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    The Black Death and its Aftermath
    (not as gloomy as it sounds!)

    by Imogen Corrigan

     

    Report of meeting held
    on Thursday, 18th September 2008

 


On 18th September, Imogen Corrigan gave us an in depth talk about the Black Death outbreaks that swept the world in the 14th century. It arrived in North Eastern Europe in 1346 but moved at a walking pace through to Spain, Italy, Sicily and the Crimea and did not break out in England until 1348. There had been a series of wet summers and mild winters (sound familiar?) poor harvests and famine; by 1331 sheep and cattle disease was rife. The fleas moved on from animals to humans and once symptoms appeared death came within three days.

 
The British believed the pestilence was caused by the conjunction of Jupiter and Mars, and by breathing in foul air. Defence was thought to be gained by keeping a calm mind and leading a sober life. The French, on the other hand, called it the Blue Death and thought a philosophy of eat, drink and be merry would keep the plague at bay! Society is always looking for a scapegoat and the French believed the Jews were responsible and consequently many were massacred in Europe. Unfortunately the English had expelled all Jews from the UK in 1290, so they had to think up an alternative reason – Arabs and Strangers would have to do!

 
There was a higher death rate in towns and communities with lots of people such as monasteries than in rural areas. Oxford University was closed. Strangely, some areas were spared: Amiens (France), Poland, The Alps and Pyrenees although it’s not known why.

 
Death was so swift that many people did not have time to atone. At that time the Church gave power (or not) to eternal life. Priests were reluctant to serve unless they were paid big money. In 1394 the Bishop of Wells gave permission for ordinary people to hear confession from each other, EVEN WOMEN! There was an increasing fixation on purgatory, the transition between earth and heaven or hell. The belief was that even a small fragment of the scull and the thigh bones would stand as a whole person on the day of judgement. It is thought some of the bones in St Leonard’s Church at Hythe were brought there from a plague pit in a huge philanthropic gesture by someone. The scull and crossbones became a symbol of hope and was not sinister as it is today. Despite belief that the plague was caused by the sins of the religious and was the wrath of God it just died out, although we don’t know why. It is now thought to have killed about 62% of the population in about 18 months. (Consider the comparison with the First World War when 2% of the population were killed. Yes 2%, this is not a misprint). Society was devastated as many of the skilled tradesmen were lost. Food and skills shortages made for inflated charges – you couldn’t get a plumber anywhere. This happily brought an end to the feudal system introduced by William the Conqueror.


 

Report written by Sally Starbuck.

Last Revised: 29-Sep-2008

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