bacon was often rancid and almost uneatable long before spring arrived.

Things were different next door where Roger’s widowed aunt lived alone. Roger had tried to persuade her to join his family but she valued her independence too high. In Chaucer’s words again she was:

A poure wydwe somdel stape in age

Was whilom dwelling in a narwe cotage

Beside a grove, stondynge in a dale …

… Thre large sowes hadde she, and namo,

Thre keen, and eek a sheep that highte Malle,

Ful sooty was hir bour and eek hire halle,

In which she eet ful many a sklendre meel …

No wyn ne drank she, neither whit ne reed;

Hir bord was served moost with whit and blak –

Milk and broun bread, in which she found no lak-

Seynd bacon, and somtyme an ey or tweye;

For she was, as it were, a maner deye.*

Where Roger’s family slept on bags of flock, she made do with a few handfuls of straw on the mud floor; cider and beer were an unknown luxury in her house and, as against Roger’s well-organized messuage and commodious barn where he stored fodder for his cattle, she had only a tumbledown shed where her pigs jostled for standing room. But she never complained about her lot and comforted herself with the thought of her good luck compared to those unfortunates at Preston Stautney who often had not got a single pig or even a chicken to their name. Besides, her relationship to Roger gave her a standing among the élite of the village: a select group which included the families of such worthies as the manorial clerk, the miller and the reeve.

Though Roger himself made a point of keeping the domestic animals out of the house this was by no means an invariable rule. In some of the houses goats, sheep and sometimes even cows lived jumbled up with the family, spreading their fleas amid the soiled straw and adding their smells to the rich compound which the medieval household could generate even without such extra help. Washing was a luxury and probably weakening to the constitution – to be indulged in with caution and only at long intervals. Bathing was unheard of. Needless to say, in such conditions, almost everyone had some sort of skin disease. Eye infections were also common and the lack of green vegetables led to a certain amount of scurvy. But in spite of the risks which the lack of hygiene involved for the new born baby or the nursing mother, the average villager was still reasonably healthy: his complaints more irritating than dangerous. The older inhabitants liked sometimes to recount tales which they had heard from their fathers about fearful pestilences which carried away great numbers of the villagers but the young were openly bored by this tedious romanticizing.

To the casual visitor from the present days the first impression of Blakwater might well have been that of a little village of some green upland in Swaziland or Zululand. The stone church with its round Saxon tower and Norman nave would have struck an unfamiliar note but the mud and wattle cottages with roof of reeds or hide and smoke seeping from every pore were superficially very like those to be found today in many of the less developed countries. The manor itself, with its large timber hall, where the court was held, its thatched wall of earth, and the big room above the gate reserved for the visits of the lord or his representative, was by far the most conspicuous group of buildings in the village. Within the wall it had a dovecot, a large fish pond and a well-stocked orchard, thatched hay-ricks, barns, stables and hen-houses: all the appurtenances, in fact, of a well run farm. The water mill lay just outside the walls; stoutly built on a frame of timber and sheltering the brand-new mill-stone from Northern France which was the miller’s pride. All the land around was part of the lord’s demesne.

The church was the other side of the manor with the parson’s house beside it. Then came a group of houses belonging to the richer villeins, Roger’s prominent among them, another row of houses similar in size but with rather less in the way of garden and out-buildings, where the less important villeins lived and finally the one-room huts of the cottars. For the most part the freeholders also had their houses in this part of the village. These paid rent to the lord instead of doing work for him and felt themselves to be far superior to their fellow villagers who were still bound to work on the demesne an average of three days a week.

But as Blakwater was richer than Preston Stautney, so the villeins of Blakwater were richer than the free tenants with the solitary exception of the miller who somehow contrived to unite independence with affluence. Their poverty was a source of constant chagrin to the freeholders, but, since the Bishop clearly intended that they should do no better while he remained their lord, they saw little hope of remedying the position.

Finally, on the fringe of the village, a ramshackle hovel provided shelter of a sort for poor Mad Meg; deformed from birth, shunned by her contemporaries and now grown crazed in squalid loneliness. Some said that she was a witch and the children used to enjoy chanting rude slogans outside her hut but nobody seriously believed that she could make successful mischief.

