I first posted this in The History Girls blog, but I thought I would like to share it again here.
“It is June 1349. In the Hampshire village of Meonbridge, the worst plague in England’s history has wiped out half its population…”
So goes the blurb for my historical novel Fortune’s Wheel.
“Meonbridge” is broadly somewhere in the upper reaches of the valley of Hampshire’s River Meon. The Meon is not a grand river, only twenty-one miles in length, and for much of that length is a somewhat shallow chalk stream – in summer months, at any rate. The river rises in the South Downs, near the village of East Meon, and winds and meanders through the other villages of the Meon Valley, until it rushes, broader and deeper, out into the sea, the Solent, to the south of Titchfield.
The plague referred to in the novel’s blurb is what we call the Black Death, the plague that struck England in 1348-50. At the time they referred to it as the Great Death, the mortality or the pestilence. Having spread across the world from Asia and throughout Europe, it arrived in England in June 1348, or thereabouts. Famously, it was once thought to have entered the country at Melcombe in Dorset, although some believe it might have come in closer to Southampton, or Bristol, but it’s also possible that it arrived in several places at about the same time. The disease lasted a matter of months in any one location, although overall, as it spread relentlessly across the country, it persisted for the best part of two years.
In Hampshire, it was in October 1348 that the effects of the plague began to be seen. We know that partly because William Edyngdon, the Bishop of Winchester, issued a letter to the clergy in his diocese…
“We report with anguish the serious news which has come to our ears: that this cruel plague has now begun a savage attack on the coastal areas of England. We are struck by terrors lest (may God avert it!) this brutal disease should rage in any part of our city of diocese.”1
Sadly, the bishop’s prayers were not answered, for the diocese of Winchester suffered gravely, with 48.8% of its clergy dying, the highest proportion for any diocese in England where figures were available.2
In southern Hampshire as a whole, including the Meon Valley, roughly half of the populations of the towns and villages lost their lives.
Titchfield is at the sea end of the Meon Valley. There, in the year January 1349 to January 1350, 423 tenant deaths were recorded on the manor, compared to 56 in the previous year. In all, Titchfield might have lost perhaps as much as 80% of its population. In Corhampton, closer to the part of the Meon Valley where I think that “Meonbridge” is located, 55% of people died. In Bishops Waltham, a market town some five miles south west of Corhampton, it was more like 65%. In Funtley, further down the Meon Valley towards Titchfield, the numbers were not large (21 deaths) but it represented a huge percentage of the tenant population, and in Crofton, closer still to Titchfield, there appear to have been perhaps 92.5% mortality among tenants in the 1349-50 plague year.
But losses were not evenly distributed. Although the places I have mentioned had relatively high losses, the plague apparently skirted some places altogether, while a few communities died out completely for a while. An example of the latter is Quob, a tiny hamlet near Funtley, where a manorial court statement in the plague year indicated that no-one survived in that community. However, as Tom Beaumont James says, in The Black Death in Hampshire, while there is a popular belief that many communities in England died out as a result of the Black Death, this is probably not true, but rather that the high mortality caused by the plague started a decline that was completed as much as a century or two later. Quob was tiny, perhaps just a few families, so it was undoubtedly easy enough for the plague to kill them all, but the little community did recover some years later. Whether or not a community recovered was undoubtedly affected by factors other than the Black Death, including the later outbreaks of plague, and perhaps the increasing mobility of working people, driving some away from the countryside and into towns.
It’s not unreasonable to extrapolate from what is recorded for real Hampshire to what might have happened in the fictional Meonbridge. There, I have the plague arriving in December and being more or less over in early summer, which accords reasonably well with the evidence. The high levels of mortality among clergy in the Winchester diocese show that the plague was at its worst there during the first half of 1349. Evidence of the devastation in this part of Hampshire comes also from the records of the Bishop of Winchester’s manors, where much higher than normal deaths among tenants meant that many holdings became vacant and large tracts of agricultural land were therefore uncultivated.
But, whatever the numbers, it is surely very hard to imagine how shattering the plague’s arrival must have been. The disease was of course quite terrible enough in itself, but it followed in the wake of two other appalling disasters: overpopulation and severe poverty in the first decade of the century, ruinous weather, disastrous harvests and devastating famines in the second.
We know now that this terrifying disease was caused by a bacterium, Yersinia pestis, carried by a flea that lives on the black rat, although exactly how it was transmitted to people remains a matter of some debate.
The particular hideousness of the disease was described by many contemporary chroniclers. One, Gabriele de’ Mussis, a lawyer from Piacenza in Italy, in his Historia de Morbo, wrote thus:
“First, out of the blue, a kind of chilly stiffness…a tingling sensation, as if they were being pricked by the points of arrows. [Then]…a fearsome attack which took the form of an extremely hard, solid boil [typically in the armpit or groin]. As it grew more solid, its burning heat caused the patients to fall into an acute and putrid fever, with severe headaches….In some cases it gave rise to an intolerable stench. In others it brought the vomiting of blood…Some died on the very day the illness took possession of them…the majority between the third and fifth day….Those who fell into a coma, or suffered a swelling or the stink of corruption, very rarely escaped.”3
It sounds decidedly grim. The “boils” of course were the black pustules that we call “buboes”, giving the term bubonic plague, though not all victims suffered from this form of the disease. Some caught the pneumonic variety, which attacked the lungs, causing pain and an inability to breathe, then coughing up of blood and sputum. Apparently this form of the disease was invariably fatal, and quickly so, whereas it wasn’t unknown for bubonic plague victims to recover.
