Thursday 31 December 2020

After the pandemic ...

 In a sense, the Black Death changed everything. The population of Europe fell sharply, and did not recover fully until the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth century. In itself, this demographic change had all kinds of effects, notably giving more power to the working people (most of whom lived in rural areas working for the landowners or farming their own small plots, or both) since demand for their labour outstripped supply. The late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries saw the richer peasants taking advantage of their opportunities and forming what was eventually seen as a new economic class, somewhere between the upper class of nobles and knights and the lower class of tenants. They were known as yeomen, and as more land became available freehold they bought it and farmed it with the help of paid labour, like the lords, yet did not posses or seek to possess multiple estates on which tenants paid rents. Thus the economic system of landholding of the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries bore less and less resemblance to that pertaining before the Black Death.

Economic changes brought social changes in their wake. The old system of land use, based on common fields for the tenants and customary obligations (for the unfree among those tenants) to till the lord’s fields for a certain number of days each year, was gradually replaced by the enclosure of land by the lords, who worked their fields using paid employee labour, while tenants paid rent and tilled their own plots. Wages rose steeply and the feudal system that had kept tenants tied to their own manors eventually became obsolete. The commutation of labour services, in loosening the economic bonds between landlord and tenant, also widened the social and personal distance between them. Lords became less involved with the lives of their tenants and also less inclined to dole out charity and benefits. Over the next two centuries, although philanthropic lords still existed, they became more interested in grand public initiatives such as founding schools, and the burden of caring for the social inadequates and unfortunates fell more and more upon charitable enterprises such as the monasteries. This caused the latter to put less emphasis on their original raison d’ĂȘtre of prayer, and more on their secondary purpose of social welfare. So much did the country come to depend on this aspect of monastic life that when Henry VIII decided to close religious houses and plunder their assets, it became necessary to set up a system of poor relief to replace it.

Greater wealth and independence for free tenants led to a blurring of social status. Statutes in 1349 and later that tried to keep the ‘lower orders’ in their place were ignored and over time could not be enforced, as the economic power of the landlords withered. Although the social and political power of the lordly class remained, society became more mobile. At the same time, the peasants became less content with the social and economic status quo. The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 was, in part, a symptom of this – among the rebels’ demands was the end of serfdom.

As well as the social and economic effects of the Black Death, it seems (not surprisingly) that there were psychological effects. Even in an era when death from infectious diseases was common, and infant and child mortality high, the shock of the massive death toll – perhaps 50% of the English population, varying from one place to another so that in some a mere 25% may have perished, in others whole villages were abandoned, and there was another serious outbreak in 1361 which killed many children and young people who had not yet been born in 1349 – had a profound effect on popular religiosity, and on the emotional lives of those who survived. The cult of the Virgin Mary, already in decline by this period, was replaced by a cult of death – famous images such as ‘the Three Dead and the Three Living’ owed their power to this emotional trauma, which may have been related to what we would call today ‘survivor guilt’. On the other extreme, a kind of hedonism prevailed among those who prospered after the first and most devastating waves of the plague had passed . Fine clothes and extravagant fashions became popular among the upper echelons of society, and the wealthier peasants aped these, much to displeasure of the ruling class.

The changes went deeper: far from making society more moral in an attempt to ward off more divine wrath, the general failure of the Church and its rituals to protect those who had relied on them seems to have led to more lawlessness, as though ordinary folk were no longer fully convinced that their actions would meet with divine vengeance either in this world or the next. Proto-Protestant movements such as the Lollards in England, who followed and developed the teachings of John Wyclif (who was a young student at Oxford at the time of the Black Death), were in part a reaction to the perceived failure of the old teachings and in part an attempt to make better theological sense of the world. These movements, though suppressed at the time, were part of wider questioning of the old ways which eventually led to the Reformation.

All these changes took time, and were in some respects already happening before the Black Death. For example, over the half-century before 1348 many peasants had become free in all but name as customary work obligations were replaced by money rents, and on many manors this suited both parties. Similarly, social mobility had always existed via the Church, which educated poor boys to become priests and clerks, giving them opportunities they would otherwise have lacked. But other changes in social relationships made this fluidity easier. The Black Death’s demographic impact merely accelerated the change. But the faster the change, the less likely it is to be assimilated easily, and the more likely it is to cause other changes that are less easy to predict.

