Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Coronavirus watch: second waves - a lesson from history

The Black Death, probably bubonic plague, was the deadliest epidemic in British history, carrying off up to 40 per cent of the population. What a relief it must have been when it finally petered out in the early 1350s.

But in 1361, the disease was back! In what became known as the ‘children’s plague.’ While the Black Death killed more older people, this epidemic was especially hard on those born since the earlier plague had departed. It was less devastating than the Black Death, but it still carried off perhaps one person in five.

There were another four serious plague outbreaks before the end of the century, and the disease struck regularly over the next 300 years so that overall it reduced Britain’s population by maybe half.

All sorts of cures and preventions were tried - bleeding, carrying nosegays of flowers or herbs, sealing windows with waxed cloth, the constant burning of aromatic woods or powders. But with the disease being passed on by fleas of the black rat, none of them worked. The best plan was probably to run for it, away from the towns and cities, as many of the wealthy did, but even that wasn’t foolproof, though, as generally happens, the rich survived better than the poor.

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

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