Post-classical history



THE England of 1348, politically and economically, was not in so frail a state as some of the countries on the mainland of Europe. Indeed, viewed from France, it must have seemed depressingly prosperous and stable. Since Edward III had routed Queen Isabella and the Mortimers at the end of 1330 he had bestridden the narrow world of England, if not like a Colossus, then at least as a figure considerably larger than life. He managed to combine the charismatic appeal of a beau chevalier sans peur et sans reproche with the ruthlessness and lack of scruple which every medieval monarch needed if he were to enjoy a reasonable tenure of his throne. His main vice, one not immediately apparent to his subjects, was his stupidity; his second was ambition, spiced with vanity, which drove him on to establish himself as a figure of glory on the international stage. He gave England a unity and a sense of security which it had not enjoyed since the days of his grandfather. But by his determination to have his way, not only in his own country but in Scotland and France as well, he made certain that the profit which England should have gained from its stability was dissipated frivolously on foreign soil.

A conscientious chauvinist could put forward a reasonably good case for maintaining that Edward’s wars against France and Scotland were the result of intolerable provocation and conducted strictly in defence of just national interests. A student of politics might maintain that only by foreign victories could Edward III have hoped to win the respect of his nobles and unite his country. For the purposes of this book it is enough to note that, though the French and Scots might be defeated militarily, the English never had the strength fully to follow up their victories in the face of even minimal determination on the part of the enemy. Nor, though temporary truces supervened, did Edward have either the will or the wisdom to disengage from his campaigns at an advantageous moment and settle for something short of total victory.

At Dupplin Moor, Halidon Hill and Neville’s Cross, the English had won spectacular triumphs against the Scots; at Sluys, Crécy and Calais against the French. By 1348 the reputation of English arms can rarely have stood higher and the King’s prestige was at its zenith. But the glory was meretricious and the cost in money and man-power mounted steadily. Edward’s crown was pawned to the Archbishop of Trier, his debts to the Bardi and Peruzzi were enormous, the rich merchants and the City of London had been repeatedly mulcted, taxes had been raised as high, perhaps even higher than was prudent. England was still a rich country but it was under severe financial strain and the strain was beginning to tell.

It is important not to exaggerate the progress of decay. By and large England was a thriving country. Exports of wool, by far the most important single crop, were buoyant and exports of cloth, a new and rapidly expanding trade, had, by 1347, reached a level sufficiently high to lead the King to impose an export tax.1The great territorial magnates, or at least the Dukes and Earls, possessed imposing riches. The Duke of Lancaster, from his English lands alone, had an income of £12,000 a year (translation into modern currency must be hedged around with so many qualifications as to be virtually meaningless but a very approximate order of magnitude can be obtained if one multiplies the medieval money by between fifty and sixty). The Bohuns had £3,000 a year. The Earl of Arundel left a hundred thousand marks in ready money.2 (The mark could signify several things but thirteen and fourpence is the most usual meaning.) A leading merchant like William de la Pole could lend the King more than £110,000 in a little over a year – not, of course, from his own personal resources but from funds on which he could freely draw.3

The wheat-growing and sheep-raising country of East Anglia and the Southern Midlands provided many lesser but comfortable fortunes. And it was not only merchants and gentlemen who were doing well out of the national prosperity. The villein, too, might sometimes enjoy substantial wealth and employ several labourers to help him in his farming. In theory he could own no land and had to be entirely at the beck and call of his master but, in practice, his labour services had often been exchanged for a money payment. In virtually every town a charter of liberties had been granted to its citizens; only in a few cases, usually where the lord was a tenaciously conservative churchman, did the traditional relationship between lord and urban tenant survive unmodified.

Probably a little under twelve per cent of the population lived in cities or towns.4 Of these London was by far the largest and most prosperous. It had eighty-five parishes within its city wall with Westminster, Southwark and other outlying villages closely associated with its daily life. It contained between fourteen and eighteen thousand households, giving it a population, that cannot have been far off sixty or seventy thousand.5 Norwich was almost certainly the second city of the realm with some 13,000 inhabitants and York too may well have had more than 10,000 citizens.6After that came a plethora of lesser towns with Winchester, Bristol, Plymouth and Coventry, among the larger.

But the main unit of English life was the village. Indeed, since the isolated dwelling was almost unknown outside the Celtic fringe, it can safely be said that virtually everyone who did not live in a town or city, nearly ninety per cent of the population, was to be found in villages varying in size between the large, of up to 400 inhabitants and the small, which might contain as few as twelve families. Though the anecdotes and the striking statistics will usually have to be culled from the towns and great monasteries, the story of the Black Death in England is above all the story of its impact on the village community. It is in the society of the villages that its most long-lasting results were to be recorded.


