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Plague and The Black Death 1348: What Was It Like?

Katharine is a lifelong student of history and an admitted Anglophile. She has studied in Scotland and England.

What Was It Like To Live During the Black Death?

(public domain image by Arnold Bocklin)

(public domain image by Arnold Bocklin)

What was it like to live through the terrible Black Death, otherwise known as the Bubonic Plague, in England 1348? In this first wave of the epidemic to reach England, up to half the population perished. Surely it was a time of terror and desperation for the people who faced it with no knowledge or understanding of how or why it was happening. Travel back in time to England 1348 and experience the horror and helplessness that gripped the common folk during the horrific event called The Black Death. Discover how the plague spread and how it killed, as well as how it changed forever the lives of those who survived.

Step Back in Time ...

The year is 1348, early July. You are a peasant, living in the town of Yeovil in Somersetshire, England. You are considered to be prosperous, by comparison to most of your neighbors, since you live in a house with two large rooms and a fireplace with a stone chimney in between. Your relative wealth comes from your modest sheep farm, where you raise several dozen sheep and sell the fleece at market every spring.

Of course, you have rent to pay to the local priory who owns the land where you graze your sheep, and a portion of your fleece profits must also be paid toward taxes. But the quality of fleece that your sheep produce is fine, and you routinely fetch a good price for it at market. Your family has a plot of land behind your house to grow vegetables in season, and you usually keep a pig and a few chickens to supplement your diet of mostly course bread and "pottage", being a thick hot soup of grain such as barley, flavored with onion and sometimes containing turnip or other root vegetables which can be stored fairly well, year-round.

You Are There: The Story of The Black Death in England

(Adriaen Brouwer 1605-1638 - peasants drinking)

(Adriaen Brouwer 1605-1638 - peasants drinking)

You are married and have four healthy children who contribute by tending the flock and helping with the farming and every other chore and task that needs to be done on a daily basis. You attend church every Sunday, and work hard the rest of the week. But your family is thriving, your home is cozy and warm, and life is good in Yeovil.

How did the Black Death start?

One evening, as the family gathers for a dinner of horse bread (a multi grained, hard bread, baked with bits of odd vegetables), weak ale and a few chunks of goat cheese, your eldest son announces that he has heard a frightening tale while fetching the cheese in the market street. A young man of about 20 years was also at the goat keeper's stall and had asked if he might spend the night in the shed behind the man's house. He went on to explain that he was a traveler from Weymouth, a port city to the south, and had left there to escape a horrible illness that was ravaging the area.

(photo by Mihael Grmek)

(photo by Mihael Grmek)

The goat keeper and your son had listened with horror as the young man described the calamity that had befallen his city. A merchant ship from France, just across the channel, had docked at Melcomb, a port just to the north of Weymouth. Among the sailors who disembarked and spilled into the streets in search of an ale house was a man who didn't make it as far as the main street that passed behind the docks. He collapsed, and was dragged into a nearby rope maker's shop where he was laid on a small bed of straw, covered with a wool blanket, in the corner of the shop.

The man was moaning, and beads of sweat stood out on his forehead. The rope maker set a candle on a small table by the man, and immediately noticed a large swelling on the man's neck. It was red and angry looking, about the diameter of a silver coin. Removing the man's tunic, the rope maker saw that similar swellings the size of large eggs were bulging from under the man's arms, only these were beginning to turn dark, mottled with purple and black.

(photo by Nigel Mykura)

(photo by Nigel Mykura)

The kindly rope maker did his best to help the man, holding his head so that he could sip ale and warm broth, and keeping him covered with a wool blanket. But by midnight the man began vomiting blood. He was now sweating profusely, and shaking with chills. The rope maker and his apprentice dragged the straw bed closer to the fire, and removed the heavy blanket, only to find that the man's chest was covered with dark splotches under the skin.

