London, Early Fall 1348
A NIGHTTIME WALK ACROSS MEDIEVAL LONDON WOULD PROBABLY take only twenty minutes or so, but traversing the daytime city was a different matter. Crammed into the narrow mile between the malodorous Fleet River (on the western border) and the Tower of London (on the eastern border) were sixty thousand to a hundred thousand turbulent souls, and at least an equal number of noisy chickens, pigs, cows, dogs, cats, oxen, geese, and horses, as well as innumerable tumbrels and carriages. All this mayhem was compressed into lanes barely wide enough for a fat man to turn around in. The chronicler who described London as “among the noble cities of the world” may have been thinking about the capital’s lovely walled gardens and church squares, but he was more likely simply deluded, since even in these islands of tranquillity the insistent din of medieval urban life was only yards away. The city sounds began at first light with the peal of bells, the mournful cries of beasts going to slaughter, and the creak of country carts rolling southward in the chilly dawn air toward Cheapside, London’s premier commercial district. As the morning sun rose above St. Paul’s, the walled city yawned, flung open its gates, and the bounty of the English countryside flowed into the capital from Cow Lane and Chicken Lane and Cock Lane in the northwest suburbs—a place of “pleasant flat meadows, intersected by running waters, which turn revolving mill-wheels with a merry din.”
At the Shambles and at Butchers Row, immediately inside the Newgate entrance to the London wall, goods were triaged: butchers in bloodstained aprons took the large animals in hand for slaughter; other merchandise flowed directly onto Cheapside, a few hundred yards to the south. Imagine a shopping mall where everyone shouts, no one washes, front teeth are uncommon, and the shopping music is provided by the slaughterhouse up the road, and you have Cheapside, the busiest, bawdiest, loudest patch of humanity in medieval England. The street was home to more than four thousand individual market stalls, hundreds of musicians and beggars, countless rogues and scalawags, and innumerable gannocks, tapsters, and tranters—roving ale ladies. It may be true, as the chronicler claimed, that “the citizens of London were renowned beyond all others, for ‘their fine manners,’” but none of those well-mannered Londoners lived in Cheapside.
As London’s principal commercial center, Cheapside was also where people came to see and be seen. In the spring of 1348, a visitor might encounter eight-year-old Geoffrey Chaucer or Sir Walter Manny, one of Edward’s great captains, taking a constitutional, or John Rykener, who would later achieve notoriety as a prostitute named Eleanor. According to a Corporation of London report, one night after the plague, Rykener “was detected in women’s clothing . . . in a stall near Soper’s Lane committing detestable, unmentionable and ignominious acts with a John Britby.” Britby apparently mistook Rykener for a woman and when he discovered his mistake, concluded that no one was perfect.
If Cheapside pulsated with the bloody energies of the slaughterhouse, the smoky back streets of the capital throbbed to the gritty rhythms of industrial life. “They drive me to death with the din of their dints,” a resident complained of the blacksmiths, who—along with the tanners and dyers, goldsmiths and silversmiths—produced much of the capital’s manufacture. However, the much maligned smithies did make one important contribution to London life: the charcoal, wood, and newfangled sea coal they used in their work were aromatic, and foul London air was in desperate need of aromatic odors. Even by medieval standards, sanitary conditions in the city were appalling. Periodically, the Fleet River, the principal municipal sanitation dump, would be rendered impassable by refuse from the dozens of garderobes, or private outhouses, that lined the river banks like incontinent sentinels, and London’s cesspools were so full, an unfortunate citizen, Richard the Raker, actually drowned in one. Edward III complained that “[t]he air in the city is very much corrupted . . . and most filthy stinks.” However, the principal danger from London’s refuse was not that it smelled, but that it attracted disease-bearing rats.
Next to Cheapside, the busiest place in London was the Thames riverfront. “To this city, from every nation . . . under Heaven, merchants rejoice to bring their trade in ships”—for once, the chronicler did not exaggerate. From a distance, the rows of ostrich-necked cranes and high-masted ships thrusting into the gray London sky above the harbor looked like a primeval forest; closer up, the wood and canvas thicket revealed itself to be inhabited by a sweaty tribe of reedy, foul-mouthed stevedores who swarmed across the docks unloading spices from Italy, wine from Gascony, silks from Spain, linen from France, and timber, fur, iron, and wax from Scandinavia. At night the harbor assumed yet another guise—it became the Kingdom of the Rat. While London slept, thousands of hungry rodents, their wet noses twitching in the cool night air, would follow the fetid London odors out of the stilled ships, across the docks, and into the darkened city beyond.
