English Literature

Pestilence

Pestilence

The pestilence (not called the Black Death until the sixteenth century) arrived on England’s southwestern shores in the summer of 1348 and quickly spread so that by the following summer it had reached London and beyond. It recurred in 1361–2, 1368–9, and 1375, then at irregular intervals thereafter, but the first outbreak was the most severe. Between one third and one half of England’s population died as a result of what was probably a combination of bubonic, pulmonary, and septicemic plagues, a figure slightly higher than most of Europe, where the diseases first appeared in 1347. More of the young and the old, and more clergy, died, but similar numbers of men and women, and urban and rural people of all classes succumbed to the pestilence’s devastating effects. The reduction in the population began seriously to affect the nation’s economy in the 1370s, with prices for goods and land dropping while wages remained high; direct governmental intervention soon became ineffective in the face of labor shortages (see “Ordinance and Statute of Laborers,” p. 163).A universal mortality.

In this year and the next there was a general plague upon mankind throughout the world. It began in India, then spread to Tartary, and then to the Saracens, and finally to the Christians and the Jews, so that in the space of a single year, from one Easter to the next as the report ran in the papal court, some eight thousand legions of people died suddenly in those distant parts, besides Christians. The king of Tartary proposes to turn Christian. The king of Tartary,1 seeing the sudden and unparalleled slaughter of his subjects, made his way with a great number of his nobles towards Avignon, proposing to turn Christian and be baptized by the pope2 as he thought that God’s judgement had been visited upon his people for their unbelief. Therefore, when he had travelled for twenty days and heard that the plague was as fatal to Christians as to other people, he shrewdly turned about, abandoned his journey, and hastened to his own country, but the Christians pursued him and slew some two thousand of his people. There died at Avignon in one day, according to a reckoning made before the pope, 1,312, and on another day four hundred and more. Of the Dominicans in Provence 358 died during Lent,3 and of 140 friars at Montpellier4 only seven survived. At Magdelaine5 only seven friars remained out of eight score (which was enough). At Marseilles of seven score and ten Minorites, truly, only one remained to tell the tale (and just as well). Of the Carmelites sixty-six perished at Avignon before the citizens knew what was happening, for they were believed to have slain one another. Not one of the Augustinian friars, nor yet their order, survived in Avignon. At the same time the pestilence raged in England, beginning at several places in the autumn and running through the country to end at the same time the next year. Earthquakes. Meanwhile at Corinth and in Achaea6 several towns were destroyed, and the earth covered them. Castles and towns were rent and shattered, and swallowed up. Mountains in Cyprus were levelled so that the courses of rivers were blocked, and many cities were flooded and villages washed away. Similarly, when a certain friar was preaching at Naples, the whole city was destroyed by earthquake and tempest, and the earth opened suddenly as though a stone were thrown into water, and everyone perished with the friar who was preaching except one other friar, who fled and escaped into a garden outside the town. And all that was the work of the earthquake.

