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Historical Information

The Black Death

It is believed that the Black Death originated in central China in 1333 as the population succumbed to starvation. The plague spread to the Crimea where Kipchak Mongols or Tartars attacked Genose carrying furs and silks from Cathay, were besieging a Genoese trading centre of Calla, and catapulted their own dead into the city. The Genoese traders escaped by sea carrying the plague to Messina in Italy. In 1348 the plague spread from Cyprus to Florence which was also suffering from famine. The plague spread to Genoa from the Levant on 3 Galleys that went on to Marseilles, and then to the English south coast near Southampton, in 1348. The Black Death ravaged Bristol killing most of its inhabitants. It reached London around 1 November 1348 and by 2 February 1349, 200 people were being buried every day. The daughter of king Edward III, Joanna of died of the plague in Bordeaux on her way to marry Don Pedro, heir to the throne of Castille. The Scots who had not been affected by the black death took advantage by attacking England at this time, but this was simply that the plague had not travelled that far north, and were soon also afflicted.

In 1349 Edward III wrote a letter to the Mayor of London asking that the streets should be cleaned as of old, where he complained that the streets and lanes of London were 'foul with human faeces, and the air of the city poisioned to the great danger of men passing, especially in this time of infectious disease'. On 18 June 1349 the Ordinance of Labourers was passed in an attempt to keep pay the same as pre-plague levels. In 1352 Parliament cited violations with wages at x2 and x3 pre plague levels. Stocks were ordered to be set up in every town for offenders. The black death broke out again in the Spring of 1361, but there was a low incidence of the pneumonic form so the death rate was lower, it was said to affect the young, particularly males. The population of Britain was estimated at between 3.5-5 million before 1348 and 2 million in 1377. Plague returned to England again in 1391.

The plague came in two forms:

Pneumonic Plague giving fever and spitting of blood and the body became marked with small black pustules, thus the name The Black Death, this was the more infectious and almost always fatal, they became bed ridden for 2 to 3 days and died on the 3rd or 4th day.

Bubonic Plague was spread by fleas, and the symptoms were fever and carbuncles and enlarged lymph glands or buboes, thus the name bubonic plague, and the recovery rate for this was higher.


Plague victims suffered initially with a headache then chills and a fever with some suffering vomiting and nausa, pain in the legs and arms and back. Hard painful swellings appeared after a day or two on the neck, under the arms, and on the inner thighs and as they grew they began to ooze pus and blood. After the buboes appeared, the victim would then start to bleed internally with blood in their urine and stool. Black boils and spots would appear over the body as blood pooled beneath the skin. The victims would be in great pain, and death would occur about one week after contracting the plague. Scepticemic Plague would occur when the disease entered the victims bloodstream, death would swiftly follow, possibly before other symptoms had developed. When the plague attacked the victims digestive system it was called Enteric Plague, and this could also kill before other symptoms developed.

Medieval Beliefs

The plague affected all walks of life from the rich to the poor and people thought that the plague was God's punishment. In 1349 the Flagellants appeared in England, 600 arriving from Flanders, they wore no shoes and were bare from the waist up and had a cap with a red cross on the front and back, and carried a scourge with 3 tails, each having a not, with which some had fixed the middle one with a nail. As they marched they whipped themselves drawing blood, four would chant together and another four would chant in response. They would then stretch on the ground in the shape of a cross with the rear one stepping over the ones in front whipping them, until he lay down whereby the rear one would get up and take his turn, until all had whipped the others.