It remains to be seen what social and economic changes the pandemic of 2020/21 will bring. We have not and probably will not face a death toll above 1% if as much (as I write this it is well below that figure, around 0.15%), as medical science has gone into overdrive, thanks to the dedicated work of researchers and practitioners. Vaccines and improved treatments are already lowering death rates, though viruses (unlike Y pestis, whose form remains relatively stable over centuries) can mutate and challenge those medical developments further. But in an age where death tolls as well as birth rates are much lower than they were in the medieval period, the death toll (and the media coverage of the pandemic) seems just as horrific. The idea that 1 in every 1000 people in the United States has died this year of Covid-19 is shocking – as it should be. Emotional and mental trauma has clearly resulted for many people, and some will not recover easily from it, particularly where loved ones have been among those who died.

Socially, people have learned to look after each other in communities and to be aware of each other’s needs in a new or at least radically different way, and this may (though it is not certain) change the way communities work in the future. There is greater appreciation (again, at least in the short term) for those termed ‘key workers’, not only the obvious categories of NHS and care workers operating in the front line of the pandemic, but also the delivery drivers, local shopkeepers, posties, and many others who have kept the country going. So far this has not translated into higher wages for many of the low-paid employees in these industries, perhaps because, in the UK at least, the economic strain of the pandemic, with furlough and other support for business and the after-effects of Brexit threaten to leave a deep recession that will not allow for anyone to be paid more and will probably mean many people’s livelihoods will be reduced or lost altogether. But there is nevertheless a greater awareness of the importance of such key workers.

On the commercial front, we have seen enormous increases in the amount of online shopping, a much safer option than braving the shopping malls even when the latter have been open for business. Even quite small retailers have found ways to sell over the internet, and many people will prefer to do business this way even when Covid-19 is a crisis of the past. Many people have had to give up commuting and a large proportion of employees have enjoyed it and do not want to return to previous ways of working. At the same time, working from home has meant local everyday shopping has become more important. Our big town and city centres may therefore no longer be the hub of economic activity they once were, and it is possible – some commentators would say preferable - that at least part of the unused capacity will be turned over to residential housing, reviving local businesses in a different way. We have also learned to use - and value - other internet services such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, for both social and business purposes. Many of those who are 'shielding' would have been infinitely more isolated without, and working from home would not have been such a readily feasible option.

Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, lockdowns (particularly in the first wave) have convinced many people that the environment not only should be protected and rescued from human depredations, but that it can be – there is still time to reduce all kinds of pollution and increase the number of trees, for example. Reports that people in northern India could see the Himalayas for the first time in decades suggest tangible experiences that have the potential to inform public opinion and priorities. In countries such as the UK where lockdowns have forced individuals to focus on the natural world (outside) as their only form of escape from the tedium of restricted social contact and activity (inside), appreciation of the parks and open spaces of our towns and cities, and the access to open countryside enjoyed by many rural dwellers has soared. Pressure on the housing market in rural areas has indicated that many people – at least those who are able to – have decided to opt for working from home in a much less urban situation than before, though this may turn out to be a mixed blessing for the rural environment!

The comparisons I’ve been making between the Black Death and the Covid-19 pandemic are real, but should not be pushed too far. There are many contrasts, too, and as yet we have no way of knowing which of the possible social, economic and environmental changes will actually emerge from it. The survivors of 1348/49 had only the vaguest imaginings of the vast transformation that moved societies from the medieval into the early modern period. These things are only seen clearly with the benefit of historical hindsight. Their changes came about mainly as a result of demographic catastrophe, and ours will not. But changes there will be. Watch this space.


Monday 28 December 2020

Contemporary reactions to the Black Death


In our own 2020/21 pandemic, we have seen a variety of reactions to the crisis globally. Some countries, most famously Sweden, have trusted their own people to maintain social distancing and other precautions and in general have not imposed legal restrictions. Others, perhaps most obviously the United States under Trump, have had no central strategy but relied on provincial (state) responses, which have been varied both in kind and in effect. In Europe, government has been in general more active in trying to curb the spread of infection. In the UK in particular the dangers of fast-spreading disease in densely populated cities and towns have been recognised. But so far no single reaction has appeared to guarantee countries or communities safety from infection. Never have we seen more clearly the aptness of the phrase ‘going viral’.

