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The Black Death and its Aftermath
Report of the lecture given by Imogen Corrigan on March 24th 2010

Imogen Corrigan gave us a fascinating and beautifully illustrated account of "The Black Death and its Aftermath " at our March meeting.

The Black Death, or the Blue Death as it was called in France, was a world-wide pandemic which affected Britain during the years 1348-1350. A period of warm climactic conditions had ended in 1300; followed by drought, hard winters and increased rainfall with subsequent crop failures and famine. This resulted in a declining and debilitated populace even before the plague struck.

It has previously been assumed that when it did strike, a quarter to one third of the population of Britain died in an eighteen month period. Recent research has lead to an upward revision of these figures to 60-63% mortality. In comparison, during the Great War, 8.4% of 18-39 year old men died, representing only 2% of the total population.

The Black Death possibly started in India. It is believed to have been brought to Europe by Genoese merchants who were besieged by Tartars in Feodosiya in the Ukraine. Apocryphal accounts say that rotting corpses of Tartar plague victims were "shot like arrows" on to the Genoese stronghold. They fled to Sicily and then to France from where the disease spread throughout Europe with the exception of Poland and Amiens which would suggest some sort of genetic immunity or efficient public health measures.

The plague first appeared in England in Weymouth on the south coast and rapidly took hold throughout the country. Towns were particularly affected due to overcrowding and insanitary conditions. The disease was generally fatal in three to five days. Cause and cure were unknown. A Welsh poet gives a tragic description of its effect.

"We see death coming like black smoke,a plague which cuts off the young,a rootless phantom which has no mercy on fair countenance. Woe is me of the shilling in the armpit. It is seething, terrible, wherever it may come …....It is of the form of an apple, like the head of an onion. A small boil that spares no one...."

People reacted in different ways to the impact of the plague. Some felt " Eat, drink, and be merry." Others felt that it was a punishment from God for frivolous and licentious behaviour. This viewpoint lead to the rise of the Flagellants in mainland Europe. They believed that if they punished themselves enough, God would not. Arabs, lepers and Jews were variously accused of being the cause of the disease and were persecuted, but there tends not to have been mass hysteria and apportioning of blame in England. Here, people continued to pay their taxes whilst crops failed, people were starving and the dead were left unburied in the streets

Mortality was very high in closed communities such as monasteries, and the good priests who did their duty died first. There were not enough priests left to hear confessions, give absolution and the last rights, a matter of paramount importance to a medieval Christian. A quick death without this process was a dreadful prospect. The Pope granted remission of sins to all plague victims. The bishop of Wells ruled that confessions could be heard by untrained people, even women.

Dooms began to appear on church walls, and we saw some wonderful examples of these. The cult of Our Lady flourished, and, as we all have fourteen guardian angels, angels began to adorn churches in great and glorious throngs. The skull and crossbones motif began to appear on gravestones. It was believed that if even a small portion of the skull and thigh bone remained at the Day of Judgement you could be reassembled whole. Everyone would be resurrected at the age of thirty two, which was the age at which Jesus died. An example was given of a child who died at the age of three and who was depicted at the age of thirty two on her gravestone so that her parents would recognise her on the Last Day.

It really must have seemed like the end of the world.

When the Black Death finally ran its course, the structure of society was drastically changed as the population was so reduced. There was an immediate halt to the 100 Year War campaign. New colleges were founded as the death rate had been so high among academics, as it had also been among the clergy. Emergency ordinations of untrained and inadequate clergy led to a loss of respect for the church.

In the countryside, crops had failed or lay unharvested, so remaining labourers were able to dictate wages and conditions, and were then able to afford better housing and an improved diet. Many agricultural labourers had gone to the towns and this exacerbated the situation. The Statute of Labourers in 1351 attempted to reinstate the situation existing before the plague, resulting in great resentment. This eventually led to the Peasants' Revolt which marked the beginning of the end of the feudal system and serfdom, and brought about a consequent rise of a middle class.

Plague was cyclical and reoccurred at roughly twelve year intervals of declining severity only ceasing at the end of the seventeenth century.

The population of Britain did not return to pre Black Death figures until the end of the eighteenth century.

Ann Brookes



Major Imogen Corrigan served for twenty years with the Women's Royal Army Corps and the Adjutant General's Corps. She obtained a First Class Honours degree in Anglo Saxon and Medieval History from the University of Kent at Canterbury. Imogen has led a number of tours including a White Garment of Churches, Medieval Pilgrimage and the Age of Bede. She is a NADFAS lecturer, specialising in medieval and religious history, and art.



Photo: Imogen Corrigan with our new Deputy Chairman, Jonathan Cross.










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