Another cheery blogpost for mid-January. With The Black Death in mind, let us go a-rambling once more but walking boots are unnecessary...
In the 250 years between The Norman Conquest of England and The Black Death, many great abbeys were established. Populated by monks, they were not all about worshipping and serving God. They possessed huge swathes of good farmland. In squeezing rents from tenanted farmers, the abbeys prospered.
The control that these Roman Catholic abbeys exercised was a legacy of the Norman invasion which would later drive King Henry VIII to destroy them. They had a very good run. 450 years of enormous financial and political control as kings and queens looked on.
I was born and grew up in a village called Leven - located right in the heart of The East Riding of Yorkshire. On the outskirts of our village was a stone pillar known as White Cross. It marked the original boundary of lands that were under the control of a nearby monastic settlement - Meaux Abbey. Though White Cross endures Meaux's stones were carted away long ago.
Established in 1150, the abbey grew and prospered. As well as the resident abbot and his monks, lay brethren lived within the abbey precincts. It was five miles from my home and the fertile lands in its possession reached east to the North Sea coast and down to The Humber Estuary.
In 1339, the fifteenth abbot of Meaux Abbey was appointed. He was called Hugh de Leven so I imagine that he had a special connection with my home village. Maybe, like me, he was also born there. In 1349 when The Black Death arrived at Meaux Abbey, Hugh de Leven died along with half of the other residents. The plague also tore through local farming communities. Suddenly, the abbey's power and wealth nosedived.
Crops were not harvested or sown and animals were not tended. Many ploughmen had died along with monks who would have collected the rents. Prosperity often survives in a delicate balancing act but The Black Death had tipped that balance into chaos. Not just at Meaux but across the nation.
In lightly researching The Black Death with the kind assistance of Professor Google, I have been surprised about how little contemporary art or literature reflected what went on. Geoffrey Chaucer wrote his famous "Canterbury Tales" near the end of the fourteenth century , well within living memory of "The Pestilence". He was most likely born in London in the early 1340's so though he was a survivor, The Black Death would have certainly struck down members of his immediate family.
The world was much changed for Chaucer's generation but there is surprisingly little reference to the plague in "The Canterbury Tales". Only in "The Pardoner's Tale" do we get a hint of the deadly pandemic - "He hath a thousand slayn this pestilence...".
Here's an illustration from a manuscript created during the height of the plague in Tournai, Belgium:-
Much of what I know about the Plague comes from historic novels and non-fiction books about Medieval times. We did touch the subject in History lessons at school, but as was often the case, I wanted to know more and did further reading.ReplyDelete
The world certainly was a different one once the Black Death retreated. But only about 300 years later, the Thirty Years' War swept through central Europe, again decimating the population and tipping the balance in the way you have described it.
It seems that The Black Death flourished between 1348 and 1351 but it did not die away. It kept raising its head occasionally for a further three hundred years. I must admit that to my shame I know nothing about The Thirty Years War.Delete
*The Thirty Years War* by C.V. Wedgwood appeared in 1938.Delete
Dame Veronica Wedgwood (1910-1997) is always worth reading: her collection of essays, *History and Hope* appeared in 1987.
Mark Greengrass, Professor Emeritus at the University of Sheffield, covered the same period, when Europe tore itself apart, in his monumental study *Christendom Destroyed - Europe 1517-1648* (Penguin).
The Thirty Years War decimated the population of Europe as Meike said, and inflicted untold suffering on the civilian populations.
Veronica Wedgwood saw WWII coming when she published her work, and her sorrow at the end of the book is palpable.
What an ordeal our parents endured ! They had such hope and courage.
