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Title: A History of Epidemics in Britain (Volume I of II)
       from A.D. 664 to the Extinction of Plague

Author: Charles Creighton

Release Date: May 11, 2013 [EBook #42686]

Language: English

Character set encoding: UTF-8


Produced by The Online Distributed Proofreading Team at (This file was produced from images
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London: C. J. CLAY and SONS,



Leipzig: F. A. BROCKHAUS.







from A.D. 664 to the Extinction of Plague





[All rights reserved.]





[Pg v]


The title and contents-table of this volume will show sufficiently its scope, and a glance at the references in the several chapters will show its sources. But it may be convenient to premise a few general remarks under each of those heads. The date 664 A.D. has been chosen as a starting-point, for the reason that it is the year of the first pestilence in Britain recorded on contemporary or almost contemporary authority, that of Beda’s ‘Ecclesiastical History.’ The other limit of the volume, the extinction of plague in 1665-66, marks the end of a long era of epidemic sickness, which differed much in character from the era next following. At or near the Restoration we come, as it were, to the opening of a new seal or the outpouring of another vial. The history proceeds thenceforth on other lines and comes largely from sources of another kind; allowing for a little overlapping about the middle of the seventeenth century, it might be continued from 1666 almost without reference to what had gone before. The history is confined to Great Britain and Ireland, except in Chapter XI. which is occupied with the first Colonies and the early voyages, excepting also certain sections of other chapters, where the history has to trace the antecedents of some great epidemic sickness on a foreign soil.

[Pg vi]The sources of the work have been the ordinary first-hand sources of English history in general. In the medieval period these include the monastic histories, chronicles, lives, or the like (partly in the editions of Gale, Savile, Twysden, and Hearne, and of the English Historical Society, but chiefly in the great series edited for the Master of the Rolls), the older printed collections of State documents, and, for the Black Death, the recently published researches upon the rolls of manor courts and upon other records. From near the beginning of the Tudor period, the Calendars of State Papers (Domestic, Foreign, and Colonial), become an invaluable source of information for the epidemiologist just as for other historians. Also the Reports of the Historical Manuscripts Commission, together with its Calendars of private collections of papers, have yielded a good many facts. Many exact data, relating more particularly to local outbreaks of plague, have been found in the county, borough, and parish histories, which are of very unequal value for the purpose and are often sadly to seek in the matter of an index. The miscellaneous sources drawn upon have been very numerous, perhaps more numerous, from the nature of the subject, than in most other branches of history.

Medical books proper are hardly available for a history of English epidemics until the Elizabethan period, and they do not begin to be really important for the purpose until shortly before the date at which the present history ends. These have been carefully sought for, most of the known books having been met with and examined closely for illustrative facts. In the latter part of the seventeenth century the best English writers on medicine occupied themselves largely with the epidemics of their own time, and the British school of epidemiology, which took a distinguished start with Willis, Sydenham and Morton, was worthily continued by many writers throughout the eighteenth century; so that the history subsequent to the period here[Pg vii] treated of becomes more and more dependent upon medical sources, and of more special interest to the profession itself.

Reference has been made not unfrequently to manuscripts; of which the more important that have been used (for the first time) are a treatise on the Sweating Sickness of 1485 by a contemporary physician in London, two original London plague-bills of the reign of Henry VIII., and a valuable set of tables of the weekly burials and christenings in London for five years (almost complete) from 1578 to 1583, among the Cecil papers—these last by kind permission of the Marquis of Salisbury.

Collecting materials for a British epidemiology from these various sources is not an easy task; had it been so, it would hardly have been left to be done, or, so far as one knows, even attempted, for the first time at so late a period. Where the sources of information are so dispersed and casual it is inevitable that some things should have been overlooked: be the omissions few or many, they would certainly have been more but for suggestions and assistance kindly given from time to time by various friends.

The materials being collected, it remained to consider how best to use them. The existing national epidemiologies, such as that of Italy by Professor Corradi or the older ‘Epidemiologia Española’ of Villalba, are in the form of Annals. But it seemed practicable, without sacrificing a single item of the chronology, to construct from the greater events of sickness in the national annals a systematic history that should touch and connect with the general history at many points and make a volume supplementary to the same. Such has been the attempt; and in estimating the measure of its success it may be kept in mind that it is the first of the kind, British or foreign, in its own department. The author can hardly hope to have altogether escaped errors in touching upon the general history of the country over so long a period; but he has endeavoured to go as[Pg viii] little as possible outside his proper province and to avoid making gratuitous reflections upon historical characters and events. The greater epidemic diseases have, however, been discussed freely—from the scientific side or from the point of view of their theory.

It remains to acknowledge the liberality of the Syndics of the Cambridge University Press in the matter of publication, and the friendly interest taken in the work by their Chairman, the Master of Peterhouse.

November, 1891.



