The Black Death


On 11 June 2009 Dr. Margaret Chan, head of the World Health Organization, declared in a suitably sombre and doom-laydened fashion, to the global media that the spread of the recently emerged virus termed Swine Flu was the first pandemic of the 21st century. At that point the governments of the world moved in to panic mode and vied with each other to demonstrate to their citizens as to who was doing the most to stop the spread of the disease. They could, of course, have done very little to have stopped the dreaded phantom reaching its tentacles across oceans and continents. Miles of newsprint and hours of television were expounded on the subject as pundits speculated on the end of mankind!


Hundreds may die globally as a result of a contributory factor brought about by Swine Flu. If there had been a WHO in existence in the late 1340’s imagine how the medieval equivalent of Dr. Chan might have made her announcement. How about, “World, we have a problem – half of you are going to die!!”


Europe had been going through a boom time for the couple of hundred years up to 1300 – a bit like the last ten years! Harvests had been good, trade had expanded and most of the thugs, that bring about trouble in any society, had been packed off to the Crusades. Around 1300 things started to go pear-shaped. There was a subtle change in the climate, which got a little cooler. Harvests became less reliant. King Edward III wasn’t contented with ruling England, he fancied France as well. Trade with the East had been growing due to the expanding Mongol empire set in motion by Genghis Khan. Their unifying influence opened up the roots to India and China. But it was not only spices, silks and gunpowder that travelled the Silk Road. Probably originating in northern China, it crept through northern India on to the vast Eurasian Steppes; in to Kazakhstan, through Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan and, finally to modern Ukraine. It took 15 years to cross Asia and all the time rumours were coming out of the East that something terrible was happening.


In England in 1347 Edward III was arranging a treaty with Castile. He needed an ally on the southern border of his enemy France and, as was customary at the time, the bargain was sealed with a marriage. His favourite daughter, Joan, a young girl in her early teens, was betrothed to the heir to the throne of Castile. This was a good match and preparations were made for her departure. A large household company of servants, craftsmen, ladies in waiting, troubadours and a small army of England bowmen were to escort the princess across the Channel, through English controlled western France to Gascony, across the Pyrenees to her prince. Within a year most, including the Princess Joan, would be dead.


Thousands of miles away, on the northern shores of the Black Sea a battle was raging. The Tartars, or Mongols, had laid siege to the walled port of Caffa. This was the western end of the Silk Road and it was one of the places that the merchants of Genoa and Venice did business. Trade, however, had come to a stop as the Tartars had a periodical throwing of toys out the pram. Things were getting desperate for the Europeans as food and fresh water began to run out – then a miracle! The ranks of the Tartars began to thin with a strange disease. Was this God’s deliverance from the heathen? Matters then took an unforeseen twist. The Tartars employed the first example in history of biological warfare. They loaded their catapults with bodies and fired them over the city walls. Salvation quickly turned to disaster. The disease began to claim victims among the besieged. In desperation, the Italian merchants left their goods and possessions and fought their way to their ships in the harbour making their escape, through the Bosphorus to the open waters of the Mediterranean. Their flight merely delayed the inevitable. They first can to Constantinople and Sicily and by then the crews were falling like flies. Too late, the people of Sicily realised they had a big problem on their hands and drove the ships out to sea. Soon the islanders began to share the fate of the sailors. The Black Death had come to Europe.

The Black Death was the greatest natural disaster in recorded history. Not since the first scribe scraped a pointed stick across a patch of mud and said, “I think I’ll call it writing,” has such a high proportion of the known world’s population died from a single course. Such a catastrophe in the modern age would be inconceivable; Britain’s population cut from 60 to 30 million in two years. The whole infrastructure of our society would collapse. Just think what happens when we have two inches of snow! The more complicated a society the more vulnerable it is to random disasters. Fortunately for medieval Europe its society was relatively uncomplicated so such an event, while regrettably terminal for one half the people, turned out to be advantageous for the surviving half – in the long run. So how did the powers that be view this impending terror that was about to engulf the continent?