In this year 1348, in Melcombe, in the county of Dorset, a little before the Feast of St John the Baptist, two ships, one of them from Bristol, came alongside. One of the sailors had brought with him from Gascony the seeds of the terrible pestilence and, through him, the men of that town of Melcombe were the first in England to be infected.7

Other ports have been put forward for the doubtful honour of being the first in England to receive the plague. One chronicler, from the Abbey of Meaux in Yorkshire, believed that Bristol was infected earlier,8 Henry Knighton opted for Southampton,9 while John Capgrave, writing some eighty years later, recorded: ‘First it began in the north cuntre; than in the south; and so forth throw oute the reme.’10 The latter thesis, at least, can be dismissed. The Black Death may well have made a separate entry into the north of England but certainly not until several months later than in the south. Indeed, there is no evidence that the plague took a firm grip in the northern counties until the beginning of 1349.

Many ports of southern England were in constant, almost daily contact with the continent or with the Channel Islands. It would be surprising if trading ships had not carried the plague to several of them. But the consensus of opinion seems to be that Melcombe Regis, now part of Weymouth, earned its unsavoury claim to fame. As well as the Grey FriarsChronicle quoted above, a monk of Malmesbury also refers to ‘a port called Melcombe, in Dorsetshire’,11 and further chroniclers, no doubt in some cases copying the opinions of their contemporaries, either refer to it by name or state that the plague arrived at a ‘Dorsetshire port’ with other details which fit its description.12

The confusion is a great deal worse when it comes to deciding on exactly what date the plague was first observed in England. The Franciscan of Lynn states that it arrived ‘a little before the Feast of St John the Baptist’ – that is to say before 24 June 1348. Higden’s Polychronicon also agrees that this was the crucial date. But nobody else is prepared to put it so early. Robert of Avesbury says that the plague began ‘about St Peter’s Day’,13 presumably meaning 29 June, rather than the other dates on which the Apostle is commemorated. The monk of Malmesbury opted for 7 July. The Canon of Bridlington favoured ‘the feast of St James’, or 25 July. Henry Knighton of Leicester referred to ‘the autumn’ of the year 1348; an imprecise period but one which could hardly have begun before the end of August. The Bishop of Bath and Wells, on 17 August, ordered ‘processional stations every Friday … to beg God to protect the people from the pestilence which had come from the East into the neighbouring kingdom’. The reference to the plague in ‘the neighbouring kingdom’, which can only mean France, seems to imply that the Bishop was not yet aware that the disease was already to be found in England. Yet it seems incredible that he should not have known about an epidemic which, according to others, had already been raging for nearly two months in his own diocese. Finally, Stephen Birchington deferred the outbreak to immediately after Christmas 1348.14 Since, however, he reported that it ended in May 1349, it is reasonable to detect some confusion in his mind between the duration of the plague in Canterbury and in England as a whole.

This evidence is cited at somewhat tedious length not because it matters much whether the Black Death arrived in Melcombe Regis or in Southampton, a few weeks earlier or a few weeks later, but to illustrate the extraordinary difficulty of establishing with any precision the details of what took place. If the chronicles are unable to agree within three or four months on the date on which the first case of the plague was recorded, then how much more likely it is that there will be complete confusion when such complex problems as the number of thousands slain by the disease come to be discussed. Piecing together the various accounts, the most likely picture of what actually happened is that a ship bearing a victim of bubonic plague did arrive at Melcombe Regis at the end of June 1348; that the first case of a local inhabitant catching the disease occurred in early July and that the disease did not begin to spread or to develop its terrifying pulmonary and septicaemic variations until the beginning or middle of August. But that, as is the case with so much that will follow, is a guess and the truth will probably never be established with certainty.

If Melcombe Regis was indeed the first port to receive the Black Death it may have been brought from Calais. Melcombe was at this time a town of some importance contributing almost as many ships to the siege of Calais as Bristol or even London. It could well have been one of these ships returning from France which brought in the plague. Prima facie the suggestion of the Grey FriarsChronicle that the plague was imported from Gascony is less likely since Melcombe is not known to have received many boats coming from that region. But it is by no means impossible; one of the ships was said by the Chronicle to have had its home in Bristol and this could well have been on the return journey from some Gascon port. Another, and perhaps still more probable source of infection, is the Channel Islands: Jersey and Guernsey were suffering badly from the Black Death at this time, so much so that Edward III wrote to the Governor of Jersey:15

By reason of the mortality among the people and fishing folk of these islands, which here as elsewhere has been so great, our rent for the fishing which has been yearly paid us, cannot be now obtained without the impoverishing and excessive oppression of those fishermen still left.

The letter is undated and it is not known by how far or, indeed, if the Black Death in the Channel Islands preceded the outbreak on the English mainland. But if, as seems probable, the islands were affected first, it is to Melcombe Regis more than to any other English port that they are likely to have spread the disease.

But whether by way of Southampton or by Melcombe Regis; whether in June, July or August; it was inevitable that the Black Death would sooner or later spread to the British Isles. It is tempting to think of Britain isolated behind her sea defences, remote from Europe and, with a bit of luck, immune from the misfortunes of her continental neighbours. But the truth, then as now, is that England was part of the continent of Europe and that the Channel as much linked England and France as divided them. Indeed, it was a great deal easier for men and merchandise to arrive by sea in England than to make the perilous crossings of the Alps or venture along the other land routes of continental Europe. ‘The south-east of England’, wrote Professor Kosminsky,16 ‘lay at a great cross-roads where the trade routes from Scandinavia, the Baltic, the North Sea, the Atlantic coast and the Mediterranean all met, as well as the great river-ways of the Rhine, the Meuse, the Scheldt and the Seine.’ Along the trade routes, without possibility of check, moved the Black Death.