[Pg ix]


The plague of 664-684 described by Beda, and its probable relation to the plague of Justinian’s reign, 542- 4
Other medieval epidemics not from famine 9
Chronology of Famine Sicknesses, with full accounts of those of 1194-7, 1257-9, and 1315-16 15
Few traces of epidemics of Ergotism; reason of England’s immunity from ignis sacer 52
Generalities on medieval famines in England 65
Medieval meanings of lepra 69
Biblical associations of Leprosy 79
Medieval religious sentiment towards lepers 81
Leprosy-prevalence judged by the leper-houses,—their number in England, special destination, and duration 86
Leper-houses in Scotland and Ireland 99
The prejudice against lepers 100
Laws against lepers 106
Things favouring Leprosy in the manner of life—Modern analogy of Pellagra 107
Arrival of the Black Death, and progress through Britain, with contemporary English and Irish notices of the symptoms 114
Inquiry into the extent of the mortality 123
Antecedents of the Black Death in the East—Overland China trade—Favouring conditions in China 142
The Theory of Bubo-Plague 156
Illustrations from modern times 163
Summary of causes, and of European favouring conditions 173
 [Pg x]
Efforts to renew the war with France 177
Direct social and economic consequences in town and country 180
More lasting effects on farming, industries and population 190
Epidemics following the Black Death 202
Medieval English MSS. on Plague 208
The 14th century chronology continued 215
The public health in the 15th century 222
Chronology of Plagues, 15th century 225
Plague &c. in Scotland and Ireland, 1349-1475 233
The First invasion of the Sweat in 1485 237
The Second outbreak in 1508 243
The Third Sweat in 1517 245
The Fourth Sweat in 1528 250
Extension of the Fourth Sweat to the Continent in 1529 256
The Fifth Sweat in 1551 259
Antecedents of the English Sweat 265
Endemic Sweat of Normandy 271
Theory of the English Sweat 273
Extinction of the Sweat in England 279
Chronology of the outbreaks of Plague in London, provincial towns, and the country generally, from 1485 to 1556 282
The London Plague of 1563 304
Preventive practice in Plague-time under the Tudors 309
Sanitation in Plantagenet and Tudor times 322
The disposal of the dead 332
Chronology of Plague 1564-1592—Vital statistics of London 1578-1583 337
The London Plague of 1592-1593 351
Plague in the Provinces, 1592-1598 356
Plague in Scotland, 1495-1603—Skene on the Plague (1568) 360
Plague in Ireland in the Tudor period 371
 [Pg xi]
The Black Assizes of Cambridge, 1522 375
Oxford Black Assizes, 1577 376
Exeter Black Assizes, 1586 383
Increase of Pauperism, Vagrancy, &c. in the Tudor period 387
Influenzas and other “strange fevers” and fluxes, 1540-1597 397
Meagreness of English records 414
Evidence of its invasion of Scotland and England, in 1497 and subsequent years 417
English writings on the Pox in the Elizabethan period, with some notices for the Stuart period 423
The circumstances of the great European outbreak in 1494—Invasion of Italy by Charles VIII. 429
First accounts of Smallpox in Arabic writings—Nature of the disease 439
European Smallpox in the Middle Ages 445
Measles in medieval writings—Origin of the names “measles” and “pocks” 448
First English notices of Smallpox in the Tudor period 456
Great increase of Smallpox in the Stuart period 463
Smallpox in Continental writings of the 16th century 467
Growth of London in the Tudor and Stuart periods 471
The London Plague of 1603 474
Annual Plague in London after 1603 493
Plague in the Provinces, Ireland and Scotland, in 1603 and following years 496
Malignant Fever preceding the Plague of 1625 504
[Pg xii]The London Plague of 1625 507
Plague in the Provinces in 1625 and following years 520
The London Plague of 1636 529
Fever in London and in England generally to 1643 532
War Typhus in Oxfordshire &c. and at Tiverton, 1643-44 547
Plague in the Provinces, Scotland and Ireland during the Civil Wars 555
Fever in England 1651-52 566
The Influenzas or Fevers of 1657-59 568
Scurvy in the early voyages, north and south 579
The remarkable epidemic of Fever in Drake’s expedition of 1585-6 to the Spanish Main 585
Other instances of ship-fevers, flux, scurvy, &c. 590
Scurvy &c. in the East India Company’s ships: the treatment 599
Sickness of Virginian and New England voyages and colonies 609
Early West Indian epidemics, including the first of Yellow Fever—The Slave Trade 613
The epidemic of 1655-6 at the first planting of Jamaica 634
Literature of the Great Plague 646
Antecedents, beginnings and progress of the London Plague of 1665 651
Mortality and incidents of the Great Plague—Characters of the disease 660
Plague near London and in the Provinces, 1665-66 679
The Plague at Eyam 1665-66 682
The Plague at Colchester, 1665-66, and the last of Plague in England 688




At p. 28 line 4, for “for” read “at.” At p. 126 line 2 for “1351” read “1350;” same change at p. 130, lines 6 and 9. At p. 185 note 1 read “Ochenkowski.” At p. 264 line 18, and at p. 554 line 11 from bottom, read “pathognomonicum.” At p. 401, note 3 for “1658” read “1558.” At p. 420, line 17, for “Henry IV.,” read “Henry V.” At p. 474, line 4, for “more” read “less.” At p. 649 line 22 omit “Hancock.”



[Pg 1]



The Middle Age of European history has no naturally fixed beginning or ending. The period of Antiquity may be taken as concluded by the fourth Christian century, or by the fifth or by the sixth; the Modern period may be made to commence in the fourteenth, or in the fifteenth or in the sixteenth. The historian Hallam includes a thousand years in the medieval period, from the invasion of France by Clovis to the invasion of Italy by Charles VIII. in 1494. We begin, he says, in darkness and calamity, and we break off as the morning breathes upon us and the twilight reddens into the lustre of day. To the epidemiologist the medieval period is rounded more definitely. At the one end comes the great plague in the reign of Justinian, and at the other end the Black Death. Those are the two greatest pestilences in recorded history; each has no parallel except in the other. They were in the march of events, and should not be fixed upon as doing more than their share in shaping the course of history. But no single thing stands out more clearly as the stroke of fate in bringing the ancient civilization to an end than the vast depopulation and solitude made by the plague which came with the corn-ships from Egypt to Byzantium in the year 543; and nothing marks so definitely the emergence of Europe from the middle period of stagnation as the other depopulation and social upheaval made by the plague which came in the overland track of Genoese and Venetian traders[Pg 2] from China in the year 1347. While many other influences were in the air to determine the oncoming and the offgoing of the middle darkness, those two world-wide pestilences were singular in their respective effects: of the one, we may say that it turned the key of the medieval prison-house; and of the other, that it unlocked the door after eight hundred years.

