Post-classical history

THE BLACK DEATH IN RECENT HISTORIOGRAPHY

It was towards the end of 1969, in the same year that Philip Ziegler’s The Black Death was first published, that the influential French journal Annales: Economies Sociétés Civilisations included a substantial section on ‘Maladies et Mort’, introduced by a survey article by Jean-Noël Biraben and Jacques Le Goff on ‘La Peste dans le Haut Moyen Age’ (pp.1484–1510). And there then followed a similar concentration on death-related themes in the Revue du Nord for 1983, where Walter Prevenier and other Low Countries specialists – starting with Prevenier’s own paper on ‘La démographie des villes du comté de Flandre aux xiiie et xive siècles’ (pp.255–75) – discussed the comparable experience of the North-West. In the interval, Dr Biraben had presented what is still the most extended historical analysis of the West European plague in his Les hommes et la pesteen France et dans les pays européens et mediterranéens (Paris, 1976), and Michael Dols’s valuable study of The Black Death in the Middle East (Princeton, 1977) had been published. More recently, Ole Jorgen Benedictow’s book on Plague in the Late Medieval Nordic Countries (Oslo, 1993) has covered the same ground for Iceland, Scandinavia and Northern Germany. Each of these books contains a comprehensive bibliography of the literature on plague in many languages. What follows is a bibliographical essay on the post-1969 English-language works which may be of interest to new readers of Ziegler’s classic.

The argument about the nature and origins of bubonic plague continues. There have been revisionary books by J. F. D. Shrewsbury, A History of the Bubonic Plague in the British Isles (Cambridge, 1970) and Graham Twigg, The Black Death: a biologicalreappraisal (London, 1984). And almost everybody now agrees that plague was not the only – nor even (on many occasions) the major – killer in the late-medieval and early-modern West. Robert S. Gottfried reviewed other infections but still gave pride-of-place to plague in his Epidemic Disease in Fifteenth-CenturyEngland, The medical response and the demographic consequences (Leicester, 1978), then following that work with a general book on The Black Death. Natural and human disaster in medievalEurope (London, 1983). But smallpox, influenza and typhus earn a more prominent place in Ann G. Carmichael’s Plague and the Poor in Renaissance Florence (Cambridge, 1986), as they do again, with particular emphasis on malaria, in Mary J. Dobson’s Contours of Death and Disease in Early Modern England (Cambridge, 1997). For that later period, see also Paul Slack’s The Impactof Plague in Tudor and Stuart England (London, 1985), and the collected essays in The Plague Reconsidered. A new look at itsorigins and effects in 16th and 17th century England, ed. Paul Slack (Local Population Studies supplement, 1977), and in Health, Medicine and Mortality in theSixteenth Century, ed. Charles Webster (Cambridge, 1979). Other collections of essays include TheBlack Death. The impact of the fourteenth-century plague, ed. D. Williman (Binghamton, 1982), and Life and Death in Fifteenth-Century Florence, eds. Marcel Tetel, Ronald G. Witt and Rona Goffen (Durham N. C., 1989). And contemporary descriptions of the plague, many in translation for the first time, have recently been collected by Rosemary Horrox, The Black Death (Manchester, 1994), in a useful volume of sources.

