The Black Death

Read how london suffered and recovered from one of the world's most devastating illnesses.

London Focus

The Black Death is still regarded as the most devastating illness to ever hit Western Civilisation. Britain’s population was halved, and its repercussions were felt for centuries afterwards, not just in issues like workforce and the economy, but in culture and the arts too.

The disease, caused by a bacteria that lived in rats (who were in turn infected by fleas), could cause infected humans to die within five days. It started with a fever, then the lymph nodes in the neck, groin and armpits would become swollen, known as “buboes”, where the term “Bubonic Plague” comes from. Areas of the body with the most capillaries, like the nose, fingers and toes, turned black when blood started to seep out (where “the black death” derives from), and blood poisoning would occur. Other symptoms included vomiting, unbearable headaches, and even delirium.

There have been various incidences of the plague in London over the centuries. The first, and worst outbreak of the Black Death was between 1348 and 1350. Bristol was struck first, as the pestilence arrived on a ship that docked at the port. Once it arrived in London it quickly spread throughout the city.

If you picture London at this time it becomes easier to imagine how this happened. Can you imagine pigs roaming the streets freely in a city that was already suffering from overcrowding? But that was least troubling factor; the ground was covered in excrement, animal entrails, rotten food and all sorts of other waste. Butchers also routinely dumped their offcuts in the Thames, something which was eventually made illegal in 1369. There were no toilets, as people deposited their excrement in pots, which they then emptied out of windows, even though this had been forbidden since 1345, a few years before the plague, and offenders had to pay a steep fine. Add to this that it was not habitual for people to bathe or change clothes (bathing became a habit much later, when public baths were introduced in the Victorian era to encourage hygiene). And there were tanneries where leather was boiled in large vats of urine, because it softened the leather. In short, London was a filthy city, and it stank.

The plague was indiscriminate about who it attacked, except for a few very rich people who had managed to isolate themselves from the infection. Chancellors, archbishops, poor, wealthy, all were affected. Mass graves had to be dug to accommodate the dead – if you’re curious, pictures of some of these graves are on display at the Museum of London. Around 200 people were buried at the Spitalfields grave alone each day. Even worse were the corpses strewn on the streets, as the majority of London’s street cleaners had died, which left no one to clear up the bodies.
\n\nAround 45% of the British population were killed by the plague, a higher number than those killed in World War I. Houses where infected people lived were marked with a red cross, and members of the household were not allowed to leave, which while preventing others from catching it, also meant other healthy members of the family had little chance of not contracting the illness.

Things that were considered cures in those days were hardly helpful, like carrying a lucky amulet, or scented flowers. Another more extreme method was to cover patients in mercury and put them in the oven, in the hope that the heat and mercury would kill off the disease. The only thing it killed was the patient, after causing serious burns. Plague doctors wore masks with long bird-like beaks, not for fancy dress purposes but to minimise the risk of catching the plague. Their entire bodies were covered; long gowns were made of thick material under which they wore leather breeches, they also wore gloves, a hat and full length boots for extra protection. Additionally they carried a wooden stick to ward off any diseased people who came too close.

But medicine and logic were often not considered, as much of the population believed the plague had been caused by God inflicting punishment on England. Scotland foolishly thought this would be a good opportunity to invade their southern neighbours. They realised their mistake too late, when 5000 of their men became infected and died as they prepared to invade, and had no choice but to turn back. Unfortunately for Scotland, they took the plague with them. \n\nThe plague returned numerous times, on several occasions lasting for years. By the 1370s half the population had been decimated. It was only in the 17th century – 300 years later – that it was finally eradicated. It was in fact another disaster, the Great Fire of London in 1666, that got rid of the disease for good by killing the fleas and rats that carried the infection, as well as destroying the areas that had become the worst affected, mostly slums where the poor lived.

The great artists of the day were influenced by this terrible event; writers like Chaucer and Shakespeare referenced the plague in their work, Shakespeare himself lost several family members to the disease. Artists turned to suffering and death for inspiration, and paintings, among them Van Dyck and Tintoretto.

Overall, the Black Death plunged London into despair. However a 2012 episode of Antiques Roadshow featured a miniature gold skull which would have contained a scent to disguise the terrible smells of the city during the plague. Those who carried it also believed it would prevent them from contracting the disease, therefore the skull, usually a morbid symbol, came to signify life for some during these horrific times.

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