The Black Death and its after-effects will occupy a large part of this work, so that what has just been said of it will not stand as a bare assertion. But the plague in the reign of Justinian hardly touches British history, and must be left with a brief reference. Gibbon was not insensible of the part that it played in the great drama of his history. “There was,” he says, “a visible decrease of the human species, which has never been repaired in some of the fairest countries of the globe.” After vainly trying to construe the arithmetic of Procopius, who was a witness of the calamity at Byzantium, he agrees to strike off one or more ciphers, and adopts as an estimate “not wholly inadmissible,” a mortality of one hundred millions. The effects of that depopulation, in part due to war, are not followed in the history. So far as Gibbon’s method could go, the plague came for him into the same group of phenomena as comets and earthquakes; it was part of the stage scenery amidst which the drama of emperors, pontiffs, generals, eunuchs, Theodoras, and adventurers proceeded. Even of the comets and earthquakes, he remarks that they were subject to physical laws; and it was from no want of scientific spirit that he omitted to show how a plague of such magnitude had a place in the physical order, and not less in the moral order.

A new science of epidemiology has sprung up since the time of Gibbon, who had to depend on the writings of Mead, a busy and not very profound Court physician. More particularly the Egyptian origin of the plague of the sixth century, and its significance, have been elucidated by the brilliant theory of Pariset, of which some account will be given at the end of the chapter on the Black Death. For the present, we are concerned with it only in so far as it may have a bearing upon the pestilences of Britain. The plague of the sixth century made the greatest impression, naturally, upon the oldest civilized countries of[Pg 3] Europe; but it extended also to the outlying provinces of the empire, and to the countries of the barbarians. It was the same disease as the Black Death of the fourteenth century, the bubo-plague; and it spread from country to country, and lasted from generation to generation, as that more familiar infection is known to have done[1].

Renewals of it are heard of in one part of Europe or another until the end of the sixth century, when its continuity is lost. But it is clear that the seeds of pestilence were not wanting in Rome and elsewhere in the centuries following. Thus, about the year 668, the English archbishop-elect, Vighard, having gone to Rome to get his election confirmed by the Pope Vitalianus, was shortly after his arrival cut off by pestilence, with almost all who had gone with him[2]. Twelve years after, in 680, there was another severe pestilence in the months of July, August and September, causing a great mortality at Rome, and such panic at Pavia that the inhabitants fled to the mountains[3]. In 746 a pestilence is said to have advanced from Sicily and Calabria, and to have made such devastation in Rome that there were houses without a single inhabitant left[4]. The common name for all such epidemics is pestis or pestilentia or magna mortalitas, so that it is open to contend that some other type than bubo-plague, such as fever or flux, may have been at least a part of them; but no type of infection has ever been so mortal as the bubo-plague, and a mortality that is distinguished by a chronicler as causing panic and devastation was presumably of that type.

 [Pg 4]

Pestilence in England and Ireland in the Seventh Century.

It is more than a century after the first great wave of pestilence had passed over Europe in the reign of Justinian, before we hear of a great plague in England and Ireland. Dr Willan, the one English writer on medicine who has turned his erudition to that period, conjectures that the infection must have come to this country from the continent at an earlier date. From the year 597, he says, the progress of conversion to the Christian religion “led to such frequent intercourse with Italy, France and Belgium, that the epidemical and contagious disease prevailing on the continent at the close of the sixth century must necessarily be communicated from time to time through the Heptarchy[5].” Until we come to the Ecclesiastical History of Beda, the only authorities are the Irish annals; and in them, the first undoubted entry of a great plague corresponds in date with that of Beda’s history, the year 664. It is true, indeed, that the Irish annals, or the later recensions of them, carry the name that was given to the plague of 664 (pestis ictericia or buide connaill) back to an alleged mortality in 543, or 548, and make the latter the “first buide connaill”; but the obituary of saints on that occasion is merely what might have occurred in the ordinary way, and it is probable, from the form of entry, that it was really the rumour of the great plague at Byzantium and elsewhere in 543 and subsequent years that had reached the Irish annalist[6].

The plague of 664 is the only epidemic in early British annals that can be regarded as a plague of the same nature, and on the same great scale, as the devastation of the continent of[Pg 5] Europe more than a century earlier, whether it be taken to be a late offshoot of that or not. The English pestilence of 664 is the same that was fabled long after in prose and verse as the great plague “of Cadwallader’s time.” It left a mark on the traditions of England, which may be taken as an index of its reality and its severity; and with it the history of epidemics in Britain may be said to begin. It was still sufficiently recent to have been narrated by eyewitnesses to Beda, whose Ecclesiastical History is the one authentic source, besides the entry in the Irish annals, of our information concerning it.

