Years of pestilence
The medieval fleet
Editor Simon Denison
Years of pestilence
The Black Death was the greatest disaster to strike Western Europe in the historical period. Tom Beaumont James reports on how archaeology is now adding to the story
Burial pits and rotting carcases, death and despair, long-term changes in the landscape, scapegoats and press hysteria. Foot-and-mouth has reminded us of the effects of epidemic. All this took place (and more) during the Black Death of 1348-51 - where ranting chroniclers played the part of today's Sun and Daily Mail.
We have a tradition of associating diseases (often wrongly) with foreign parts - Dutch elm disease, German measles, Spanish flu. Foot-and-mouth has been blamed on food scraps from a Chinese restaurant fed to pigs. Likewise with the Black Death. No one knew where it came from or how it spread, few could agree on where it arrived in Britain or when, and everything from a poor quality pope to sexually alluring fashions were cited as reasons for God's displeasure. God has so far escaped blame for foot-and-mouth - although the exceptionally wet conditions which preceded it mirror precisely the soaking weather which heralded the arrival of Pestilentia in England during 1348.
Bubonic plague arrived first in the late spring or summer of that year. It flourished in the hot weather, and subsided through the winter, handing the baton to its cousin pneumonic plague. This was spread by breathing, kissing, coughing and sneezing - an illness perhaps remembered in the rhyme 'ring a ring of roses, a pocketful of posies/ atishoo, atishoo, we all fall down'. And with these two came a virulent septicaemic strain of plague which killed its victims within a few hours.
Most scholars now consider that half Britain's population was wiped out within three years. Norwegian demographer Prof Ole Benedictow, of the University of Oslo, has recently calculated that Europe's population as a whole dropped from 80 to 30 million as an immediate consequence of the disease.
Medieval people, however, had no such benefit of hindsight. For all they knew everyone would die, and in some communities everyone did die. The Black Death was clearly the greatest disaster to strike Western Europe in the historic period. Not only that, but its devastating impact continued through outbreaks for over 300 years until shortly after the Great Plague of London (1665), when as suddenly and mysteriously as it had come plague disappeared from Britain.
Most of our understanding of the Black Death has come from documentary sources. For many years, archaeological study of the plague focused largely on deserted and shrunken villages. However, apart from communities such as Tilgarsley and Tusmore in Oxfordshire and Quob in Hampshire, little firm evidence has been adduced for community wipe-out as a direct consequence of plague - and that which has comes from documentary sources.
But over the past two decades or so, archaeologists have begun to look for new types of evidence, ranging from direct traces of the disease itself and its victims, to its effect on coin and pottery sequences, art and architecture. The growth of black rat populations is being traced through analysis of rat bones from excavations. This evidence is now providing new insights into the impact of this terrible disease.
For a start, archaeological evidence has now proven for the first time that the Black Death was (or at least included) bubonic plague. Over the years, the claims of a variety of diseases have been advanced, including anthrax, haemorrhagic fever and ebola. However, new work in France lays the debate to rest, with the isolation last year of the bubonic plague bacterium (Yersinia pestis) in the tooth of a victim from a mass grave in Montpellier in the south of the country, where 90 per cent of the population died from the disease.
Didier Raoult, Professor of Medicine at the Mediterranean University of Marseilles, found the bacterium in the pulp tissue inside the tooth of a septicaemia victim. Once the bacterium is inside the tooth it can neither leave it, nor be contaminated from another source, as the tooth is closed. His ground-breaking research points the way to identifying plague victims from medieval sites elsewhere.
Mass graves are known from documentary sources to have been dug at many - perhaps even most - towns and cities in Britain during the Black Death. At Rochester, for example, contemporary accounts record that men and women cast their dead children into mass graves 'from which arose such as stink that it was barely possible to go past a churchyard'.
Two such pits have been excavated in modern times - in East Smithfield in London, and in Hereford. Plague pits are identifiable not only from documentary references to their location, but also from the sheer scale of burials. Thousands were jammed together in communal trenches, although in London the bodies were stacked in an orderly fashion like wine bottles in a wooden crate. A number of possible family groups were identified, consisting of men, women and children buried together. In Hereford burials were more haphazard, as though bodies were tipped in from wheelbarrows.
Unsurprisingly the skeletal evidence shows that the plague carried off old and young alike, men, women and children. A number of lead crosses were recovered from London, apparently thrown into the mass graves.
Plague was carried by fleas living on black rats. Today, apart from a colony that holds out on Lundy Island, the black rat (Rattus rattus) has been ousted from Britain by the brown rat (Rattus Norvegicus) which arrived in the 18th century. In the 14th century, however, black rat populations were growing at an explosive rate. That, at any rate, is the preliminary conclusion of archaeological work on medieval bone assemblages from southern England.