In 1348, once a southbound traveler crossed London Bridge, the only bridge over the Thames, he was out of the city and in Southwark, a squalid little suburb of narrow streets, small workshops, petty criminals, and alleyway sex. When London banned prostitution, the capital’s sex workers relocated to Southwark, where they became known as “Winchester geese,” in honor of the town’s one architectural grace note, the Bishop of Winchester Park.
London’s other major suburb, Westminster, lay about a mile to a mile and a half to the west of the bridge, and it was famous for its great abbey, and for Westminster Palace (the king’s residence), as well as for being a sanctuary for wrongdoers. Since the eleventh century, when the village became the seat of the English Crown, Westminster had witnessed many dramatic moments, but none of equal gravity to that of September 1348, when the pestilence was rushing toward London inland from Bristol and Oxford and along the coast from Wiltshire and Hampshire. That September, one imagines scenes of high drama at Westminster Palace: Edward III and his ministers anxiously studying maps; clerks furiously scribbling orders; messengers scurrying from office to office; and arriving horsemen shouting out the latest news from the fronts at Hampshire and Bath and Winchester.
During the Great Mortality, England continued to be governed vigorously. The royal courts and the Exchequer (Treasury) remained open, tax collectors collected taxes, and the diligent king kept an eye on everything from the French to rising wages, which he froze in 1349 and again in 1351. However, Edward’s initial response to the mortality lacked his characteristic boldness. September 1348 found the king in a moody, brooding silence. Probably the loss of Princess Joan, who had died earlier that month, weighed heavily on him, but one English historian, Professor William Ormrod, thinks that initially Edward—and his ministers—underestimated the dangers of the pestilence. During the fall, says Professor Ormrod, the government seems to have gone from one extreme to the other: from apathy and indifference to something akin to panic. In December Edward retreated to the countryside; shortly thereafter he sent up to London for his relics and ordered the parliamentary session scheduled for January 1349 canceled.
According to most contemporary accounts, the plague arrived in the capital on a rainy early November morning, but from whence it came remains unclear. Geoffrey le Baker, an Oxfordshire clerk, suggests the city was infected via the Bristol prong of the pestilence; in le Baker’s account, the epidemic spreads eastward across the shires of south-central England to “Oxford and London.” An invasion by way of Kent, the coastal county to the south of London, is also a possibility. However, since London seems to have been infected before the surrounding countryside, the most probable source of infection is the sea. A visiting ship may have deposited the plague bacillus on the Thames docks, and from thereY. pestislaunched an all-points attack.
Surprisingly for the city of Shakespeare and Dickens, London produced no great plague chroniclers on the order of Agnolo di Tura or Giovanni Boccaccio. But Thomas Vincent’s evocative description of London during a later outbreak of plague suggests what the city must have been like in the terrible winter and spring of 1349. “Now, there is a dismal solitude,” wrote Vincent. “Shops are shut . . . people rare, very few walk about . . . and there is a deep silence in almost every place. If any voice can be heard, it is the groans of the dying, and the funeral knell of them that are ready to be carried to their graves.” Daniel Defoe, who survived the Great Plague of London (1665) as a child, conjures up an even more terrible picture of daily life in the city. In some people, wrote Defoe, “the plague swellings . . . grew so painful . . . not able to bear the torment, they . . . threw themselves out of windows. Others, unable to contain themselves, vented their pain by incessant roarings. Such loud and lamentable cries were to be heard as we walked along the streets that would pierce the very heart to think of.”
However, the only people who know firsthand what happened in Black Death London are the dead, and not long ago they were interviewed by a group of British archaeologists. In the mid-1980s, as rush-hour traffic whizzed by overhead, the archaeologists descended into a plague pit dozens of feet below the modern city. If a measure of a civilized society is the ability to bury its dead with dignity, then evidence from the plague pit suggests that civilization held in London.
The mixture of caskets, shrouds, individual graves, and trenches at the site indicates that on days when the dying was light, an effort was made to observe traditional burial rites; people got individual graves and some kind of funeral. Even on days when the death carts came back full and there was no time for ritual, bodies were not simply tossed willy-nilly into a pit. Some of the plague dead in the trenches were buried in caskets and shrouds, and everyone was laid out the same way: side by side, heads to the west, feet to the east. An effort may even have been made to segregate plague victims by age and gender. When archaeologists excavated the middle section of one trench, dozens of London children gazed up into the English sky for the first time in seven hundred years.