The pestilence broke out suddenly in the year 664, and after “depopulating” the southern parts of England, seized upon the province of Northumbria, where it raged for a long time far and wide, destroying an immense multitude of people[7]. In another passage Beda says that the same mortality occurred also among the East Saxons, and he appears to connect therewith their lapse to paganism[8].

The epidemic is said to have entered Ireland at the beginning of August, but whether in 664 or 665 is not clear. According to one of those vague estimates which we shall find again in connexion with the Black Death, the mortality in Ireland was so vast that only a third part of the people were left alive. The Irish annals do, however, contain a long list of notables who died in the pestilence[9].

Beda follows his general reference to the plague by a story of the monastery of Rathmelsigi, identified with Melfont in[Pg 6] Meath, which he heard many years after from the chief actor in it. Egbert, an English youth of noble birth, had gone to Ireland to lead the monastic life, like many more of his countrymen of the same rank or of the middle class. The plague in his monastery had been so severe that all the monks either were dead of it or had fled before it, save himself and another, who were both lying sick of the disease. Egbert’s companion died; and he himself, having vowed to lead a life of austerity if he were spared, survived to give effect to his vow and died in the year 729 with a great name for sanctity at the age of ninety.

The plague of 664 is said, perhaps on constructive evidence[10], to have continued in England and Ireland for twenty years; and there are several stories told by Beda of incidents in monasteries which show, at least, that outbreaks of a fatal infection occurred here or there as late as 685. Several of these relate to the new monastery of Barking in Essex, founded for monks and nuns by a bishop of London in 676. First we have a story relating to many deaths on the male side of the house[11], and then two stories in which a child of three and certain nuns figure as dying of the pestilence[12]. Another story appears to relate to the plague in a monastery on the Sussex coast, seemingly Selsea[13]. Still another, in which Beda[Pg 7] himself is supposed to have played a part, is told of the monastery of Jarrow, the date of it being deducible from the context as the year 685.

Of the two Northumbrian monasteries founded by Benedict, that of Wearmouth lost several of its monks by the plague, as well as its abbot Easterwine, who is otherwise known to have died in March, 685. The other monastery of Jarrow, of which Ceolfrith was abbot, was even more reduced by the pestilence. All who could read, or preach, or say the antiphonies and responses were cut off, excepting the abbot and one little boy whom Ceolfrith had brought up and taught. For a week the abbot conducted the shortened services by himself, after which he was joined by the voice of the boy; and these two carried on the work until others had been instructed. Beda, who is known to have been a pupil of Ceolfrith’s at Jarrow, would then have been about twelve years old, and would correspond to the boy in the story[14].

The nature of these plagues, beginning with the great invasion of 664, can only be guessed. They have the look of having been due to some poison in the soil, running hither and thither, as the Black Death did seven centuries after, and[Pg 8] remaining in the country to break out afresh, not universally as at first, but here and there, as in monasteries. The hypothesis of a late extension to England and Ireland of the great European invasion of bubo-plague in 543, would suit the facts so far as we know them. The one medical detail which has been preserved, on doubtful authority, that the disease was a pestis ictericia, marked by yellowness of the skin, and colloquially known in the Irish language as buide connaill, is not incompatible with the hypothesis of bubo-plague, and is otherwise unintelligible[15].

For the next seven centuries, the pestilences of Britain are mainly the results of famine and are therefore of indigenous origin. So strongly is the type of famine-pestilence impressed upon the epidemic history of medieval England that the chroniclers and romancists are unable to dissociate famine from their ideas of pestilence in general. Thus Higden, in his reference to the outbreak of the Justinian plague at Constantinople, associates it with famine alone[16]; and the metrical romancist, Robert of Brunne, who had the great English famine of 1315-16 fresh in his memory, describes circumstantially the plague of 664 or the plague of Cadwallader’s time, as a famine-pestilence, his details being taken in part from the account given by Simeon of Durham of the harrying of Yorkshire by William the Conqueror, and in part, doubtless, from his own recent experience of a great English famine[17]. But before we come to these typical famine-pestilences of Britain, which fill the medieval interval between the foreign invasion of plague in Beda’s time and the foreign invasion of 1348, it remains to dispose in this place of those outbreaks on English soil which do not bear the marks of famine-sickness, but, on the other hand, the marks of a virulent infection arising at particular spots probably from a tainted soil. These have to be collected from casual notices in the most[Pg 9] unlikely corners of monastic chronicles; but it is just the casual nature of the references that makes them credible, and leads one to suppose that the recorded instances are only samples of epidemics not altogether rare in the medieval life of England.


Early Epidemics not connected with Famine.

The earliest of these is mentioned in the annals of the priory of Christ Church, Canterbury. In the year 829, all the monks save five are said to have died of pestilence, so that the monastery was left almost desolate. The archbishop Ceolnoth, who was also the abbot of the monastery, filled up the vacancies with secular clerks, and he is said to have done so with the consent of the five monks “that did outlive the plague.” The incident comes into the Canterbury MS. of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle[18] under the year 870, in connexion with the death of Ceolnoth and the action of his successor in expelling the seculars and completing the original number of regulars. So far as the records inform us, that great mortality within the priory of Christ Church two centuries after it was founded by Augustine, was an isolated event; the nearest general epidemic to it in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was a great mortality of man and beast about the year 897 following the Danish invasion which Alfred at length repelled.

