The Great Mortality III – Consequences

One last post about the Great Mortality, and this time about the consequences, which were far more complex and far reaching than that a lot of people died. But it actually turned out that this already mentioned and most obvious consequence was of an advantage to those who were fortunate to survive.

The enormous amounts of people that had died left England with a shortage of labourers, which all of a sudden gaveWat_Tyler_rebels_from_ca_1470_MS_of_Froissart_Chronicles_in_BL them an upper hand. They were able to demand a higher pay in both countryside and towns, and in the years to come, the standards of living rose for the peasantry. The government tried to curb this development on three occasions, in 1349, 1351 and 1388. The side effect of this was what is known as Peasants Revolt, or Wat Tyler´s Rebellion, which was a reaction to The Statute of Labourers passed in 1351, which meant to prevent labourers taking advantage of the situation caused by the lack of workers. But, I feel I most likely will return to the Peasant´s Revolt in a later, separate, post. I will however mention that this was the only time an attacking army, such as it was, was able to break through and enter the Tower in London.

Still wages rose drastically all over the work field for the rest part of the 14th century, and it has been estimated that wages to a skilled builder rose by two thirds and that it doubled for unskilled workers.

JwycliffejmkAnother side effect of the Great Mortality that has been suggested is the development of vernacular English due to the death of many teachers proficient in French, with the rise if poets such as Chaucer and John Gower towards the end of the 14th century. What instead in some quarters dwindled was, if not the faith in God, so at least the faith in the clergy. Their explanation had of course been that the Great Mortality was a punishment from God for the moral shortcomings of ordinary people. But to their own misfortune, a great number of priests died themselves, opening up, from the medieval view on reality, for the questioning of the actual holiness of the clergy itself. This paved the way for John Wycliffe, scholastic philosopher, theologian and lay priest whose followers were to become known as the Lollards, a slightly rebellious and anti-clerical movement demanding biblically-centred reforms, and can be seen as the fore-runners of the reformation.

The Great Mortality also affected the architecture, where for example the building of the cathedrals of Exeter and Ely were halted for years due to the shortage of labourer. During this period, and most likely due to “know how” dying off, the style changed from decorated gothic to the perpendicular gothic with less elaborate decorations.

The Great Mortality also left its mark on the art produced during and after the plague, in the sense that it gave visual art, literature and music with images turning away from optimism and towards hell, Satan and Grim Reapers. This influence would linger, and eventually result in the Memento Mori (remember you are mortal) genre.



Sources: England in the time of Richard III, Leicester University (course material)

A Companion to John Wyclif. Late Medieval Theologian – Ian Christopher Levy (ed)

The seven periods of English architecture defined and illustrated – Edmund Sharpe

The Black Death and English art: a debate and some assumptions – Phillip Lindley

The Black Death – Philip Ziegler

History of painters –

Modification of John Wycliffe-image – John M Kennedy

The Great Mortality 2 – “explanations and cures”

When people started dying around them, often after a very short period of illness and with hideous blackdeath3blisters on their bodies, people of course started searching for an explanation. And while we, in our “enlightened”* times may have started to think about viruses, bacteria, exposure to something lethal and most likely a variety of other theories, none of the above alternatives was what crossed the minds of the victims of the Great Mortality, or those who were left behind.
There had to be dark and sinister forces behind the outbreak, of maybe God had just had enough with the sinful living of humans. Or maybe there was even a particular group of people behind all this. Another theory was bad smells, or that the humours of the body was out of balance. The idea that the body consisted of different humours – four to be exact – is primarily attributed to Hippocrates, but exist within other philosophies as well, such as Ayurveda for example. But back to the point: according to Hippocrates the human body consisted of four humours: phlegm, yellow bile, black bile and blood. It was believed that when there was an imbalance between these, disease would strike.
This was normally kept in check by bloodletting and cupping (placing warm cups on the body to draw out bad humours). But for the Great Mortality no amount of balancing of the humours would help, and other explanations needed to be found.

1349_burning_of_Jews-European_chronicle_on_Black_DeathApart from being a punishment by God, the blame on the European mainland was also cast on the Jewish community where they for example were accused of poisoning the wells. A couple of reasons the Jewish communities were blamed – other than on the misconceptions, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and superstition that has made them the target of hate throughout history – was that hygiene according to religious law was better in the Jewish communities as well as the ghettos in which they were required to live were slightly isolated from the crammed cities where the plague ran amok. It is also suggested that the occurrence of alcoholism and venereal disease – which would weaken the immune system – was less in the Jewish community than in the community as a whole. This resulted in horrid pogroms and outright massacres in a number of European cities. In England, however, the Jews had been expelled in 1290 by Edward I, and no such pogroms occurred.