*

In spite of its position nearly two hours ‘walk from the highway, Blakwater was by no means cut off from the outside world. Down the little track came every kind of pedlar and huckster, free labourers looking for a new home, quack doctors, pardoners and friars, travelling shoemakers, the occasional minstrel, and seamen or voyagers taking a short cut across country to or from the Hampshire coast. It was one of these last who told the villagers that a dreadful plague was raging on the continent of Europe. He had not actually seen anything of it himself, nor indeed met anyone who had, but in Bordeaux, which he had lately visited, the port had been buzzing with horrific stories. The villagers were not particularly impressed. Where was this plague then? In Italy. And where was Italy? Rome they had heard of but the sailor did not know whether it was in Rome or not. ‘Poor folk,’ they muttered perfunctorily, and let the matter slip from their minds.

A few weeks later – it must have been in March or April 1348 – they heard the same story again. This time it came from one of the serfs at Preston Stautney, a man who had accompanied his master to the war and was now on his way home. He too had not seen anything himself but he claimed actually to have spoken to a Franciscan friar who had been in Avignon a few weeks after the plague arrived. He told of whole families wiped out, of pits filled with dead, of black clouds of lethal smoke destroying all who smelled or even saw it, of men erect and healthy at one moment and dying in agony at the next. Again the villagers nodded their heads sadly. England might not be paradise but at least it was a safer and better place than those unknown and dangerous countries across the sea.

It was not till the beginning of September that a report came that the plague had crossed the Channel and there were now victims on English soil. The news still made surprisingly little impression on the villagers. A plague in Dorset seemed to have little more relevance to their lives than in France or Italy. The harvest was in full swing and the only thing that really mattered was that they should get in the lord’s wheat in time to deal with their own before it rained. Any other consideration would have to wait. And when the harvest was safely in and they had time to concentrate on the news they still saw little to discomfit them. The plague was now said to be moving away towards the west. It was ridiculous to suppose that the Bishop would let it get any closer to his diocese.

Then came that Sunday in October when the parson mounted even more slowly than usual to his pulpit and, in a voice that he seemed to control with difficulty, told the congregation that he had received a letter in Latin from the Bishop and was now going to read a translation of it. ‘A voice in Rama has been heard …’ began the message, and went on to tell of the horrors which the plague had inflicted on people all over the world. The villagers shuffled their feet and looked furtively at one another. What were they supposed to do about it? ‘… this cruel plague’, the parson read on, ‘as we have heard, has already begun to afflict the various coasts of the realm of England. We are struck by the greatest fear lest, which God forbid, the fell disease ravage any part of our city and diocese …’

Roger Tyler drew in his breath and gave a look of shocked dismay at his wife and children beside him. Could it be then that the threat was real; that this dreadful thing could happen here in Blakwater? The parson droned on about psalms and penances but Roger barely listened. His mind was filled with a sense of dawning horror, a fear of something unknown and awful yet, in a curious way, painfully familiar. Perhaps, without realizing it, he had for several months been preparing himself for the news which had now arrived. He felt suddenly cold and pulled his tunic closer around him with a half-unconscious gesture.

It might have been the fact that the parson was speaking in church so that no one could argue or ask questions which made the whole thing seem more fearful. Somehow it was not quite as bad when he talked it over with his friends in the churchyard after the service. The Bishop didn’t say that the plague was coming, merely that it might. Evidently he believed that the saying of penances might avert the danger – well, the villagers could say plenty of those. After all, a plague was something which happened in big cities, not peaceful country villages. Probably, too, there was a lot of nonsense being talked about its severity. Everyone knew how exaggerated reports of this kind could be.

So the villagers comforted one another and, on the whole, they did it well. There was unusual activity around the church for a week or two but after a time even this began to flag and things went on much as before. The Bishop sent the parson another letter but he had nothing new to say. He wanted them all to pray, of course. Well, that was what Bishops were for and they would do as he said, but they were not going to panic because a lot of foreigners were dying at the other side of the country. They questioned avidly any new arrival at the village but the plague never reached any place of which they had heard.

Then, a week before Christmas, a pedlar stumbled into the village with the eager gloom of one who has bad news to break and means to make the most of it. He had been travelling to Winchester, he said, and had just reached the point where the track to Blakwater met the highway when he saw a group of men and women riding furiously in the other direction. Two or three of them were people of distinction, the rest servants. One of the servants stopped near him to adjust the baggage on his horse and the pedlar asked him what the hurry was. They were fleeing from the plague, was the answer. Hundreds were dying every day in Winchester, the graveyards were overflowing, there was fighting in the streets. He galloped off after his master, leaving the pedlar to look after himself as best he could.