That such deadly intramural epidemics in monasteries were not impossible is conclusively proved by the authentic particulars of a sudden and severe mortality among the rich monks of Croyland at a much more recent date—between the years 1304 and 1315. In the appendix to the chronicle of Ramsey Abbey[19] there is printed a letter from Simon, abbot of Croyland, without date but falling between the years above given, addressed to his neighbours the abbots of Ramsey, Peterborough and Thorney, and the prior of Spalding. The letter is to ask their prayers on the occasion of the sudden death of thirteen of the monks of Croyland and the sickness of others; that large number of the[Pg 10] brethren had been cut off within fifteen days—“potius violenter rapti quam fataliter resoluti[20].” The letter is written from Daddington, whither abbot Simon had doubtless gone to escape the infection.

These are two instances of deadly epidemics within the walls of English monasteries. In the plague-years 664-685, and long after in the Black Death, the mortalities among the monks were of the same degree, only there was an easy explanation of them, in one if not in both cases, as being part of an imported infection universally diffused in English soil. What the nature of the occasional outbreaks in earlier times may have been, we can only guess: something almost as deadly, we may say, as the plague itself, and equally sudden. The experience was not peculiar to England. An incident at Rome almost identical with that of Vighard in 668 is related in a letter sent home in 1188, by Honorius the prior of Canterbury, who had gone with others of the abbey on a mission to Rome to obtain judgment in a dispute between the archbishop and the abbey, that the whole of his following was stricken with sickness and that five were dead. John de Bremble, who being also abroad was ordered to go to the help of the prior, wrote home to the abbey that when he reached Rome only one of the brethren was alive, and he in great danger, and that the first thing he had to do on his arrival was to attend the cook’s funeral[21].

There is no clue to the type of these fatal outbreaks of sickness within monastic communities. One naturally thinks of a soil-poison fermenting within and around the monastery walls, and striking down the inmates by a common influence as if at one blow. There are in the medieval history previous to the Black Death a few instances of local pestilences among the common people also, which differ from the ordinary famine-sicknesses of the time. The most significant of these is a story told by William of Newburgh at the end of his chronicle and[Pg 11] probably dating from the corresponding period, about the year 1196[22]. For several years there had been, as we shall see, famine and fever in England; but the particular incident does not relate to the famine, although it may join on to it. It is the story of a ghost walking, and it comes from the village of Annan on the Solway, having been related to the monk of Newburgh in Yorkshire by one who had been an actor in it. A man who had fled from Yorkshire and taken refuge in the village under the castle of Annan, was killed in a quarrel about the woman whom he had married, and was buried without the rites of the church. His unquiet ghost walked, and his corpse tainted the air of the village; pestilence was in every house, so that the place which had been populous looked as if deserted, those who escaped the plague having fled. William of Newburgh’s informant had been in the midst of these calamities, and had taken a lead in mitigating them; he had gone to certain wise men living “in sacra dominica quae Palmarum dicitur,” and having taken counsel with them, he addressed the people: “Let us dig up that pestilence and let us burn it with fire” (effodiamus pestem illam et comburamus igni). Two young men were, accordingly, induced to set about the task. They had not far to dig: “repente cadaver non multa humo egesta nudaverunt, enormi corpulentia distentum, facie rubenti turgentique supra modum.”

The story, like others of the kind with a mixture of legend in them, is more symbolical than real. The wise men of Annan may have been in error in tracing the plague of their village to a single corpse, but they were probably on the right lines of causation. It is curious to observe in another chronicler of the same period, Ralph of Coggeshall in Essex, and in a part of his chronicle which relates to the last years of Richard I., and first years of John, a comment upon the action of Pope Innocent III. (about 1200 A.D.) in interdicting all Christian rites save baptism by the clergy in France: “O how horrible ... to refuse the Christian rite of burial to the bodies of the dead, so that they infected the air by their foetor and struck horror into the souls of the living by their ghastly looks[23].” The same pope’s interdict[Pg 12] of decent burial and of other clerical rites extended to England in 1208, the famous Interdict of the reign of John. It was the papal method of checkmating the kingdoms of this world; that it was subversive of traditional decency and immemorial sanitary precaution was a small matter beside the assertion of the authority of Peter.

Rightly or wrongly, taught by experience or misled by fancy, the medieval world firmly believed that the formal and elaborate disposal of the dead had a sanitary aspect as well as a pious. The infection of the air, of which we shall hear much more in connexion with the plague, was a current notion in England for several centuries before the Black Death. Especially does the dread of it find expression where corpses were unburied after a battle, massacre, or calamity of nature. The exertions made in these circumstances to bury the dead, even when all pious and domestic feeling was hardened to the barest thought of self-preservation, are explained in set terms as instigated by the fear of breeding a pestilence. The instinct is as wide as human nature, and there is clear evidence in our own early writers that its sanitary meaning was recognised. One such instance may be quoted from the St Albans annalist of the time of John and first years of Henry III.[24] In the year 1234, an unusually savage raid was made by the Welsh as far as Shrewsbury; they laid waste the country by fire and sword; wayfarers were horrified at the sight of naked and unburied corpses without number by the road sides, preyed on by ravenous beasts and birds; the foetor of so much corruption infected the air on all sides, so that even the dead slew the living. The chronicler’s language, “quod etiam homines sanos mortui peremerunt,” is marked by the perspicacity or correctness which distinguishes him. When the bubo-plague came to be domesticated in English soil more than a century later, the disposal of the dead became a sanitary question of obvious importance. But even in the centuries before the Black Death, and most of all in the times when the traditional practices of decent burial were interdicted by Popes or turned to mercenary[Pg 13] purposes by clergy[25], we shall perhaps not err in looking for one, at least, of the causes of localised outbreaks of pestilence in the tainting of the soil and the air by the corruption of corpses insufficiently buried and coffined.