In the 14th century reactions were similarly varied, but without detailed knowledge of the process by which infections (in this case bacterial) passed between one person and another the authorities could not formulate any kind of rational strategy. In some areas of Europe scapegoats were found – mainly in the form of the Jewish residents of towns and cities – and persecuted. These were the 14th century equivalents of modern Covid conspiracy theories, and had as little foundation. But in England the Jews had been ejected by royal decree early in the 13th century and there were no other obviously ‘different’ groups who could be blamed. Most communities across Europe saw the pandemic as some kind of visitation from God, probably punitive, and many towns and villages organised regular penitential processions, in the hope of placating the deity and averting His wrath. In some European towns, but notably not in England, these processions involved self-flagellation, especially in the later outbreaks.

One constant was the decision of port authorities to ban from their harbours any ship whose crew showed signs of plague. This probably (if unintentionally) helped to spread the epidemic by sea as the ships sailed on down the coastline making landfall where they could. King Edward III flirted with the idea of closing the main ports in October 1348 but decided against it – a decision that may have proved costly to his subjects in terms of lives lost to the disease, as it is possible that preventing travellers from entering the country might have kept the incidence of plague in England low. But as the pestilence raged across the rest of Europe, moving ever northwards and eastwards until it reached Scandinavia in 1350, the ports would have to have been permanently closed in order to keep it out, with dire effects on an economy heavily dependent on wool exports. And Edward’s war expenditure meant that he needed taxation, primarily on exports, to keep his ambitions to be King of France alive.  Balancing economic needs against the possible prevention of disease transmission is a familiar trope to us during the Covid pandemic, and in the light of the sketchy understanding of disease transmission at the time, it is perhaps unfair to blame King Edward for his decision.

There were military reasons for his reluctance to cut England off from the continent, too. With the ports closed it would have been impossible to supply or reinforce the garrison at Calais, which would have effectively been left to perish – and with it the King’s bridgehead in France. There was also the matter of national pride, to which national safety from disease was inevitably sacrificed; like some modern governments during the 21st century pandemic, the King did not wish to show weakness in the face of threat. Medieval kings were seen as agents of healing, with God-given power over sickness. Edward III himself was spared infection (though his young daughter Joan died of the plague in Bordeaux in 1348 on her way to Castile to be married), but the tournament he held at Windsor in April 1349 for members of the new Order of the Garter is perhaps the equivalent of President Trump’s triumphal drive-past while suffering from Covid in October 2020.

The prevalence of disease was such, however, that no one thought it mythical. Fourteenth-century people relied not on news broadcasts or statistics – for news was spread by rumour and by the tales of pedlars and other itinerants and was notoriously unreliable – but on the evidence of their own eyes as they cared for the sick among their neighbours. Official information came in the form of letters from the bishop, read by the priest at mass, or proclamations from the King that were delivered by local government in the form of royal officials, the nobles and the local lords of the manor in the countryside. These were accepted implicitly and communities did their best to follow the instructions they were given. The Church recommended penitential processions, rigorous adherence to Church procedure for confession and penance, and when necessary loosened the rules for these matters, as when the Pope allowed laymen (and even women, if necessary) to hear confessions rather than allow plague-stricken communities to suffer the trauma of people dying unshriven and without religious comfort. Kings added the weight of their authority to many of these pronouncements.

On a personal level, there were no travel restrictions or nation-wide closures of markets. But in practice strangers were viewed with suspicion, and much economic activity disappeared in individual regions during the height of the pandemic, reviving when the worst of the outbreak had moved on. Those who could afford to travel, and had somewhere to stay when they arrived (many inns were closed for lack of staff or in an attempt to prevent infection) escaped from the centres of contagion, often to remote country locations where the incidence was lower (it is probably no coincidence in our current pandemic that the lower English tiers have been in rural areas or islands such as the Isle of Wight and the Isles of Scilly). This option was open only to families with wealth – lords of manors large and small, but it was exercised and to a large extent the wealthy escaped the worst of the pandemic, returning to their primary homes after it had passed on. The king moved out of London, on the advice of his physicians, and spent Christmas 1348 at the Archbishop of Canterbury’s palace at Otford. For most people, there was nowhere else to go. Unfree tenants were effectively tied to their lord’s manor, and for most people it was a case of taking what precautions they could afford, and staying put, hoping for the best.