The charcoal and ash found in many coffins and shrouds also speaks to the order and organization of civilization. Since both ash and charcoal can help slow the putrefaction process, it may be that on days when the dying was heavy, rather than just toss corpses into a sea of elbows and knees and upturned buttocks, the grave diggers stockpiled plague fatalities for proper burial the following day. Another possibility is that corpses were preserved because a triage system was in operation. This occurred during the Great Plague of 1665, when the dead were transported across the city to cemeteries.
To determine how many Londoners perished, it is also necessary to interview the dead at another, more famous mortality burial site. In 1348 Ralph Stratford, the Bishop of London, “bought a piece of land called No Man’s Land” northwest of the city, amid the “pleasant flat meadows” of West Smithfield. A year later, Sir Walter Manny, a famous veteran of the French wars, expanded the site by purchasing “thirteen acres and a rod adjoining . . . the said ‘No Man’s Land.’” The Smithfield site is, by far, the largest Black Death cemetery in London, but how large has been a matter of controversy for centuries.
Robert of Avesbury, who clerked for the Archbishop of Canterbury, claims that the pestilence “grew so powerful [in London] that between Candlemas [February 2, 1349] and Easter [April 12], more than two hundred corpses were buried almost every day in the new burial ground made next to Smithfield.” A sixteenth-century historian named John Stow claims that, in his time, the cemetery bore the inscription, “A great plague raging in the year 1349 a.d., this churchyard was consecrated; wherein . . . were buried more than fifty thousand bodies of the dead.” Smithfield cemetery has long since disappeared under urban sprawl, but, even assuming Stowe’s memory was accurate, the figure of fifty thousand burials sounds astonishingly high. Assuming medieval London had a population of a hundred thousand—the high end of current estimates, once the plague dead in the city’s hundred-plus regular cemeteries are included, London’s overall mortality rate would have to have been in the 65 to 80 percent range—highly unlikely. Assume London had a population of sixty to seventy thousand—the low end of current estimates—and the city would have been virtually depopulated by August 1349.
Since medieval statisticians were given to terrific flights of fancy,* probably what the plague’s author meant to say is that a great many people were buried at Smithfield. A recent estimate puts the cemetery’s population at seventeen thousand or eighteen thousand and London’s overall mortality rate at twenty thousand to thirty thousand, with thirty thousand being the more probable figure. If medieval London had seventy thousand souls, a reasonable estimate, that would mean a death rate of close to 50 percent.
Some historians believe the plague in London may have followed the pattern in Avignon—pneumonic in winter, bubonic in the spring and summer—though firm evidence on this point is lacking. Contemporary sources are more helpful on the question of who died. In LondonY. pestisseems to have killed with egalitarian abandon, claiming no fewer than two archbishops of Canterbury, John Offord and his successor, Thomas Bradwardine, and numerous members of the royal household, including the king’s physician, Roger de Heyton, and the wayward guardian of Princess Joan, Robert Bourchier, who had escaped the plague in Bordeaux only to die in London. In a fit of antiunionist frenzy, the pestilence also struck down the leaders of many of the city’s powerful trade guilds, including eight wardens from the Company of Cutters, six wardens from the Hatters Company, and four wardens from Goldsmith Company.
The plague also claimed twenty-seven monks at Westminster Abbey, and the number would have been twenty-eight had not the hot-tempered, disagreeable Abbot Simon de Bircheston fled to his estate in Hampshire, to no avail. During its sweep through coastal England, the plague stopped in Hampshire and killed him.
In the waning months of the pestilence, Cheapside emptied and the Shambles fell quiet as farmers began to boycott the capital for fear of infection. There were now so few people, even with the boycott, the second Horseman of the Apocalypse, Famine, could gain no purchase. A 1377 poll tax assessment put the population of the postplague capital at thirty-five thousand.
Had the assessors examined London’s moral state, they would have found that it, too, had fallen precipitously. John of Reading, a Westminster monk, observed that in the years following the pestilence, priests, “forgetful of their profession and rule, . . . lusted after things of the world and of the flesh.” The cackling Henry Knighton noted that many highborn women “wasted their goods and abused their bodies.” A similar moral decline was evident elsewhere in postplague Europe and the Middle East. “Civilization,” noted the Muslim scribe Ibn Khaldun, “both in the East and West was visited by a destructive plague. . . . It swallowed up many of the good things . . . and wiped them out. . . . Civilization decreased with the decrease of mankind. . . . The entire world changed.”