There still remains, before we come to famine-sickness as the common type of pestilence in medieval England, to discover from the records any evidence of pestilence due to war and invasion. The domestic history from first to last is singularly free from such calamities. The whole history of Mohammedan conquest and occupation is a history of infection following in the train of war; and in Western Europe, at least from the invasion of Italy by Charles VIII., when the medieval period (according to Hallam) closes, the sieges, battles, and campaigns are constantly associated with epidemic sickness among the people as well as among the troops. There is only one period in the history of England, that of the civil wars of the Parliament and the Royalists, in which the people had a real taste of the common continental experience. The civil wars of York and Lancaster, as we shall see, touched the common people little, and appear to have bred no epidemics.

Apart from civil war, there were invasions, by the Welsh and Scots on the western and northern marches, and by the Danes. One instance of pestilence following a Welsh raid in the thirteenth century has been given from Roger of Wendover. A single instance is recorded in the history of the Danish invasions. It has been preserved by several independent chroniclers, with some variation in details; and it appears to have been distinguished by so much notice for the reason that it illustrates the magnanimity, sanctity, and miraculous power of St Elphege, archbishop of Canterbury.

In the year 1010 (or 1011 according to some), the Danes had stormed Canterbury, burnt the fair city, massacred the inhabitants, or carried them captive to their ships at Sandwich.[Pg 14] The archbishop Elphege was put on board a small vessel and taken (doubtless by the inland channel which was then open from the Stour to the Thames) to Greenwich, where he was imprisoned for seven months[26]. A council had assembled in London for the purpose of raising forty thousand pounds to buy off the invaders. According to the account used by Higden[27], Elphege refused to sanction the payment of a ransom of three thousand pounds for his own person: he was accordingly taken from prison, and on the 13th of the Calends of May, 1010, was stoned to death by the Danes disappointed of his ransom. Therefore a pestilence fell upon the invaders, a dolor viscerum, which destroyed them by tens and twenties so that a large number perished. The earlier narrative of William of Malmesbury[28] is diversified by the introduction of a miracle, and is otherwise more circumstantial. While the archbishop was held in durance, a deadly sickness broke out among the Danes, affecting them in troops (catervatim), and proving so rapid in its effects that death ensued before they could feel pain. The stench of their unburied bodies so infected the air as to bring a plague upon those of them who had remained well. As the survivors were thrown into a panic, “sine numero, sine modo,” Elphege appeared upon the scene, and having administered to them the consecrated bread, restored them to health and put an end to the plague.

Disregarding what is fabulous, we may take these narratives to establish the fact that a swift and fatal pestilence did break out among the Danes in Kent. It had consisted probably of the same forms of camp sickness, including dysentery (as the name dolor viscerum implies), which have occurred in later times. It is the only instance of the kind recorded in the early history.

 [Pg 15]

Medieval Famine-pestilences.

The foregoing are all the instances of pestilence in early English history, unconnected with famine, that have been collected in a search through the most likely sources. The history of English epidemics, previous to the Black Death, is almost wholly a history of famine sicknesses; and the list of such famines with attendant sickness, without mentioning the years of mere scarcity, is a considerable one.