By morning, his fingernail beds had gone black, and his breathing was labored. Mid-day found the man comatose and unresponsive, and the apprentice was sent for a priest. The priest arrived, performed last rites over the stricken man, and left. Just as dusk fell the wretched man seemed to struggle to take in a deep, shaking breath. As he let it go, his chest fell. Then he lay still and silent. He was dead.

What Were the Symptoms of the Black Death?

The young man in the Yeovil goat keepers shop then went on to relate how there were soon more who came down with the strange illness. Just like the sailor, they developed swellings in the neck, armpits and groin areas. As these painful swellings turned from red to purple and then black, the victims became more and more ill, sweating, shaking with chills and vomiting blood, just as the sailor had done. Most who sickened died within two days time, a few lasted as long as three or four days in agony and terror.

The young man from Weymouth was unmarried, so after both his parents and his younger sister had succumbed to the mysterious illness, he took what he could carry from the house that he could sell, and set off from the infected port city toward the interior countryside.

You listen with increasing dread to your son's retelling of the horrible tale, and recall that, some months earlier, a wool merchant from the Netherlands who had come to purchase wool from England reported that he too had heard tales of this same sickness, ravaging the towns and countryside in Italy and France. It was thought that the pestilence had come through the Italian port of Messina from a ship that had stopped at many ports on the Black Sea. You had prayed that the sickness would not reach England. Now you knew that it had.

The Great Mortality of 1348-1350


What came to be known as the Black Death, so called because of the black swellings that marked the onset of the illness, did indeed arrive in Europe from Asia via the port of Messina in Sicily. Aboard the ships that arrived in October of 1347 were dozens of dead and dying sailors. The local authorities quickly issued an order that the ships leave the harbor, but it was too late. For the moment the first ropes had been thrown up on the docks, the rats that infested the ship had begun to scurry along the ropes onto the docks, along the piers, and out into the unsuspecting town. These rats carried fleas which were infected with a bacillus later labeled Yersinia pestis. As rats were practically everywhere in the medieval towns of Europe, the infected fleas were carried throughout the cities and towns and out to the rural villages.

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How did the plague spread?

People at that time seldom bathed or changed clothing, and they lived in perpetual squalor, especially in the larger towns and cities, where human waste and other refuse was routinely tossed into the streets. This created a rich environment for the rats, who feasted on the rotting food, and then slinked into homes and barns to hide in straw and under blankets where their fleas could easily transfer to human beings. Normally, a flea bite was a common enough occurrence and hardly more than an annoyance to medieval townsfolk or peasants. But the fleas carrying yersinia pestis in their gut would regurgitate the bacillus into their human host with one bite, dooming the victim to a rapid and horrible end.

Knowledge of micro organisms was non-existent in the 1300's, and the suffering people had no idea that the fleas carried by rats were the source of the pestilence that was ravaging the population. They realized that close proximity to infected people was a risk for contracting it yourself, but did not understand why.

Religion was at the center of society at that time, and many attributed the affliction to a judgement from God. However, it was plain to the people that the disease spread, somehow, from person to person. Whole villages were quarantined, once the sickness appeared among the residents, in an attempt to stop the spread. But rats, obviously, did not adhere to any quarantine, and the plague raged on. There were many incidents of husband abandoning wife and even parents leaving their children behind, alone to die the agonizing death of the pestilence without help or comfort.

Part 4 of The History Channel's "The Plague"

As the people were deeply religious, they were troubled, as the illness spread and multiplied, that many victims were dying without receiving last rites, and were having to be buried en mass, in unhallowed ground. Dispensations were issued by the clergy so that people could confess their sins to one an other in the absence of a priest, and the few priests who had not succumbed to the plague were kept busy, sanctifying the huge pits that were dug to hold the bodies of its victims.

Many believed that the pestilence marked the end of the world, and even those who did not come down with it left their fields un-worked and their animals untended in the belief that the end was near. Some swarmed the churches and chapels, praying for salvation, while others gathered in ale houses and simply drank until their money ran out.