InOn Thermonuclear War,one of the most exhaustive studies ever conducted on the effects of nuclear war, strategist Herman Kahn states, “Objective studies indicate that even though the amount of human tragedy would be greatly increased in the postwar world, the increase would not preclude normal and happy lives for the majority of survivors.” The aftermath of the plague suggests that Dr. Kahn’s assessment of postapocalyptic life may be half right. Survivors of the mortality did indeed rebuild their lives and their societies, but as the poem “The Black Death of Bergen” observes, the memory of what they had endured never left them:
Sights that haunt the soul forever
Poisoning life til life is done.
Writing in the aftermath of World War I, James Westfall Thompson, a University of Chicago psychiatrist, noted several parallels between the Lost Generation of the Great War and the generation that lived through the Black Death. “The superficial yet fevered gaiety, the proneness to debauchery, the wild wave of extravagance, the gluttony—all these phenomena [are] readily explicable in terms of the shock and trauma of the Great War,” declared Dr. Thompson, and all have parallels in the behavior of the plague generation.
East Anglia, Spring 1349
On a map, the eastern coast of England forms a reasonably straight line down from Yorkshire to the Wash, a large bay on what the Victorians used to call the German Ocean (otherwise known as the North Sea). Below the Wash, the coast suddenly boils out like a head bursting though a wall; that cartographical illusion is East Anglia.
Perhaps because the ocean and sky always seem to beckon, the region has long been a departure point for the restless. In the seventeenth century, colonists from Norfolk and Suffolk, East Anglia’s two counties, helped to settle New England, bringing with them not only many local place-names, including Yarmouth, Ipswich, Lynn (Massachusetts), Norwich, and Norfolk (Connecticut), but the speech patterns that gave rise to the Boston accent. However, well before East Anglia discovered the New World, it discovered how to make an unpromising environment blossom. In the years before the plague, the peasants of fertile Champion Country watched in awe as their counterparts who lived along the German Ocean transformed a land of light sandy soils, moody skies, and small, uneconomic farms into the most densely cultivated region of England.
In the fourteenth century, East Anglians who did not farm made cloth, the major industry in the region. In hundreds of towns and villages across Norfolk and Suffolk, thethwack!of the fuller and his “stocks” echoed from dawn to dusk. Charged with cleaning and thickening wool before it was spun, the fuller borrowed his techniques from wine making and the Inquisition. A fuller spent half the day in a trough of water, jumping up and down on a pile of wool; the other half, beating the wool senseless with a wooden bar—the “stocks”—until it surrendered the necessary degree of spotlessness and thickness.*
By the eve of the plague, East Anglia had grown into the most populous area of England, and its leading commercial center, Norwich—the suffix “wic,” as in Norwich and Ipswich, is an ancient designation for trading place—had become the second city of the realm, with a population of perhaps twenty thousand, many of them descendants of peoples who lived on the other side of the German Ocean. In Roman times, the fierce Saxons invaded so often, legionnaires called the region the Saxon Shore, and the Saxons were followed in the ninth and tenth centuries by the even fiercer Vikings. But the fiercest conqueror in East Anglia history came not by longboat, but by tumbrel or cart or saddlebag. Sometime around the Ides of March 1349,Y. pestiscame up the road from London, and by the time it left, East Anglia, like Florence and Siena and Avignon, had experienced the equivalent of a thermonuclear event.
Though many regions of England suffered grievously in the mortality, it is hard to dispel the notion that, in the east of England in general and in East Anglia in particular, the suffering achieved a horrible new intensity. It was almost as if, unhinged by the bloodletting in the narrow, fetid lanes of Bristol and London and Winchester,Y. pestishad forgotten the first rule of survival for an infectious disease: leave some survivors behind to carry on the chain of infection. In most of England, plague mortalities seem to have ranged from 30 to 45 percent; in the counties along the German Ocean, the average may have been nearer 50 percent, and in some places along the coast, higher. Dr. Augustus Jessop, the Victorian historian, author of what still remains the most comprehensive examination of East Anglia, wrote that in the “year ending 1350, more than half the population . . . was swept away. . . . [And] if any one should suggest thatmany more[italics added] than half died, I should not be disposed to quarrel with them.”