In more modern bubonic plague epidemics, the disease in humans is preceded or accompanied by rat plague epidemics culminating in mass rat deaths, the bacterium (Y pestis) then passing to the human flea. Fourteenth-century chroniclers of the Black Death do not mention this phenomenon, however, and some experts think, on the evidence of house construction, that there were few rats in English towns and villages of this period. If so, the disease found some other vector, or began to be transmitted directly from person to person, as is always the case with the pneumonic type of plague. However it was spread, as with Covid-19 at the start of our pandemic there were no cures. For every individual, their own immune system was the only resource they had to fight the plague, and the majority of those who contracted it died. In any case medicine was in its infancy – indeed, the Black Death may be credited with spurring on those who wished to put it on a more scientific basis. Physicians were as much influenced by astrology as by observation of symptoms and had little if any idea how the disease was spread. There were no government medical scientists advising governments in the 14th century, although the King had his own personal medical advisers. The accepted theory, put forward by the centre of the European medical profession at the University of Paris, was that the disease was spread atmospherically – miasma, or bad air, was the cause. 

A common denominator then as now was fear – fear of infection, fear of the suffering and death that usually followed it. In some places neighbourliness overcame this natural terror and people did their best to care for the sick, not only within their own families but also in the community. Where it did not, chroniclers speak of people walled up in their houses to avoid infection, of there being too few living to bury the death, of communities where social order broke down and the sick were left alone to die, or where lawlessness led to looting and violence. Recent excavations during the construction of Crossrail in London, for example, suggest that there was civil conflict. Many of the skeletons were not only infected with plague, but bore signs of violence.

Remarkably, in England at least, administrative life appears to have carried on more or less as normal. Where one local official died, another was appointed. Bishops continued to appoint priests to livings vacated as a result of death and to ordain new priests to fill the gaps. The royal administration, including taxation, continued, and communities paid their dues if they possibly could. Occasionally the population of a whole village was wiped out, and nothing could be paid, or a tiny minority was left to plead poverty as a reason for their failure to produce the taxation required. But these were unusual occurrences. In the main, the social and economic structures stood up to the strain, and when the plague had passed, life returned to normal, though long-term trends were accelerated that in time revolutionised society completely.

Tuesday 15 December 2020

The Black Death in England 1348–1349

This is the first in a mini-series of historical insights into the 14th century pandemic we call the Black Death, written with more than an eye on the sometimes uncanny resemblances it had to our own Covid-19 experience. Readers of this blog will already know that I have been researching this for my forthcoming novel, Thirteen Forty-Nine, which explores the impact of the Great Mortality, as contemporaries called it, on a fictional village in southern England. In this blog I look at what the Black Death was, where it came from, and its trajectory and effects across Europe.

The pandemic we call the Black Death probably had its origin in western Asia, and arrived in Europe in 1347 via the port of Genoa in Italy. The Genoese were well known for travelling and trading far and wide across the Medieval world, and one of the places they had settled was at Kaffa (or Caffa, now Feodosija) on the Crimean shores of the Black Sea in Asia Minor. The Genoese city was established in 1266, by agreement with the Khan of the Golden Horde, the local ruler. Here they were besieged (not by the first time) by Mongol forces in 1345–46. The Genoese were supplied by boat, however, and could not be starved out. According to Gabriele de’Mussi, a Genoese notary, writing soon after the event although not an eye-witness, the Mongol forces (he called them Tartars) used biological warfare in an attempt to break the siege: they hurled the bodies of their own plague-infected soldiers into the city. The attempt failed and the city remained in Genoese hands. However, a number of the Genoese defenders took ship and sailed away, taking the disease to Europe. Given the nature of European contacts with the Near East, it was almost inevitable that the plague would have found its way to the continent. But the siege of Kaffa and the Tartars’ biological warfare is a colourful episode that caught the medieval imagination and still intrigues historians today. It shows, moreover, how transport links play an important part in pandemic transmission – something we have learned about afresh in 2020.

The Black Death arrived at the port of Genoa, where the ship and its infected sailors were promptly sent on their way by the authorities – though not in time to save the city from the disease. From southern Italy it spread across the continent through 1347 and early 1348, moving northwards steadily though affecting some places more severely than others. A number of chroniclers described it and from their accounts it seems certain that the disease was a particularly virulent version of bubonic plague. Three different types were present, in differing mixes in different places and at different seasons, which is one of the reasons why it was so devastating (another significant factor may be that since there had been no similar outbreak of plague in Europe since the 6th century few people had any immunity to it). The most prevalent type in the early part of the pandemic, in Italy and France, was bubonic plague, which had a death rate of something around 60 or 70 percent of those infected. The symptoms were the classic growths (called buboes, giving the disease its name), a high temperature and a persistent rash or blotches under the skin. But in England, partly because of the colder weather experienced during winter and spring 1348/1349, many cases were of pneumonic plague, which affects the lungs and is very much more deadly. A third and rarer type, septicaemic plague, in which the bacillus enters the bloodstream directly and overwhelms the patient extremely quickly, is almost always fatal. Since the plague is a bacterial infection not a virus, these were simply different ways the flea-borne bacillus could enter or attack the body. They were not mutations like those we see in coronavirus-type epidemics. Today all three types of plague can be treated with antibiotics, but without them it was (and is) untreatable.

