Friday 27 March 2020

Coronavirus's ancestors: the plagues of Ancient Britain

Many epidemics must have afflicted Ancient Britain without leaving any mark on history. Perhaps the first that any historians speak of with any confidence came in AD 166 when Roman Britain, particularly London, may have been attacked by the Plague of Galen (named after the physician who described it), brought back by soldiers who had been fighting in the East.

It could have been smallpox or measles. No one is sure, but some historians believe it played a part in a major decline in London’s population, exacerbated by a great fire or a series of fires.

Nearly six centuries later, the ‘father of English history’, the Venerable Bede (pictured above), a monk in Jarrow, recorded a number of epidemics. Were they bubonic plague or some other disease? Again no one really knows.

Bede wrote of a sudden ‘severe plague’ falling on the Britons in 426-7. It ‘destroyed such numbers of them, that the living were scarcely sufficient to bury the dead.’ In 664, he says that ‘a sudden pestilence…..depopulated the southern coasts of Britain’ and then spread right up to Northumbria where it ‘ravaged the country far and near, and destroyed a great multitude of men.’

This was such a shock, according to Bede, that it helped to revive heathenism, as many ‘forsook the mysteries of the Christian faith and turned apostate’. The next year, pestilence ravaged Essex, and in 681, a ‘grievous mortality ran through many provinces of Britain’.

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

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