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The Black Death in England c1348-50

“Christian men and women learnt to live with plague. Another thing they learnt was how to
die of it” (Colin Platt 1996, vii).

When the Black Death and its aftermath are studied in detail, few statements seem more

The Black Death spread from Western Asia through the Middle East, North Africa and finally,
Europe, between 1346 and 1353, “causing catastrophic losses of population everywhere”
(Benedictow 2004, 3). Benedictow describes it as the “greatest-ever demographic disaster”
which, many centuries later in Europe, became known by historians, as the Black Death -
from the Latin atra mors; such was its impact on society, religion and folklore (Aberth 2001,
2; Benedictow 2004, 3).

Although the Black Death occurred over a relatively short period in England (c.1348-50), its
influence on subsequent generations cannot be ignored (Bailey 1998; Dyer 2003; James
1998, 1). The Black Death is generally considered to have entered England through the
Dorset seaport of Melcombe Regis (now Weymouth), during May or June of 1348, spreading
rapidly throughout England and Ireland, primarily by sea trade or navigable waterways and,
at a slower rate, over land (Benedictow 2004, 126-30; Theilmann and Cate 2007, 372-3). The
contemporary accounts of the chronicler Henry Knighton (c. 1337-96) - an Augustinian
Canon who survived the plague - however, suggests the Black Death may have entered
England through Southampton and reaching London via trade routes through Winchester
(James 1999b, 9; 2007, 96; Theilmann and Cate 2007, 373). Where ever the plague entered
England, it is most likely to have been through a southern seaport with trade links to France
(Theilmann and Cate 2007, 373). It is very difficult to come up with a definite mortality rate
for Hampshire but James hints that it was over 50% (James 1998, 21-3). Benedictow’s
compendium of work suggests the average death-toll for England was nearer 62.5%, during
the pandemic, and up to 66.67% by the end of the 15th century, due to recurrent plagues
(Benedictow 2004, 383). It is also believed that the Black Death killed indiscriminately,

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regardless of the sex of the individual; though it appears the elderly and frail were more
susceptible to the disease (S. N. DeWitte and Wood 2008, 1436; S. DeWitte 2009, 231;
Waldron 2001, 107). It is estimated that the population did not replenish fully, until well into
the eighteenth century (Bailey 1998, 223; Dyer 2003, 233; James 1998, 1; Kitsikopoulos
2002; Van-Bavel 2002).

Following the Black Death, the population of Winchester shrank to around 7,750
inhabitants, by AD1400 (Derek Keene 1985a, 367) and 7,710 by 1417 (James 2007, 97), from
an estimated population of around 11,625, in 1300 (James 2007, 97; Derek Keene 1985a,
368); thus, making the average population density inside the city walls, around 29 people
per acre and as much as 81 per acre in the city centre. Dyer suggests that this presents a
greater density than modern British cities (Dyer 1989, 189). It seems strange to have such a
large population in a city only fifty years after the Black Death but people did migrate back
into towns and cities to work (Dyer 1986, 39; James 1998, 7; Van-Bavel 2002, 24). This
would explain the rise in Winchester’s population and the loss of some rural settlements,
such as Newtown, and manorial sites, such as Faccombe Netherton. This, according to
Keene, also focused wealth back into the city (Derek Keene 1985a, 82-4). Unfortunately, it
has not been possible to calculate the population immediately following the first visitation
of the plague in 1348-50; only in 1400, by which time the migration of rural folk had re-
populated the city, and recurrent plagues had also influenced the demography of
Hampshire (Dyer 1986, 39). Patrick Ottaway suggests towns, in general, seem to have been
less affected by population loss than rural areas, as many migrated from the countryside to
fill the gaps left by those who died; although many towns did decline, as seen in the
archaeological record (Patrick Ottaway 1996, 209).