A number of dockside sites at Southampton were excavated from the late 1940s to the late 1960s, subsequently written up by Colin Platt. From a baseline of no rats in the period 1100-1225, the century 1250-1350 shows a significant assemblage: the remains of a minimum of seven rats. In addition, rat predators, of which there was one cat and one dog in the earlier period, rise to at least ten dogs and 28 cats. Barbara Noddle, who prepared the specialist report on the animal bones, concluded that 'a rat invasion may have been the cause'. She noted that on one site where remains of five dogs were found, three were 'short-nosed, about fox terrier size' - ideal for chasing rats out of their holes. Later evidence from these sites suggests a decline in the rat and rat-predator populations in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Inland from the coast rat evidence is again evident from the appropriate period at a range of sites. At Faccombe Netherton on the Hampshire/Berkshire border, a manor house flourished in the period up to about 1350 when, within a decade of 1348, it abruptly became uninhabited as pottery and coin sequences stop. That plague had a hand in this is strongly suggested by the discovery of the greatest number of rats and their predators in the century following 1260: a minimum of seven rats, 15 dogs and ten cats. Among the black rat bones were larger examples than are found in modern reference collections.
Elsewhere in Hampshire, according to Dale Serjeantson's University of Southampton database, at the deserted settlement of Hatch Warren near Basingstoke there is a pronounced rise in bones of rats and their cat and dog predators in the century following 1350; while at Foxcotte near Andover, also a deserted village, cat and rat bones were found stratified together from the plague period. At Hamble Priory, near the Solent, where the pottery sequence ends about 1350, rat bones were again among the finds assemblage.
Death of art
Plague had an immediate and devastating impact on the arts. Recent work in particular by Phillip Lindley of Leicester University, detailed in The Black Death in England (Ormrod and Lindley 1996), has established the range of arts affected - from manuscript illumination to panel painting and sculpture. Developments stopped, techniques deteriorated. Skilled craftsmen were simply wiped out. Even a century after the Black Death, those looking for high quality craftsmanship had to go abroad. Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, comrade in arms with Henry V, gave detailed instructions for the building of his tomb and chapel at St Mary's Warwick in about 1450, specifying that no English glass should be used but only glass from abroad, and that only 'Dutch' (German) metalworkers should be employed.
As with art, so with architecture. Programmes of building and sculptural embellishment of major churches, for example at Exeter, Lichfield and Winchester cathedrals, were halted by the outbreak of plague. At Winchester cathedral, for example, the west front must have remained scaffolded and unfinished for 25 years between the building of the lower porches in the mid-1340s and the resumption of work after 1370. During this hiatus, the elaborate, expensive Decorated style gave way to the less expensive and plainer Perpendicular.
Only a few hundred metres away in Winchester High Street dendrochronology has shown a similar break in vernacular building, with cheaper plainer designs being adopted when building work resumed more than a century after the Black Death. In the decade preceding 1348, we find a number of exceptionally large and lavish timber-framed buildings, including a giant Wealden house and a 'skyscraper' with a stone undercroft. The next building in the area was a 'pentice' - a first-storey extension supported on wooden columns oversailing the pavement - built in about 1460 using much cheaper timbers than had been used before the Black Death.
By contrast, the increase in rural wages as a result of labour shortages following the Black Death, and the letting of land on longer and more secure leases, seems to have brought a wave of rural house building in more substantial materials than had been possible before the plague. In Hampshire, for example, no timber-framed rural peasant house has so far been found to survive from before 1348. The earliest are at Froxfield (1360) and North Warnborough (1384). Thereafter surviving peasant houses become increasingly common throughout the 15th century, a pattern repeated in other areas of southern England. A new wealth among survivors, not least from inheritance, seems to have enabled for the first time the creation of houses sufficiently solid to stand the test of time.
This preliminary archaeological work on plague in Wessex now needs to be matched by evidence elsewhere in Britain. Terry O'Connor's analysis of owl-pellet assemblages from Caerleon in Wales found no evidence of rats in that area from the era of the Black Death - a possible indicator that the plague was not universal in its effects.
Plague in war
Scotland should provide an interesting area to study. The 14th century chronicler Henry Knighton, an Augustinian canon of St Mary in the Meadows, Leicester, described how Black Death reached the Scots. The Scots, he wrote, were delighted when they heard the fate which had overtaken the English in 1348 and massed their forces in the Forest of Selkirk, 'laughing at the enemies', and awaiting the best moment to invade. However, just then, 'the fearful mortality fell upon them and the Scots were scattered by sudden and savage death so that, within a short period, some 5,000 died'. The remainder fled in panic, carrying the infection throughout Scotland.
Even so, according to Catherine Smith of the Scottish Urban Archaeological Trust, no strong evidence for Rattus rattus occurring at any Scottish medieval site is presently known. Could it be that the Scots suffered pneumonic plague spread without fleas and rats, but by coughing and sneezing? Recent archaeological work in Iceland has concluded that plague took its toll there without the agency of rats.
No one has yet asked questions about the role of the rabbit, or other furry creatures, in the spread of plague. Rabbits are thought to have been introduced to Britain in the 11th century after steadily making their way northwards from the Mediterranean during the Carolingian era. During the 14th and 15th centuries, rabbit farming was extended into marginal areas as arable farming receded.
At first rabbits were managed in warrens, but before long they escaped into the countryside. Given that plague continued for 300 years in England after 1348, maybe the 'cuddly' rabbit played a role as a carrier of death.
Tom Beaumont James is Professor of Regional Studies at King Alfred's College, Winchester and Assistant Editor of 'Mediaeval Archaeology'
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005