The sufferings of local populations and how they lived with pestilence are studied by Richard Gyug, ‘The effects and extent of the Black Death of 1348: new evidence for clerical mortality in Barcelona’, Medieval Studies, 45 (1983), pp.385–98, Richard Lomas, ‘The Black Death in County Durham’, Journal of Medieval History, 15 (1989), pp. 127–40, R. A. Davies, ‘The effect of the Black Death on the parish priests of the medieval diocese of Coventry and Lichfield’, Historical Research, 62 (1989), pp.85–90, Ray Lock, ‘The Black Death in Walsham-le-Willows’, Proceedingsof the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History, 37 (1992), pp.316–37, Daniel Lord Smail, ‘Accommodating plague in medieval Marseille’, Continuity and Change, 11 (1996), pp.11–41, and William J. Dohar, The Black Death and Pastoral Leadership. The diocese of Hereford in thefourteenth century (Philadelphia, 1995). As for the medical profession, its first response to the plague is the subject of John Henderson’s ‘Epidemics in Renaissance Florence: medical theory and government response’ in Maladies et société (xiiexviie siècles), eds. N. Bulst and R. Delort (Paris, 1989), pp. 165–86, and of the same author’s ‘The Black Death in Florence: medical and communal responses’, in Death in Towns.Urban responses to the dying and the dead, 100–1600, ed. Steven Bassett (Leicester, 1992), pp. 136–50. John Henderson’s major book on Piety andCharity in Late Medieval Florence (Oxford, 1994) includes a chapter on ‘Charity, the Poor, and the Aftermath of the Black Death, 1348–1400’ (pp.297–353). For other Tuscan studies, see David Herlihy’s ‘Deaths, marriages, births, and the Tuscan economy (c. 1300–1550)’, in PopulationPatterns in the Past, ed. Ronald Demos Lee (New York, 1977), pp.135–64, and the two books by Samuel K. Cohn on Death and Property in Siena, 1205–1800. Strategies for the afterlife (Baltimore, 1988) and on The Cult of Remembrance and the Black Death. Six Renaissance cities inCentral Italy (Baltimore, 1992).

Large claims are now being made for the Black Death’s primacy in world affairs, as in William H. McNeill’s Plagues and People (Oxford, 1977) and William M. Bowsky’s valuable compendium, The Black Death. A turning point in history? (New York, 1971). Richard C. Palmer makes a similar claim for English Law in the Age of the Black Death, 1348–1381 (Chapel Hill and London, 1993), whereas Mark Ormrod in ‘The English government and the Black Death of 1349–79’, in England in the Fourteenth Century,ed. W. M. Ormrod (Woodbridge, 1986), pp.175–88, is keener to stress how little changed. That older view of institutional continuity still has much to recommend it. And a useful counter to Palmer’s book is Edward Powell’s more temperate Kingship, Law, andSociety. Criminal justice in the reign of Henry V (Oxford, 1989). However, in social history generally, Samuel K. Cohn’s recent edition of the late David Herlihy’s unpublished essays on The Black Death and the Transformation of the West (Cambridge Mass., 1997) is a good demonstration of how far Black Death studies have moved on. For even Herlihy, the doyen of late-medieval urban demography, had become convinced that there was insufficient evidence of a population down-turn before the Black Death to justify the belief of many historians of his own generation – influencing Philip Zieger among others – that plague was less the cause than an accelerator of social change.

Those changes had been the subject of a long-running debate in the journal Past & Present, which generated such interest that it was re-issued in book form as The Brenner Debate. Agrarian Class structure and economic development in pre-industrial Europe,eds. T. H. Aston and C. H. E. Philpin (Cambridge, 1985). The debate has since been continued in S. R. Epstein’s ‘Cities, regions, and the late medieval crisis: Sicily and Tuscany compared’, Past & Present, 130 (1991). pp.3–50. And one of its concerns has always been to establish the chronology of the crisis. Guy Bois, author of The Crisis of Feudalism. Economy and society in Eastern Normandy c. 1300–1550 (Paris, 1976; Cambridge, 1984) and a contributor to the original debate, had taken the view that it was the Great Famine of 1315–17 which was the turning-point. And following Ian Kershaw’s examination of that crisis in ‘The Great Famine and agrarian crisis in England 1315–22’, Past & Presently, 59 (1973), pp.3–50, a levelling-off of Europe’s population in (or before) those years had seemed established. Yet the setback, it now appears, was only temporary. In Before the BlackDeath, Studies in the ‘crisis’ of the early fourteenth century, ed. Bruce M. S. Campbell (Manchester, 1991), Barbara Harvey’s answer to the question ‘Was there actually a crisis?’ was unequivocal. The reverses of the half-century before the Black Death were not a turning-point, she concluded firmly, but ‘a mid-term crisis’. In reality, it was ‘the advent of plague, an exogenous factor, that transformed the economic life of Western Europe in the later Middle Ages, and the changes which actually occurred after that event could not have predicted in the first half of the century’ (p.24).

