Pandemic then and now, part 2…

The fourth book in my series, The Meonbridge Chronicles, is finished at last! It’s called Children’s Fate, and I am hoping to publish it in the autumn.

Children’s Fate, like the first three Chronicles, is of course a work of fiction. The characters come entirely from my imagination. The principal location, Meonbridge, is a fictitious village and manor, but imagined as lying alongside the River Meon, in Hampshire, southern England, just as a number of existing Meon Valley villages do, and it is loosely modelled on one or two them.

Yet, the story of Children’s Fate is underpinned by history, events that really happened when and as they appear in the novel.

The principal “event”, upon which the latter part of the novel hinges, is the arrival of another outbreak of the plague in England, in the spring and summer of 1361. This occurrence of the disease was thought of as the “Children’s Plague” because, apparently, large numbers of the victims were children. The reason for this is not clear but one explanation might be that, as the children were not born at the time of the previous outbreak (the “Black Death” of 1348-9), they did not have the immunity their parents might have acquired having lived through it and survived.

When I was still writing Children’s Fate (spring 2020), the world was plunged into chaos by the arrival of the coronavirus COVID-19. It was rather unsettling to be writing about a pandemic when our world was in the midst of one, but it gave me food for thought, comparing the two events.

At the time, people had some curious (to us) notions about the causes of the disease. In the 14th century, death was everyday – illnesses were mostly incurable, accidents commonplace, life generally subject to all manner of risk. Medieval people were “fatalists”, or rather they ascribed every disaster, be it the loss of a child, dead cows, a bad harvest, or the failure of the butter to churn, either to God’s will or the Devil’s work.

If a particular disaster was considered to be God’s will, then it might follow that the reason for his anger was man’s sin, and the disaster was His punishment. This was what priests told their congregations. In the novel, I have priests reading out a letter from their bishop, ordering urgent prayers and processions to try to avert the plague. The words I’ve used for the letter come from one actually sent by the Bishop of Winchester in 1348, when the earlier plague was threatening the city. I suspect that the bishop would have sent a similar letter in 1361.

I’ve often thought many people must have wondered which of their sins could be so terrible that God would want to punish them, and especially their children, so severely?

One explanation for God’s especial anger, found in the bishop’s letter, was, apparently, mankind’s shocking “sensuality” – sexual immorality. And contemporary chroniclers cited “outlandish”, fashionable clothing as an example of that immorality, even though fashion was presumably the province of the rich rather than peasants. If you’d like to read more about this aspect of the plague, see my blog post for March, Pandemic then and now, which describes some of the clothing considered “lewd”:

https://carolynhughesauthor.com/2020/03/14/pandemic-then-and-now/ or a slightly longer version on The History Girls website at http://the-history-girls.blogspot.com/2020/05/pandemic-then-and-now-by-carolyn-hughes.html

Mens shoes
Short-short tunics and “winkle picker” shoes are the problem here!

It does seem rather odd that fashion might be held responsible for the coming of the plague. Or even that immorality should take the blame. But there were scientific explanations too. Complicated notions about the movements of the planets were one set of theories. And also ideas that miasma, or foul air, was the cause.

But, if medieval people had some notions of the “what” of the disease (even if they were wrong), I imagine that the “how” must have been trickier to understand.

Isolation, keeping oneself to oneself generally, was certainly understood.  A 14th century French physician, Jean Jacmé, wrote in a treatise on the plague: “In pestilence time nobody should stand in a great press of people because some man among them may be infected”*. Or “social distancing”, as we now call it…

But the good doctor had some other familiar-sounding advice: he recommended hand-washing “oft times in the day”*, though with water and vinegar, rather than soap.

Obviously close contact with a victim was to be avoided, but another physician posited that even looking into a plague victim’s eyes was risky too, on the grounds that plague could be transmitted via the “airy spirit leaving the eyes of the sick man”*, which does seem rather curious.

Foul air was thought to be a cause of disease in general, and plague was no different. Doctor Jacmé recommended avoiding foul smells in general: “…every foul stench is to be eschewed, of stable, stinking fields, ways or streets…”* But, something more familiar to us was avoiding a victim’s “foul air” – breathing, coughing. The “plague doctor” bird beak masks of later centuries hadn’t yet been invented, but I can imagine that those who attended victims, like the surgeon in my novel, might well have covered their nose and mouth.

Paul_Fürst,_Der_Doctor_Schnabel_von_Rom_(coloured_version)
This plague doctor image is 17th century

What medieval people didn’t seem to know about was the role of rats and fleas, which have long been implicated in the spread of the plague. Though some scientists now think the speed of spread was, in practice, too rapid and too far for transmission by rat flea alone to be viable. Other views have it that the rat fleas jumped host to people, and then human fleas and body lice were infected, making it much easier for rapid people-to-people transmission. But the situation is unclear. The World Health Organisation says, “human to human transmission of bubonic plague is rare”. Yet, the 1361 outbreak was in the summer months, in which bubonic, as opposed to pneumonic, plague was more common. Whichever it was, it spread very quickly, and was undoubtedly hideous and terrifying.

blackdeath
Two clear cases of bubonic plague…

And of course doctors really didn’t know how to treat the disease, though some undoubtedly thought they did. Some would probably have tried their favourite cure-all, blood-letting, or applied a variety of substances to the suffering body, from herbs and vinegar, to urine and excrement, none of which were beneficial. In the novel, I have the surgeon lancing the buboes, a practice that wasn’t necessarily carried out in the 14th century, but was a couple of centuries later, and I like to think that an eager surgeon might well have tried out different methods in an attempt to save his patients.

However, even in the 14th century, catching plague wasn’t absolutely a death sentence, for some people, if only a few, clearly did survive it – even people who had been close to, or even nursed, victims.

* Quotes are from The Black Death, translated and edited by Rosemary Horrox. If you’d like to read more about plague in the 14th century, I really do recommend it, for it has a wealth of fascinating detail, and uses contemporary texts to reveal the thinking of the time.

Another book for those interested in the topic is The Black Death, an Intimate History, by John Hatcher, an eminent professor of medieval economy and social history. It’s not a textbook, but is written as a combination of fact and fiction, giving what he calls the “intimate history” of the Black Death. Hatcher draws on detailed records of the time kept by the officials of a particular Suffolk manor, Walsham, in order to build a picture of the people who lived there and explore how they fared during the plague months. I have read the book several times and it is (to me) a fascinating read. It’s about the plague of 1348-9, so is not directly about the plague occurrence in the fourth Meonbridge Chronicle. But what the book does is show what ordinary people thought about the coming of the plague, in terms of what it was and why it was happening (mostly, in their eyes, God’s punishment for their sins), and how they reacted to its arrival in their midst. And I imagine that those feelings and beliefs would undoubtedly have been the same in 1361 as they were in 1348, especially perhaps for those who had been through the earlier occurrence.

Although our understanding of the plague and that of 14th century people are undoubtedly very different, as I have already shown, there are similarities between then and now with the ways people reacted to it and what they did to counter it.

As Hatcher says: “We know from market tolls and customs accounts that trade as well was production plummeted during 1348-9… it is reasonable…to surmise that people tended to shun contact with strangers and tried to stop them coming into their settlements.” BUT “these sensible precautions created tensions… with the need to buy and sell goods and earn money in order to survive…

And again that does sound really rather familiar…


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One thought on “Pandemic then and now, part 2…

  1. Pingback: Links I’ve Enjoyed This Week – 23/08/2020 #WeeklyRoundUpPost 🔗📆 🔗 #SecretLibraryBookBlog – Secret Library Book Blog

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