Post-classical history



AND so the Black Death lapped at the gates of London. Compared with Paris, Vienna, Bruges or Constantinople, London may not have seemed so enormous a metropolis; certainly in architecture, painting and general grace of living Venice and Florence were far ahead. But it was still by a long way the most important commercial and industrial centre of England; three times, at least, as large as its nearest rival. Westminster, just outside the city walls, was the seat of government and of the King.

London seems to have grown more rapidly and more consistently than any of its rivals. Though the city was not included in the Domesday Book, at that time it probably had some fifteen or sixteen thousand inhabitants. By early in the thirteenth century, Professor Russell calculated, this figure must have doubled and, by 1348, doubled again to a population of some sixty thousand within the city wall.1 The immediately outlying villages, integrated with the city in many ways and certainly part of the same unit from the point of view of the spread of the plague, must have added another ten or fifteen thousand to the total.

It would be inappropriate, in a book of this scope, to attempt any profound or detailed analysis of day-to-day life in a medieval city. Nevertheless there is much about the state of London, as for that matter about Paris or Florence, which is directly relevant to any study of the plague, since there were certain built-in features in the Londoner’s pattern of life which contributed directly to its successful spread. Perhaps the most relevant of these was the overcrowding. Privacy was not a concept close to the heart of medieval man and even in the grandest castle life was conducted in a perpetual crowd. Hoccleve writes of an earl and countess, their daughter and their daughter’s governess who all slept in the same room. It would not be in the least surprising to know that they slept in the same bed as well if, indeed, there was a bed. In the houses of the poor, where beds were an unheard of luxury, it would not have been exceptional to find a dozen people sleeping on the floor of the same room. In the country villages, indeed in many urban houses as well, pigs and chickens and perhaps even ponies, cows and sheep, would share the common residence. Even if people had realized that such a step was desirable it would have been physically impossible to isolate the sick. The surprise is not how many households were totally wiped out but, rather, in how many cases some at least of the inhabitants survived.

The dirt and inadequate sanitation of these hovels was, strictly speaking, less relevant to the spread of the Black Death. No one was going to become infected with bubonic plague by drinking tainted water or breathing foetid air. But, equally, it is true that the plague found its work easier in bodies weakened by dysentery, diarrhoea or the thousand natural shocks that the unclean body is particularly heir to. Still more important; warmth and dirt provide the ideal environment for the rat. The eventual victory of the brown rat over the plague-bearing black rat was in part due to the physical superiority of the former, but, at least as important, was a tribute to the rise in the standard of living and the substitution of brick for clay and wood which deprived the black rat of his sustenance and favourite way of life. The medieval house might have been built to specifications approved by a rodent council as eminently suitable for the rat’s enjoyment of a healthy and care-free life.

What one might call the cinematic image of a medieval town is well known. Lanes barely wide enough to allow two ponies to pass meander between the steep walls of houses which grow together at the top, so as almost to blot out the light of day. The lanes themselves – they seem indeed more drains than lanes – are deep in mud and filth; no doubt to be attributed to the myriad buxom servant-wenches who appear at the upper windows and empty chamber pots filled with excrement on the passers-by. No street corner is without the body of a dead donkey and a beggar exhibiting his gruesome sores and deformities to the charitable citizens. Clearly one is in a society where hygiene counts for nothing and no town council would waste its time supervising the cleaning of streets or the emptying of cesspools.

The picture, though of course over-drawn, is not entirely false. A medieval city, by modern standards, would seem a pretty filthy and smelly spot. But it would be unfair to suggest that citizens and rulers were indifferent to the nuisance or did nothing to remedy it. Thanks to the researches of Mr E. L. Sabine2 and others, we now know much about conditions in London and the activities of the mayor, aldermen and common council. Though London, as the largest city of England, had the most serious problems, so also it had the greatest resources with which to deal with them. The overall picture of London’s filth or cleanliness will be more or less valid for most of England’s towns and cities.