It had been Bruce Campbell’s fine study of the peasant land market in Coltishall (‘Population pressure, inheritance and the land market in a fourteenth-century peasant community’, in Land, Kinship and Life-Cycle, ed. R. M. Smith [Cambridge, 1984], pp.87–134) that had caused David Herlihy to change his mind. Campbell was clear that the crisis in Norfolk’s Coltishall was the result ‘not of economic but of biological factors’. And much of the recent work on the socio-economic history of late-medieval England has served to reinforce that conclusion. For summaries of that work, see The Black Death in England, eds. Mark Ormrod and Phillip Lindley (Stamford, 1996), and my own King Death, The Black Death and its aftermath in late-medieval England (London, 1996). In the specialist literature, Campbell and Bailey, Bridbury and Britnell, Dyer and Goldberg, Harvey and Hatcher, Mate, Pollard, Poos and Razi are the names to watch. Of these, A. R. Bridbury has always taken the view that there was less crisis than opportunity in post-plague England, his position hardly changing from the publication of his iconoclastic Economic Growth, Englandin the later Middle Ages (London 1962) – cited in Ziegler’s bibliography – through ‘The Black Death’, Economic History Review, 26 (1973), pp.577–92, to the collected papers of Bridbury’s The English Economy from Bede to the Reformation (Woodbridge, 1992). Most historians, however, now see it differently. And there is growing agreement that it was the Black Death – more than famine, climatic deterioration, bullion shortages, or any other single cause – that first prepared the way for the ‘long’ fifteenth century of economic recession and social change.

How the Recession ended is the subject of The Closing of the Middle Ages? England, 1471–1529 (Oxford, 1997) by Richard Britnell, who has written usefully also on the earlier period in Growth and Decline in Colchester, 1300–1525 (Cambridge, 1986), in TheCommercialisation ofEnglish Society 1000–1500 (Cambridge, 1993), and in The Black Death in English towns’, Urban History, 21 (1994), pp. 195–210. And there are summaries of the views of Campbell and Dyer, the two most prolific authors on this period, in Bruce Campbell’s ‘A fair field once full of folk: agrarian change in an ere of population decline, 1348–1500’, Agricultural History Review, 41 (1993), pp.60–70, and Christopher Dyer’s Standards of Living in the Later Middle Ages. Social change in Englandc. 1200–1520 (Cambridge, 1989). Valuable regional studies, each of much wider application, include Mark Bailey’s A Marginal Economy? East Anglian Breckland in the later Middle Ages (Cambridge, 1989); P. J. P. Goldberg’s ‘Mortality and economic change in the diocese of York, 1390–1514’, Northern History, 14 (1988), pp.38–55, and his Women, Work, and LifeCycle in a Medieval Economy. Women in York and Yorkshire c. 1300–1520 (Oxford, 1992); Mavis Mate’s Agrarian economy after the Black Death: the manors of Canterbury Cathedral Priory, 1348–91’, Economic History Review, 37 (1984), pp.341–54, and her Labour and labour services on the estates of Canterbury Cathedral Priory in the fourteenth century’, Southern History, 7 (1985), pp. 55–67; A. J. Pollard’s ‘The north-eastern economy and the agrarian crisis of 1438–1440’, Northern History,25 (1989), pp.88–105; L. R. Poos’s ‘The rural population of Essex in the later Middle Ages’, Economic History Review, 38 (1985), pp.515–30, and his A Rural Societyafter the Black Death: Essex 1350–1525 (Cambridge, 1991); and the many West Midlands studies of Zvi Razi, beginning with Life, Marriage and Death in a medieval parish. Economy, society anddemography in Halesowen 1270–1400 (Cambridge, 1980), and including his two imporant papers. ‘Family, land and the village community in later medieval England’. Past & Present, 93 (1981), pp.3–36. and ‘The myth of the immutable English family’, ibid., 140 (1993), pp.3–44.