Thank you very much for the history lesson.My Catholic school education never mentioned the power of the church and painted the monks and monasteries in a very beneficial light. My understanding improved as I got older and questioned everything.ReplyDelete
I suppose that some plantation owners in The Deep South of America thought that they were like fathers to their slaves - bringing order and security to their lives. So it was with the abbeys.Delete
Humankind has been through some things, haven't we? It's sort of a miracle that we've survived this long.ReplyDelete
It is a miracle but not one that any god presided over.Delete
There are some very fine Abbeys especially in Yorkshire. I've visited Bolton Abbey and Fountains Abbey. A Day Out by Alan Bennett wonderfully portrays Halifax Cycling Club and their monochrome journey to Fountains Abbey.ReplyDelete
Fountains Abbey is a special place. I went there on a couple of school trips when I was in primary school.Delete
I suspect you are becoming a hypochondriac.ReplyDelete
"Nurse! Nurse! Where are me pills? I have stopped rattling!"Delete
On a serious note I think we can have little real conception of how existentially frightening the plague and its like must have been. I think around half of the population perished and it wasn't until much much later that we finally overcame the perils of pestilence as a regular occurance. What we think of as a pandemic today is nothing by comparison. Isn't there a village in Derbyshire which cut itself off to stop the plague spreading? I think it's called Eyam or is it Eysham? Anyhow, I have a memory of staying at a youth hostel there years ago.ReplyDelete
It's called Eyam and it's eight miles from this keyboard. Encouraged by the local vicar, the village went into a self-imposed quarantine. This was not at the time of the devastating original Black Death episode but much later - in the 1660's.Delete
Did you know that the nursery rhyme "Ring a Ring a Roses" originates from the Black Death? It relates to the rosy rash which was the first sign of the plague, followed by sneezing (atishoo) and then death "we all fall down".Delete
I did know that Carol but I am sure some other visitors didn't - so thanks.Delete
Interesting Local History YP.ReplyDelete
After Henry VII broke with the Roman Catholic Church, so that he could divorce, didn't he destroy the abbeys because he wanted their wealth? To fund, amongst other things, his extravagant life style and to build the ships to fight the Spanish Armada?
Can't say that I've heard of Melcombe Regis, but then if the Black Death is their only claim to fame, it's not surprising. Not something you'd wish to advertise.
"Come to Melcombe Regis - Home of The Black Death - And Holiday Like There's No Tomorrow!"Delete
My recollection from school history is that the Black Death was largely responsible for the breakdown of the feudal system, as the death of so many people meant that the survivors could almost name their price for their labour and skills, rather than being serfs as before. This would tie in with your comments on the demise of the monastery powers.ReplyDelete
They declined like every other institution but a hundred years later they were almost fully resurrected.Delete
If I'm honest I can recall almost nothing that I've learned about the Plague. History was never a subject that interested me at school.ReplyDelete
Well I hope that I have accidentally taught you a couple of things about The Black Death Graham.Delete
Another fascinating post! Now I anxiously await your poem. (seriously!!)ReplyDelete
It is brewing Kelly. I cannot think how I will write it. Maybe focus on Hugh de Leven.Delete
What gives me pause were the treatment back then of blood letting, lancing the boils with unsterile equipment, soaking in rose water and others methods, none of which did a darn thing for you, except possibly kill you a bit quicker. These days a course of antibiotics and one is back to normal with the same disease.ReplyDelete
In comparison, they knew so little. They were very vulnerable.Delete
The Black Death would have been unimaginable. The Spanish flu was cruel in this country and around the world.ReplyDelete
Yes The Spanish Flu (That started out in Kansas USA) was truly terrible but both in deathly terms of numbers and percentages it could not hold a candle to The Black Death.Delete
Dark, Professor, very dark.ReplyDelete
Don't have nightmares Catalyst!Delete
I used to be glad that we never had to live through such a plague. Then along came Covid. Thank goodness we now have people who develop vaccines and other medicines.ReplyDelete
Yes indeed - we are fortunate that only 5.2 million have died from COVID.Delete
I am wondering exactly what the Black Plague was. Smallpox? Scarlet Fever? Or something else that we now know the name of?ReplyDelete
Fingers and toes curled and turned black. Buboles - like boils formed in the groin and armpits and filled with pus.Delete
In defence: The monks weren't all bad. They soaked up all the subsequent sons who did not inherit, had infirmaries for the sick and fed the poor. Built beautiful monasteries which we all love today. Henry took them down partly out of greed, partly of his own selfish desire for divorce. Then the 'rats' rushed in claiming land and abbey buildings, in fact it is very similar today don't you think?ReplyDelete
There are certainly parallels. However, the good that was done was I suspect outweighed by the acquisitive instincts of those who governed abbeys and saw them as economic machines.Delete
You have encouraged me to read more about that period in English history. May I thank you for your excellent and always interesting blog posts.ReplyDelete
I am trying to find a good novel set at that time but have so far had no luck.Delete
It's hard to imagine death on that scale...especially at a time when people didn't understand microbiology and were steeped in essentially superstitious beliefs.ReplyDelete
I never like expressions that begin with "You can't imagine...". I can begin to imagine - especially if I learn more.Delete
People don't often realize how dependent we are on one another until everything goes for shit. It boogles the mind to imagine one third of the population dead, jobs unattended, children unattended, it goes on and on.ReplyDelete