The Archaeology of the Black Death

The archaeological investigation of burial practices, during the Black Death, can help shed
light on mortality rates and religious practice, but perhaps more significant to this thesis,
hierarchical divisions visible in the graves and pits (S. N. DeWitte and Wood 2008, 1436). It
has always been notoriously difficult to find archaeological evidence for the Black Death
(Antoine 2008, 108); although, in recent years, sites such as the Royal Mint in East

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Smithfield, London, have been partially excavated (Hawkins 1990, 637-42). This remains the
only known Black Death cemetery, in the City (Hawkins 1990, 637; Margerison and Knüsel
2002, 134), and they are also extremely rare across Europe: But there exists both
documentary and archaeological evidence for their use (S. N. DeWitte and Wood 2008,
1436). The excavation of one, conducted by the Museum of London’s Department of
Greater London Archaeology, between June 1986 and June 1988 (Hawkins 1990, 638),
revealed two pits - 67m and 125m in length - running north to south and averaging 2 metres
wide, at a depth of 1.25m. Although both of the pits were densely packed with skeletal
remains (Hawkins 1990, 638; P. Ottaway 1992, 209), both Duncan Hawkins and Horrox
explain that the bodies were still buried with respect, indicated by the west-east orientation
of the articulated skeletons, averaging 5 bodies deep (Hawkins 1990, 638; Horrox 1999,
105). No grave markers, graveyard structures or boundaries were found in the excavated
areas (Hawkins 1990, 640).

Not all contemporary burials on this site were mass graves; some had been interred in
coffins, shrouds or buried with ashes, while others had large coin groups buried with them.
However, Duncan Hawkins suggests there is no significance in distribution, associated with
these practices, nor can he infer any relationship to status (Hawkins 1990, 640). This would
appear to be in direct opposition to the contemporary social structure, demarcated by the
tripartite house plan (Edward Roberts 2003, 126-7), (see Chapter 2.3.2). The archaeology
could not shed any light on the chronologies of those interred in individual graves,
compared to those placed in mass pits, as no time differences could be inferred by analysing
the grave cuts, or fills and there were no stratigraphic indicators to suggest a time sequence
(Hawkins 1990, 640). Hawkins cites that there is no distinguishable difference between
these examples and late medieval graves in general and, that if it were not for documents
pertaining to the sole use of this cemetery for plague victims, it would have been difficult to
prove (Ibid.). This, he suggests, is the reason why it is hard to find any archaeological
evidence of the Black Death in other cemeteries, as there are no differentiating factors
(Hawkins 1990, 640-1).

However, the age distribution of the Royal Mint cemetery burials can give some indication,
as to how indiscriminately the Black Death killed. Table 13 illustrates that the majority of
plague victims were mainly, males, between the ages of 26 and 45 (Kausmally 2007, online).

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Andrew Chamberlain suggests, this is similar to what would be expected from a battlefield
cemetery, with the majority of deaths occurring amongst the fittest (Chamberlain 2006,
124). This, however, is the opposite of what would be expected in a normal attritional
cemetery, where the very young, old and infirm have a higher mortality rate (Chamberlain
2006, 124; Margerison and Knüsel 2002, 138). If this demographic is typical of the age of
mortality found in Hampshire during the Black Death, it is clear to see how the working
population would have been vastly reduced by the pandemic.

Table 28 A graph showing the age at death derived from skeletal evidence at the Black
Death cemetery at East Smithfield, London (Kausmally 2007, online)

An excavation of the Green, adjacent to Winchester Cathedral, was undertaken by Martin

Biddle, between 1962 and 1969 (Kjolbye-Biddle 1975, 87). The team uncovered a burial
ground for Cathedral Monks, known as ‘Paradise’, and was “used”, according to Roger
Quirk, “from the building of the Norman Cathedral until 1400” (Quirk 1965, 89). The burial
ground showed no evidence for any Black Death mass graves and, instead, had various
grave goods deposited with the burials, including a body, “shrouded in cloth of gold” (Ibid.,
90-1). Birthe Kjolbye-Biddle cites the methodology, as being more concerned with recording
the remains of Anglo-Saxon churches, of the Old and New Minsters and, less with the
cemetery, due to financial and time restraints (Kjolbye-Biddle 1975, 87 & 91-2). Therefore,
she suggests the excavation of the cemetery, and its subsequent recording, lacked “strict
stratigraphic principles” (Ibid., 92), resulting in a lack of dating evidence to prove, or
disprove any increase in burials between 1348 and 1350.