Razi, Poos and Goldberg are demographers as well as social historians. And the two specialisms are combined again in the work of John Hatcher and Barbara Harvey. John Hatcher’s survey of Plague, Population and the English Economy 1348–1530 (London, 1977) has been reprinted many times. He subsequently moved to an earlier period, but has since returned to the later Middle Ages with two important papers on ‘Mortality in the fifteenth century: some new evidence’, Economic History Review, 39 (1986), pp. 19–38, and ‘England in the aftermath of the Black Death’, Past & Present,144 (1994), pp.3–35. Hatcher’s research on the obituary lists of Christ Church (Canterbury) was what gave him the ‘new evidence’ for that article in 1986. And the heavy mortalities and characteristically short life-spans of Canterbury’s post-plague monks have been found to be matched exactly in the Westminster Abbey data, discussed by Barbara Harvey in her Ford Lectures of 1989, and published in Living and Dying in England 11001540.The monastic experience (Oxford, 1993).

Philip Ziegler ends his book with three wide-ranging chapters on the effects of the pestilence in the longer term, with particular reference to English instituions and the economy. But as everybody writing on the Black Death has found, disentangling its consequences from those of other contemporary factors has not been easy. Was it plague, episcopal benefactions, or new chantry-related employment opportunities, for example, which brought increasing numbers of students to Oxford and Cambridge in the Late Middle Ages, as William J. Courtenay noted in The effect of the Black Death on English higher education’, Speculum, 55 (1980), pp.696–714? What part did plague or fear of Purgatory play in the Corpus Christi gilds described by Miri Rubin in ’Corpus Christi fraternities and late-medieval piety’, Studies in Church History, 23 (1986), pp.97–109, and again in her Corpus Christi. The Eucharist in late medieval culture (Cambridge, 1991)? Was the horror of an unsecured death more responsible than plague itself for the developments in art discussed by Joseph Polzer, ‘Aspects of the fourteenth-century iconography of death and the plague’, in The Black Death, Ed. D. Williman (Binghamton, 1982), pp. 107–30, by John B. Friedman, ‘“He hath a thousand slayn this pestilence”: the iconography of the plague in the Late Middle Ages’, in Social Unrest in the Late Middle Ages, ed. Francis X. Newman (Binghamton, 1986), pp.75–112, by Louise Marshall, ‘Manipulating the sacred: image and plague in Renaissance Italy’, RenaissanceQuarterly, 47 (1994), pp.485–532, by Phillip Lindley in ‘The Black Death and English Art’ in The Black Death in England, eds. Mark Ormrod and Phillip Lindley (Stamford, 1996), and by myself in Chapter 9 (‘Architecture and the Arts’) of King Death (London, 1906)?

On mortality art and its associated rituals, Paul Binski’s Medieval Death (London, 1996) is especially useful But there is much relevant material also in Kathleen Cohen’s Metamorphosis of a death symbol The transi tomb in the Late Middle Ages and theRenassance (Berkeley, 1973), Philippa Tristram’s Figures of Life and Death in Medieval English Literature (London, 1976), R. C. Finucane’s ‘Sacred corpse, profane carrion: social ideals and death rituals in the later Middle Ages’, in Mirrors of Mortality.Studies in the social history of death, ed. Joachim Whaley (London, 1981). J. M. Maddison’s ‘Master masons of the diocese of Lichfield: a study in 14th-century architecture at the time of the Black Death’, Transactions of the Lancashire and CheshireAntiquarian Society, 85 (1988), pp.107–72, Pamela King’s ‘The cadaver tomb in England: novel manifestations of an old idea’, Church Monuments, 5 (1990), pp.26–38, Howard Colvin’s Architecture and the After-Life (New Haven and London, 1991), Nigel Llewellyn’s The Art of Death. Visual culture in the English death ritual c. 1500–c. 1800 (London, 1991), Malcolm Norris’s ‘Later medieval monumental brasses: an urban funerary industry and its representation of death’, in Death in Towns, ed. Steven Bassett (Leicester, 1992), pp. 184–209 and 248–51, Richard Marks’s Stained Glass in England during the Middle Ages (London, 1993), Ann Eljenholm Nichols’s SeeableSigns. The iconography of the Seven Sacraments (Woodbridge, 1994), and Christopher Daniell’s Death and Burial in Medieval England 10661550 (London, 1997).