The Plague in Europe

In 1348 the plague arrived in Europe. In Saint-Maurice, there was an outbreak lasting 9 weeks from April to June 1349 with149 deaths in the village, (40 % of the population), in the surrounding countryside, mortality was between 25 to 30 %. Paris had 800 deaths a day at its peak, and by 1349 around 50,000 of its 100,000 population had died. In Vouvry 29 out of 67 died. In Bern, they buried 60 bodies per day. Bremen, Hamburg and Venice lost at least 60% of their populations, Vienna was losing 500 people a day at its peak. Once the death rate reached around 70 %, the survivors were probably immune. Switzerland's population declined from around 800,000 in 1300 to 600,000 in 1400. Béziers 1304 population 14,000, 100 years later 4,000. In France in 1350 the price of wheat had increased fourfold. At St Omer near Amiens, 1 year after the plague passed textile workers had 3 wage increases. In Italy Pisa was suffering 500 deaths a day at its peak. 1374 In Milan plague victims were taken out of the city where they would be left to die or recover, and it is said that the Archbishop Visconti ordered houses with plague victims to be walled up wether they were dead or alive, as a result Milan seems to have had fewer deaths. Anyone who nursed a plague victim was required to be put in quarantine for 10 days. In 1382 The Black Death returned to Europe in a weaker epidemic although it took an especially heavy toll in Ireland. By the end of the century it is estimated that 75 million people died.

Social change caused by the plague

The population around 1300 in England was around 5 million, in 1400 it was around 2.5 million, it was not until 1630 the population reached again 5 million. Famine had caused the population to already shrink before the plague by 5-10% from 1315-25. (The Time Travellers Guide to Medieval England, 2008, Ian Mortimer) and the resultant total drop was a result of these different influences, the greatest being the Black Death. Plague caused huge social changes throughout Europe, there were less people to work the lands and those that survived had more wealth between them. In the Abbey of Ramsay, England, 30 years after the plague, grain production had halved. Such drops in output caused grain prices to rise, and peasants were in higher demand for their labour and could attain higher wages, despite laws to stop them. The black death killed many clerics, and children in grammar schools who were previously taught French, were instead taught English due to the lack of French trained clerics. After the initial epidemic there was a rise in Europe in marriage and birth rates.

Plague Timeline

1333 Black Death originated in central China

1348 the plague spread from Cyprus to Florence

1348 Plague arrives in England on the south coast near Southampton

1348 September 2 Joanna, daughter of king Edward III died of the plague in Bordeaux on her way to marry Don Pedro, heir to the throne of Castille

1348 November 1 plague reaches London

1348 November 29 - A new Vicar is appointed at Shaftesbury, England, to replace one who had died of the plague

1348 December 10 - Third Vicar appointed to Shaftsbury, England, to replace those who died of plague

1349 Edward III orders streets to be cleaned

1349 February 2, 200 people were being buried every day.

1349 May 12 The fourth new Vicar of the church in Shaftsbury, England is appointed, when predecessors die of the Plague.

1349 June 18 Ordinance of Labourers was passed in an attempt to keep pay the same as pre-plague levels.

1352 Parliament cited violations with wages at x2 and x3 pre plague levels. Stocks were ordered to be set up in every town for offenders.

1361 Spring The black death breaks out again

1374 Black Death returns

1377 Population of Britain estimated at 2,000,000

1379 Poll Tax recorded 4 Gloucestershire villages as having no return

1388 4th outbreak of plague. Earlier re-occurrences had affected mainly children but this time it was mainly adults.


6th Century Plague

Although the 14th Century Black Death caused a great deal of death resulting in social changes, it was not the first or the last plague. In 541 AD a plague was noted in Egypt that soon spread in 542 AD to the Eastern Roman Empire which then spread into Persia and Southern Europe around the Mediterranean, and would flare up occasionally until the 8th Century. The historian Proccopius described the plague as originating in Egypt and another write Evagrius gave the source as from the region of Ethiopia and Sudan. The plague occurred during the reign of the Emperor Justinian and so became known as the Justinian Plague, and Procopius recorded that the emperor contracted the plague but recovered.

The plague had bubonic, pneumonic and septicemic forms, but was different in that many of the plague victims had hallucinations before and after other symptoms appeared, with Procopius describing victims entering into a deep coma or violent delerium.

The number of deaths are not recorded from this Plague, and deaths were caused indirectly due to staration after the death of many of the farmers, but it is thought that the death rate was high with Procopis recording in the first four months of the outbreak in Constantinople, the capital of Byzantium, as many as 10,000 deaths per day. John of Ephesus stated that plague pits were dug in Constantinople to hold 70,000 bodies each, but were not enough with bodies left accross the city to rot.

The drop in population, estimated in Constantinople to be between one third and half the population led to labour shortages, and the survivors were in greater demand so labour costs and then inflation increased, and with less people there was less tax income.


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