It the 670th anniversary of the Black Death this year. Cheery thought I know but it got me thinking, again! We’ve all heard of the Black Death of 1348 and 1665, but plague was a quite common occurrence. So what is plague?
Well plague is a bacteria that is spread by flea bites mainly. The rats get the blame but all they did was carry the fleas, sort of. A bite from an infected rat could kill, but the rat usually died from the bacteria and so the flea jumped ship to a new host. The rats in some way were as much a victim as the humans were. Poor things. People suffering from plague have symptoms similar to flu but they also suffer from swellings in the lymph nodes especially in the armpits and groin. These often rupture producing puss. It was rare that a person could catch the plague from another unless they received infected blood.
The plague or Black Death as it became known decimated Europe, but it is believed it came from China. The infected rats and fleas crossed the channel in 1348 and arrived in Dorset and spread from there. In 1349 a second wave arrived on a ship which docked in the Humber. At this time period no one really knows what the population of England was but it is believed it was around 6 million. The country had already lost a lot of people due to famine and the 100 Years War we were fighting against France (1337 to 1453) and continuing battles with Scotland. As a result it would be impossible to accurately state how many people died in the outbreak. One of the best ways to discover how many died was to look to the clergy. These men were on the front line of the disease. They would have helped care for the sick and also would have given the last rites to those at the end. This means they were the most exposed group. It is believed between 30 and 40% of the clergy died between 1348 and 1349. Now not all of these deaths would have been attributed to plague so if we take the lower figure of 30% as the death toll and put this into the general population then 1.8 million people in England would have died.
If you put it into the context of your ancestors with a new generation coming along every 30 years your approximately 22 time great grandparents would have survived the outbreak!
This wasn’t the only visit of the plague. It came back several times.
In 1361/62 it is thought the death rate was around 20%.
In 1369 it is thought the death rate was around 10 – 15%.
In 1471 it is thought the death rate was around 10 - 15%.
In 1479/80 it is thought the death rate was around 20%.
The next biggest epidemic came in 1665 predominately in London. If you look at the Bill of Mortality (the document which shows what the people of London died from) at the end of 1665 it shows that 68,596 people died from the plague. In 1664 only 6 died of plague and in 1666 1998 died of the plague presumably these people mainly died before the Great Fire in September. In 1667 only 35 people died of the plague. What most people don’t know about this outbreak is that there was another place that was affected.
Eyam, a small village in Derbyshire also fell victim to the bacteria. The local tailor bought a bolt of cloth from London and he got free fleas with it. People started dying within a week. The local Rector, Reverend William Mompesson, recognised what was happening and decided to quarantine the village. The villages put money in vinegar at the boundary to the village and people from other villages left food. As a result the plague did not spread. It continued in the village for 14 months and in this time the burial records show 273 died. It also seemed that some people had immunity to the plague. Entire families were decimated but one or two members survived, even the village grave digger who handled the bodies survived, but then unless he got infected blood in him he should have been OK as the fleas would have hopped off once the person died. Perhaps it was like now where some people don’t get bitten by bugs and others do, they just don’t taste nice.
Should we worry about plague now, well no. It’s totally curable with antibiotics.
So we’ve had all these outbreaks in England over the years killing millions of people, but we are here now, which means our ancestors survived. They lived through frightening times and survived and so as a result we are here today!