One of the more popular subjects in post-plague literature and the arts was the Dance of Death which, in reminding its viewers of Death’s equalizing sweep, always carried with it at least an element of social protest. And, in the longue durée, it was probably in the encouragement of new aspirations in the deprived and disadvantaged that the Black Death’s legacy was most enduring. On those aspirations and their outcome, see the collected papers in Social Unrest in the Late Middle Ages, ed. Francis X. Newman (Binghamton, 1986). Christopher Dyer summarizes the main arguments in ‘The English medieval village community and its decline’, Journal of British Studies, 33 (1994), pp.407–29, and S. H. Rigby recently gave them a new sociologial twist in his EnglishSociety in the Late Middle Ages. Class, status and gender (London, 1995), while protest is again the main concern of E. B. Fryde in Peasants and Landlords in Later Medieval England c. 1380c. 1525 (Stroud, 1996), a development on his chapter on ‘Peasant rebellion and peasant discontents’ in The Agrarian History of England and Wales. Volume III 13481500, ed. Edward Miller (Cambridge, 1991), pp.744–819. For valuable contributions on different aspects of the Great Revolt, see The English Rising of 1381, eds. R. H. Hilton and T. H. Aston (Cambridge, 1984), which follows Rodney Hilton’s Class Conflict and the Crisis of Feudalism: essays in medievalsocial history (London, 1985), and his earlier monographs on Bond men made free. Medieval peasantmovements and the English Rising of 1381 (London, 1973) and The English Peasantry in the Later Middle Ages (Oxford, 1975). Steven Justice’s Writings and Rebellion. England in 1381 (Berkeley, 1994) investigates the literature, while R. B. Dobson’s ThePeasants ‘Revolt of 1381 (London, 1983) publishes a useful selection of the relevant documents in translation. Mavis Mate has studied the circumstances of later rural discontent in The economic and social roots of medieval popular rebellion: Sussex in 1450–1451’, Economic History Review, 45 (1992), pp.661–76. And Isobel Harvey’s Jack Cade’s Rebellion of 1450 (Oxford, 1991) is the first full-length modern study of that middle-class revolt, led by the comfortably-off farmers of mid-Kent.

By that time, it was less social protest that roused the men of Kent than the mid-century recession, largely the result of bullion shortages, which John Hatcher discusses in his The great slump of the mid-fifteenth century‘, in Progress and Problems in MedievalEngland, eds. R. H. Britnell and J. Hatcher (Cambridge, 1996), pp.237–72. And the Black Death was no longer the first thing on their minds. Yet plague, for another two centuries, remained endemic in the West, its still mysterious departure in the early 1700s exercising A. B. Appleby in The disappearance of plague: a continuing puzzle’, Economic History Review, 33 (1980), pp. 161–73, and au Paul Slack in The disappearance of plague: an alternative view’, ibid., 34 (1981), pp.469–76, where Appleby favours the biological explanation and Slack the medical response. The argument continues in TheDecline of Mortality in Europe, eds. R. Schofield, D. Reher and A. Bideau (Oxford, 1991); and plague, one might assume, is now contained. But as Montaigne once wrote: The world runs all on wheels. All things therein move without intermission … Constancy itself is nothing but a languishing and wavering dance.’ (Essays, 3:2) And with bubonic plague reported in Southern India just a few years ago, we may not have heard the last of it yet.

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