Sanitary equipment, it need hardly be said, was scarce and primitive. In monasteries or castles, ‘garderobes’ were relatively common. Since 1307, the Palace of Westminster boasted a pipe between the king’s lavatory and the main sewer which had been installed to carry away the filth from the royal kitchen. But this was probably unique in London; usually the privies of the aristocrats jutted out over the Thames so that their excrement would fall directly in the river or splash down the face of the castle wall. The situation was worse when the privies projected, not over a free flowing river but above a shallow stream or ditch. An inquest into the state of the Fleet Prison Ditch in 1355 revealed that, though it should have been ten feet wide and deep enough to float a boat laden with a tun of wine, it was choked by the filth from eleven latrines and three sewers. So deep was the resultant sludge that no water from Fleet Stream was flowing around the prison moat.

Occasionally citizens tried to dispose of their filth by piping it into the common drain in the centre of the street. A more ingenious technique was exposed at an Assize of Nuisances in 1347, when it was found that two men had been piping their ordure into the cellar of a neighbour. This ploy was not detected until the neighbour’s cellar began to overflow.

Normally those fortunate enough to possess a private latrine would also have their own cesspool. In theory these had to be built to certain minimum standards; placed at least two and a half feet from a neighbour’s land if they were stone-lined and three and a half feet if they were not. But there were many cases of seepage into adjoining properties and the contamination of private or public wells. Nor were these the only perils inherent in a cesspool, as the unfortunate Richard the Raker discovered when he vanished through the rotten planks of his latrine and drowned monstrously in his own excrement. Most blocks of tenement houses had their own privies though this was not invariable. But even where such facilities were lacking the chances were that there would be a public latrine not too far away.

Though sewers and cesspools were perhaps the most important of the common council’s responsibilities, they provided by no means the only field in which the authorities saw reason to intervene. The three city butcheries of St Nicholas Shambles near Friars Minors in Newgate, the Stocks Market near Walbrook and East Cheap were subject to strict regulations. The years just before the Black Death, when cattle murrain was rife in the South of England, gave rise to many such prosecutions for selling meat described as ‘putrid, rotten, stinking and abominable to the human race’. Offenders ran the risk of being placed in a pillory and having the putrid meat burnt underneath them.

The disposal of offal and other refuse was a serious problem. At the time of the Black Death the butchers of St Nicholas Shambles had been assigned a spot at Seacoal Lane near the Fleet prison where they could clean carcases and dispose of the entrails. But, under pressure from the Prior of St John of Jerusalem, the site was moved and subsequently moved again, to a choice of Stratford or Knightsbridge; both suitably remote spots outside the city wall. ‘Because’, as the royal instruction read,

by the killing of great beasts, from whose putrid blood running down the streets and the bowels cast into the Thames, the air in the city is very much corrupted and infected, whence abominable and most filthy stinks proceed, sicknesses and many other evils have happened to such as have abode in the said city, or have resorted to it; and great dangers are feared to fall out for the time to come unless remedy be presently made against it…3

The final solution was to build a house on a pier above the Thames and dump the offal directly in the river during the ebb tide.

Even with such precautions the state of the streets was far from satisfactory. The tenement buildings, in which each storey projected two or three feet beyond the one below, seemed designed for the emptying of slops, garbage and soiled rushes into the street. The gutters, which ran down the centre of the narrower streets and both sides of the wider ones, were generally inadequate to carry away the litter, augmented as it was by the dung of the innumerable domestic animals which lived in the centre of the city. The open sewers which ran down to the river were better able to manage the load but even these were often blocked and inadequate, especially in times of drought, to clear away all that was put in them.

To deal with these problems the common council appointed a number of ‘scavengers’ with instructions to ‘remove all filth, and to take distresses, or else fourpence, from those who placed them there, the same being removed at their cost’. By 1345 the penalty for defiling a street had risen to two shillings and every householder was deemed responsible for a mess outside his house unless he could prove his innocence. At least one city raker was appointed for each ward and there seem to have been between forty and fifty carts and horses. The householders, knowing that they would be the ones to suffer if a street was allowed to grow filthy, could generally be relied on to support the efforts of the authorities. Sometimes, indeed, their aid seemed over-enthusiastic as when a pedlar threw some eel skins to the ground in St Mary-le-Bow and was killed in the resultant struggle.

