Early Accounts of the Plague
"Plague" is a word that has been used to describe many episodes of mostly-fatal epidemic or pandemic illness that struck the population at intervals. There are basically three types of plague; septicemic, bubonic and pneumonic and they were nothing new to our medieval ancestors. Bronze Age skeletons, including one that dates back to 2000 BC, have been found to contain DNA from the bacterium that causes bubonic plague.
During the reign of the emperor Justinian I (527-565 AD), one of the worst outbreaks of the plague took place, claiming the lives of millions of people. Even today, a very small number of people contract the disease each year but, if treated quickly with anti-biotics, the disease can now be cured (e.g. there was an outbreak in Madagascar in 2017). However, our medieval ancestors had no defense against the plague and there are many reports of outbreaks in England over the centuries, which could devastate communities. In Bulmer's Gazetteer, a plague is described to have hit the North in 1314.
…On the 24th of June, 1314, the (King Edward II) encountered the enemy at Bannockburn, and met with a disastrous defeat. The north of England now became the prey of the enemy, into which they made yearly incursions, pillaging and burning the towns and villages, and carrying off the cattle. The miseries of the people were further intensified by a famine and plague which raged about this time, and so malignant were the effects of the latter, and so numerous the deaths, that the interment of the dead was often accomplished with the greatest difficulty. Bread-corn rose to forty-two shillings a quarter, about ten times its usual value; and to such dire extremity were the poor reduced, that, it is said, men ate the dead bodies of their companions, and parents the flesh of their own children.
The Black Death
A “Great Pestilence” arrived in Europe in October 1347, when twelve Genoese trading ships docked at the Sicilian port of Messina.
Most of the sailors aboard the ships were dead and those who were still alive were seriously ill with fever, vomiting and pain. As the disease progressed, victims became covered with black boils, which gave the disease the name "The Black Death".
During the time of Edward I (1239-1307), according to "Yorkshire Past and Present", Yorkshire towns had already been trading wool with Scandinavia for several hundred years and the foundations had also been laid for our West Yorkshire woollen towns to trade with the merchants of Northern France and Belgium. The Black Death may have originated in central Asia, but it spread quickly from southern Europe, through France and Belgium and, by June of 1348, it had arrived in England and was passed from there to Scandinavia.
The bubonic plague is now believed to have spread via fleas living on rats, and was identified by the appearance of the " buboes" or black swellings in the armpit and groin, the size of which could vary from that of a small egg to an apple. Once buboes appeared on the body, the victim would probably have had around three days left to live – as few as three in ten sufferers are thought to have survived the disease.
The pneumonic plague was even more deadly, with virtually everyone contracting it succumbing in a matter of days. Unlike the bubonic form of the disease, the pneumonic variant was spread through direct contact with the afflicted.
The septicaemic plague, though less common, was also a feature of this period, spread by fleas which caused the bacteria entering the bloodstream and causing a blood poisoning, which caused rapid death. This also affected livestock. The mortality rate was 99-100%.
The conventional theory of why so many died in the "Black Death" is that a virulent outbreak of bubonic plague was most likely combined with a strain of pneumonic plague. For our West Yorkshire ancestors:
With no effective remedy, the suffering population could only turn to their religion. The rich left for the country in the hope of escaping contagion…but the plagues would not be stopped before they had killed up to half of the inhabitants of Yorkshire.Bulmer's Gazetteer (1892)
For the peasants who had survived the outbreaks of the plague, life became slightly improved for a while. There was abandoned land to be taken over and those who worked hard could make a living for their families. The peasants demanded higher wages from their overlords. However, in 1350, the Statute of Labourers was passed, compelling all unemployed people to take work at the 1346 rate and those who refused were severely punished.
The consequence of the various plagues that had decimated the population was that there were insufficient healthy people to look after the land. As a result, in 1348 and 1349, international trade plummeted. This presented a problem for the Lords of the Manors, whose income had plummeted…the surviving poor were in a strong position to demand better wages and working conditions.
But the ruling classes retaliated by refusing to pay increased wages and introducing harsh penalties to those who refused to labour.