The reaction of the medical fraternity is interesting and proves that things never change. The medical faculty at the University of Paris produced a strange document on the plague. The date is uncertain but it refers to the disease in Sicily but it must have been before the Black Death became entrenched in northern Europe. That would place it around the end of the summer of 1348.  The document is a prime example of the lengths to which supposedly wise men will go to hide their ignorance. It is full of important-sounding phrases and carries an air of certainty that beggars belief. We have heard similar pronouncements in recent times from politicians on economic policy; the smile of reassurance, the commanding rhetoric while, behind the back, the fingers are well and truly crossed! It begins as follows: -

We, the members of the College of Physicians of Paris, have, after mature consideration and consultation on the present mortality, collected the advice of our old masters in the art, and intend to make known the causes of this pestilence, more clearly than could be done according to the rules and principles of astrology, and natural science. You see what I mean.


The learned gentlemen start by tracing the plague’s progress across Asia (they got that bit right) but then things take a more bizarre turn. We are of the opinion, that the constellations, with the aid of Nature, by virtue of their divine might, to protect and heal the human race; and to this end, in union with the rays of the sun, acting through the power of fire, endeavour to break through the mist.

That was their diagnosis – a mist or a miasma of ill humours brought about the pestilence. This either descended from heaven or rose up through the ground. Their solution to this was to burn in every market place a great fire of vine-wood, green laurel, wormwood and chamomile. The resulting smoke would drive the disease away.

The physicians didn’t stop there.  Apparently the eating of poultry, old beef, young port, waterfowl and fat meats were bad and beetroot and vegetables, pickled or not, were also harmful. Exposure to wet weather was to guarded against and fat people should not sit in the sun. Enemas were recommended to keep the body “open,” bathing was injurious and olive oil could prove fatal. Finally the old chestnut comes out, probably to please the church. Men must preserve chastity as they value their lives. It doesn’t say anything about women!


Having brought the Black Death to Constantinople and Sicily, the merchants continued to their home ports of Genoa and Venice. Gabrielle de Mussi chronicled the plague’s progress in Genoa and his home city of Piacenza; Agniolo de Tura tells of the devastation of Siena and there are many accounts of the fate of Venice. The terrible toll of death in Florence is recorded by Matteo Villani. Some cities lost almost all their population. In Venice at least three-quarters of the inhabitants died, their bodies dumped on one of the islands in the lagoon. Even today a scrap of the earth will reveal fragments of human bone. In Florence at least sixty thousand died. Villani’s narrative ends,”…And this plague lasted until…..”  He never filled in the information, as he became part of the rotting heaps of bodies he described in the streets awaiting burial in the summer heat. The population of Florence was cut by more than half.


The first outbreak of the pestilence in France was in Marseilles in January 1348. Inevitably it came via Genoese merchant ships.  It ravages the city and contemporary accounts state that 57,000 died in Marseilles and the surrounding villages. The Bishop and the entire chapter of the cathedral and most of the monks were wiped out. Ships loaded with goods and merchandise lay adrift in the harbour, their crews dead. In near by Montpellier ten out of the twelve magistrates died. Altogether two-thirds of the population died in a matter of a few months.

Avignon, not far from Marseilles, was the papal city full of clergy and church administrators. The plague came early in 1348. According to contemporary accounts 1,800 died in the first three days and, over a seven-month period, 150,000 died. The latter is something of an exaggeration but things must have been exceptionally bad as the death toll in Avignon is commented on even by English chroniclers. The Pope’s household was cut to a quarter of its normal size. Cardinals, priests and monks were all victims. To his credit Pope Clement VI remained and did much to organise the relief, though he kept himself in his apartments surrounded by braziers to purify the air.


There is a letter dated April 27 1348, written by an anonymous canon to a friend in Burges that graphically describes the state of Avignon. To put the matter shortly, one-half, or more than a half of the people at Avignon are already dead. Within the walls of the city there are now more than 7,000 houses shut up, in these no one is living…A field near “Our Lady of Miracles” has been bought by the Pope and consecrated as a cemetery. In this, from the 13th of March, 11,000 corpses have been buried. This number does not include those interred in the cemetery of the hospital of St. Anthony, in cemeteries belonging to the religious bodies, and in the many others which exist in Avignon. He states that from January 25th to the date of the letter 62,000 bodies have been buried in Avignon.

He goes on to say that the disease has crossed the Rhone and ravaged many cities and villages as far as Toulouse.


