14th century 1349: The Plague Years

“There is great death in Norwich, and in other borough towns in Norfolk, for I assure you that it is the most universal death that I ever knew in England.”

Not another war?

Worse. Much, much worse. The plague. This letter of 1471 from Margaret Paston to her son in London illustrates the great fear of town dwellers for more than three centuries. Plague – the catchall term for the epidemic diseases that ravaged Europe. In 1348-9 the Black Death killed up to a quarter of the population of Europe. More than 25 million people are believed to have perished in this first, and most deadly, outbreak of bubonic plague. Within a year or so it disappeared only to break out again for the next 300 years.

What is bubonic plague?

It got its name from the painful, swollen lymph nodes, called buboes, which appeared on sufferers’ bodies, frequently in the groin area. Dried blood under the skin turned black. After its onset death came to seven in 10 of those affected within two or three days. It was an awful death. Nobody knew what caused it. We think now that the infectious fever is caused by the bacillus Yersinia pestis transmitted to humans by the rat flea. At a time when people lived close to animals in unhygienic conditions, it was easy for the fleas to find a human host. Contemporaries blamed the plague on moral corruption, and looked for convenient scapegoats. It was thought too much exercise, too much sex or taking hot baths caused disease. Others thought it was spread by miasmas – poisons in the air.

What happened in East Anglia?

The first outbreak was on the south coast of England in August, 1348. It followed trade routes, spreading throughout the country. In Norwich they sought shelter behind their walls, but walls do not keep rats out. The 18th century historian Francis Blomefield reported that it reached the city on January 1, 1349. No accurate records were kept of how many people died. Blomefield calculated it at 57,304 people, but that seems far too high a figure. Recent estimates indicate that out of a population which may have been as high as 25,000 in 1348 as few as 6,000 survived, or were still living in the city, 20 years later. Two thirds of the clergy died and only one in three market stalls were occupied the next year. The dead were piled high in carts and buried in communal pits in Cathedral Close. Others were buried in nearby St George Tombland churchyard. It is said the graveyards there had to be raised to cram in the bodies. In Lynn almost half the population died in 1349. Yarmouth was devastated. In its crowded Rows two thirds of the population perished, and construction of the town’s walls stalled for lack of workers. Economic life ground to a standstill, and some people abandoned their families when they became contaminated. Work abruptly stopped at Norwich cathedral cloisters on June 25, 1349, according to ecclesiastical records, and did not restart until 1355.

But life went on…

Eventually the country recovered, though the reduction in population had a long term impact, and the psychological scars must have been deep indeed. Plague returned with varying virulence. People tended to lump bubonic plague in with other epidemics, such as the mysterious sweating sickness that claimed lives in the 1530s, typhus, smallpox, syphilis and all the other nasty ways you could die. Later outbreaks tended to hit towns and ports most severely, so places like Norwich, Yarmouth, Ipswich and Lynn were at risk. Poorer areas with the worst sanitation suffered, prompting the authorities to clamp down, blaming poverty for disease. The plague returned every 10 years or so until the next great outbreak. In 1578 Norwich celebrated the visit of Queen Elizabeth I. She had stayed in the city along with an entourage some 2,000 strong. Soon after their departure that September, the worst plague epidemic since the 1340s arrived. This time there were officially 4,800 victims in Norwich, though the real number could have been twice that. The old pits were re-opened for mass burials. This time the city authorities, including mayor Augustine Steward, ordered that contaminated houses should be isolated. They were locked and bolted from the outside, windows boarded up and red crosses painted on the doors. Sometimes the occupants survived. Most of the time the bodies were left until bailiffs had found somewhere for them to be buried. In one episode people in quarantined houses turned to cannibalism. The ghost of a young woman said to appear in Tombland is apparently that of a 1578 victim.

Some cheerful news please. . .

Well. . . you were a bit safer in the countryside. Richer people were able to leave town when the plague struck. The only thing that seemed to stop it was a destructive fire. Gradually people made the connection between overcrowded towns, dirty conditions and disease. Norwich suffered again in 1603 and 1625 so, when news of plague in London reached Norfolk in September, 1665, everyone held their breath. Ships from Yarmouth were turned away from the city walls, but the death toll grew. By the time it subsided in 1667 nearly 3,000 people had died. This was the last outbreak of this plague in Britain. It disappeared as mysteriously as it arrived.

Extract from ‘A Moment in Time’, by Peter Sargent; Published by Paul Dickson, 2017

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