THE BLACK DEATH – A Medieval Apocalypse

A Medieval Apocalypse

The Medieval mind  was full  of superstition and portents .  In 1345 there was a conjunction of the planets Jupiter, Mars and Saturn and shortly after came reports from the Far East of a dreadful  plague sweeping towards Europe.  It spread through the trading routes carried by fleas in bundles of cloth being imported.  Soon ships brought the deadly cargo to England. It arrived at a port near Southampton and quickly spread.  “The dreadful pestilence penetrated the sea coast by Southampton and spread to Bristol and there the whole of the population of the town perished as if it had been seized by sudden death for few kept their beds more than two to three days or even half a day.”

It reached Sussex via the Cinque Ports and quickly spread.  It ravaged its way through the county.  At Michelham Priory 5 out of the 13 brothers died.  At Battle Abbey half the monks including the Abbot perished and in Wartling near Pevensey  70 men were struck down.  In nearby Hooe the villagers fled in panic.  A contemporary chronicler at Rochester Abbey recorded “A plague of a kind never seen before ravaged our land”

It became known as the Black Death because of the dark blood and pus filled swellings on the skin of patients. It is estimated that a third of the population died in the following years.

There was no known cure.  People wore triangular charms with the word” abracadabra” on them.  The plague doctors  bled the patients and washed their bodies in vinegar and provided them with concoctions of sage, angelica,  and rue.  In desperation they tried dried frogs and arsenic –  none of it worked and the plague continued to claim its victims. It was a time of paranoia and anti- Semetic  feeling,  the panicked people needed a scapegoat and the Jews were targeted.

It died down in Winter only to reappear again with a deadly vengeance the following Spring to attack a populace weakened by hunger. For the next 200 years it continued to appear and disappear until in 1665 a comet streaked across the sky and this heralded the last and deadliest outbreak. Samuel Pepys records, “The people die so that they are fain to carry the dead to be buried by daylight the night not sufficing to do it in.”

Houses were boarded up and marked with a red cross and the words, “May the Lord have mercy upon us.”

The disease continued its deadly course until finally improved public health measures in 1666 led to it dying out.

After the plague wages rose for workers in the countryside  because there was a shortage of labour and the landowning gentry had to accede to the demands of the labourers.

In the churchyard in Westham opposite the sundial a Plague Pit is marked with 4 stones – a grim reminder of a terrible pestilence

Carolyn Little

Chronicles of Canon Henry Knighton
British History online
Samuel Pepys Diaries