7 Then the pope sent letters seeking to restore peace between the kingdoms, that they might escape the vengeance of God’s right hand, asserting that all those misfortunes had come upon mankind because of their sins. Whereupon the king sent the earl of Lancaster8 and the earl of Suffolk9 to Calais, with other magnates, to negotiate a peace. The French nobles lodged at Saint-Omer.10 However, in the mean time the commons of Flanders with French and certain other Flemings gained Bruges by deceit, and beheaded and hanged those Flemings whom they found to have supported the king of England. King Edward11 assembled his army, wishing to go to Flanders and destroy those who had turned against him, and took to the road. But the earl of Lancaster intercepted him to say that all the Flemings had been brought over to the king, on certain terms, as will appear below. Also, it was agreed that representatives of England and of France should negotiate a peace between the kingdoms from that time to September when, if they could not agree, the crown of France should be taken to some place within the kingdom of France with consent of both parties and there awarded by formal battle without further contention. Then a lamentable plague travelled by sea to Southampton and on to Bristol, where almost the whole population of the town perished, snatched away, as it were, by sudden death, for there were few who kept their beds for more than two or three days, or even half a day. And thence cruel death spread everywhere with the passage of the sun. There died in Leicester, in the little parish of St. Leonard’s, more than nineteen score, four hundred in the parish of Holy Cross,12 and in St. Margaret’s parish seven hundred, and so on in every parish, in great numbers. The bishop of Lincoln gives chaplains power to absolve. Then the bishop of Lincoln13 sent word throughout the diocese and gave a general power to all priests, both regular and secular, to hear confessions and full episcopal authority to absolve, excepting only in matters of debt, in which the debtor should make restitution, if he were able, while he lived, or others should be appointed to do so, with his goods, after his death. The pope grants a general remission. In the same way the pope granted full remission of all sins to any in danger of death, upon a single occasion, a power which was to last until the following Easter,14 and everyone could choose his or her own confessors at will. Disease amongst sheep. In the same year there was a great plague amongst sheep everywhere in the realm so that in one place more than five thousand died in one pasture, and they so rotted that neither beast nor bird would touch them. A fall in the price of goods. The fear of death caused the price of everything to fall, for there were very few who cared either for wealth or for possessions. A man might have a good horse, which previously would have cost forty shillings, for half a mark, a heavy, fat ox for four shillings, a cow for twelve pence, a heifer for six pence, a fat sheep for four pence, a ewe for three pence, a lamb for two pence, a great pig for five pence, a stone of wool for nine pence. And sheep and cattle wandered through the fields and amongst the crops, and there was none to seek them or round them up, and they perished in out-of-the-way places amongst the furrows and under hedges for want of a keeper in numbers beyond reckoning throughout the land, for there was such a shortage of hands and servants that no one knew what ought to be done. For there was no memory of so unsparing and savage a plague since the days of Vortigern, king of the Britons, in whose time, as Bede records in his history of the English, there were not enough left alive to bury the dead.15 In the following autumn no one could hire a mower for less than eight pence with his keep or a reaper for less than twelve pence with his keep. So many crops rotted in the fields for want of harvesting, but in the year of the plague, as has been said already in another connection, there was such an abundance of grain that almost no one cared for it. The Scots mock the English over the plague. The Scots, hearing of the cruel plague amongst the English, attributed it to the avenging hand of God, and took it up as an oath, as a common report came to ears, and when they wished to swear they would say, “By the filthy death of England” (or in English, “Be the foul deth of Engelond”). And thus the Scots, believing God’s dreadful judgement to have descended upon the English, gathered in the forest of Selkirk ready to over run the whole kingdom of England. And a fierce pestilence arose, and blew a sudden and monstrous death upon the Scots, and some five thousand of them died in a short time, and the rest of them, some fit and some enfeebled, prepared to make their way home, but the English pursued them and fell upon them, and slew a great many of them. Master Thomas Bradwardine was consecrated archbishop of Canterbury by the pope and, when he returned to England, he came to London and within two days he was dead.16 He was celebrated beyond all the scholars of Christendom, in theology pre-eminently but also in all other liberal learning.

At that time there was such a shortage of priests everywhere that many churches were bereft of the divine office: of masses, matins, and vespers, of sacraments and observances. A man could scarcely retain a chaplain to serve a church for less than ten pounds, or perhaps ten marks, and where one might have had a chaplain for four or five marks, or two marks and his keep, with such numbers of priests as there were about before the plague, now in those times there was almost no one willing to take a vicarage for twenty pounds or perhaps twenty marks. But within a short time there came into holy orders a great multitude of those whose wives had died in the plague, many of them illiterate, the merest laymen, who if they were able to read at all were unable to understand what they read. Ox hides fell to a wretched price, namely twelve pence, and yet a pair of gloves would cost ten pence, twelve pence, or fourteen pence, and a pair of breeches three or four shillings. In the mean time the king sent word into every shire that mowers and other workmen should take no more than they had before, under the penalties laid down in the order, and thereupon made a statute.17 Nevertheless, the workmen were so puffed up and contraryminded that they did not heed the king’s decree and, if anyone wanted to hire them, he had to pay what they asked: either his fruit and crops rotted or he had to give in to the workmen’s arrogant and greedy demands. When it came to the king’s notice that they had not obeyed his order and had given their employees higher wages, he inflicted heavy fines upon abbots and priors, and upon greater and lesser knights, and upon the others, great and small, of the land: from some one hundred shillings, from some twenty shillings, and from each according to what he could pay.

And he took twenty shillings from every ploughland in the kingdom, and received not less than a fifteenth would yield. Then the king caused many labourers to be arrested and put them in prison. Many ran away and took to the woods and forests for a time, but those who were caught were grievously fined. And most were sworn that they would not take more than the old established daily rate and so were freed from prison. And artisans in the boroughs and townships were treated in the same way. Translation of St. Thomas of Hereford. In the same year the translation of St. Thomas of Hereford took place, on October 25, 1349.18 After the plague, many buildings, both large and small, in all cities, boroughs, and townships decayed and were utterly razed to the ground for want of occupants, and similarly many villages and hamlets were deserted with not a house left in them, for all who had lived there were dead, and it is likely that many of those villages will never be inhabited again. In the following winter there was such a want of hands for every kind of work that people believed that the like shortage had never been known at any time in the past, for cattle and such livestock as a man might have wandered about without a keeper, and there was no one to look after people’s possessions. And thus the necessities of life became so dear that what in previous times was worth one penny now cost four pence or five pence. Lords remit their tenants’ rent. Whereupon both the magnates of the realm and also lesser lords who had tenants remitted the payment of rents lest their tenants should quit for want of labour and the high cost of living: some half the rent, some more or less, some for two years, some for three, some for one, according to what they could agree.

66 thoughts on “Pestilence

  1. In honesty I have no ideas / thoughts off the top of my head but ill have a think. It wasn’t a criticism really Amy.

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