From Melcombe Regis the plague struck inland across the West Country. It is not difficult to get an approximate idea of its course. England is badly endowed with the impressionistic reporting of such chroniclers as Michael of Piazza or Agnolo di Tura. There is even less in the way of dispassionate medical records; English physicians contributed virtually nothing to the ample if somewhat profitless literature of the plague tractators. But the richness of our national archives – the archives of a nation wedded to legalism and the virtues of precedent and, still more important, of a nation which has had the good fortune never to suffer subsequent foreign invasion – offers a fuller picture of the progress of the Black Death than those which any other country can provide.

Professor Stengers, the Belgian historian, referred wistfully to the riches of the English archives as being the envy of every continental medievalist.17 Envy certainly; and yet it would be surprising if the continental historian did not sometimes feel a certain relief and the proud possessor of this treasure-house occasionally view his national glory with apprehension as well as pride. The knowledge that untapped reservoirs of knowledge exist, ready to confound the over-confident and ensnare the unwary, is sobering even to the expert and downright intimidating to the amateur.

This seems particularly true when material about the effects of the Black Death is in question. The most complete source, though by no means the most comprehensive, is the ecclesiastical records. Cardinal Gasquet relied almost exclusively on these for his study of the Black Death. The principal series which he used were the Books of Institutions, showing dates of appointment to the various livings, together with the Patent Rolls which listed, inter alia, ‘royal grants, licences and presentations made by the Sovereign to such vacant ecclesiastical livings as were at the time in the royal gift’.18 The value of such records is obvious but, as will be seen later, so also are their limitations. For the moment it suffices to say that, as a rough guide to the date that the Black Death was raging in any particular area and to the relative damage which it did in one place or another, better evidence is rarely to be found.

Among the lay documents, those which are of immediate relevance for a study of the Black Death are the manorial Court Rolls. From these, in ideal circumstances, it is possible to establish how many householders died in any given period and whether there were relations left to inherit or the holding escheated to the Lord. Though once again such lists pose problems when it comes to deducing from them a comprehensive total of plague victims they are of the utmost value in that they show the incidence of the Black Death in each manor. Read in conjunction with the Account Rolls they provide an amazingly detailed picture of life on the medieval manor. But many fewer of them are left than is the case with the ecclesiastical documents and, as a general rule, they also tend to be less well kept and less accessible. A series is necessary to enable valuable deductions to be drawn – yet too often the series is interrupted and only isolated numbers survive.

With the help of the ecclesiastical records, it can be established that the plague was rife in many parts of Dorset by October 1348, reached a peak in December and January and was on the wane by the end of February. New vicars had to be appointed at Shaftesbury on 29 November, 10 December, 6 January and 12 May and Wareham lost the head of its Priory in October and had two new vicars instituted in December, one in May and another in June.

Exactly 100 institutions to Dorset benefices caused by the death of the previous incumbent were made during the seven months from October 1348 to April 1349. The numbers did not return to normal until the autumn of 1349.19 From other sources one learns that Poole was particularly badly affected and that a tongue of land projecting into the sea and known as ‘The Baiter’ was bought by the town-councillors and set aside as a burial place for the victims. At Bridport, though the plague was not so bad as to interfere with the supply of cordage to the royal navy,20 two additional bailiffs had to be appointed to cope with the extra work.

In January 1349 Ralph of Shrewsbury, Bishop of Bath and Wells, circulated a letter to all the priests in his diocese which shows up vividly the demoralization in the infected areas:21

The contagious pestilence of the present day, which is spreading far and wide, has left many parish churches and other livings in our diocese without parson or priest to care for their parishioners. Since no priests can be found who are willing, whether out of zeal and devotion or in exchange for a stipend, to take on the pastoral care of these aforesaid places, nor to visit the sick and administer to them the Sacraments of the Church (perhaps for fear of infection and contagion), we understand that many people are dying without the Sacrament of Penance. These people have no idea what recourses are open to them in such a case of need and believe that, whatever the straits they may be in, no confession of their sins is useful or meritorious unless it is made to a duly ordained priest. We, therefore, wishing, as is our duty, to provide for the salvation of souls and to bring back from their paths of error those who have wandered, do strictly enjoin and command, on the oath of obedience that you have sworn to us, you, the rectors, vicars and parish priests in all your churches, and you, the deans elsewhere in your deaneries where the comfort of a priest is denied the people, that, either yourselves or through some other person you should at once publicly command and persuade all men, in particular those who are now sick or should fall sick in the future, that, if they are on the point of death and can not secure the services of a priest, then they should make confession to each other, as is permitted in the teaching of the Apostles, whether to a layman or, if no man is present, then even to a woman. We urge you, by these present letters, in the bowels of Jesus Christ, to do this…. And, in case anyone might fear that a lay confessor would make public the confessions which they heard and, for this reason, might hesitate to confess himself to such a person even in time of need, you should announce to all in general and, in particular, to those who might hear confessions in this way, that they are bound by the laws of the Church to conceal and keep secret such confessions and that they are prohibited by sacred canonical decrees from betraying such confessions by word, sign, or any other means, except at the wish of those who have made such confession. If they break this law then they should know that they commit a most grievous sin and, in so doing, incur the wrath of Almighty God and of the whole Church.