But though refuse might have been removed with some efficiency from the city centre, too often the system subsequently broke down. Large dumps were established on the banks of the Thames and the adjoining lanes. In 1344 the situation had become so bad, especially around Walbrook, Fleet Stream and the city ditch, that a comprehensive survey of all the lanes was ordered. But though there was some improvement it does not seem to have lasted long. Thirteen years later the King was complaining bitterly that his progresses along the Thames were being disturbed by the ‘dung, lay-stalls and other filth’ which were piled up along the bank.4

The overall picture, therefore, is of a city squalid and insauitary enough but aware of its deficiencies and doing its best, though with altogether inadequate tools, to put things right. The records reveal many cases of behaviour in wanton defiance of the rules of hygiene but the very fact that such behaviour was commented on and sometimes prosecuted shows that the picturesque excesses, so dear to the heart of the antiquarian, were not permitted to flourish unchecked. A responsible city council and a population on the whole aware of its civic duties did quite a good job of keeping London clean.

But the Black Death proved altogether too much for the public health services. In 1349 the King wrote to the mayor to remonstrate about filth being thrown from the houses so that ‘the streets and lanes through which people had to pass were foul with human faeces and the air of the city poisoned to the great danger of men passing, especially in this time of infectious disease’. The mayor was helpless. Not only had many of the efficient cleaners died or deserted their post and the machinery for the enforcement of the law been strained beyond its capacities but also the technical problem of transporting something over twenty thousand corpses to the burial grounds had imposed an extra and unexpected burden on the skeleton force which remained. Even ten years later the service was far from normal; in the year of the Black Death itself the most lurid imaginings of a romantic novelist would hardly have done justice to reality.


There are so many different routes by which the Black Death could have arrived in London that it would be pointless even to speculate from whence it came. By the end of September 1348 the Prior of Canterbury had addressed an alarmed mandate to the Bishop of London on the incursions which the plague was making in the latter’s diocese,5 but it does not follow from this that infection was already within the city. Nevertheless it seems certain that the city was affected before the greater part of the surrounding countryside and that there were cases as early as November 1348, and perhaps sooner still. But the main force of the epidemic was not felt until the beginning of the following year.6

Spring, though any generalization about the plague has many exceptions, was usually one of the less dangerous seasons for outbreaks of bubonic plague.7 Both from the histories of subsequent epidemics in London and from the evidence which survives of the Black Death itself it seems likely that, from January to March, a strain of pulmonary plague predominated but that the pure bubonic plague came into its own with the warm weather in the late spring and summer. As always in a large community, the disease lasted longer and consumed more gradually than in a small town or village. Deaths were still common till far on into 1350 and, though the full fury of the epidemic lasted only three or four months, almost two years passed between the Black Death’s arrival and the final casualties.

In January 1349 shortly before Parliament was due to assemble, the King prorogued it on the grounds that ‘… the plague of deadly pestilence had suddenly broken out in the said place and the neighbourhood, and daily increased in severity so that grave fears were entertained for the safety of those coming there at that time’. The King’s concern for his legislators was proper and, in the event, well justified but seems a little premature. It may well have been little more than a pretext.8 In January 1348 Parliament had proved recalcitrant and, when they eventually and grudgingly granted a subsidy for three years, they made it clear that they felt the burden of taxation to be unreasonably heavy. With his subsidy safely in his pocket the King would have jumped at an excuse to be spared the grumbling of his legislators. The epidemic came just in time to furnish it.

