You could easily be forgiven for thinking that the above is a quote from that great diarist Samuel Pepys, in reference to the Great Plague of the 1660s. But no, ’tis an extract from my own journal of the year 2012, describing the ghastly plague which has just assaulted Blaydon-on-Tyne. Despite my weakened state as one of its unfortunate victims, it got me thinking about the events of the plague outbreaks of the Middle Ages and beyond and their effect on society.
The most notorious episode of plague was The Black Death, which peaked in Europe between 1348 and 1350. At the time it was known as the “Great Plague” or “Great Pestilence” and it was not until the sixteenth century that the term “Black Death” came into use. There is something morbidly fascinating about this title. Did it refer to the blackened swellings present in the end-stage of the bubonic form (it also came in pneumonic and septicaemic varieties) of the disease and the subsequent gangrene? For some perverse reason, I wish it did. But no, apparently it referred to the sense of Armageddon that the disease inspired. And quite rightly, for it killed off up to 60 per cent of Europe’s population and 100 million people worldwide. One contemporary source reported: ‘They died by the hundreds, both day and night, and all were thrown in ditches…and covered in earth. And as soon as those ditches were filled, more were dug. And I, Agnolo di Tura…buried my five children with my own hands…And so many died that many believed it was the end of the world’.
It was believed to originate in China, and was carried along the Silk Road and other trade routes on the fleas that populated black rats. (But note that archaeologist Barney Sloane last year claimed in his book The Black Death in London that the plague spread so fast in London that its carriers had to be humans, not rats.) It penetrated England on the south coast in June 1348, and by spring 1350 had travelled as far north as Scotland. The Death struck swiftly, most victims expiring between two and seven days after infection. Symptoms included the aforementioned swellings (or “buboes”), fever, delirium, muscular pain and the vomiting of blood. Jeuan Gethin, a Welsh poet, eloquently describes the dreaded symptoms of the plague here: ‘We see death coming into our midst like black smoke, a plague which cuts off the young, a rootless phantom which has no mercy or fair countenance. Woe is me of the shilling in the armpit; it is seething, terrible, wherever 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. It is of the form of an apple, like the head of an onion, a small boil that spares no one. Great is its seething, like a burning cinder, a grievous thing of an ashy colour. It is an ugly eruption that comes with unseemly haste. It is a grievous ornament that breaks out in a rash. The early ornaments of a black death’.
Plague victims afflicted by buboes
There was no cure for the plague, and the most that could be done to alleviate suffering was to apply herbal remedies for the symptoms, treat the lanced swellings with poultices which included ingredients as bizarre as dried toads, or even strap live chickens to them, or blood-letting—not a pleasant task as the exiting blood was thick, black and offensive.
Flagellants sought to appease God and curtail the course of the plague by whipping themselves in public. Wearing white robes, dragging crosses and brandishing sticks with spiked tails, this sight may have been as alarming as that of the suffering of the plague victims themselves.
Dance of Death by Hans Holbein the Younger
But still the population fell in great numbers. The dead were buried in overflowing trenches, houses containing bodies (some still alive) were burned to the ground and corpses were left where they had died in the street. William of Dene, from Rochester, wrote, ‘…men and women carried the bodies of their own little ones to church on their shoulders and threw them into mass graves from which arose such a stink that it was barely possible for anyone to go past a churchyard’.
What did this destruction mean for the course of history? In short, a diminished population and therefore workforce increased the value of manpower and these factors played a part in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. While immediately after The Black Death peasants were in a strong position to demand better conditions, the Statute of Labourers passed in 1351 sought to curtail these claims. Enforcement of the statute was one of several triggers for the uprising. The labour shortage also meant that farming had to change and other industries—for example the wool industry—sprang up. And how could people maintain their blind faith in the church, when a disaster of such biblical proportions had befallen them, and when the church’s reaction was to sell “indulgences” to take away sin but salted the funds away to construct shiny new buildings, or distort the concept out of recognition so that you could cleanse yourself of all past sins? Again, The Black Death and its impact sparked a chain reaction that later manifested itself in the Reformation of the sixteenth century.
The plague recurred in Europe throughout the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries. Samuel Pepys chronicled The Great Plague of 1664-1666, the last significant outbreak of plague in England, in his diary. I find these extracts fascinating:
‘June 7th 1665
... it being the hottest day that ever I felt in my life, and it is confessed so by all other people the hottest they ever knew in England in the beginning of June—we to the New Exchange and there drunk whey; with much entreaty, getting it for our money, and would not be entreated to let us have one glasse more...This day, much against my Will, I did in Drury-lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and “Lord have mercy upon us” writ there—which was a sad sight to me, being the first of that kind that to my remembrance I ever saw. It put me into an ill conception of myself and my smell, so that I was forced to buy some roll tobacco to smell to and chaw—which took away the apprehension.
‘August 16th 1665
It was dark before I could get home; and so land at church-yard stairs, where to my great trouble I met a dead Corps, of the plague, in the narrow ally, just bringing down a little pair of stairs - but I thank God I was not much disturbed at it. However, I shall beware of being late abroad again.’
Although concentrated in London, this plague did spread to other parts of the country. It is believed that by the time of The Great Fire of London in 1666, when the tightly-packed slums where disease spread easily were destroyed, the plague had begun to wind down. It left an estimated 100,000 people dead.
Still remnants of The Black Death walk among us—the bacterium hasn’t changed much in the last 600 years, a recent study by Museum of London Archaeology tells us. That’s a good thing as it means that modern-day antibiotics are an effective treatment as they don’t have to fret about it mutating all the time, like influenza. And thank goodness modern medicine has indeed moved on from the misuse of amphibian and fowl: today 85 per cent of plague victims survive, compared to the almost 100 per cent mortality rate for The Black Death. And so I resolve to stop feeling sorry for myself as I shake off the dregs of The Blaydon Pestilence, and to embrace the fresh post-equinox air, and to live merrily, and to write a more uplifting post next time!