The Bishop concluded:

The Sacrament of the Eucharist, when no priest is available, may be administered by a deacon. If, however, there is no priest to administer the Sacrament of Extreme Unction, then, as in other matters, faith must suffice

Even with this exception, it is clear that the Bishop was authorizing a very considerable relaxation of the normal rules.

The authority to hear confession has, in all periods of the Church’s history, been restricted to the priesthood. To throw it open to laymen and even to women, though not in defiance of canonical authority, was a step to be taken only in case of extreme emergency. It was a confession on the part of the Church that the crisis was out of control and the normal machinery no longer able to cope with it.

The most revealing phrase in the Bishop’s letter is the one in which he refers to the lack of priests willing to take on new parishes or to visit the sick ‘perhaps for fear of infection and contagion’. The implied rebuke would have come better if Ralph of Shrewsbury himself had ventured a little farther into the battle. From November 1348 until 13 May 1349 the period in which the Black Death was at its height in all parts of his diocese, the Bishop remained at his house at Wiveliscombe, a remote village in the corner of his territory.22 It is true that it was his normal practice to winter at Wiveliscombe and also only justice to say that he seems in no way to have neglected his duty or shunned direct contact with visitors from plague-infested areas. Indeed, a stream of priests came to his retreat to receive their letters of institution. No doubt he had good reason to argue, like Pope Clement before him, that the best way he could serve his flock was by staying alive and not indulging in false or, at least, futile heroics. But, when all is said and done, one would still have slightly greater respect for the Bishop and sympathy for his railing at the reluctant clergy if he had paid a single visit to Bristol, Bath or any other important town in his diocese while it was suffering the agonies of the plague.

However reluctant some of the priests may have been to expose themselves, the clergy of Somerset, another county in the Bishop’s diocese, did in fact suffer greatly as a result of the Black Death.23 Institutions to new benefices rose from a more or less normal figure of nine in November 1348 to thirty-two in December, forty-seven in January 1349, forty-three in February, thirty-six in March, forty in April and then fell away to twenty-one in May and a mere seven in June – the month in which the Bishop thought fit to set forth on his travels again. So extreme was the confusion that the Bishop felt it necessary to insert a saving clause in all his appointments protecting his position in case, in a moment of excusable aberration, he instituted a priest to a benefice which in fact was not vacant at all. It would be most unwise to generalize on the basis of a single county but it is fair to say that the evidence of Somerset shows no tendency on the part of the parish priests to shirk their terrifyingly perilous responsibilities.

Such data needs closer analysis before they can provide more than an indication of a general trend and often the material for such an analysis does not exist. Though Gasquet himself does not mention the fact it seems, for instance, that in the case of Somerset about a quarter of the new institutions were the result of the resignation of the previous incumbent rather than his death. But, in its turn, for this figure to mean much one would have to know what inspired the individual resignation. Was it reluctance to face the dangers which confronted a parish priest during a lethal epidemic, the economic impossibility of soldiering on in an anyway poor parish which had now lost the majority of its more prosperous parishioners or, perhaps most probable, the translation of the incumbent to another, more important parish which had lost its priest? Even among those who died the statistics are not wholly conclusive since one or two at least may have been the victims of old age, accident or other disease rather than the Black Death. Such facts will never be established: the historian is lucky even if he finds proof that the vacancy was caused by death, let alone information about its cause.

Professor Hamilton Thompson has pointed out other considerations which throw doubt on statistics of this kind. For one thing, the place of death is rarely specified. If a Yorkshire parish priest died of the Black Death while on duty in Canterbury or a priest from a rural Hampshire parish preferred to tend his flock from his comfortable house in Winchester, then it would be misleading to quote his death as evidence of the mortality in his proper county or his proper deanery. Another flaw is that a few institutions were not recorded in the Register, presumably because of the muddle and stress caused by the hurried appointment of a quite abnormal number of new priests at a time when the officials responsible were themselves leaving their posts vacant with alarming speed. For certain important areas, too, the records are not available. And finally, it has proved virtually impossible to establish a list of benefices which can categorically be stated to be complete.24 Calculations made on such a basis still possess great value, but almost always they must be used with caution and a certain scepticism.