By 1377 the population of Norwich had shrunk from a preplague high of about twenty thousand to under six thousand. As in Winchester and London, not all the missing residents died of plague, but the holocaust in the city was so great, for centuries after, the Black Death haunted civic memory. In 1806 a historian wrote that in 1349 Norwich “was in the most flourishing state she ever saw and more populous than she hath been ever since.” Great Yarmouth, the leading seaport of East Anglia, also bore the plague’s scars for centuries. You can almost hear the wind whistling through the empty streets in a sixteenth-century report prepared for Henry VII. “Most . . . of the dwelling places . . . of [Yarmouth],” wrote the authors, “stood desolate and fell into utter ruin and decay.”
The fact that the valley of the Stour in lower Suffolk was among the first places in East Anglia to be struck supports the notion of London as the source of infection. The capital is only forty to forty-five miles to the south. While those miles were a good deal longer in 1349 than they are today, it still seems odd to find the peasants of Conrad Pava, a medium-sized estate in the valley, arguing about land and dowries—as manor court records show—as the year opened. People must have been thinking about pestilence. Indeed, with London so close, they were probably thinking of little else. Perhaps that bleak January, residents found comfort in arguing about the traditional issues of manor life.
By the time the manor court convened once again in March, the mortality had become impossible to ignore. The names of nine plague victims—six men and three women—are entered in court records. Such a large number of deaths in so short a time must have given rise to hopes that the worst was over, but the worst had not even begun. On May 1, when the manor court met for its third session of the year, fifteen new deaths were recorded—thirteen men and two women. Seven of the deceased left no heirs; at Conrad, as at Farnham, whole families were obliterated. In the summer of 1349, while London buried the last of its dead, the mortality peaked on the manor, producing more victims. On November 3, at the last court of the year, thirty-six new deaths were recorded; this time thirteen of the deceased left no heirs. In six months, twenty-one families on a manor of perhaps fifty families had been wiped out.
In April, in the little village of Heacham in Norfolk, near the western coast of the German Ocean, the pestilence intruded on Emma Goscelin’s life with the randomness of a stray bullet. A month earlier, asY. pestiswas traveling north under the remains of a late winter sky, Emma and her husband, Reginald Goscelin, were engaged in a bitter dispute over Emma’s dowry. The court rolls are unclear about the cause of the dispute—perhaps Reginald was a wastrel who squandered Emma’s money on the local ale ladies. Whatever he did, Emma was mad enough about it to take him to court. The case of Goscelin v. Goscelin was scheduled to be heard at manor court in Heacham on April 23, 1349, and Emma was not planning to attend court alone. Records indicate that several witnesses had agreed to testify on her behalf. That spring, if Reginald probably thought his life could not possibly get any worse, he was wrong. On April 23, Emma had to tell the court that the errant Reginald was dead, as were all her witnesses.
In Norwich, the epicenter of the storm, the dead quickly began to outnumber the living. Think of the survivors, writes Dr. Jessop, with only a touch of Victorian hyperbole, “threading [through] the filthy alleys, . . . stepping back into doorways to give the death carts passage, . . . [being] jostled by lepers and outcasts.” Think, he continues, of the city’s cemeteries: “Tumbrels discharging their load of corpses all day long, tilting them in huge pits made ready to receive them; the stench of putrefaction palpitating through the air . . . [people] stumbling over the rotting carcasses . . . breathing all the while the tainted breath of corruption.”
As elsewhere in England, in East Anglia the social order held, although there was enough postapocalypse lawlessness to give point to G. B. Neibuhr’s assertion that in “times of plague . . . the bestial and diabolical side of human nature gains the upper hand.” Probably no one better illustrates Neibuhr’s point than William the One-Day Priest, an errant cleric who robbed six days a week and celebrated Mass on the seventh. Among those to run afoul of One-Day William was Matilda de Godychester, who was relieved of her purse and a ring in Epping forest. Later, Matilda told a court she was happy to escape with her life. Also active in the postplague era was the con artist Henry Anneys, whose specialty, tax avoidance schemes, would make him right at home today. One day in the early 1350s, Henry showed up at the door of Alice Bakeman, no paragon of virtue herself. Hearing that Alice wanted to avoid paying a heriot, or death tax, on some inherited property, the silky Henry proposed a trade—one of his best tax schemes for one of Alice’s best milking cows. Henry got his cow, and Alice her scheme, but, alas—and probably predictably—the tax authorities saw through the scheme and Alice had to pay the heriot.
William Sigge was as low as Henry Anneys was cunning. William’s crimes included stripping lead from one dead neighbor’s roof, stealing pots and pans from another dead neighbor’s cottage, and altering the boundary of a third dead neighbor’s farm, so as to extend his own property. By all rights, Catherine Bugsey, who also preyed on the dead, should have been dead herself, at least ten times over; Catherine’s specialty was stealing clothing from plague victims. But when arrested in her latest acquisition, a leather jerkin, Catherine was the picture of health.