Year   Character   Authority
679   Three years’ famine in
Sussex from droughts
  Beda, Hist. Eccles. § 290
793   General famine and severe
  Anglo-Saxon Chronicle,
sub anno. Roger of
Howden. Simeon of
897   Mortality of men and
cattle for three years
during and after Danish
  Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
Florence of Worcester.
Annales Cambriae (anno
962   Great mortality: “the great
fever in London”
  Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
976   Famine   Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
Roger of Howden
  Famine. Fever of men and
murrain of cattle
  Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
Roger of Howden.
Simeon of Durham.
Malmesbury. Gest.
Pontif. Angl. p. 171.
Flor. of Worcester.
Roger of Wendover,
Flor. Hist. Bromton
(in Twysden). Higden
1005   Desolation following
expulsion of Danes
  Henry of Huntingdon
  Famine   Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
Henry of Huntingdon
1044   Famine   Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
1046   Very hard winter;
pestilence and
  Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
  Great mortality of men
and cattle
  Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
(sub anno 1049). Roger
of Howden. Simeon of
Durham (sub anno 1048)
 [Pg 16]
1069   Wasting of Yorkshire   Simeon of Durham, ii. 188
  Great fever-pestilence.
Sharp famine
  Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
Malmesbury. Henry of
Huntingdon, and most
1091   Siege of Durham by the
  Simeon of Durham, ii. 339
  Floods; hard winter;
severe famines;
universal sickness and
  Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
Annals of Winchester.
William of
Malmesbury. Henry of
Huntingdon. Annals of
Margan. Matthew Paris,
and others
  General pestilence and
  Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
Roger of Wendover
  Famine   Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
Roger of Wendover
1112   “Destructive pestilence”   Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
Annals of Osney.
Annales Cambriae
1114   Famine in Ireland; flight or
death of people
  Annals of Margan
1125   Most dire famine in all
England; pestilence
and murrain
  Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
William of
Malmesbury, Gest. Pont.
p. 442. Henry of
Huntingdon. Annals of
Margan. Roger of
[1130   Great murrain   Annals of Margan.
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
(sub anno 1131)]
  Famine from civil war;
  Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
Annals of Winchester.
Henry of Huntingdon
1143   Famine and mortality.   Gesta Stephani, p. 98.
William of Newburgh.
Henry of Huntingdon
1171   Famine in London in
  Stow, Survey of London
1172   Dysentery among the
troops in Ireland
  Radulphus de Diceto,
Imag. Hist. i. 348
1173   “Tussis quaedam mala et
  Chronica de Mailros
1175   Pestilence; famine   Benedict of Peterborough.
Roger of Howden
 [Pg 17]
1189   Famine and mortality   Annals of Margan.
Giraldus Cambrensis,
Itin. Walliae
  Effects of a five years’
scarcity; great mortality
over all England
  Annals of Burton. William
of Newburgh. Roger of
Howden iii. 290. Rigord.
Bromton (in Twysden
col. 1271). Radulphus
de Diceto (sub anno
1201   Unprecedented plague of
people and murrain of
  Chronicon de Lanercost
(probably relates to
1203   Great famine and mortality   Annals of Waverley.
Annals of
Tewkesbury. Annals
of Margan. Ralph of
Coggeshall (sub anno
1210   Sickly year throughout
  Annals of Margan
1234   Third year of scarcity;
  Roger of Wendover.
Annals of Tewkesbury
1247   Pestilence from September
to November; dearth and
  Matthew Paris. Higden
Annales Cambriae (sub
anno 1248)
  Bad harvests; famine and
fever in London and the
  Matthew Paris. Annals of
Continuator of M. Paris
(1259). Rishanger
1268   Probably murrain only.
  Chronicon de Lanercost
1271   Great famine and
pestilence in England
and Ireland
  Continuator of William of
Newburgh ii. 560
[1274   Beginning of a great
imported murrain among
  Rishanger (also sub anno
1275). Contin. Fl. of
Worcester sub anno
1285   Deaths from heat and
1294   Great scarcity; epidemics
of flux
  Rishanger. Continuator of
Florence of Worcester p.
405. Trivet
  General famine in England;
great mortality from
fever, flux &c.; murrain
  Trokelowe. Walsingham,
Hist. Angl. i. 146.
Contin. Trivet, pp.
18, 27. Rogers, Hist.
of Agric. and Prices
1322   Famine and mortality in
Edward II.’s army in
Scotland; scarcity in
  Higden. Annales


[Pg 18]The period covered by this long list is itself a long one; and the intervals between successive famine-pestilences are sometimes more than a generation. A history of epidemics is necessarily a morbid history. In this chapter of it, we search out the lean years, saying nothing of the fat years; and by exclusively dwelling upon the dark side we may form an entirely wrong opinion of the comforts or hardships, prosperity or adversity, of these remote times. English writers of the earliest period, when they use generalities, are loud in praise of the advantages of their own island; until we come to the fourteenth century poem of ‘The Vision of Piers the Ploughman’ we should hardly suspect, from their usual strain, that England was other than an earthly paradise, and every village an Auburn, “where health and plenty cheered the labouring swain.” There is a poem preserved in Higden’s Polychronicon by one Henricus, who is almost certainly Henry archdeacon of Huntingdon in the time of Henry I., although the poem is not included among the archdeacon’s extant verse. The subject is ‘De Praerogativis Angliae,’ and the period, be it remarked, is one of the early Norman reigns, when the heel of the conquering race is supposed to have been upon the neck of the English. Yet this poem contains the famous boast of ‘Merry England,’ and much else that is the reverse of unhappy:—

“Anglia terra ferax et fertilis angulus orbis.
Anglia plena jocis, gens libera, digna jocari;
Libera gens, cui libera mens et libera lingua;
Sed lingua melior liberiorque manus.
Anglia terrarum decus et flos finitimarum,
Est contenta sui fertilitate boni.
Externas gentes consumptis rebus egentes,
Quando fames laedit, recreat et reficit.
Commoda terra satis mirandae fertilitatis
Prosperitate viget, cum bona pacis habet[29].”

Or, to take another distich, apparently by Alfred of Beverley,

“Insula praedives, quae toto non eget orbe,
Et cujus totus indiget orbis ope.”

[Pg 19]Or, in Higden’s own fourteenth century words, after quoting these earlier estimates: “Prae ceteris gulae dedita, in victu et vestitu multum sumptuosa[30].”

On the other hand there is a medieval proverbial saying which places England in a light strangely at variance with this native boast of fertility, plenty, and abundance overflowing to the famished peoples abroad: “Tres plagae tribus regionibus appropriari solent, Anglorum fames, Gallorum ignis, Normannorum lepra”—three afflictions proper to three countries, famine to England, St Anthony’s fire to France, leprosy to Normandy[31]. Whatever the “lepra Normannorum” may refer to, there is no doubt that St Anthony’s fire, or ergotism from the use of bread containing the grains of spurred rye, was a frequent scourge of some parts of France; and, in common repute abroad, famine seems to have been equally characteristic of England. Perhaps the explanation of England’s evil name for famines is that there were three great English famines in the medieval history, before the Black Death, separated by generations, no doubt, but yet of such magnitude and attended by so disgraceful circumstances that the rumour of them must have spread to foreign countries and made England a by-word among the nations. These were the famines of 1194-96, 1257-59, and 1315-16. Of the first we have a tolerably full account by William of Newburgh, who saw it in Yorkshire; of the second we have many particulars and generalities by Matthew Paris of St Albans, who died towards the end of it; and of the third we have an account by one of his successors as historiographer at St Albans, John Trokelowe. All other references to famine in England are meagre beside the narratives of these competent observers, although there were probably two or three famines in the Norman period equally worthy of the historian’s pen. For the comprehension of English famine-pestilences in general, we ought to take the best recorded first; but it will be on the whole[Pg 20] more convenient to observe the chronological order, and to introduce, as occasion offers, some generalities on the types of disease which famine induced, the extent of the mortalities, and the conditions of English agriculture and food-supply which made possible occasional famines of such magnitude.

