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.