But whichever form of the disease friends and family members suffered, it must have been almost beyond horrifying to witness. And how fearful people must have been when they saw how randomly the plague seem to find its victims – rich and poor, old and young, reprobate and innocent, any and all were taken. Moreover, the very scale of affliction in a community often meant that there was no priest available to give the last rites to a dying victim – the priest being either simply too occupied with others, already dead himself, or perhaps he’d even abandoned his flock to try and save himself – bringing the added terror that your loved one might be about to die in sin, unconfessed, unshriven.
The particular terror of the plague undoubtedly tested relationships and familial bonds to the utmost. With a lack of understanding of how the disease was spread, and the terrifying speed with which it invariably dispatched its victims, some people did abandon loved ones in an attempt to escape the same fate. Indeed, when some thought that the disease could be communicated through the gaze or breath or clothes of victims, it is perhaps unsurprising that many were left to die, not only in extreme agony and terror, but entirely alone. However, not everyone abandoned their loved ones to their fate – some stayed to care for them, and it is perhaps one of the mysteries of the disease that, given its apparent virulence, not everyone in a household was necessarily afflicted.
And how much more frightening was it to be told that this disease – like other natural (and perhaps man-made) disasters – was God’s punishment for man’s sin, for your sin? This was presumably what priests would have taught their congregations. In September 1348, at the original behest of the king, Edward III, a letter was sent from the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury to all the bishops in the southern counties, ordering them to arrange urgent prayers to be offered up against the plague. It is clear from the letter that the plague was seen as a punishment for sin.4
“Terrible is God towards the sons of men… Those whom he loves he censures and chastises;…he punishes their shameful deeds in various ways… He…allows plagues, miserable famines, conflicts, wars and other forms of suffering to arise and uses them to terrify and torment men and so drive out their sins.”
Yet people might well have wondered which of their sins could be so great that God would want to punish them so severely.
But it is what happened after the Black Death had moved on that is the underlying premise of Fortune’s Wheel. I didn’t want to write a novel about the Black Death. Rather, I was interested in what happened after it had passed on, leaving communities with fewer neighbours, empty houses, unfarmed land. How on earth did people cope with such calamity? I suppose that medieval society was more hardened to natural and human disasters than many of us are today, and it seems that people in fact rebuilt their lives quite quickly.
Social change had already begun in rural manorial communities, with the feudal system of lords and peasants starting to break down. But the huge demographic shift that resulted from the simultaneous deaths of so many people during the plague accelerated that change. It is an interesting period of social history.
For those who survived, opportunities presented themselves for demanding higher wages and taking on untenanted land, which generally brought benefits to ordinary people and caused problems for the wealthier landowners. The old rules about tenants not being allowed to leave their manor were largely swept away, giving peasants more freedom to choose where to work and for what price. Women too had improved opportunities, which lasted for perhaps the next 150 years or so. On the whole, conditions improved for many ordinary English men and women: with higher wages, and fewer mouths to feed, they ate better, and could afford better homes.
In 1351, the government, worried that the old way of life was being overturned, brought in the Statute of Labourers, which attempted to curb the demands of peasants for higher wages, attacking both the peasants themselves and those employers (manor lords) who were willing to meet their demands. But it didn’t really work. Wages did rise, and some who’d been previously landless were able to become tenant farmers but paying money rent for their land rather than giving feudal service. Indeed, the feudal system eventually broke down completely, giving peasant populations a greater degree of freedom to manage their own lives.
Nonetheless, imagine the heartache that people must have felt, the turmoil they must have faced, in society as a whole, and also at a personal level. Those of us who, today, live in villages or small town communities may know, or at least be acquainted with, a great many of our neighbours. But we in the twenty-first century generally live quite dispersed lives, having our homes in these communities, but probably working elsewhere. But in former centuries, when communities worked together too, the death of half of your neighbours must have been unimaginably devastating.
Women lost husbands, men lost wives, and both lost children. Young people were orphaned and had to learn to fend for themselves. Workers realised they were now a scarce resource and had some bargaining power, and said so, while their lords and masters tried hard to cling on to the status quo and keep the workers in their place. As the peasants rebelled against the old ways, priests railed against the upsetting of God’s pre-ordained social order, and preyed upon people’s fears of further divine retribution for their sinful lives.
Yet, amidst all this turmoil and undoubted continuing fear, normal life simply had to continue: fields had to be ploughed and sown, crops harvested, meals made, animals nurtured. People would still fall in and out of love. Babies would still be born and children cherished. The wheel of fortune forever turns…
- Referred to in The Black Death, edited by Rosemary Horrox, Manchester University Press, 1994, p.115
- I owe my information about the 1348-50 plague in Hampshire to the excellent pamphlet The Black Death in Hampshire by Tom Beaumont James (Hampshire Papers, No.18, Hampshire County Council, 1999).
- Referred to in The Black Death, edited by Rosemary Horrox, Manchester University Press, 1994, pp.24-5.
- Referred to in The Black Death, edited by Rosemary Horrox, Manchester University Press, 1994, p.113.