After the sixth-century Plague of Justinian, the historian Procopius observed, “Whether by chance or Providential design, [the pestilence] strictly spared the most wicked.”
In East Anglia, history seems to have repeated itself.
* * *
Few aspects of mortality scholarship are more fraught with controversy than the question of whether priests died in greater or lesser numbers than the general population. Some historians believe that the clerical mortality was higher because priests as a group were older, and if they performed their duties conscientiously, more likely to be exposed to risk. Other scholars believe that since clerics were better fed and housed, they may have died in slightly smaller numbers than the general population. Even if we take the second position, the ecclesiastic death rates in the county of Lincoln, to the north of East Anglia, are so high, a general death rate of 55 percent for the county seems probable. In the city of Lincoln alone, 60 percent of the beneficed—or salaried—clergy died; in the village of Candleshoe, 59 percent; in Gartree, 56 percent; while another village, Manlake, had one of the highest ecclesiastical death rates in England: an astonishing 61 percent.
Despite the losses sustained by the clergy, the plague weakened the authority and prestige of the institutional Church. To some degree, this was a by-product of disillusionment. For a thousand years, the Church had presented itself as God’s representative on earth. Yet the universal pestilence had shown it to be as powerless, as far from God’s favor, as every other institution in medieval society.
Leading clerics attempted to rationalize away the Church’s impotence by depicting the Black Death as an opportunity for salvation. “Almighty God uses thunder, lightning and other blows . . . to scourge the sons he wishes to redeem,” declared the ever blustery Bishop Ralph of Shrewsbury. Another common rationalization was to depict the plague as a necessary and just punishment for a wicked humanity. “O ye of little faith . . . Ye have not repented of your sins . . . therefore I have sent against you the Saracens and heathen people, earthquake, famine, beasts . . . etc. etc.” warned the Heavenly Letter, one of the most widely circulated public documents of the Black Death. But none of the rationalizations was entirely successful. Europe emerged from the plague still a believing society, but after a four-year journey through the heart of darkness, people did not believe in quite the same way they had before.
Neither was the standing of the Church helped by a penchant for blaming the victim, a habit particularly pronouced among the English clergy. “Let us look at what is happening now,” declared the Bishop of Rochester. “We [English] are not stable in faith. We are not honorable in the eyes of the world—on the contrary, we are, of all men, the falsest and in consequence, not loved by God.” Henry Knighton could not have agreed more, though, in Friar Knighton’s view, it was tournament groupies that brought down God’s wrath against the English. The plague, he wrote, was a consequence of the bands of beautiful young women who corrupted public morals by attending tournaments in provocative dress. Admittedly, Knighton was a great crank—upon observing that the pestilence had killed 140 Franciscans in Marseille, he could not resist adding, “And a good job, too!” But even the normally sober John of Reading became a little unhinged on the subject of English tomfoolery. “And no wonder,” John declared, in a passage describing the plague’s arrival, “given the empty headedness of the English, who remained wedded to a crazy range of outlandish clothing without realizing the evil that would come of it.”
Another important factor in the Church’s decline was the postplague state of the clergy, and, again, this trend was particularly pronounced in England. After the Black Death, there were far fewer priests to comfort or minister to the laity, and, since many talented clerics had died, ecclesiastical leadership deteriorated. “At that time,” wrote Knighton, “there was such a dearth of priests that many churches were left without the divine offices, Mass, Matins, Vespers, sacraments and sacramentals.” Compounding the problem of thinned clerical ranks was the greed of many survivors. “One could hardly get a chaplain to serve a church for less than ten pounds or ten marks,” says Knighton. “. . . [W]hereas before the pestilence, when there were plenty of priests, anyone could get a chaplain for five or even four marks.” The low quality of the new clerical recruits also produced disillusionment. Many of the replacements were either very young and ill trained, as in Norwich, where sixty clerks, “though only shavelings” were pushed into vacant rectories, or equally ill-trained middle-aged men, many widowers who had no real vocation.
In many cases, too, the clergy became swept up in the “Lost Generation” spirit. In the postplague years, ecclesiastical discipline slackened and holiness declined. One Franciscan chronicler complained that “the monastic orders, and in particular the mendicants, began to grow both tepid and negligent, both in that piety and that learning in which they had up to this time flourished.”