A fortiori this is true when figures for the mortality among the clergy are extended to cover laics as well. It would be extremely rash to accept unquestioned Cardinal Gasquet’s firm assertion: ‘It cannot but be believed that the people generally suffered as greatly as the clergy, and that, proportionally, as many of them fell victims to the scourge.’25 It can be contested that the beneficed clergy, with their education, high standard of living and less cramped living conditions, were much better placed to survive than their unfortunate flocks. But, on the whole, the arguments which suggest a higher death rate among priests than laics are more convincing. For one thing there was the nature of their work which, if conscientiously carried out, brought them into constant contact with the infected. In particular in the areas where the pulmonary form of the disease was rife, this must have been close to a sentence of death on any priest resolved to do his duty. For another, as Professor Russell has pointed out, the fact that the average age of the clergy was higher than that of the population as a whole meant that, in any given year, a higher proportion of priests were likely to die.26 And finally, though the smaller size of the priestly household reduced the chances of infection, it seems also to have been the case that, once such a household was infected, the chances of any survivals were proportionately less. One rat family to a houshold and three fleas to a rat seems to have been the norm; the greater the number of infected fleas in proportion to potential human victims, the smaller the chances of escape.

No final answer to this conundrum will ever be forthcoming. But it would be reasonable to state as a general rule that the proportion of beneficed clergy who died in any given diocese could not possibly have been much smaller than the corresponding figure for the laity and is unlikely to have been very much bigger. Arbitrary limits of 10 per cent less and 25 per cent more seem to provide a reasonable bracket within which the correct figure must be encompassed.

Dr Lunn has calculated that 47.6 per cent of the beneficed clergy in the diocese of the Bishop of Bath and Wells died of the Black Death. It can therefore be said, with reasonable confidence, that it is unlikely that more than 52 per cent or less than 35 per cent of the total population met a similar fate. A safer, because looser way of expressing the same proposition would be to say that, taking a conservative view, between a third and half the people must have died.

The figures for the mortality among beneficed clergy can be used with much greater confidence when it comes to establishing a ratio between different areas. If twice as many clergy died in Yorkshire as in Northamptonshire, then it is reasonable to assume that more or less twice as many laymen died as well. It would be tempting to apply the same mathematics to cities and towns as well as larger areas, but, obviously, the narrower the statistical base, the more risk there is of serious distortions being introduced. It is permissible to compare dioceses on this basis, possibly even archdeaconries, but where deaneries or smaller units are concerned then the comparative figures are no more than a valuable but uncertain pointer towards the relative sufferings of the areas.


In December 1349, when things were almost back to normal, Bishop Ralph ventured as far as Yeovil. As part of his visitation he held a special service of thanksgiving. To his dismay certain ‘sons of perdition’ armed with ‘bows, arrows, iron bars and other kinds of arms’ attacked the church, injured many of his attendants and kept the Bishop and his congregation bottled up until nightfall. The siege was then transferred to the rectory where it lasted till the following day. At this point the sons of perdition either got bored and went home or, as the official story had it, a party of ‘devout sons of the church’ came to the rescue.27 Sixty of those concerned were later ordered to do public penance.

It is tempting to read a perhaps impermissible amount into this story. It showed, after all, extreme audacity on the part of the inhabitants of Yeovil to attack a magnate as powerful, both spiritually and temporally, as the Bishop of Bath and Wells. Though the mild revenge which he exacted suggests that the assault was not particularly serious, there must still have been good reason, in the minds of the rioters at least, to indulge in such an escapade. Some particular grievance may have inspired it but the action of the crowd may surely reflect considerable anger against the Bishop and all the ruling classes, a by-product of the intense fear and misery in which they had lived for the previous twelve months. Pressures of that kind must generate intense emotions and such emotions require an outlet.

To appreciate the full impact of so fearful a calamity on an ignorant and credulous people calls for an intense effort of historical imagination. Some glimmering of what it was like might be gleaned from the reactions of the people of London and Coventry or, still more, of Dresden and Berlin in the face of prolonged and devastating air-attack. In these cases a pattern of crowd behaviour has been established. There was an initial reaction of anger directed against the enemy, exhilarating, almost euphoric, with vows of vengeance and pride in the courage and solidarity which the victims of the bombing displayed. Then there might be panic, a brief breakdown of morale and the capacity to produce discipline or rational responses to external stimuli. And finally came apathy and indifference; a grudging though often successful adaptation of life to the needs of the new situation.

But with apathy came rancour and suspicion; doubts about the other members of society with whom, so recently, they had felt united in suffering. Suspicions of the rich: the more prosperous parts of town, said the poor, were mysteriously spared by the raiding bomber – this proved that some sinister understanding existed between them and the enemy. Suspicions of the rulers: they only kept the war going so as to grow fat on arms sales or for some other selfish end. Suspicions of the doctors: they saved their drugs for themselves or their privileged friends. Suspicions of the shop-keepers: they hoarded their precious goods to sell at a profit to the undeserving who could afford to pay. Class looked askance at class; neighbourhood at neighbourhood. Loyalties retracted: to the street; to the family; ultimately to oneself.