All of this contributed to the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, when a later generation of workers became aware that they could command more for their labour and enjoy a better standard of living if only the economy was allowed to develop naturally.Yorkshire Past and Present
There was a respite from the plague during the 1350s. This may have co-incided with a downturn in temperatures, as a period of climate change known as the "Little Ice Age" began. Cooler weather did not favour the bacteria that caused the disease.
However, from 1360-1362, a second outbreak occurred. Fortunately this was not as devastating as the first, perhaps due to the immunity of those who had not been infected the first time around or had survived the illness. It was nevertheless damaging in another way. This plague was called the "Children's Plague" as children under ten were the hardest hit.
Another epidemic of plague hit Yorkshire in 1374, with local outbreaks throughout the 15th Century.
Effect on Population Figures
The Black Death pandemic is estimated to have killed about a third of the world's population and up to 50% in Yorkshire. After the additional effects of the Children's and other outbreaks of plague, the population of the villages of Yorkshire did not rise significantly for a century and Yorkshire's population took over two hundred years to recover to its pre-1348 level.
Later outbreaks – Bubonic Plague
The bubonic and other plagues hit villages, towns and cities across the land at intervals for centuries. The poor continued to be the plague's easiest victims.
The physicians, whose purpose was to treat this disease, knew little more than those whom they were treating. They did, however, understand one thing…it seemed to spread so very quickly and easily from person to person.
The doctors tried all kinds of remedies to try to ward off the spread of the disease…poultices of onion and butter, sprinklings of dried frog, arsenic, floral compounds and, of course, copious bloodletting…the more close to death the patient became, the more drastic became the application of remedies…but nothing worked. Bodies piled up and whole families were decimated.
As the death toll rose, funeral processions were abandoned and victims were buried quickly in mass graves or on funeral pyres. Some sole survivors of stricken families were driven to suicide in desperation over the loss of all their loved ones and often their means of support. Eventually, only quarantine had any effect in slowing the spread of the disease, plus the seasonal reduction in deaths as the cold winter weather took hold.
West Yorkshire Records of Plague
In Birstall during the year 1587-8, there were 111 burials as compared with an average of 36 burials in the previous 5 years and in the succeeding 5 years.
The plague visited Dewsbury and Ossett in the 1593 and entries in the Dewsbury Parish Register for 1593 show that Jane Wilson and her husband were both buried in Ossett 'of the plague' on the 18th December 1593. Christopher Denton of Sowood Farm (Ossett) died of the plague on the 18th July 1593 and was buried at his own house. His sons, Christopher (23) and William (18) died 13 days later. On the 3rd August, Alice his wife and their children, Isabel (21), James (15), Thomas (11), Margaret (4), all died of the plague and were buried at 'Denton's House' (? Did the Dentons' 19 year old daughter Elizabeth survive? She is not on the register of deaths below.)
Extracts from the Dewsbury Register 1593-4 show these deaths and others:
Christopher Denton, elder, buryed of the plage the xviij daye, at his owne howse.
John Craven buryed of the plage the xxx daye, in the leighes.
Christopher Dentonn yonger buryed of the plage the xxxi daye.
Willme Dentonn buryed of the plage the same daye at theyr father's howse.
The monethe of August, 1593.
Isabell Dentonn buryed of the plage at home the third day.
James Denton buryed of the plage at home the same day.
Thomas Dentonn buryed of the plage at home the same day.
Alice Dentonn buried of the plage athome the same day.
Margrett Dentonn buried of the plage at home the same day.
Joanye Brouke buryed the same day at Denton's of the plage.
Ann Ward buryed at Denton's howse of the plage the same day.
Alice Hudsonn buryed of the plage in the leighes the viij day.
Alice _Sowell buryedof the plage at Denton's howse the x day.
Agnes Ward buryed of the plage at Denton's howse the same day.
Uxor Craven, Widow, dyed of the plage and buryed at home in the leighes the xx day.
John Craven, a yonge childe, buried of the plage in the leighes the same day.
Agnes Hudsoun buriedof ye plage at home in the leighes the xx day.