There was no easy comfort now for the villagers. If the plague was in Winchester today then it might be in Blakwater tomorrow. The parson organized all the men of the village into a barefoot procession, carrying crosses and singing psalms. They marched around the village and ended up in the churchyard. But, as the parson privately admitted to Roger, he did it more to keep the people busy than in the hope that it would do much good. If God had decided that his people must be punished he was not likely to be deflected from his purpose at this late hour. ‘If it must come, it must come,’ he concluded gloomily, looking down the track that led to Winchester. Roger looked too; but what he was looking for he did not know: a sick man, perhaps – or the spectre of Death riding on a black horse?

The villagers were in an odd mood all that week. There was a strange, febrile gaiety. Everyone laughed and joked a lot and avoided talking about the dread that was uppermost in their minds. The village was always a friendly place but there was now an unusual sense of comradeship. People spontaneously helped each other; even Mad Meg was treated with unusual respect. The twelve days of Christmas were observed with all the usual jollification: more than usual, indeed, since everyone except the children was behaving as if he was acting a part and, like every amateur actor, was badly over-playing it. There was some suggestion that the steward should cancel the traditional dinner for the tenants on Christmas night; ‘At Christmas we banket, the rich with the poor,’ as Thomas Tusser was later to put it. But the outcry was immediate and the dinner was held with all its usual bawdy fun and the election of a lord of Misrule.

When the plague came in the end it was not by way of Winchester but through the back door from Preston Stautney. It had been a mild, wet winter and Bartholomew Thomasyn was barely recognizable for mud when he staggered up the track that linked the two villages. He had married a girl from Blakwater and so was well known there but the friendly greetings died on the lips of the peasants as he stammered out his news. His wife was dead, he said, and their little daughter with her. At least six other villagers were dead or dying. With nothing left to hold him to his house, he had fled. Soon others would be following his example. The village was doomed and all who stayed there would perish. He had not slept for three days nor eaten for twenty-four hours. His father-in-law led him away to get some rest and the group of peasants that had clustered around broke up with scarcely a word.

That afternoon the reeve walked quietly around the village asking a few of the wiser or senior inhabitants to come to a meeting in the hall of the manor. The steward was away on his travels but the parson was going to be there. Roger, of course, was among those invited. The group duly assembled but, when they were all seated around the table, no one seemed to have any idea what to say or do. The parson should have taken the lead but he looked ill and half-asleep and contributed nothing to the discussion while the reeve muttered some prepared preamble about the need to do something urgently and then looked helplessly around for contributions.

In the end Roger spoke up. Everyone who knew anything about the plague, he said, agreed that it was fatal to have any contact with the victims. The village, therefore, must cut itself off. Travellers should be forbidden to use the road through the village; if they wanted to by-pass it through the fields then they were welcome to do so but they should come no closer. Above all the village must have nothing to do with Preston Stautney. If anyone from there tried to enter Blakwater, they must be turned away – by force if necessary. This was not uncharitable for, after all, there was nothing that could be done to help. Anyway, charity began at home. Their first duty was to their wives and children.

No one spoke up against Roger’s plan but one of the elder villeins stirred uneasily at the end of the table. What about Bartholomew Thomasyn, he asked; was he to be allowed to stay? ‘He must go,’ put in Roger quickly, before anyone else could speak. He knew as he spoke how harsh his words must sound to Bartholomew’s father-in-law who was also at the meeting but he thought of his wife and children and knew that he was right. The reeve would back him and he could over-persuade the other villeins but he was nervous lest the parson should oppose him and argue that it was their Christian duty to help the sick. He glanced down towards the end of the table but the parson had his head sunk in his hands and gave no sign even of listening to the discussion. Bartholomew’s father-in-law protested but without much conviction. To all of them the peril seemed too great to leave room for sentimentality.