The plague continued to spread through France. By August it was in Bordeaux where Princess Joan, daughter of Edward III, on her way to marry Pedro, son of the king of Castile, died with most of her company. It devastated Lyons and Burgundy and was soon in Paris. The chronicle of St.Denis says that the Black Death lasted about a year and a half in France and that, at one point the people of Paris were dieing at a rate of 800 a day. The Carmelite chronicle at Rheims estimates that the death toll in Paris reached 80,000. Modern historians do not dispute this figure. The pestilence did not decimate by class; Joan of Burgundy, wife of King Philip VI was a victim as was another queen, Joan of Navarre, daughter of King Louis X.


Normandy, Poitou, Gascony and Brittany all suffered as the summer of 1348 progressed. In Ameins 17,000 died. By the early summer of 1349 the pestilence had reached Belgium and Holland. Gilles Li Muisis, a resident of Tournay, stated that the bells tolled all day and a great fear gripped the city. To stop panic the city fathers forbade the tolling of bells and the wearing of black. The local chronicler says that many, living in sin, married and that dice playing was abandoned. In deed, the manufacturers of dice turned to making rosaries. Now there’s a gap in the market! Sadly it didn’t stop 25,000 citizens dieing from the disease.


The pattern of death spread ever wider. Switzerland, Austria and Hungary all succumbed. The plague reached Vienna early in the summer of 1349. The daily toll of death grew from 500 to 900 and pecked at 1200 in a single day. The dead were thrown in to great pits dug outside the city each containing approximately 6,000 corpses. A contemporary account estimates that the disease took about half the inhabitants of Vienna that year. The pandemic cross the Rhine and continued its grizzly work. The deaths are staggering. In Bremen, 7,000; Limburg, 2,500; Erfurt, 12,000; in Holstein two-thirds of the population; in Lübeck, 9,000. In Poland whole towns were depopulated and Hungary faired no better. Justus Hecker, Professor of Medicine at Erfurt, writing in the first half of the nineteenth century, estimates that the Black Death accounted for over one and a quarter million death in Germany alone.


In England at Malmesbury an unknown monk entered in his journal, “In the year of our Lord 1348, about the feast of the Translation of St. Thomas (July 7) the cruel pestilence, terrible to all future ages, came from parts over the sea to the south coast of England, into a port called Melcombe, in Dorsetshire.” The summer and autumn of 1348 were wet and cold. It rained almost every day and the harvest was poor. On a weakened population the plague found easy victims. It ravaged through the West Country and the south. Robert of Avesbury, Registrar of the Court of Canterbury said,” it passed most rapidly from place to place, swiftly killing ere mid-day many who in the morning had been well.” Somerset was particularly hit. Ralph of Shrewsbury, Bishop of Bath and Wells, issued a letter to his diocese in August 1348 in an effort to prepare his flock for the worst. This was not medical advice but guidance for their souls. He urged confession of sins and had the forethought to rule that this need not be done to a priest but, if necessary, to a layman or even a woman.


The Black Death reached London sometime between the end of September and the 1st December. It raged throughout the winter and was at its height from February to Easter. Parliament, due to met in January at Westminster, was abandoned. It is difficult to gage the death toll in the city. Chroniclers vary between 50,000 to 100,000.  As the estimated population of London at the time was somewhere in the region of 45,000 these are patently over the top. It is more likely to be in the area of 25/30,000. It was large enough for the Bishop of London to consecrate 13 acres of ground to bury the dead.

England’s population dropped from approximately 3,750,000 in 1348 to 2,500,000 in 1350. It took until the 1550’s to get back to the same level. Whole villages and even small towns ceased to exist. Arial photographers have come up with sites of settlements long forgotten due the Black Death; their shadowy remains hidden under ploughed fields and pasture. The plague destroyed the feudal system that had been the basis of government since before the Conquest though some historians would dispute this conclusion. The establishment tried in vain to retain the old ways but reality eventually dawned that if you wanted a person to work your land, you had to pay him – or he went to someone who would.


The plague remained a constant companion through the Middle Ages and beyond, raising its ugly head to snatch its victims. There was the occasional major outbreak such as that of 1665 in England but never of the enormity of the Black Death.