Friday, 3 April 2020

The plagues of Britain: the Black Death

The Black Death has the dubious distinction of being in all likelihood the worst disaster in British history. Probably a lethal cocktail of bubonic, pneumonic and septicaemic plague (though not all historians agree), it carried off perhaps a third of the population after coming to England from the East in 1348.

Spread by fleas carried on the black rat, and perhaps originating in Central Asia, it was first noticed in the West Country, and may have arrived at Melcombe Regis, now effectively part of Weymouth. Across the country, so many priests died that there were not enough to hear people’s final confessions, so the church said people about to die could unburden themselves to a lay person, and in extremis, ‘even to a woman’.

One of the consequences of the appalling mortality was a dramatic decline in respect for authority – particularly that of the church. The clergy often banged on about how the plague was God’s punishment for people’s bad behaviour, but the line did not go down very well, and at Yeovil, for example, the local bishop found himself besieged in his church by an angry crowd armed with bows and arrows.

London was by far the biggest city in the country, and there, as in other places, the numbers of dead overwhelmed the authorities, and many bodies were just shovelled into mass graves. Food supplies started to dry up as carters refused to come to the city, and Londoners had to go out into the countryside to search for supplies. This lack of social distancing helped spread the pestilence.

For more, see my book A Disastrous History of Britain (The History Press).

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