This illustrates the difficulty faced by archaeologists when trying to investigate death rates
and practices, associated with such a catastrophe (Antoine 2008, 108). What can be seen
though is the effort medieval people seemed to have made in maintaining the social
structure, even during such trying times. If it is assumed that burial practices would have
been the same in Hampshire during the pandemic, as in London, then the significance of
respecting the social hierarchy can be analysed against the data collected during this thesis.
The data shows that house plans did not change during the Black Death; therefore, the
social hierarchy inferred by the tripartite plan (see page 94) was a constant throughout the
period of study (1250-1530). It can then be argued that the collective dynamic of human

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interaction, in life and death, can be seen in both the archaeological and historical record
and, would have been of profound importance to late medieval society.

Attitudes toward death - its depiction in art and architecture

To summarise Platt’s examination of the evidence of change from the decorated to the
Perpendicular style within churches around the mid 14th century; he suggests that they no
longer needed to focus on expanding the body of the church in order to accommodate a
growing congregation, but rather to build in order to accommodate great monuments,
house chantries and effigies (often incorporating a skeletal representation known as a transi
from the Latin transpire - meaning to pass away) (Colin Platt 1996, 137-75). This, according
to Aberth, was done in order to provide a means for the living to pray for the souls of the
departed (Aberth 2001, 182-3). English tombs, before the Black Death, often had angels
alongside an idealised effigy of the diseased, perhaps depicting how the person would look
after resurrection; known as gisants. After the Black Death, single (common amongst the
merchant class and gentry), or two-tiered (a luxury afforded only by the rich) transi tombs
became the norm. Aberth sees these tomb types as a preparation for the apocalypse rather
than an appeal for prayer (Aberth 2001, 229-31). These new “memorials” were funded by
wealthy patrons to ensure their prosperity in the afterlife. This can be interpreted as people
accepting their mortality, with a switch from preparing for death to protecting the soul after
death (Colin Platt 1996, Ch 9). Lindley adds to this argument by saying that the switch, from
the decorated to perpendicular style, is a reflection of simplicity in design, enforced by the
scarcity of skilled tradesmen, post 1350 (Lindley 1996, 129). Lindley also observes this
transition of styles as a universal change, replacing the regional differences, in previous
styles. It can be argued that the workforce had to have greater mobility, in order to carry
out and finish the work, halted by the pestilence (Lindley 1996, 129).

Aberth describes many of the great Romanesque cathedrals, in France, as bearing

depictions of the apocalypse and images of the Last Judgement, with inscriptions from the
book of Revelation (Aberth 2001, 183). In England, the Last Judgement of Christ was often
painted above the chancel arch of many parish churches during the 14th century, with
images of the dead rising to have their souls weighed, then being admitted into paradise or

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rejected into Hell (Aberth 2001, 184). These images rarely survive today as they were
painted over by the Victorians. A few examples exist in Hampshire, listed below, with those
pre Black Death depicting various religious scenes as opposed to those following the plague,
focussing on death and the weighing of souls;

 St John’s Winchester (1280-5) (Borenius 1932, 178-9; Pevsner and Lloyd 1967, 692)
o Paintings depicting various saints
 St Hubert’s, Idsworth dated to 1330 (Pevsner and Lloyd 1967, 307)
o This is thought to depict the life of John the Baptist and does not focus on
 St Peter’s, Hurstbourne Tarrant, mid 14th century (Pevsner and Lloyd 1967, 302)
o “The three quick and the three dead” does depict death following the Black
 All Saint’s, Catherington, mid 14th century (Pevsner and Lloyd 1967, 158)
o This image clearly depicts St Michael weighing souls in the aftermath of the
Black Death

There also appears to be a change in attitudes, throughout society, to an increased privacy

and simplicity that is played out in the architecture. For instance, the demarcation of living
and social space, within the home, is reflected by the building of ceiled rooms and the move
away from the open hall house which Dyer suggests, “reached its ultimate development in
about 1500” (Dyer 1998, 298). This can be seen as a desire, in part, to separate themselves
from the dirt of the streets, servants and animals. Benedictow argues that both the rural
and urban peasant classes were affected more than the upper classes, due to the type of
housing available to them. The majority of houses built, especially in central southern and
south-eastern England, were of timber-framed construction, with wattle and daub infill
panels and thatched roofs (see Chapter 4). He suggests that these panels offered very little
resistance to the rats and, this, coupled with unsanitary conditions, amplified by
cohabitation with livestock and sleeping directly on an earthen floor, with nothing more
than hay as bedding, would have provided the rats with a suitable habitat to breed and
spread disease (Benedictow 2004, 348).

