Black Death comes to England – 1348

Black Death devastated England and caused massive social disruption. Henry Knighton saw it at first hand.

The Black Death was a devastating pandemic that killed between a quarter and one-third of the population of Europe in the mid 14th century. Although there is controversy about its cause (possibly bubonic plague) and the precise death toll (see the entry for “Black Death” in Wikipedia), its effect was to reshape European and English society.

The following account was given by Henry Knighton, canon at the abbey of St Mary of the Meadows, Leicester

The Black Death in England, 1348

In this year there was a general mortality among men throughout the world. It began first in India, and then appeared in Tharsis , then among the Saracens, and last among the Christians and Jews, so th at in the space of one year, namely, from Easter to Easter, 8,000 legions of men, according to widely prevalent rumors in the Court of Rome, died in those remote regions, besides Christians. The King of Tharsis, seeing such a sudden and unheard-of mortality among his people, set out with a great multitude of nobles, intending to seek out the Pope at Avignon and have himself baptized as a Christian, believing the vengeance of God to have overtaken his people because of their sinful disbelief. But when he had traveled twenty days he heard along the road that the plague had invaded the ranks of the Christians as well as other nations, and therefore he turned about to go back to his own country. But the Christians, following the Tharsians attacked them from the rear and slew 2,000 of them…

The dreadful pestilence penetrated the sea coast by Southampton and came to Bristol, and there almost the whole population of the town perished, as if it had been seized by sudden death; for few kept their beds more than two or three days, or even half a day. Then this cruel death spread everywhere around, following the course of the sun. And there died at Leicester in the small parish of St. Leonard more than 380 persons, in the parish of Holy Cross, 400; in the parish of St. Margaret’s, Leicester, 700; and so in every parish, a great multitude. Then the Bishop of London sent word throughout his whole diocese giving general power to each and every priest, regular as well as secular, to hear confessions and to give absolution to all persons with full Episcopal authority, except only in case of debt. In this case, the debtor was to pay the debt, if he was able, while he lived, or others were to fulfill his obligations from his property after his death. Likewise the Pope granted full remission of all sins to anyone receiving absolution when in danger of death, and granted that this power should last until Easter next following, and that everyone might choose whatever confessor he pleased.

In the same year there was a great murrain of sheep everywhere in the kingdom, so that in one place in a single pasture more than 5,000 sheep died; and they putrefied so that neither bird nor beast would touch them. Everything was low in price because of the fear of death, for very few people took any care of riches or property of any kind. A man could have a horse that had been worth 40s for half a mark (6s 8d), a fat ox for 4s, a cow for 12d, a heifer for 6d, a fat wether for 4d, a sheep for 3d, a lamb for 2d, a large pig for 5d; a stone of wool (24 lbs) was worth 9d. Sheep and cattle ran at large through the fields and among the crops, and there was none to drive them off or herd them; for lack of care they perished in ditches and hedges in incalculable numbers throughout all districts, and none knew what to do. For there was no memory of death so stern and cruel since the time of Vortigern, King of the Britons, in whose day, as Bede testifies, the living did not suffice to bury the dead.

In the following autumn a reaper was not to be had for a lower wage than 8d, with his meals; a mower for not less than 10d, with meals. Wherefore many crops wasted in the fields for lack of harvesters. But in the year of the pestilence, as has been said above, there was so great an abundance of every type of grain that almost no one cared for it.

The Scots, hearing of the dreadful plague among the English, suspected that it had come about through the vengeance of God, an, according to the common report, they were accustomed to swear “be the foul deth of Engelond.” Believing that the wrath of God had befallen the English, they assembled in Selkirk forest with the intention of invading the kingdom, when the fierce mortality overtook them, and in a short time about 5,000 perished. As the rest, the strong and the feeble, were preparing to return to their own country, they were followed and attacked by the English, who slew countless numbers of them.

Master Thomas of Bradwardine was consecrated by the Pope Archbishop of Canterbury, and when he returned to England he came to London, but within two days was dead…

Meanwhile the King sent proclamations into all the counties that reapers and other laborers should not take more than they had been accustomed to take, under the penalty appointed by statute. But the laborers were so lifted up and obstinate that they would not listen to the King’s command, but if anyone wished to have them he had to give them what they wanted, and either lose his fruit and crops, or satisfy the lofty and covetous wishes of the workmen. And when it was known to the King that they had not observed his command, and had given greater wages to the laborers, he levied heavy fines upon abbots, priors, knights, greater and lesser, and other great folk and small folk of the realm, of some 100s, of some 40s, of some 20s, from each according to what he could give. And afterwards the king had many laborers arrested, and sent them to prison; many withdrew themselves and went into the forests and woods; and those who were taken were heavily fined. Their ringleaders were made to swear that they would not take daily wages beyond the ancient custom, and then were freed from prison. And in like manner was done with the other craftsmen in the boroughs and villages…After the aforesaid pestilence, many building, great and small, fell into ruins in every city, borough, and village for lack of inhabitants, likewise many villages and hamlets became desolate, not a house being left in them, all having died who dwelt there; and it was probable that many such villages would never be inhabited.

Source: Chronicles, translated by Edith Rickert, in Chaucer’s World (ed E Rickert, C C Olson and M M Crow) Oxford University Press 1948.