The Black Death, at that time called simply "the pestilence" or "the great mortality", mowed down city after city, town after town, village after village, leaving anywhere from 1/3 to over half the inhabitants dead. Some villages were entirely abandoned, never to be reclaimed, while the larger cities often saw a greater percentage of their inhabitants wiped out, due to the increased filth in which they lived, which fostered the rat population. This diminution of available laborers, however, eventually worked to the benefit of the peasant, and helped to re-shape the structure of medieval society.

You Are There: The Aftermath of the Plague


The year is 1350, mid-January. The pestilence that had ravaged the country has, at last, abated. Three of your four children were among its victims, and lie buried in a mass grave on the outskirts of town. You pray every night that they have been accepted into heaven, for by the time your children fell ill, there were so few priest left alive at the priory, that none was able to come out to perform last rites. One after another, you watched them sicken. First the painful boils appeared, then the sweating and chills, the vomiting of blood, the hideous black splotches, and finally the welcome release of death. Only your one son, who also did fall ill, miraculously recovered and survives.

Your flock of sheep has survived as well, though it has thinned some, due to your inability to tend to it while your family suffered and your town reeled from the great mortality. You are more fortunate that most villagers, as you were able to buy seed for crops with the income from your fleeces last spring, and you have several barrels of root vegetables, apples and pears set by for the long winter months.

Benefits After the Black Death

Half the population of Yeovil has perished. The market street is empty, as most who are left have turned to direct bartering of goods and services to survive. Many houses are abandoned, their doors hanging open and thumping against the outer walls in the winter wind, after having been scavenged for anything of value, once the bodies of the occupants had been removed. The priory is now home to only a few priests and the prior himself, who was among the survivors. Church services are sparsely attended. Many in the town have lost faith in a benevolent God, and others resent the power of the church to regulate what is left of their lives.

Many of the younger, stronger townsfolk have left the village on foot, hearing that there are good wages available in neighboring areas that were so hard hit by the plague that laborers are in short supply. The local lords and priories needed their animals tended and their crops planted and harvested, and were willing to offer wages in addition to lodging and sometimes even food to attract people from other localities. With fewer left to do the work, it is evident that the life of the common peasant may actually benefit from the shocking loss of life.

Hope For the Future After the Plague

(photo by Roger Davies)

(photo by Roger Davies)

If your flock does well through the winter, you are hopeful that spring will bring another good harvest of fleece. Even with the rents and taxes due from your profits, you are anticipating that you will have enough left over to purchase some lambs to increase your flock, and perhaps hire a peasant to tend them for you, so that you can focus on your food crops. The farm next door lay fallow in the past year, as the farmer and his family all succumbed to the first wave of the plague in 1348. You have a mind to get permission from the priory to cultivate it. Perhaps you will be able to earn enough silver coins to pay for an education at the priory for your one remaining son.

And so, life goes on. Those who have survived the great mortality begin to see the silver lining of a very dark cloud, and before long the structure of society will begin to shift in favor of the peasant. And in the memories of all, the horror and great tragedy that has befallen them will remain.... until all have passed away and only the dreadful tale of the Black Death of 1347 - 1350 remains.


© 2016 Katharine L Sparrow

Comments Appreciated!

Katharine L Sparrow (author) from Massachusetts, USA on March 20, 2016:

Thanks, Deb! That is what it was meant to do, transport the reader to this terrible time in history!

Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on March 18, 2016:

Very, very well done. I only imagine what the pain was like for the poor folks that lived the few days with this horrid disease. I felt like I was in the midst of the life and times as I read this.

Katharine L Sparrow (author) from Massachusetts, USA on March 12, 2016:

Yes, I'm sure it was horrific! Thank-you for reading and commenting!

Anne Harrison from Australia on March 12, 2016:

A fascinating read - what a terrifying time to live! thank you for sharing.

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