In 1347 a Genoese ship from Caffa, on the Black Sea, came ashore at Messina, Sicily. The crew of the ship, what few were left alive, carried with them a deadly cargo, a disease so virulent that it could kill in a matter of hours. It is thought that the disease originated in the Far East, possibly in the Gobi Desert, and was spread along major trade routes to Caffa, where Genoa had an established trading post. When it became clear that ships from the East carried the plague, Messina closed its port. The ships were forced to seek safe harbour elsewhere around the Mediterranean, and the disease was able to spread quickly.

During the Medieval period the plague went by several names, the most common being "the Pestilence" and "The Great Mortality". Theories about the cause of the disease were numerous, ranging from a punishment from God to planetary alignment to evil stares. Not surprisingly, many people believed that the horrors of the Black Death signalled the Apocalypse, or end of time. Others believed that the disease was a plot by Jews to poison all of the Christian world, and many Jews were killed by panicked mobs.

The truth
The Black Death is a bacteria-borne disease; the bacteria in question being Yersinia pestis, which was carried in the blood of wild black rats and the fleas that lived off the rats. Normally there is no contact between these fleas and human beings, but when their rat hosts die, these fleas are forced to seek alternatives - including humans!

The symptoms
The plague produces several different symptoms in its victims. Bubonic, the most common form of the plague, produces fist-sized swellings, called buboes, at the site of flea bites - usually in the groin, armpits, or neck. The swellings are intensely painful, and the victims die in 2-6 days. The buboes are red at first but later turn a dark purple, or black. This black colouring gives the "Black Death" its name. Pneumonic plague occurs when the infection enters the lungs, causing the victim to vomit blood. Infected pneumonic people can spread the disease through the air by coughing, sneezing, or just breathing! In Septicemic plague the bacteria enters the person's bloodstream, causing death within a day.

The speed with which the disease could kill was terrifying to inhabitants of the medieval world. The Italian author Boccaccio claimed that the plague victims "ate lunch with their friends and dinner with their ancestors in paradise."

The Black Death reaches England
The summer of 1348 was abnormally wet. Grain lay rotting in the fields due to the nearly constant rains. With the harvest so adversely affected, it seemed certain that there would be food shortages. But a far worse enemy was set to appear.

It isn't clear exactly when or where the Black Death reached England. Some reports at the time pointed to Bristol, others to Dorset. The disease may have appeared as early as late June or as late as August 4. We do know that in mid-summer the Channel Islands were reeling under an outbreak of the plague. From this simple beginning, the disease spread throughout England with dizzying speed and fatal consequences.

The effect was at its worst in cities, where overcrowding and primitive sanitation aided its spread. On November 1 the plague reached London, and up to 30,000 of the city's population of 70,000 inhabitants succumbed.

Over the next 2 years, the disease killed between 30-40% of the entire population. Given that the pre-plague population of England was in the range of 5-6 million people, fatalities may have reached as high as 2 million dead.

One of the worst aspects of the disease to the medieval Christian mind is that people died without last rites and without having a chance to confess their sins. Pope Clement VI was forced to grant remission of sins to all who died of the plague because so many perished without the benefit of clergy. People were allowed to confess their sins to one another, or "even to a woman".

The death rate was exceptionally high in isolated populations like prisons and monasteries. It has been estimated that up to two-thirds of the clergy of England died within a single year.

Peasants fled their fields. Livestock were left to fend for themselves, and crops left to rot. The monk Henry of Knighton declared, "Many villages and hamlets have now become quite desolate. No one is left in the houses, for the people are dead that once inhabited them."

The Border Scots saw the pestilence in England as a punishment of God on their enemies. An army gathered near Stirling to strike while England lay defenceless. But before the Scots could march, the plague decimated their ranks. Pursued by English troops, the Scots fled north, spreading the plague deep into their homeland.

In an effort to assuage the wrath of God, many people turned to public acts of penitence. Processions lasting as long as three days were authorized by the Pope to mollify God, but the only real effect of these public acts was to spread the disease further.

By the end of 1350 the Black Death had subsided, but it never really died out in England for the next several hundred years. There were further outbreaks in 1361-62, 1369, 1379-83, 1389-93, and throughout the first half of the 15th century. It was not until the late 17th century that England became largely free of serious plague epidemics.

It is impossible to overstate the terrible effects of the Black Death on England. With the population so low, there were not enough workers to work the land. As a result, wages and prices rose. The Ordinances of Labourers (1349) tried to legislate a return to pre-plague wage levels, but the overwhelming shortage of labourers meant that wages continued to rise. Landowners offered extras such as food, drink, and extra benefits to lure labourers. The standard of living for labourers rose accordingly.

The nature of the economy changed to meet the changing social conditions. Land that had once been farmed was now given over to pasture, which was much less labour-intensive. This helped boost the cloth and woollen industry. With the fall in population, most landowners were not getting the rental income they needed, and were forced to lease their land.

Peasants benefited through increased employment options and higher wages. Society became more mobile, as peasants moved to accept work where they could command a good wage. In some cases, market towns disappeared or suffered a decline despite the economic boom in rural areas.

It has been estimated that 40% of England's priests died in the epidemic. This left a large gap, which was hastily filled with underqualified and poorly trained applicants, accelerating the decline in church power and influence that culminated in the English Reformation. Many survivors of the plague were also disillusioned by the church's inability to explain or deal with the outbreak.

The short-term economic prosperity did not last; the underlying feudal structure of society had not changed, and by the mid-15th century standards of living had fallen again. Yet for most levels of English society, the Black Death represented a massive upheaval, one which changed the face of English society in a profound way.

Also see Medieval London in our London History guide.

Medieval Britain - from 'A History of the British Nation' (1912)
Medieval attractions in Britain (places to see tagged with 'medieval')