Another explanation was “bad smells”, such as the odour from the “privy”

Medieval medicine did leave a lot to wish for, but attempts to cure the victims was made. Apart from Blood_lettingblood letting, one used remedy was vinegar and rose water. This wasn´t to drink, however, but the one who had fallen ill should be put to bed and washed with the water. Another presumed cure was lancing the buboes, that is the blisters which are associated with The Great Mortality. After so had been done, the wound should be filled with a mix of tree resin, roots of white lilies and dried human excrement. One can only imagine what at least the latter would do to an open wound. Even then the idea existed that maybe the diet could influence the health. But even so, there isn´t much reason to suspect that eating fruit, vegetables and bread instead of food that would easily go foul, such as meat fish and cheese, would do much to alleviate the plague.
One that actually would make sense in a avoiding a lot of other diseases was the idea of sanitation, to keep the streets in the overcrowded cities free from human and animal excrements and instead carting them out of the city to be burned in a field. Then there of course was the “pestilence medicine”: roast the shells of freshly laid eggs, grind them up into a fine powder and mix them with the petals of marigold flowers. Blend it into a good ale, add treacle, warm over a fire and drink.
If all this should fail, there was always witchcraft as a last resort. A live hen should be placed next to any swelling on the body to draw out the pestilence from the body. To aid the recovery, two glasses of one´s own urine should be drunk every day.

Not cures that will kill you in their own right maybe, but they wouldn´t have cured anyone either.

After 1350, England was hit another six times by the Great Mortality.





*That I put enlightened between quotation marks is because while I was writing, I realised that there is quite possible to hear the same unscientific explanations to disasters or outbreaks of epidemics even now; government conspiracies, global conspiracies masterminded by some group or, in some cases, the wrath of God is still given as an explanation even in our own time. Apparently mankind isn´t always that different to how we were 700 years ago.

Sources: Descriptions of blood and blood disorders before the advent of laboratory studies – GD Hart/British Journal of Haematology, 2001.
Encyclopedia of The Black Death, 2012 – Joseph P Byrne
The Jews of Europe after the Black Death, 2000 – Anna Foa
“Cures for the Black Death”. 2014. Web.

The Great Mortality – part 1


Commodore_Perry's_second_fleetOne can´t help but wonder about the crew aboard those twelve Genoese galleys that anchored up at Messina in Sicily on that October day in 1347. Those that were still alive must have seen their shipmates dying in horrifying agony, covered with black moulds. Did they know they would die too? Maybe. Did they know what they were part in bringing to Europe? Not likely.
But they brought the first wave of what in England came to be known as “The Great Pestilence” or “The Great Mortality” (the name Black Death wasn´t used in England until the 1820´s*). The Plague quickly spread across Sicily, and only three months later, in January 1348, a new shipment of death arrived in Europe, this time it was galleys coming from Caffa (today belonging to Ukraine/Crimea under the name of Feodosia), a town on the coast of the Black Sea which at the time was under the control of the Republic of Venice. They arrived in Venice and Genoa, but one of the galleys were later expelled from Italy only to arrive in Marseille. The Great Mortality had established itself on the European mainland, striking England in June 1348.

The seventh year after it began, it came to England and first began in the towns and ports joining on the seacoasts, in Dorsetshire, where, as in other counties, it made the country quite void of inhabitants so that there were almost none left alive.
… But at length it came to Gloucester, yea even to Oxford and to London, and finally it spread over all England and so wasted the people that scarce the tenth person of any sort was left alive.
Geoffrey the Baker, Chronicon Angliae


The disease originated in Central Asia and moving on through Kurdistan and India along the so called Silk Road and Blackdeath2had most likely reached modern day Crimea in 1343. It has long been considered and indisputable fact that it was rats on the ships who spread the plague through fleas which, when their hosts died and stopped supplying them with blood, moved on to humans. This has been contested during the past few years after the finding of a mass grave in central London which had been used to bury victims of the plague. But I will return to this, possibly in a separate post.

The Great Mortality entered England at a port in Dorset, in the shape of a sailor arriving in Weymouth from Gascony. When autumn arrived, the plague had reached London and a year, in the summer of 1349 later it covered the entire country, only to die out in December that same year, In other words, it was short, but it was devastating and the estimate that 50 percent of the country´s population died in this first wave of The Great Mortality is widely accepted.
The text higher up in the post refers to the return of the plague in the early 1360´s, when another 20 percent of the English population is believed to have died. The process was incredibly swift for the individual, and there is a quote saying that the victims could be having lunch together with his or her family and dinner with the ancestors.

Flea_infected_with_yersinia_pestisThe symptoms was that the assumed bacteria through flea bites (assuming this theory of how the disease is the correct one) entered the lymphatic system, travelling to the lymph nodes where the bacteria multiplied and caused swelling called buboes, which would appear like a large blister, usually in the armpit, on the neck or in the groin. Three or four days later the bacteria would enter the blood stream and affect internal organs such as the spleen and the lungs after which the patient would die within a few days. There is also another strain of the plague and both these may have been at work during the Great Mortality. This one is airborne and enter the lungs of the victim directly and spread from person to person.
The Great Mortality had deep impact on the English society on a number of levels, and I will go into each and every one of them on the upcoming days, I mean, why not spend Easter in the company of the Great Mortality?

