Europe experienced a decline in population, prior to the first outbreak of the plague, caused by a famine between the years, 1314-1320. Colin Platt has studied the effects of the plague, specifically the mortality rate of the population inhabiting English cities and port towns leading him to believe that, "It was the arrival of bubonic plague in the autumn of 1348—not the progressive curbing of population growth from about 1300, not the famines and murrains of the agrarian crisis of 1315-22 which slowed it further—that ‘swallowed up many of the good things of civilization and wiped them out.’"[1]

The plague broke out in England in 1348 claiming many lives on its initial visit, and returned in 1361. The inscription on the church tower at Ashwell calls the second plague the "pestis puerorum or mortalite des enfants" or the plauge of the children.[2] One of the earliest and best accounts of the plague was recorded by Giovanni Boccaccio in the Decameron in which he reported that, "Over a hundred thousand human lives were extinguished within the walls of the city of Florence [alone]."[3] Boccaccio might have overestimated the number of deceased inhabitants but what concerned him and many people was what to do with the multitude of dead bodies; hundreds of dead bodies laid rotting in the streets without proper burial because graveyards were overflowing.

Survivors were able to quickly transcend their social status. Economic post-plague recovery was made possible by those who quickly filled the positions the deceased left behind. For example, in the city of Halesowen "fully 82% of the plague-vacated holdings were taken up by new tenants within the year. Most of those tenants were young and locally born, the biggest single group (42%) being the sons and daughters of the dead. For these young people the plague presented an unlooked-for opportunity to rise at once into the privileged tenant class."[4] As optimistic as rapid post-plague rebuilding might have seemed, warnings of mortality and damnation rang from the pulpits into the streets. The reoccuring outbreaks of the plague reminded survivors that all earthly delights will inevitably come to an end. Images in churches functioned to remind people of their own perishability. One example of a theme existing prior to the outbreak of the plague but made more popular as a consequently is seen specifically at the Seething church in Norfolk in the fourteenth century cycle of the Life of Christ. The cycle shows Three Living and Three Dead, " ‘As you are now,’ the Dead warn the living in this ancient legend, ‘so once were we. As we are now, so shall ye be.’"[5]

The plague effected small villages, nunneries, and monasteries harshly, but it hardly effected the landed nobility. According to McFarlane, a contemporary historian, "the death rate in 1349 (including natural wastage) was only 13%, or considerably less than half the recorded loss of other classes."[6] Nevertheless, the effects of the plague would be deeply felt by the nobility in their parish churches and after the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381.

 

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[1] Colin Platt, King Death: The Black Death and its Aftermath, (Toronto, 1996), p. 177.

[2] Platt, p. 1.

[3] James Hurt and Brian Wilkie, ed., "The Decameron," Literature of the Western World, (New York, 1988), p. 1830.

[4] Platt, p. 10.

[5] Platt, p. 151.

[6] Platt quoting McFarlane, The nobility of Later Medieval England (Oxford, 1973, p.143), p. 49.