However, it was the behavior of priests during the plague, not after it, that may have had the most negative effect on the Church. This may seem odd, given the 42 to 45 percent mortality rate among English parish priests, but there may be a ready explanation. While most clerics remained at their posts, many clerics performed their duties in a less than heroic manner. “The picture one forms,” writes Philip Ziegler, “. . . is that of a clergy doing its daily work but with reluctance and some timidity, thereby incurring the worst of the danger but forfeiting the respect it should have earned. Add to this a few notorious examples of priests deserting their flocks . . . and some idea can be formed of why the established Church emerged from the Black Death with such diminished credit.”
North of England, Spring 1349
Above East Anglia, England constricts, as if concentrating its energies for a collision with the rough, borderland Scots. In theory, this narrowness, which keeps the sea very near in the north, should have made the region vulnerable to a waterborne assault, but, initially at least,Y. pestisseems to have traveled north overland, perhaps with a group of refugees from London, perhaps in a tumbrel of grain. All that is known for certain is that on a dull May morning in 1349, as a spring sun rose above the cathedral, York, the leading city of the north, with a population of almost eleven thousand, began to die.
The northern counties, Lancashire (on the west coast), Yorkshire (on the east), and above them, Cumberland and Durham, had a long time to contemplate their fate. It took the pestilence ten months to reach the region. In the meantime, residents had little to do but plow the fields, listen to rumors from the south, and contemplate the words of William Zouche, Bishop of York. “Almighty God,” thundered the bishop, “sometimes allows those whom he loves to be chastened so that their strength can remain complete by the outpouring of grace in a time of spiritual infirmity.”
Over the winter and spring of 1349, as the rest of England writhed in agony, nature, as if expecting an important new houseguest, was busy preparing the north for the arrival ofY. pestis. On the last day of 1348, a winter flood submerged the western parishes of York; then, a few days before Passion Sunday, an earthquake rocked the Abbey of Meaux, also in Yorkshire. If modern experience is any guide, both events may have facilitatedY. pestis’s work by disrupting rodent habitats and sending local rats fleeing toward human settlements.
Compared to the urban areas of Lincoln and Norfolk, the city of York escaped relatively lightly. Clerical losses amounted to 32 percent, 10 percent or more below the national average for parish priests and almost 30 percent below those in Lincoln. The Abbey of Meaux was not so fortunate. The plague claimed forty of its fifty monks and lay brothers, including six victims—among them, the abbot—on the single terrible day of August 12, 1349. While abbeys, with their large complement of unwashed bodies, undiscarded food, and dank corridors, were magnets for rats and fleas, the chronicler at Meaux seemed inclined to think that evil portents were also at work at the monastery. In particular, he mentions the recent death of a pair of Siamese twins, who were “divided from the navel upward . . . and sang together very sweetly” in nearby Kingston-on-Hull. According to the chronicler, “a short time before the pestilence” the twins had died the saddest of imaginable deaths. When one passed on, “the survivor held it in its arms for three days.” And given what happened in Hull, perhaps the twins’ deaths were a portent.
Edward III was abnormally unforgiving about taxes—in one case, he sent seven tax collectors to a post, until finally he found one the plague couldn’t kill—but the pestilence left the twins’ native Hull in such a state of depredation, even the king was moved to pity. “Considering the waste and destruction which our town of Kingston-on-Hull has suffered,” he decided to remit certain taxes back to Hull.
Despite York’s relatively low clerical mortality rate, overall the county of Yorkshire’s losses were in line with the 40 to 50 percent national average. To the west,Y. pestismay have been more lethal. In the fourteenth century Lancashire, which borders the Irish sea, was one of the most thinly populated regions of England; but a postplague survey of ten local parishes came up with a mortality rate of more than thirteen thousand. In Derbyshire to the south, the most eloquent set of mortality statistics are in a small parish church where a plaque commemorates the Wakebridge family’s brush with annihilation in the summer of 1349.
18 May, Nicholas, brother of William
16 July, Robert, brother of William
5 August, Peter, father of William and Joan, sister of William
10 August, Joan, wife of William and Margaret, sister of William
William himself survived the pestilence.
Another William, the enterprising William of Liverpool, seeing opportunity where others saw only misery, concluded that 1349 was the perfect year to start a funeral business. Documents from medieval Lancashire say that William “caused one third of the inhabitants of Everton [a Lancashire town] to be brought to his house after death,” presumably to be buried at a price.