The existing graveyards were soon too small to meet the demand. A new cemetery was opened at Smithfield and hurriedly consecrated by Ralph Stratford, Bishop of London. But the second of the two new cemeteries, founded by the distinguished soldier and courtier, Sir Walter Manny, has provided historians with the greatest confusion. Early in 1349 Sir Walter leased for twelve marks a year and subsequently bought some thirteen acres of unused land to the north-west of the city walls at a spot called Spittle Croft. He built a chapel on the site, dedicated to the Annunciation, and threw it open for the overflow of victims of plague within the city.9 Eventually the Charterhouse was built on part of the ground. The confusion arises over the number of dead which the new graveyard accommodated. Robert of Avesbury says that two hundred people were buried there almost every day between the feast of the Purification (2 February), and Easter (2 April).10 If this is taken to mean that burials took place at this rate during what must have been the worst months of the plague and it is assumed that they continued at a reduced rate for the next few months, then a minimum of seventeen or eighteen thousand victims must have found a home there. This figure is enormous but still trifling compared with that put forward by the London historian, Stow,11 who recorded that he saw an inscription in the churchyard which read:

A great plague raging in the year of our Lord 1349, this churchyard was consecrated; wherein, and within the bounds of the present monastery, were buried more than fifty thousand bodies of the dead, besides many others from thence to the present time, whose souls God have mercy upon. Amen.

He claimed that this figure had been confirmed by his study of the Charters of King Edward III.

Camden claimed to have seen the same inscription but, in his recollection, the figure was an almost equally startling forty thousand. There is no indication that these new cemeteries were intended to replace rather than supplement the existing churchyards, one and probably two other new ones were opened; it would seem therefore that Manny’s site could not possibly have taken more than half the victims of the plague, and probably a great deal less. If Stow’s figures were correct, this would mean, therefore, that a minimum of one hundred thousand people died of the Black Death in London, a figure credulously adopted by Rickman in his Abstract of Population Returns.12 Even if Robert of Avesbury’s figure were accepted the total of the dead could hardly be less than forty thousand. Figures above fifty thousand have frequently been bandied about. Yet all these totals seem unreasonably high when set alongside a population of sixty or seventy thousand. The ecclesiastical registers, which might have provided a more accurate check, do not survive but such snippets of information as exist – as, for instance, that three out of seven benefices in the gift of the Abbey of Westminster fell vacant in the spring and summer of 1349 and both those in the gift of the Abbey of St Albans – suggest that casualties in London were more or less in line with those in other cities. Certainly there is no reason to think that it suffered less. A total of between twenty and thirty thousand dead, probably closer to the higher figure, is likely to be as accurate a guess as one will get unless some further source of satisfies is discovered.

Though, as everywhere, the poor suffered most, there were quite enough deaths among the rich and powerful to show that nobody was immune. John Stratford, Archbishop of Canterbury, died at his manor of Mayfield in August 1348. It is quite probable that he was not a victim of the plague but there is no doubt about his successor, the Chancellor, John Offord, who died in May 1349 at Westminster before he could even be enthroned. Clement VI then appointed the great scholar Thomas Bradwardine but, he, in his turn, died in the Bishop of Rochester’s London palace on 26 August 1349. A former Chancellor, Robert Bourchier, died of the plague in London and one of his successors, Robert Sadington, died in 1350, though of uncertain cause. The royal family seems to have kept out of trouble, the only casualty being the King’s daughter Joan who died at Bordeaux on her way to Portugal, but Roger de Hey ton, the royal surgeon, died on 13 May 1349.13 There were heavy losses among the dignitaries of the City. All eight wardens of the Company of Cutters were dead before the end of 1349. Similarly, the six wardens of the Hatters’ Company were all dead before 7 July 1350 and four wardens of the Goldsmiths’ Company died in 1349.14

The great Abbey of Westminster did not escape. Simon de Bircheston, its truculent Abbot, who had been prosecuted for assaulting a royal stonemason some twenty years before, took refuge in his country home at Hampstead. But in spite of his precaution he was an early victim15 and twenty-seven monks accompanied him to the grave. A large black slab in the southern cloister of the Abbey probably commemorates their death and may even cover their remains.16 By May, Simon Langham, who had been appointed a prior only a month before, was the only monk left deemed fit to administer the monastery.