Suddenly the parson lurched to his feet. The peasants fell silent and looked expectantly towards him but, instead of speaking, he turned away and staggered through the door. Was he overcome by anger at their lack of charity, wondered Roger nervously? They watched him totter down the path towards the manor gate, reeling from one side to the other and seeming every instant about to fall. ‘Parson had a bit too much to drink?’ speculated one of the villagers. As he spoke the parson pitched forward on his face, tried to drag himself to his feet, then fell forward again and lay still. In a few seconds Roger was at his side. His breath was coming with a heavy wheezing noise, his cheeks were so hot that Roger snatched away his hand in alarm as he touched them. They carried him to his house and pulled the clothes from his twitching, fevered body. Under both armpits and in his groin red boils were growing: still small but not so small that those who saw them could doubt that they were the dreaded plague buboes about which they had heard so much.

Without looking at each other, without a word, the villagers slipped from the parsonage and fled to their own houses. Against the immense peril of the plague they had no recourse save that of prayer. Yet now the sickness of the parson seemed to have cut them off even from that ultimate hope. If God first struck down His chosen servant how terrible must be His wrath against the others! For a few hours they skulked indoors, scarcely venturing even to look outside. Everywhere, it seemed, the poisoned breath of the plague must be awaiting them. It was almost dark before Roger pulled himself together and walked out into the silent lane. He went from house to house, calling to the inhabitants. No other case of the plague had yet occurred. At the parsonage the parson had dropped into a restless sleep. He tossed and turned but his fever had grown a little milder. Could it be that Blakwater would escape lightly, that God would content himself with this dire warning and now avert his wrath. There seemed at least a ray of hope.

This happened on a Monday. On Tuesday there was no new case and the villagers began to creep cautiously from their houses and to talk together in hushed voices. On Wednesday there was still no further outbreak. The parson’s buboes had swollen and were now inflamed and painful but he himself had recovered consciousness and showed no signs of imminent decease. In sharp reaction to their earlier despair a wave almost of euphoria overcame the villagers. Surely the danger of a worse outbreak must fast be passing? Most of the peasants went off to work in the fields and, generally, life was returning to normal. Seeing Bartholomew Thomasyn outside his father-in-law’s house Roger remembered his plan for sealing off the village. With the plague already inside, there was little point in such precautions.

Wednesday was cold but clear. Roger rose at his usual time, looked anxiously at his family and saw with relief that all were well. Another night safely passed: he walked outside into his garden. His aunt’s house was quiet and no smoke came from the fire. Odd, she was usually up before him. In sudden apprehension he ran to the door. As he approached he heard a low moaning from within. The old lady was sprawled in a heap on the ground; she must have been overcome on her way to seek help. Her face was haggard, her eyes sunken and blood-shot. Her swollen tongue protruded from dry, cracked lips. She was barely conscious but aware that Roger was beside her. ‘Water!’ she croaked, in a whisper that hardly reached her nephew’s ear, ‘Water!’ When a pot of water was brought, she drank it down greedily; she was unable to control the movements of her tongue and, in spite of Roger’s efforts, a lot of the water dribbled down her front on to the floor. When the pot was empty she fell back exhausted, breathing stertorously but apparently a little the better for her drink.

Roger left her house to break the news to his wife. As he stepped from the hut he heard a harsh scream from behind him. The wife of one of the villeins burst out from her house into the road. In her arms she carried her little child; yesterday a healthy, cheerful boy of four months, now transformed in a few hours into a distorted and pain-racked caricature. ‘My baby,’ was all she could cry. Again and again: ‘My baby!’ ‘My baby!’ ‘My baby!’ Her husband ran after her and, with Roger’s help, mother and child were hustled back into their house. Even as they got inside the door the child stiffened itself in a final spasm of agony and lay back dead.

Almost stunned with horror Roger went back into the road. Was there any chance that the parson might be better and able to give consolation to the still hysterical mother? He walked quickly to the parsonage. As he entered he staggered back, overcome by the horrifying stench. The parson’s buboes had burst. His eyes wide open, his fists clenched, he was lying dead, staring blankly upwards from the pool of suppurating black filth which had oozed from the open boils. Roger turned and fled. Once in the garden he knelt and was violently sick.

With the parson’s death and the steward away the steward’s clerk was the only villager left who knew how to read and write. Usually he went with the steward on his travels but this time he had luckily stayed behind. In the name of the reeve he now wrote to the Bishop explaining the disasters which had overtaken the village and pleading that a new priest might be sent them as soon as possible. The letter was taken to the highway by one of the villeins and entrusted to the first respectable-looking traveller who came along. Now the village could only wait and hope.

