In recent days it has become clear that whilst building London’s new cross-rail project, archaeologists have found a mass underground burial. It is suspected that the remains of these people are the unfortunate victims of The Plague or Black Death as it is often known as.
Despite the rather stupid questioning from TV news presenters, it is obvious to anyone who knows history that this burial site is the resting place of some of the first plague victims in London. We can tell this by the orderly way the people have been buried. As the sheer scale of the plague overtook the land, later on plague victims would just be dumped in a large pit. There wasn’t enough time or manpower to do things properly.
The plague originated in Asia and came westwards towards Europe some say with the aid of The Mongols who are known to have used plague victims in the first real use of biological warfare by catapulting the bodies of plague victims over city walls knowing that the plague could kill the inhabitants more effectively than their feared soldiers ever could. Their large peaceful empire encouraged trade between China and Europe on the Silk Road with the plague reaching the city of Caffa on the Crimea in 1347. From there fleeing Italian merchants took the plague into Europe proper and whilst some quiet areas such as Belgium and parts of Germany and Poland largely remained unaffected, it was only ever going to be a matter of time before the plague reached England.
The fact that we had an idea there were plague burials in the recently excavated site and the fact they were well organised are just some of the indicators that England was as prepared as possible for the plague. Whilst obviously technically far inferior than what we are today, it is wrong to assume that the governments were stupid and at some level didn’t care about the welfare of their people. It was a good thing too as it is thought that the global population fell by 100 million people. The average death toll in Europe is thought to be about 50% although perhaps due to its dense cities and transport networks the population of England fell from 7 million to just over 2 million. Unlike in other countries law and order was maintained and there were no persecutions of ethnic or religious groups such as Jews who in other lands were linked and blamed for the Great Pestilence.
On June 24th 1348, a ship from Gascony in modern-day France arrived in Weymouth carrying a sick sailor. The first major city to fall was Bristol whilst the plague spread along three major roads towards the capital and by the autumn the plague had reached London and over the next 18 months spread northwards to ravage the whole country.
It is generally agreed that the plague bacteria was carried by fleas that lived on rats and the 70,000 people who lived in London narrow had no escape. Their houses were small with little or no ventilation and the streets were narrow with sewage flowing through them all of course a great breeding ground for rats.
Though the plague would have covered the entire country eventually, things were made worse when a plague ship docked on the Humber River several hundred miles northwards which allowed the plague to quickly reach cities like York. Recent famines and attacks by Scots left northern England particularly prone to the plague. Although the plague would kill people at all levels of society, as usual it was the poor who suffered worst with up to 90% of the peasants dying.
There was no cure for plague and once it was contracted, the person would know they had only a painful though quick death to look forward to. Things were made worse by the fact that there were multiple varieties of the plague with some being spread by air-borne virus as described in the childrens nursery rhyme below.
Ring-a-ring o’ roses,
A pocket full of posies,
We all fall down.
There were attempts to treat sufferers, some were more or less nonsensical such as killing pigeons and rubbing the dead bird on the sores of the sufferers. Others had more potential validity such as forced sweating and vomiting of patients but their science was just inadequate for the task.
Plague Doctors were familiar sights partially as many legitimate doctors fled at the first site of plague as they knew it was hopeless. Being a plague doctor was a badly paid and terribly unpleasant job and not one for people who wanted a long life. Surprisingly they did wear clothing that offered some protection. Wax coats covered their body which would have been vaguely effective at protecting them although it is thought that the coats could carry the fleas from one house to another. They also were an unusual bird mask which has sweet-smelling materials in the beak. This may have been just to mask the awful smell but also may have protected the wearer from air-borne disease. Birds were also thought to be connected with the plague and it was hoped the disease would leave the sick to enter the bird. Plague doctors would also carry sticks to prod patients and dead bodies.
Any household who had a plague victim was quarantined with a red cross painted on the door. No-one except doctors and nurses were allowed in our out of the house for 40 days, a near death sentence for other family members. Unfortunate people were paid money to wander the streets shouting “bring out your dead” with dead victims dragged onto the cart and taken away to be buried in a plague pit.
A very few isolated villages escaped the plague. They would set exclusions zones through which no one could pass. Food and money were often left in pools of water in the hope it would stop any contamination. Of course all it needed was for a rat or flee to get in and the village would be doomed.
The Black Death wasn’t the first wave of plague as 40% of Europe was killed by it in the 7th Century and there were later outbreaks especially in India and China. Even in England tens of thousands of people would die in period outbreaks but the plague didn’t do well in the cold and the winter of 1349/50 did much to kill of the main outbreak.
It is often thought that the plague was beaten permanently in London after its outbreak in 1665 by The Great Fire of London in 1666 which destroyed almost all the houses and presumably a lot of the rats.
The Plague did inspire people to study the human body and medicine more as they were well aware of their shortcomings. The arts and culture suffered. It changed the way people in England spoke as virtually all the French speakers died. The country was hugely emptied of people. Imagine living in a street of 100 houses and within a month 70 of them were empty. That is what happened on a national scale. Many towns and villages just disappeared.
One positive aspect though was that the huge labour shortage meant that wages rose at this time at the quickest rate in history until the 20th C. It also ruined the feudal system of having serfs working on the land for their local lord and was one of the contributing factors to the famous Peasants Revolt with Wat Tyler in 1381.
**You may like to see the later post I wrote on my visit to The Plague Village of Eyam here**