*Danish and Swedish chroniclers had referred to the plague as “black” about a century earlier, but it´s believed that this had nothing to do with the progress of the disease or the skin colour of the victim towards the end, but as a reference to times being black and gloomy during the Great Mortality.


Sources: Britain Express /
The Black Death, 1347, George Deaux, Weybright and Talley, New York, 1969
The Black Death – Rosemary Horrox, 1994

St Mary Spital

Braque_Family_Triptych_closed_WGADeath was ever present in medieval times (as to some extent latter centuries), and when we think about it, we may think that there was no such things as hospitals. And there wasn´t, not as we know them today. But there was places for sick people, one of them was St Mary Spital
In 1197, just outside Bishopsgate, a priory was formed by Walter Brunus and his wife Roisia. Its name was “The new hospital of St Mary without Bishopsgate”, but it came to be known as St Mary Spital. This came to be one of the biggest hospitals in medieval England and included a large cemetery with a stone charnel house and mortuary chapel, of which the latter was discovered by archaeologists. It was one of 200 hospitals founded in England during the 12th century, and it came to be one of the biggest hospitals in medieval times providing shelter for the sick, the poor, elderly and homeless.
The original name was Hospital (or priory) of the Blessed Virgin Mary without Bishopsgate and it was located on the east side of Bishopsgate Street. The means to found it came from an undated grant of lands in Bishopsgate Street to Walter Brunus and his wife, some of them by the Alderman Walter, son of Eilred, for the purpose of the foundation.
The parcels of lands given by Walter son of Eilred consisted of 44 ells* (from the Latin ulna) towards the king´s highway (Bishopsgate Street) and 117 ells on the east side towards Lolesworth field, 162 ells in depth west to east and on the opposite side of Bishops Street 13 ells towards the street as well as 16 ells on the west side as well as a depth of 78 ells. To this should be added additional 101 ells towards Bishopsgate Street and 149 ells towards Lolesworth field from contributors whose names have been lost to history.
The church was expanded in 1235, something which was confirmed by Walter and Roisia, who finally was said to have been buried before the altar of the church.

It was the Augustinian order which ran the house, and it contained both canons regular as well as lay brothers and St Mary Spital1sisters. One of the chief purposes of the house – and now we´re getting closer to my original intention with this subject – was to function as a lying-in hospital. An order from the 7th of January 1341 declare that the hospital was founded to receive and entertain pilgrims and the infirm who resorted thither until they were healed, and pregnant women until their delivery, and also to maintain the children of women who died there in childbirth, until the age of seven.
On the 8th of August 1279 the bishop of St Paul´s confirmed a grant to the hospital of a fountain called the tongue wriggling “Snekockeswelle” in his field of Lolesworth, including the right to enclose it with a wall and through a kind of waterconduit bring it to the sick and poor within the infirmary. Just over 20 years later, in 1303, the Archbishop of Canterbury – Robert Winchelsey – ordered that the lamps which had earlier hung between the sick people for their comfort should be returned (no information as to where they had gone in the meantime)

A number of royal servants were lodged at St Mary Spital at the beginning of the 14th century, such as a servant of Edward I´s confessor and three yeomen of Edward III. It also paid off to give alms to the monastery and hospital, in 1391 a papal relaxation in penance was issued for those who did just that, with the reference to the “very many poor widows, wards and orphans are continually sustained” within.

St Mary Spital2In a list of London parish churches and monasteries from around the mid-fifteenth century St Mary Spital is mentioned with the words “Seynt Marye Spetylle. A poore pryery, and a parysche chyrche in the same. And that pryory kepythe ospytalyte for pore men. And sum susters yn the same place to kepe the beddys for pore men that come to that place”

St Mary Spital lived on through the centuries, but when the dissolution hit, the priory itself feel. It seems however as if the hospital survived, not least since the Lord Mayor, Sir Richard Gresham, petitioned the king in 1538 that the London hospitals “Seynt Maryes Spytell, Seynt Bartholemews Spytell and Seint Thomas Spytell’ and ’the new abby of Tower hyll” should be governed by the Lord Mayor and the Aldermen.

In excavations of the area between 1991 and 2007, more than 10 000 human remains have been found, providing a unique insight to the lives in medieval London from the late 12th century to the early 16th century. Among many things one have been able to identify some of the earliest European victims of syphilis.



*An ell equated the linear measure of 45 inches. It seems the word ell has been taken to represent either the distance from the elbow or from the shoulder to the wrist or to the finger tips. It also seem that in some cases the measure “double ell” has taken over the original measure, and has taken its name. What an ell actually was differed from country to country. While an “ell” in England was, as mentioned, 45 inches, it was 37.2 inches in Scotland and 27 inches in Flanders. No accuracy is like the accuracy of medieval times! 😉
The word “ell” originate from the Latin “Ulna” which mean the bone of the forearm, opposite the thumb. Swedish potential readers – as I am Swedish – will recognise the old Swedish measurement “aln”.

Measurement in the Middle Ages –
Centre for human bioarchaeology – British museum