The next two months were an almost uninterrupted nightmare. Sometimes two or three days at a time would pass without any new victims and the hopes of the villagers would begin to rise, but always in the end the disease struck again. One by one they sickened and died: the survivors kept the tally of the dead and wondered secretly who would be the next to go. It seemed that the hunger of the plague would only be satisfied when the last inhabitant had followed his parson to the grave. The old reeve was one of the first to die, leaving the village with no sort of leadership. All the men who had the courage and the strength rallied to the hall of the manor and elected Roger their new reeve. The court was not properly constituted in the absence of the steward but, in the circumstances, no one was disposed to worry about formalities. Apart from this one burst of corporate activity, the village lapsed into total apathy. Nobody tended the fields – for who would be left alive to reap the harvest? The cattle were neglected; the flimsy houses began to fall into disrepair; men and women lost all interest in their own appearance and lurked fearfully in their houses as if afraid to face the open air.

Almost the only occupation which aroused any interest was burying the dead. In the parson’s absence, the steward’s clerk used to read the service. After ten days or so of this, however, an itinerant friar turned up on the way to his religious house at Romsey. He promised the villagers that he would stay at Blakwater until a new priest arrived or the plague was over and he was as good as his word; tending the sick and laying out the dead with a fearlessness which quickly won him the respect and affection of the people. Then a new problem arose. In the first three weeks more than twenty people died and the old churchyard, crowded even before the epidemic, was quickly choked with new graves. Even if it had not been, Roger had a theory that it was dangerous to bury the plague victims so close to the centre of the village. He asked the friar to consecrate a new plot of land a few hundred yards away on the edge of the lord’s demesne. At first the friar refused; the plague could not frighten him but the anger of the Bishop if a new churchyard was opened without his permission and the payment of the usual fee was quite a different matter. However Roger promised that the fee would be paid and everything regularized in due course and, in the end, the friar grudgingly agreed.

The very next day a chaplain of the bishop’s rode into the village. The letter had been received and would be acted on, he told Roger, but there was no hope that the new priest would be in Blakwater for another three weeks at least. At the moment the Bishop had more than eighty benefices vacant in the diocese and, though he was doing all he could to fill them, some delay was inevitable. The chaplain looked coldly at the friar and still more coldly at the new graveyard but, since he could do nothing to remedy the matter, wisely held his peace. The ugly sullenness of the villagers probably warned him that it would be unwise to push them far.

When the chaplain rode on to Preston Stautney, Roger went with him so as to see how his neighbours were faring. Only then did he realize that, however badly Blakwater had suffered, others had fared still worse. The community had disintegrated. Of the sixteen or seventeen houses only four seemed still to be inhabited. The door of the church was standing open and somebody had been chopping up the stalls, presumably for firewood. Of the parson there was no trace at all, unless a large mound of freshly-dug earth in a corner of the churchyard covered both priest and flock. The only people they could find were a couple of old women sunning themselves forlornly outside their houses. All the others were dead, they said, dead or run away. The chaplain cross-examined them in an effort to get some rather more precise information and in the end established that at least a dozen villagers had taken to the woods in the hope of escaping the plague. But whether they were still alive or had been struck down in their flight, the old hags neither knew nor cared.

Soberly Roger returned to his home. He had seen so much suffering in the last few weeks, had felt so much pity and so much fear, that it seemed he had no emotion left which could be squeezed out for the sake of these further victims. Indeed, as he walked down the hillside to Blakwater he caught himself in a mood of self-congratulation at his own light escape. Uneasily he crossed himself and dismissed the dangerous thought from his mind. He had cause to remember his gesture and the moment of disquiet which had inspired it. When he arrived home he found his eldest son groaning with pain, vomiting almost continuously and in a high fever. The boy died after four days of intolerable suffering.

Even before he was in his grave Roger’s only daughter and his wife were on their sick beds. The former was one of the very few who were infected by the plague but still survived – her life was in great danger for several days but by some freak of chance the buboes proved less malignant than in other cases and subsided or suppurated harmlessly. Roger’s wife fought for her life for more than a week, clinging on tenaciously even when her body had been reduced to a shattered and malodorous hulk. In the end she succumbed and Roger cursed the god who could bring such misery on his defenceless servants.