Durham and Cumberland, the two most northerly counties in England, were accustomed to random death. For more generations than anyone could remember, they had served as the frontline in a series of predatory wars against the Scots, whom the expansionist English could defeat but never quite conquer. In 1352 war-weary and plague-devastated Carlisle, the principal city of Cumberland, was forgiven its taxes, because, according to a royal decree, the town was “more than is usual depressed by the pestilence.” In Durham, a wave of unrest seems to have swept through the county in the summer of 1349. There are reports of peasants refusing to pay fines and refusing to take on the holdings of deceased tenants, but it is unclear whether the refusals were isolated acts or part of some larger, organized movement. Lacking reliable data, we have to deduce morale in the borderlands by an image. It is of a mad, lone peasant who, in the years after the plague, wandered the villages and lanes of the region, calling out for his plague-dead wife and children. The man is said to have greatly upset the populace.
The Scots, still laboring under the impression that the plague was an English phenomenon, were enjoying themselves immensely in the summer of 1349. “Laughing at their enemies . . . [and] swearing ‘by the foul death of England,’” in March 1350 they amassed a large army in the forest of Selkirk near the English border, “with the intention of invading the whole realm.” But before the attack could be launched, “the revenging hand of God” reached across the border and scattered the gathering Scots with “sudden and savage death.”
Henry Knighton enjoyed Selkirk even more than the 140 dead Franciscans in Marseille. “Within a short space of time,” he wrote, “around five thousand [Scots] died and the rest, weak and strong alike, decided to retreat to their own country. But the English following, surprised them and killed many.” The routed Scots took the plague home with them, butY. pestisdid not take as well to the rough terrain and cooler climate of the Highlands. A third of Scotland may have died, perhaps less. Whatever the exact mortality rate, it was lower than England’s.
For the Welsh, who were already under the English boot, the pestilence brought an end to hope, but not to poetry. In the desperate spring of 1349, asY. pestislapped at the Welsh borderlands north of the Bristol Channel, the poet Jeuan Gethin wrote: “We see death coming into our midst like black smoke, a plague which cuts off the young, a rootless phantom which has no mercy for fair countenance. Woe is me of the shilling [bubo] in the arm pit; it is seething, terrible, where ever it may come, a head that gives pain and causes a loud cry, a burden carried under the arms, a painful angry knob, a white lump . . .”
Beyond the poetry, very little is known about the mortality in Wales, except that it affected both the English colonists—or “Englishry”—in the lowlands, and the natives—the “Welshry”—who lived in the mist-shrouded hills. We also know that, as the plague gathered strength, the Welsh countryside filled with hard men, like Madoc Ap Ririd and his brother Kenwric, who “came by night in the pestilence to the house of Aylmar after the death of the wife of Aylmar and took from the same house one water pitcher and basin, value one shilling . . . [and who also] stole three oxen from John le Parker and three cows, value six shillings.”
In Ireland, which may have been infected in the late summer of 1348 by way of Bristol, contemporary accounts indicate that the pestilence did discriminate between foreigner and native. Geoffrey le Baker observed that in Ireland the plague “cut down the English inhabitants in great numbers, but the native Irish living in the mountains and uplands were scarcely touched.” This observation is echoed in a 1360 report prepared for Edward III; its authors note that the pestilence “was so great and so hideous among the English . . . [but] not among the Irish.” A seventeenth-century Irish historian, perhaps with the atrocities of the Cromwellians still fresh in mind, wrote that while the pestilence “made great havoc among the Englishmen . . . for those who were true Irish-men born and dwelling in hilly countries, it scarce just saluted them.”
The Anglo-Irish tendency to cluster in seacoast towns probably did make them more vulnerable. The plague seems to have landed first on the east coast at Howth or Dalkey, two towns to the north and south of Dublin, then spread to the city itself.Y. pestiscould not have selected better landing sites. Using the cluster of little villages and towns around Dublin as a human bridge, the pestilence quickly vaulted into the more sparsely populated hinterland. By December 1348, Kildare, Leath, and Mouth—three counties around the capital—were infected, and by late summer 1349 the plague was in Clare and Cork on the west coast.
One historian puts the death rate among the Anglo-Irish at 35 to 45 percent; the native Irish probably suffered less, though how much less is unclear. Whatever their death rate, there was more than enough suffering to go around in Ireland in 1348 and 1349.
The final sentence in the manuscript of John Clynn, the Irish monk who wrote “waiting among the dead for death to come,” was written by another monk. It reads: “And Here it seems the author died.”