Thomas Sykes buryed at his own house at Sowode Green the xxvij day.
The monethe of September, Ano Dni 1593.
John Boothe, buryed of the plage at Denton's house the xxi day.
The monethe of November.
Robert Grayre buryed the xxv daye, at night.
The monethe of December 1593:
Jane Wilsonn buryed at Ossett the xviij day of the plage at home.
Uxor Pickeringe buried at Ossett the same (18th) daye of the plage.
Ann Forrestburyed the xix daye of the plage.
Ano: Reginæ Elizabetha tricesimosexto (36th year of Elizabeth's reign)
Agnes, wyfe of George Nayler, buryed of the plage the xvii daye at night here
The bubonic plague killed many people in the Wakefield area in 1625. In 1631, 131 parishoners died in Mirfield and it was written that "the entry of deaths from the plague occupy two and a half pages of the parish register".
In August of that year plague was suspected at Wakefield and orders were given to subject goods imported into the town to a "plague-trial". The worst outbreak at Birstall took place in 1642-3, where there were 158 burial entries for the 7 months that were recorded, as compared to 73 for 12 months of 1641-42 and 88 for 12 months of 1643-44. It is thought that the clerk himself died and that is why the deaths for the remaining 5 months were not recorded.
In 1643, there was also an outbreak of plague in Dewsbury. The plague broke out in Leeds, in 1644, where it raged for a year and 20% of its population died. Many of the inhabitants fled from the town, to cabins hastily built on Woodhouse Moor and other open grounds, to escape the ravages of the disease and some cabins erected outside the town, on Quarry Hill, gave their name to another spot used for this purpose, thereafter called Cabin Closes. Plague troughs were built on the Chapeltown Road. The inhabitants threw their money into the water-filled troughs, to pay for the provisions to be brought from the country, so the infected and the well need not touch each other. The (Leeds) parish register shows:
March 11, 1644-45, was buried Alice, wife of John Musgrave of Vicar Lane. This woman was the first that was suspected to die of the plague. There were buried 131 persons in August, 1644, before the plague was perceived.
July 2, 1645, the Old Church doors were shut up, and prayers and sermon only at the New Church, and so no names of burials to be certified, but a few at St. John's, until Mr. Saxton came to be vicar, when prayers and sermon began again.
The inventory of deaths, from 12th March 1644 to 25th December 1645, amounted to 1,325 persons. The disease raged most violently in Vicar Lane, and the Close Yards adjoining, from which several were buried in the Vicar's Croft, and others in North Hall orchard. The plague was also devastating in Marsh Lane, the Calls, Call Lane, Lower Briggate, and Mill Hill. The greatest number of deaths occurred in the warm summer months and the monthly recorded number of dead had reduced to about 10% by mid-winter. It was stated that, at the time when the plague was most malignant, in the month of June, "the air was thick, very warm, and so infectious that dogs and cats, mice and rats, died…also several birds in their flight over the town dropped down dead". [From Yorkshire Past and Present]
After Leeds, the plague moved on to Wakefield in 1645, when 245 people were reported to have died in and around the town. Possibly the disease was brought into the area by soldiers fighting in the Civil War.
The Great Plague of 1665
The most famous outbreak of the plague, in the 17th century, was the one that struck down inhabitants of London and most other parts of the country in 1665-1666. DNA evidence from the remains of plague victims, recently excavated at a Crossrail site in London, has confirmed it to have been bubonic plague.
The effects of this outbreak were widespread and, in Yorkshire, it was recorded that Mirfield lost nine-score persons (180). It was also brought into York, where stern measures were taken to keep the infected quarantined and there were consequently few deaths inside the city walls. Plague "raged at Bradford" in 1665 and the 1665 outbreak also affected Dewsbury and Ossett. It was reported that a family had fled their home in Ossett to another village in the Parish (of Dewsbury) where they were incarcerated in a wooden cabin for three weeks to contain the spread of the disease. An Order was given for the Parish of Dewsbury to support the family until the danger of the plague was past.
© Christine Widdall 2018