Impotent, resentful, panic-stricken: the villagers were in a mood to revenge themselves on any target which came within their range. Poor Mad Meg provided an easy victim. Someone had met her by night conversing suspiciously with her obviously diabolic cat. Someone else had seen her lurking near the well – armed with poison without a doubt. A crowd of villagers worked themselves into a drunken frenzy on beer looted from the house of the ale-brewer and marched indignantly towards her house. Mad Meg heard them coming and slipped away into the woods. Probably she would have escaped their clumsy pursuit if one of the peasants had not seized hold of her cat and, brandishing it by the tail, smashed its head against a rock. In hysterical defence of the only living creature that had shown her any trace of love, Meg ran out from her hiding place among the trees. The villagers attacked her with sticks and stones and battered her to death in the clearing outside her miserable hovel.

Even the longest nightmare must end. By the time that the new parson arrived in early March the worst was over. The plague lingered for another two months but its full ferocity was past. A gap of four days occurred before the next case, then of five, then of a week; by the beginning of August there had been no new attack for nearly two months and the villagers could feel themselves safe. Thirty-eight of them had died, three others had been infected but had recovered, poor Mad Meg also had her claim to be a victim of the plague. Little by little the survivors began to look about them, to realize that they were still alive and likely to remain so, to pick up the pieces of their lives again.

They had plenty to do to keep themselves occupied. All the work in the fields had been neglected for more than six months and now, with a greatly weakened labour force, they had to make good the wasted time. But there were compensations. The same amount of land and cattle was now available to be shared out among fewer people; this meant that the work was harder but also that the reward was greater. Roger, who had considered himself one of the most over-worked villeins on the manor, was pressed by the steward to take on half his neighbour’s land at a nominal rent. Anything, the steward pleaded, was better than that it should go to waste. Reluctantly Roger agreed and found to his surprise that, with some hired help from one of the freemen of Blakwater, he could manage the extra land quite easily. Two or three other villeins also took on extra land and found themselves increasingly prosperous as a result.

However much new land the more energetic villeins had taken on, it would not by itself have been enough to fill the gaps left by the plague. But Preston Stautney’s loss proved to be Blakwater’s gain. The tenants of Sir Peter, who had escaped death by taking refuge in the woods, now saw little to attract them in their stricken village with its barren land and thriftless landlord. Some fled to more distant parts to make a new life but a few – four men in all with what was left of their families – arrived one day at Blakwater and appealed to the reeve and steward to let them settle. They said they were even prepared to give up their status of free men and to bind themselves to tender service to the Lord Bishop in exchange for a house and land.

Roger was anxious to take them in but the steward was less certain. The King had not yet passed his new laws forbidding the movement of free labour but it was, to say the least, unneighbourly to attract away peasants from a nearby village. Besides, though the four men claimed to be free, the steward had some private doubts whether they could prove their status in a court of law. But labour was short and expensive and the harvest had to be got in. In the end the steward agreed that they could stay until the Bishop’s representative paid his next visit and that the question would then be put to him. By the time the latter did come the men were firmly installed and it seemed a pity to disturb an arrangement which was working so satisfactorily. It was decided that they could stay, at least unless Sir Peter protested strongly. Since nobody thought fit to tell Sir Peter where his errant tenants were to be found, such a protest was never made.

By means such as this, the bailiff was remarkably successful in assuring an adequate supply of cheap labour and the Bishop of Winchester lost little financially. In the year before the plague the Bishop had gained an income of some £70 from the manor of Blakwater: £20 for the profit from farming the demesne and £50 in rents, fines and various court perquisites. In the year of the plague the pattern altered greatly. The profit from the demesne almost vanished and rents dwindled dramatically, either because the tenants were too poor to pay them or because nobody was left alive. But this was more than offset by a sharp increase in the income from fines payable on the estates of the dead or from property which escheated to the lord because no heir could be found. The Bishop ended the year with a profit on his manor slightly greater than the year before. This economic ebullience proved illusory. In the next twelve months higher labour costs, and uncertain markets continued to depress the profit on the demesne. Rents recovered, but by no means to the level which had prevailed before the plague. In particular the water mill, usually one of the most profitable items in the bailiff’s accounts, stood empty until the middle of 1350. The windfall which had come from fines on the estates of the dead could not be repeated a second year. The Bishop still continued to break even, but only just. It was another three years before the income of the manor returned to its former level.