The analogy between twentieth-century air-raid and medieval pestilence obviously breaks down at many points. Baehrel has suggested that the Revolutionary Terror in France produced the same defence reactions in those who endured it as were to be found in the plague-struck Europeans of 1348 or, for that matter, the victims of the cholera epidemic of 1884.28 The conclusions which he draws are strikingly similar to those derived from a study of the blitz. A belief in plots; a conviction that someone has to be made the scapegoat for everything; were almost always the chosen outlet for surplus passions. Whether aristocratic emigré or Jewish poisoner, bourgeois tool of a reactionary clique or incompetent doctor,

… the suspect came to the fore; a suspect who was not the same for all. For the well-fed the suspect was the poor man because he was dedicated to the plague; for the lower classes the suspects were the rich, in whom they were quick to identify the propagators of the disease. For some the leading suspect was the surgeon … for others, the beggar …

And yet neither the blitz nor the Revolutionary Terror yield an adequate impression of the psychological shock which medieval man endured. For where there is a common, identifiable enemy then there must be a sense of camaraderie; it matters little who the foe may be, to hate him will provide relief and bulk larger in the mind than the pettier grudges that divide one from one’s neighbours. The first fine flower of anger against the emigre aristocrat or the marauding bomber might, in time, lose its capacity to excite or inspire but it survived as an element lending cohesion to the attacked. Medieval men had no one to hate. They might work off their resentment in campaigns against the lepers or the Jews but few of those who sacked the ghettoes can have believed that, by their deed, they were doing more than tinker with the instrument of their destruction while leaving the root cause untouched. The Black Death was the work of God, and against God they could not fight.

The only defence against the plague in which the doctors had the slighest faith was flight from the afflicted area. This the poor knew, and yet they knew too that it was a defence to which they could have no recourse. As the poor of Genoa, Florence, Paris or London saw the rich and privileged bundle up their most precious possessions and flee the cities it would have been astonishing if they had felt no resentment, no sense that they were being deserted and betrayed. With such a mood abroad it was inevitable that the processions of the Flagellants would quickly take on a revolutionary tinge, that the houses of the magnates would be sacked and the clergy abused, derided or even assaulted.

There is little chapter and verse to illustrate the upsurge of class hatred which arose during the plague. ‘Before 1789’, wrote Baehrel in explanation of this in France, ‘this sentiment of hatred left few traces: the poor rarely use a pen.’ But subsequent epidemics have made it clear how quickly the feelings of the underprivileged could be embittered. During the cholera epidemic of 1832, when slightly greater sophistication if not tolerance might have been expected, the Parisian mob rioted through the smarter quartiers, accusing nobles and bourgeois not only of suffering less seriously from the disease but of poisoning their impoverished fellow-citizens into the bargain. Who can doubt that the vastly more credulous and worse afflicted poor of the fourteenth century must have felt the same rancour and suspicion? If they failed to sack the houses of the rich it can only have been because the torpor induced by famine and misery had already broken their spirits before the plague began to work on their emaciated bodies. But, in the last analysis, the most noticeable feature of the Black Death was not that some escaped but that everyone was to some extent involved and paid the price of involvement. For the months which the Black Death lasted it must have seemed to those who suffered that everything was discredited and at an end. The doctors could cure nobody and, by their efforts, made themselves a laughing stock. The Church was impotent to defend itself or its faithful and had resort only to muttered objurgations about the sinfulness of mankind. The rulers abandoned their palaces and their responsibilities and left their people to die in misery. And the Black Death spared nobody.

Sceptre and crown

Must tumble down

And in the dust be equal made

With the poor crooked scythe and spade.

Death had always been a preoccupation of medieval man; now it became an obsession. Always he had known that in time it must come to everyone but never before had the fact been brought so forcibly to his attention. Never before had those set in authority over him been shown so clearly to be no braver, no better, no wiser and no less vulnerable. Like every other lesson, it was to be forgotten but, at that moment, it must have seemed that its memory would never fade.


It is impossible that England should have been spared such tensions but even the somewhat scanty evidence for their existence which is to be found in the countries of continental Europe is lacking this side of the Channel. The maltreatment of the Bishop of Bath and Wells, which was mentioned at the beginning of this digression, could possibly have had such an origin, yet equally some quite different factors, of which we now know nothing, may have been responsible. A monk was beaten up in Winchester yet, as we shall see, there was good and sensible reason for his misfortune.29 A spirited battle between monks and townsmen took place in Hull but such affrays, in Hull, were practically a local sport and call for no special explanation. The excesses of the Flagellants found no favour with the people of London and the few Jews who still lived in England were left in peace. The Bishops were constantly at work to whip up penitential fervour and not to curb it. A few incidents of panic or violence can be culled from the contemporary chronicles but nothing remotely suggestive of mass-hysteria.

Can one deduce from this that the Englishman, in the face of quite as grave a danger, proved more phlegmatic or better disciplined than his continental contemporary? It would be hazardous to push the argument too far. To argue that something must be true because of lack of evidence to the contrary is always dubious. When the evidence either way is as scanty as in England of the fourteenth century it would be folly. But what can be said with fair confidence is that any widespread movements on the scale of those experienced in Spain, France or Germany could not have escaped the attention of the chronicler. For one reason or another the Englishman did not indulge in the massive disorders in which others found an outlet for their emotions.

There is no reason to exclude national temperament from the complex of factors which must explain this omission provided that one does not try to erect too pretentious or elaborate a structure on the small basis of established fact. Even in the fourteenth century, when inadequate communications and the weakness of the central government ensured that loyalties were still primarily to the lord, the community or the region, there was already apparent a consistency in English life and character which it would be absurd altogether to ignore.