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Ottaway writes of Edward III’s visit to York, in 1332, that the King “ordered the streets to be
cleaned, on account of ‘the abominable smell abounding in the said city more than in any
other city in the realm from dung and manure and other filth and dirt wherewith the streets
and lanes are filled and obstructed’” (P. Ottaway 1992, 209). Benedictow also suggests that
Edward wrote to the mayor of London, in 1349, to complain about the filth within the
capital. He followed this, in 1361, with a writ to the major and sheriffs of London, in the face
of the second outbreak of the plague (Benedictow 2004, 3-4). Dyer goes on to suggest that
the resulting roof spaces, formed by ceiling the hall, provided accommodation for servants
and, perhaps, more interestingly for this thesis, apprentices away from the main family,
improving sanitation and separating humans from one another (Dyer 1998, 298).

Attitudes toward death practices also changed. Prior to the 1350s, deathbeds were public
occasions where family and friends took their turn to watch over the dying and note any
change in symptoms. This culminated in a priest administering the last rites and the journey
being marked by the ringing of a hand bell (Horrox 1999, 97). Subsequent to the plague, fear
of infection lead to loved ones abandoning the sick, leaving them to die alone. The Bishop of
Bath and Wells decreed that, in times of emergency, if no priest was available the last rites
and confession could be heard by “a layman, and, if a man is not at hand, then to a woman”
(Hassall 1962, 297), for faith, not tradition, was the important element in avoiding purgatory
(Horrox 1994, 271-2). The implications of this are profound within a society that has its class
and gender divisions defined so eloquently in its architecture (Matthew H. Johnson 1990,
254). If evidence is sought for a “building in fear?” hypothesis, then the breaking down of
class, gender and spatial divisions during the Black Death must be visible in the architecture,
even if it only exists in the “nightmares of the living” (Ibid.). If this unnerving of the social
framework is visible within the timber-framed structures of the second half of the 14th
century, then this thesis aims to uncover them. The following Section will provide such
evidence within the arts of the period.

These change in attitudes can also be observed in the art of the period (Lindley 1996, 126).
Philip Lindley suggests that there is a profound change, in both style and taste, in Florentine
and Sienese painting, following the Black Death, characterised by a distinct paradoxical
definition of space, in both architectural and artistic organisation and lay out. He further
posits, the equilibrium of the earlier paintings was substituted with an uneasy tension

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between the planar and spatial aspects of composition (Lindley 1996, 126). Lindley
examines the implications on several art forms, including manuscript painting which,
immediately before the Black Death, had reached its “highest point of its perfection”
(Lindley 1996, 126). Aberth adds that, during the 13th century, a school of manuscript
illuminators emerged producing “beautifully illuminated editions of the Apocalypse of St.
John” (Aberth 2001, 185-6). He suggests this was in response to an Abbot, named Joachim,
who predicted that the apocalyptic age began in 1260. He suggests it was brought to
England by Richard the Lionheart (1189-99), during the third crusade (1189–1192) (Aberth
2001, 185-6). This is important as it illustrates the thoughts of people, at the time when
famine, war and plague visited them and, consequently their acceptance of death. Another
interesting change in style can be seen in monumental brasses that changed from being
beautifully adorned, with complex calligraphy, to a more rigid and regularised style (Lindley
1996, 129). To summarise Lindley’s narrative on “The English perspective”, regarding this
change in artistic styles, he suggests that prior to the Black Death many schools had
developed regional styles in art, masonry, sculpting and stained glass work -etc. These were
hastily replaced with a more simplistic, spatial and universal approach easily learnt and
reproduced. Clearly, this is a direct result of the loss of skilled artisans and tradesmen during
the mid fourteenth century (Lindley 1996, 128-31).

Haddlesey, R 2008. "The Black Death". British Medieval Architecture. (online)


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