The stoutest opposition to accepting the peasants from Preston Stautney came from the new parson. To him anything which differed even slightly from the past was to be distrusted if not deplored and mobility of labour was obviously contrary to all the established principles of good government. But Roger, now officially reeve, cared little for the parson’s objections. What had he done for them when things had been at their worst? If the peasants owed a debt to anyone it was to the travelling friar who had discreetly vanished when the new parson rode into the village from Winchester. The villagers listened sullenly when the parson denounced the friar’s presumption – why, after all, should they care for a church which had so conspicuously failed to protect its flock. They had by no means lost their faith in God but their enthusiasm for God’s ministers on earth had worn thin. When one of those wandering gangs of brigands which seemed so omnipresent in the years that followed the plague broke into the church and stole the silver cross, everyone was profoundly shocked. But when the same gang or another one stole the parson’s pig the villagers laughed heartily and wished them luck.

By the end of 1350, to the casual visitor, Blakwater must have seemed almost back to normal. There were some new faces of course, an unusual number of widows and widowers, empty places in church. Sad little pilgrimages to the new graveyard outside the village had become a part of the daily routine. But only one house and, of course, Mad Meg’s shack remained untenanted and the latter had almost vanished under the assaults of wind, rain and mischievous children. The fields looked much the same as ever and the water mill was grinding away merrily. The dovecot of the manor had been repaired and the fish pond restocked. But any less cursory study would quickly have revealed that the village was like a man whose gangrenous arm had recently been cut off. In strictly physical terms the wound was more or less healed, but a few months could not eliminate the shock or sense of deprivation. There were still starts of pain in the vanished limb and the victim walked in dread that the gangrene would re-emerge and his sufferings start all over again.

One day when the harvest was over Roger walked over the hill to Preston Stautney. The grass grew thick in what had used to be the main street, the wall around the manor had collapsed, the mill was derelict. As he pushed his way among the houses he saw that a few of the houses were inhabited, a corner of the fields was still being cultivated and someone had made a pathetic effort to clear the churchyard of the worst of its weeds and brambles. But in most of the houses the roofs had fallen in and the walls were beginning to tilt at crazy angles. He made his way to the church. The door had fallen from its hinges: birds were playing in the roof; a strong, pungent smell suggested that a fox had taken up residence beneath the wreckage of the pulpit. A pig was snuffling and rooting among the graves. With a shudder of disgust Roger drove it away; then turned and left the village without a backward glance.

He was not a happy man. He had lost a son and his beloved wife. He had seen horrors that would linger with him all his life. But he still had three children left; he was luckier than some. Hard work and the knowledge that he had an important role to play had helped him over the last months. Blakwater was at least a living village, Preston Stautney was a village of the dying, if not already of the dead. He turned his face towards the living with sadness, with fear but also with a kind of gratitude. The nightmare was over. The pain remained but there was, after all, a great deal to be said for being alive.

Notes

In writing this chapter I have found of particular value:

R. H. Hilton, A Mediaeval Society, London, 1966.

H. S. Bennett, Life on the English Manor, Cambridge, 1956.

A. Jessop, The Coming of the Friars and other Historic Essays, London, 1894.

J. J. Jusserand, English Wayfaring life in the Middle Ages, London. 1891.

G. G. Coulton, Mediaeval Panorama, Cambridge, 1938.

G. C. Homans, English Villagers of the Thirteenth Century, Cambridge (Mass), 1942.

and, analysing the effect of the Black Death on a village or group of villages:

P. D. A. Harvey, A Mediaeval Oxfordshire Village: Cuxham, Oxford, 1965.

A. E. Levett, The Black Death on the Estates of the See of Winchester, Oxford, 1916.

E. Robo, The Black Death in the Hundred of Farnham.

Some of these relate to a period somewhat before the Black Death. Others have had to be used with discretion because they deal with areas of England other than that where Blakwater is situated. But the overall picture has not been falsified.

*… a poor old widow

In a small cottage by a little meadow …

Three hefty sows, no more, were all her showing,

Three cows as well; there was a sheep called Molly,

Sooty her hall, her kitchen melancholy,

And there she ate full many a slender meal …

She drank no wine, nor white nor red had got,

Her board was mostly served with white and black;

Milk and brown bread; in which she found no lack;

Broiled bacon or an egg or two were common,

She was, in fact, a sort of dairy woman …

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