The Black Death

Contemporary depiction of a plague doctor

Contemporary depiction of a plague doctor

“Ring a ring a roses,
A pocket full of posies,
Attishu, attishu
We all fall down”

We are all familiar with the nursery rhyme of our childhoods, which is generally thought to be associated with the plague outbreaks of the 14th and 17th centuries, although this connection seems to date from as recently as the early part of the 20th century. Undoubtedly the rhyme has much older origins and there are variations around the world, which appear to mirror the culture of the locale. Whatever the history of the rhyme, it conjures up a picture of one of the most devastating events of medieval history.

The Great Plague is believed to have originated in the East, in particular China, and travelled west via the trade routes, although recent research suggests that it may have originated in the Steppes area of southern Russia. It arrived in Europe in 1347, although there are different accounts of the first recorded outbreaks. The general agreement is that the ships carrying silks, furs and the like were arriving in European ports harboured a population of rats as was the norm. During the journeys however, the rats in turn hosted a population of fleas which carried the disease. The usual cycle is that the fleas fed on the blood of the rats and as long as a population of rats remains available to the fleas, the fleas rarely feed on humans. The problem seems to have arisen when the population of rats aboard the ships all died from the infection, leaving the fleas in need of whatever food source was available to them. In this case, it was the humans.

One report tells of how a fleet of Genoese ships arrived in the port of Messina in Sicily. Most of the sailors aboard the ships were dead and those still alive were near death. They were all covered in boils which oozed blood and pus. The ships were immediately turned away but the damage was done and the infected fleas turned their attention to the population of Messina.

Once a flea bites a host, the contagion travels to the lymph gland and buboes (hence the name Bubonic plague) develop, usually in the groin, thigh area, armpits and around the neck. These painful swellings turn black in colour and can ooze blood and pus. The progress of the disease was swift. The symptoms can be seen within 3 -5 days of being bitten and death occurs in the majority of victims within another 3-5 days. It is estimated that 80% of those that are infected die. If someone is able to survive the five days or so it takes for the buboes to burst they may stand a chance of survival as the bursting will aid the release of the poisons from the body. Boccaccio describes it:

“In men and women alike it first betrayed itself by the emergence of certain tumours in the groin or armpits, some of which grew as large as a common apple, others as an egg…From the two said parts of the body this deadly gavocciolo soon began to propagate and spread itself in all directions indifferently; after which the form of the malady began to change, black spots or livid making their appearance in many cases on the arm or the thigh or elsewhere, now few and large, now minute and numerous. As the gavocciolo had been and still was an infallible token of approaching death, such also were these spots on whomsoever they showed themselves.”

The plague arrived at the shores of England in the early part of 1348, arriving in London in September of that year. The disease was indiscriminate, being no respecter of social station. The population had no idea of how the disease was spreading, and people moved around to try and remove themselves from the danger. The peasant population was devastated, with entire villages being wiped out. Anyone surviving, moving on to another populated area could unwittingly transfer the infected fleas to another part of the countryside. As the fleas cannot live without live hosts to feed from, the contamination would eventually die if there was nothing living left for them to feed from.

Modern victim of plague

Modern victim of plague

As we have seen the indiscriminate nature of the disease meant that even the ruling classes were not immune to it. In the first wave, we saw the death of Joan, daughter of Edward III in 1348. Joan was travelling to the court of King Alfonso of Castile, in preparation for her marriage to her betrothed, his son Peter. The ships carrying her and her escorts set sail from Portsmouth in the days before news of the outbreak had become widespread and it is unlikely that the king and his advisers were aware of the risks. The entourage stopped at Bordeaux, where they were exposed to the disease. The sickness spread through the entourage, with Joan herself succumbing and dying on 1st July.

Although this wave of the disease only lasted a couple of years, another wave hit in the 1360’s. Other notables that perished in this second wave included, Blanche of Lancaster in 1368, wife of John of Gaunt (For more on them, please see this post: ), and her father, Henry of Grosmont in 1361. It was the death of Henry that enabled John of Gaunt to inherit through his wife the Lancaster estates and titles, and so become the most powerful and richest magnate of the day.

The Plague continued to wreak havoc with the population of Europe over the coming years, as waves hit every few years into the early part of the 15th century, killing as many as 30%. Today it is a disease that can be easily treated with anti-biotics, but in the 14th century it was a very different case. Medicine was a very different beast. It was believed that all illness was a result of an imbalance of the humours. There was no understanding of what was happening in this case however, and it was blamed on everything from a punishment by God to the Jews. It was not until the 19th Century that medical advances began to make sense of what the cause was. Links were made to the fleas and how the disease was transmitted.

The devastation that occurred during the 14th century to the population was to have a dramatic effect on medieval society. It sounded the death knell to the serfdom that had been the backbone of medieval society and the beginning of a more mobile, paid labour force. But that’s another story …