‘They could not, they would not be driven or frightened out of what they dimly comprehended they had to do.’ The words were applied by Drew Middleton to the Londoner in the blitz30 but they fit as well in the fourteenth century. One of the most striking features of the Black Death in England, attested to in the Court Rolls of innumerable manors and those borough records that are still available, is the way in which communal life survived. With his friends and relations dying in droves around him, with labour lacking to till the fields and care for the cattle, with every kind of human intercourse rendered perilous by the possibility of infection, the medieval Englishman obstinately carried on in his wonted way. Business was very far from being as usual but landlord and peasant alike did their best to make it so.

The simple structure of the more or less self-contained medieval village was, of course, far easier to maintain under stress than the elaborate social infrastructure of contemporary civilization. So far as the typical peasant was concerned, England’s was a subsistence economy and to have let it founder would have been to cease to exist as a society, almost, indeed, to cease to exist at all. But the Englishman did more than just keep alive. Though the Black Death violently distorted the pattern of village life, wherever it was possible to do so taxes were paid and manorial services rendered; the quick not only buried their dead but dutifully paid the fines on inheritance which were owing to the landlord. Within a few months one cell alone of Bruton Priory received fifty head of oxen and cattle as heriots; one for each tenant who died. Here and there the burden was too great; organized society ceased to exist for a few weeks or months, perhaps even for ever. But such cases were the exception. By and large, and to a greater extent than seems to have been true in continental Europe, the fabric of society survived.

Was this a condemnation of the Englishman’s timid conservatism? Or a triumph for his durability and determination? Or merely a reflection of the fact that the English had had longer to get used to the idea and that fatalism had set in? The interpretation is a matter of taste and no formula could fail to be a misleading over-simplification. But it can at least be said that the Englishman’s reaction, or lack of reaction, was a victory for the system under which he lived. It can be argued that, in the long term, the Black Death struck a fatal blow at the manorial system and heralded the end of the Middle Ages. Be that – for the moment – as it may; in the short term the Black Death provided an impressive tribute to the system’s strength and to the readiness of the Englishman to accept the security which it offered and the limitations which it imposed.


Judging by the rapid progress of the plague along the coast of North Devon and Somerset, the infection travelled by boat by way of the Bristol Channel as well as by the slower inland routes. Whether it arrived first by land or water at Bristol is uncertain; the latter, probably, though any port which was the centre of such a busy traffic would have been an early victim in either case. Bristol, the principal port of entry for the West Country, with something close to ten thousand inhabitants, was the first important English city to be affected. ‘There died’, recorded Knighton, ‘suddenly overwhelmed by death, almost the whole strength of the town, for few were sick more than three days, or two days, or even half a day.’31

‘Almost the whole strength of the town’, need not be taken too seriously, but it does seem that the plague was particularly ferocious in the city and its environs. Statistics must, as usual, be extrapolated from scanty evidence. There were ten new institutions for eighteen benefices – a figure which suggests that mortality among clerics was above the average for that part of England. The Little Red Book of Bristol lists the names of the town council, the ‘Forty-Eight’, for 1349. Of the fifty-two members which the ‘Forty-Eight’ whimsically contained, the names of fifteen had been struck through to show that they were dead. If all these died of the plague the mortality rate would have been a little under thirty per cent; an unusually high figure for what must have been the cream of the city dignitaries. Things were undoubtedly a great deal worse in the crowded and stinking warrens in which the poor were forced to live. Boucher, the city historian, estimates an overall death rate in Bristol of between thirty-five and forty per cent and there is no reason to believe this figure exaggerated.32 ‘The plague’, according to an old calendar, ‘raged to such a degree that the living were scarce able to bury the dead…. At this period the grass grew several inches high in the High St and in Broad St; it raged at first chiefly in the centre of the city.’33 Cardinal Gasquet mentions the difficulties of the parson of Holy Cross de la Temple who had such urgent need to enlarge his graveyard that he took over an extra half acre without waiting for a royal licence. It is comforting to know that the King’s pardon was subsequently forthcoming.

Meanwhile, Exeter had also been afflicted. According to one local historian of the nineteenth century, ‘this dreadful calamity continued until the year 1357, when it happily ceased’.34 Happily, indeed; but in fact there is no evidence to suggest that the plague in Exeter lasted longer than the usual span or that there was a renewed outbreak within the next few years. Another Exeter historian more prosaically states that the Black Death ‘arrested the building of the cathedral nave … paralysed our woollen trade and all commercial enterprise and suspended agricultural pursuits.’35Certainly, for two or three months, transportation in the area must have been reduced if not largely suspended, but Exeter, like every other English town in the fourteenth century with the possible exception of London, could live comfortably off the farms in its immediate neighbourhood. Though food may sometimes have been hard to buy for want of middlemen to carry, prepare and sell it, there is no reason to think that the threat of famine was added to the city’s miseries.