The disease reached England in June 1348, in all probability making its first landfall at Melborne Regis in Dorset. It moved across the country in a single prolonged wave, but its trajectory was complex; that is, it did not enter in the south and pass uniformly northwards across the country. Instead, it followed major transport routes, spreading first westwards along the south coast, with separate nodes of infection in major ports such as Bristol on the major inlet below the Severn estuary. This almost certainly represented transmission by ships, some directly from the continent of Europe, others from internal ports. For several months after the first infections in Dorset, the interior of southern England was almost untouched, but Dorset, Devon and Somerset suffered badly in this early period. In November or December 1348 the disease came to London, with devastating effects not only medically but also socially and economically; but the route of transmission is uncertain. Again, it may have been direct infection by sailors or passengers on ships from the continent, including possibly returning soldiers from Calais after the truce that halted the Hundred Years War, albeit briefly. Thus, rather surprisingly, the disease did not hit northern Hampshire until January 1349. The evidence from the turnover of parish incumbencies, which is one of the main ways in which the statistics for this pandemic were compiled, shows that the bulk of the deaths were in the period January to March 1349, though people did continue to die of plague in much smaller numbers for the rest of the year. The records of the Bishop of Winchester are extant and have been published (by Hampshire County Council).

Over Europe as a whole the death rate from the Black Death probably approached 40 per cent – vastly more than even the notorious Spanish flu of 1918–19, and a far far cry from our 21st century experience (less than a measly 0.15 per cent so far, even on the most generous estimates) – and in England, where the pneumonic form was prevalent, it was more like 50 percent, in some places higher. On the evidence of the transfer of incumbencies, Hampshire was one of the more badly affected areas. There was no idea of social distancing, and the lockdown-type social and economic paralysis that occurred in some of the bigger centres of population – in particular London, where there is some evidence of social dislocation – happened simply because no one had leisure for anything but the most basic essential activities. The plague returned in 1361, and periodically throughout the next three centuries, never quite as destructively as the 1348–1350 outbreak, but deadly enough to keep the population of England permanently lower than its pre-plague maximum. It did not fully recover until the 18th century.


Friday 4 December 2020

Thirteen Forty-Nine

 My fourth novel, set during the 14th century pandemic, will be published on 1st January 2021 by Wings ePress, under the title Thirteen Forty-Nine. I’m planning a series of blogs before that time, containing some reflections on the parallels between our own pandemic experience and that of our ancestors.

I’ve dedicated the novel to the key workers of the 2020 pandemic – frontline NHS personnel, including those working in the community, care home workers, and all the supermarket staff, delivery drivers, postmen, and others who have continued to work hard throughout the year, often in difficult or even dangerous conditions, for all of us. They deserve all the thanks we can give them, and this is my small contribution to those.

The story is set during the 14th century pandemic, later known as the Black Death, which raged across the Middle East and Europe from 1347 to 1350, killing about 40% of the population. Although our Covid-19 pandemic has not been as bad as that in terms of death rate – indeed, even the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918/1919 killed far more people – there have been a surprising number of parallels between the 14th century pandemic and our own. Pandemics in history have tended to run unchecked, mainly because medicine had no answer to them, but they often exhausted themselves and eventually fizzled out, leaving society reeling.  In our case we have the blessing of vaccines on the horizon, but we need to remember that there are no guarantees that their immunity will last, or that the virus won’t mutate to outflank them. The episode has been a salutary reminder – and perhaps we needed one – that humanity is not in control of history, something of which the 14th century inhabitants of the Earth were only too well aware!

The Black Death continued to plague Europe for three centuries, with the outbreaks gradually becoming smaller and more localised, only coming to an end in 1665. The consequent fall in population was not made up until the 18th century, but the economy bounced back fairly quickly and headed in new directions, while the social changes that happened as a result laid the foundations for the modern world. I suspect that when the history of 2020 is written in years to come, it too will be seen as a watershed for new social and economic, and possibly religious and political, developments as yet unforeseen.

In the next blog I will look at the way the Black Death came to the United Kingdom, and how the authorities and ordinary people reacted to it.