The many deaths in the countryside and the natural reluctance of the carters to venture into the inferno of London meant that the usual supplies of food often failed to arrive. The Black Death prevented anything near a famine developing by rapidly and substantially reducing the demand but it was still often difficult for a citizen of London to know where to turn for his next loaf of bread. Piers Plowman noted:

It is nought long y-passed

There was a careful commune

When no cart com to towne

With bread fro’ Stratforde.

Many Londoners went out into the adjoining countryside in search of food and so spread the plague among those who had sacrificed a profitable market in the hope of escaping it.


London survived. Probably, indeed, it recovered as quickly as any city in England. In 1377 the population of the city itself seems only to have been about thirty-five thousand but this was after further attacks of plague and takes no account of population growth in the immediate vicinity.17The fact that all the chancery and exchequer work continued to be done in London was a powerful magnet and there was no city in which the villein, anxious to escape the attentions of a vengeful lord, could bury himself with greater confidence. Dr Creighton probably goes too far when he says that we may be sure ‘from all subsequent experience; that the gaps left by the plague were filled up by influx from the provinces and from abroad in the course of two or three years’,18 but it is likely that, even in so short a period, much of the lost ground was made up.

And yet the mark left by the Black Death was not to be seen only in the new cemeteries. The sharp fall in moral standards which was noticed in so many parts of Europe in the years after the Black Death was nowhere more striking than in London. Such accusations of degeneracy recur throughout the ages – this time they may have had slightly greater justification than usual. Knighton reported that criminals flocked into the city19 and John of Reading told of the great increase in crime, in particular crimes of sacrilege.20 From this period, the city began to enjoy a doubtful reputation in the eyes of other Englishmen – a city of wealth but also wickedness; of opportunity, but opportunities to earn damnation as well as fortune. Walsingham denounced the Londoners roundly: ‘They were of all people the most proud, arrogant and greedy, disbelieving in God, disbelieving in ancient custom.’ Those who live in great cities are traditionally believed to be harder, more sophisticated and more rapacious than their country cousins but the Londoner certainly acquired his reputation the hard way and probably went a long way to deserving it. Any city which suffers as London suffered and rebounds rapidly to even greater prosperity can be excused a certain fall from grace during the years of its recovery.


1 J.C. Russell, British Mediaeval Population, op. cit., pp.286–7.

2 I have made much use of E. L. Sabine’s three essays in Speculum: ‘Butchering in Mediaeval London’, Vol. VIII, 1933, p.335; ‘Latrines and Cess-pools of Mediaeval London’, Vol. IX, 1934, p.303; and ‘City cleaning in Mediaeval London’, Vol. XII, 1937, p. 19, in preparing this chapter.

3 B. Lambert, History and Survey of London, London, 1806, Vol. 1, p.241.

4 H. J. Riley, Memorials of London and London Life, London, 1868, p.295.

5 ‘Historical MSS. belonging to the Dean and Chapter of Canterbury’, H. Mss. Comm., Second Report, p.338.

6 Robert of Avesbury, R.S. 93, p.407.

7 Greenwood, Epidemics and Crowd Diseases, op. cit., p.291.

8 McKisack, The Fourteenth Century, Oxford, 1949, p.220.

9 Dom. D. Knowles, The Religious Orders in England, Cambridge, 1955, Vol. II, pp.130-31. W. Hope, History of the London Charterhouse, London, 1925, p.8.

10 op. cit., p.407.

11 Survey of London, Vol. II, p. 81.

12 Abstract of the Population Returns of 1831, London, 1832, p.11.

13 C. H. Talbot and E. A. Hammond, The Medical Practitioner in Mediaeval England, London, 1965, p.312.

14 Creighton, op. cit., Vol. I, p. 129.

15 Chronicon Johannis de Reading, ed. J. Tait, Manchester, 1914, p.108.

16 A. R. Stanley, Memorials of Westminster Abbey, London, 1868, pp.376–7.

17 J. C. Russell, op. cit., p.285.

18 Creighton, op. cit., Vol. I, p.195.

19 Knighton, op. cit., p. 120.

20 John of Reading, op. cit., pp.109–10.

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