Inexorably the plague moved on through the West. It seems to have taken three or four months to complete its march but, by the middle of 1349, there can hardly have been a village in Devon and Cornwall which had not received its visit. At the isolated village of Templeton on the moors to the west of Tiverton there was no churchyard to accommodate the dead so that they had to be taken by cart-loads during the night to the other church at Witheridge.36 The deanery of Kenn to the south and south-west of Exeter is believed to have been the worst affected in the whole of England; eighty-six incumbents perished from a deanery with only seventeen parish churches.37

One casualty, luckier than most in that it survived, though seeming near to death at the time, was the tin industry of the west country. By the time of the plague the ‘free miners’ of Devon and Cornwall were a prosperous and powerful group enjoying a striking degree of local autonomy. The annual output of tin was some seven hundred tons. The death of many miners and the virtual disappearance of the market proved disastrous. In the years immediately following the plague production dropped away to almost nothing. As late as 1355 no tin at all was being produced in Devon. But in the more important mines of Cornwall recovery was more rapid and by the end of the century output had reached a peak which had only once been exceeded before the Black Death.38


1 E. M. Carus Wilson, Mediaeval Merchant Venturers, London 1945, p.240 et seq.

2 G. A. Holmes, The Estates of the Higher Nobility in 14th Century England, Cambridge, 1957, p.5.

3 E. B. Fryde, ‘The Last Trials of Sir William de Pole’, Econ. Hist. Rev. Ser., Vol. XV, 1962, p.17.

4 E. A. Kosminsky, Studies in the Agrarian History of England, Oxford, 1956, pp.3 22–3.

5 J. C. Russell, British Mediaeval Population, Albuquerque, 1948, p.287.

6 This figure is far from uncontested. Bennett suggests it may have been as low as 5,000 but most authorities agree that it lost population heavily between 1348 and 1377 and the poll tax figure for the latter date (always an under-estimate) was nearly 6,000.

7 ‘A 14th Century Chronicle from the Grey Friars at Lynn’, ed. A. Grandsen, Eng. Hist. Rev., Vol. LXXII, 1957, p.2.74.

8 Chronica Monasterii de Melsa, R.S. 43 III, p.68. See also Higden’s Polychronicon, R.S. 41 VIII, 355.

9 Knighton, op. cit., p.61.

10 Capgrave, ed. F.C. Hingeston, R.S. 1, p.213.

11 Eulogium (Historiarum sive Temporis), R.S. 9 III, p.213.

12 Canon of Bridlington’s Chronicle (R.S. 76 II, p. 149), Galfridi le Baker, op. cit., p.99.

13 Continuatio Chronicarum, R.S. 93, p.406.

14 ‘Vitae Archiepiscoporum’, Anglia Sacra, Vol. 1, p.42.

15 Originalia Roll, 24 Ed. III, m.2., cit. Gasquet, p.81.

16 Studies in Agrarian History, op. cit., p.321.

17 Revue beige de Philologie et d’Histoire, XXVII, 1950, p.600.

18 op. cit., pp.86–9.

19 J. M. Fletcher, ‘The Black Death in Dorset’, Dorset Nat Hist. Ant. Field Club., Vol. XLIII, 1922, p.1.

20 Hist. MSS. Comm., 6th Report, p.475.

21 Wilkins, Concilia, ii, pp.735–6.

22 Dr J. Lunn’s Ph. D. thesis of 1930. Most unfortunately no copy of this survives but many of its valuable statistics are quoted in Dr Coulton’s Mediaeval Panorama (pp.495–9 and notes).

23 Gasquet, op. cit., p.96.

24 A. Hamilton Thompson, ‘Pestilences of the 14th Century in the Diocese of York’, Archaeological Journal, Vol. 71, 1914, pp. 98–100.

25 op. cit., p.192.

26 op. cit., p.230.

27 ‘Register of Bishop Ralph of Shrewsbury’, Somerset Record Society, Vol. X, 1896, p.596.

28 M. Baehrel, ‘Epedémie et Terreur: histoire et sociologie’, Annales historiques de la Révolution française, Vol. XXIII, 1951, pp. 113–46, and ‘La haine de classe en temps d’épidémie’, Annales, E.S.C., Vol. VII, No. 2, 1952, pp.351–60.

29 Victoria County History (henceforth referred to as V.C.H.), Hampshire. Vol. II, p.33. See p.151 below.

30 The Sky Suspended, London, 1960, p. 168.

31 Knighton, op. cit., p.61.

32 C. E. Boucher, ‘The Black Death in Bristol’, Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society, Vol. IX, 1938, p.36.

33 S. Seyer, Memoirs of Bristol, Bristol, 1823, Vol. II, p.143.

34 A. Jenkins, History of the City of Exeter, Exeter, 1841, p.62.

35 G. Oliver, History of the City of Exeter, Exeter 1861, p.74.

36 W. G. Hoskins, Devon, London, 1954, p. 169.

37 Dr J. Lunn, Ph. D. thesis.

38 L. F. Salzmann, English Industries of the Middle Ages, London, 1913, p.74; A. R. Bridbury, Economic Growth, London, 1962, p.25.

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