From the great plague “of Cadwallader’s time,” which corresponds in history to the foreign invasion of pestilence in 664, until nearly the end of the Anglo-Saxon rule, there is little recorded of famines and consequent epidemic sickness. It does not follow that the period was one of plenty and prosperity for the people at large. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is at no period detailed or circumstantial on the subject of famines and pestilences; and although the entries become more numerous in the last hundred years before the Chronicle came to an end in 1137, their paucity in the earlier period probably means no more than the imperfection of the record. Some of the generalities of Malthus might be applied to help the imagination over a period of history which we might otherwise be disposed to view as the Golden Age. One of these, originally written for the South Sea Islands, is applicable to all romantic pictures of “rude plenty,” such as the picture of the Anglo-Saxon household in Ivanhoe. It has been remarked of Scott as a novelist that he always feeds everyone well; but the picture, grateful to the imagination though it be, is probably an illusion. “In a state of society,” says Malthus, “where the lives of the inferior order of the people seem to be considered by their superiors as of little or no value, it is evident that we are very liable to be deceived with regard to the appearances of abundance”; and again: “We may safely pronounce that among the shepherds of the North of Europe, war and famine were the principal checks that kept the population down to the level of their scanty means of subsistence.” The history of English agriculture is known with some degree of accuracy from the thirteenth century, and it is a history of prices becoming steadier and crops more certain. It is not to be supposed that tillage was more advanced before the Conquest than after it. On the other hand the probabilities are that England had steadily emerged from a pastoral state. It would be unfair to judge of the state of rural England at any[Pg 21] time by the state of Wales in the twelfth century, as it is described by Giraldus Cambrensis, or by the condition of Ireland as described from the same traveller’s observations. But in the absence of any concrete view of primitive England itself, the picture of the two neighbouring provinces may be introduced here.

Ireland, says Giraldus, closely following Beda, is a fertile land neglected; it had no agriculture, industries or arts; its inhabitants were rude and inhospitable, leading a purely pastoral life, and living more upon milk than upon meat. At the same time there was little sickness; the island had little need of physicians; you will hardly ever find people ill unless they be at the extremity of death; between continuous good health and final dissolution there was no middle term. The excessive number of children born blind, or deaf, or deformed, he ascribes to incestuous unions and other sexual laxities[32].

The picture of Wales is that of a not less primitive society[33]. The Welsh do not congregate in towns, or in villages, or in fortified places, but live solitary in the woods; they build no sumptuous houses of stone and lime, but only ozier booths, sufficient for the year, which they run up with little labour or cost. They have neither orchards nor gardens, and little else than pasture land. They partake of a sober meal in the evening, and if there should be little or nothing to eat at the close of day, they wait patiently until the next evening. They do not use table-cloths nor towels; they are more natural than neat (naturae magis student quam nitori). They lie down to sleep in their day clothes, all in one room, with a coarse covering drawn over them, their feet to the fire, lying close to keep each other warm, and when they are sore on one side from lying on the hard floor, they turn over to the other. There are no beggars among this nation. It is of interest, from the point of view of the “positive checks” of Malthus, to note that Giraldus more than hints at the practice of a grosser form of immorality than he had charged the Irish with. Spinning and weaving were of[Pg 22] course not unknown, for the hard and rough blanket mentioned above was a native product. By the time that Higden wrote (about 1340), he has to record a considerable advance in the civilization of Wales. Having used the description of Giraldus, he adds: “They now acquire property, apply themselves to agriculture, and live in towns[34].” But in the reign of Henry II., it was found easy to bring the rebellious Welsh to terms by stopping the supplies of corn from England, upon which they were largely dependent[35].

Of the condition of Scotland in the twelfth century we have no such sketch as Giraldus has left for Wales and Ireland. Uncivilized compared with England, the northern part of the island must certainly have been, if we may trust the indignant references by Simeon of Durham and Henry of Huntingdon to the savage practices of the Scots who swarmed over the border, with or without their king to lead them, or the remark by William of Malmesbury concerning the Scots who went on the Crusade leaving behind them the insects of their native country.

Giraldus intended to have written an itinerary or topography of England also, but his purpose does not appear to have been fulfilled. Higden, his immediate successor in that kind of writing a century and a half later, is content, in his section on England, to reproduce the generalities of earlier authors from Pliny downwards. Of these, we have already quoted the ‘Prerogatives of England’ by Henry of Huntingdon, from which one might infer that the British Isles, under the Norman yoke, were the Islands of the Blest. On the other hand, the impression made by the details of the Domesday survey upon a historian of the soundest judgment, Hallam, is an impression of poor cultivation and scanty sustenance. “There cannot be a more striking proof,” he says, “of the low condition of English agriculture in the eleventh century than is exhibited in Domesday book. Though almost all England had been partially cultivated, and we find nearly the same manors, except in the north, which exist at present, yet the value and extent of cultivated ground are inconceivably small. With every allowance[Pg 23] for the inaccuracies and partialities of those by whom that famous survey was completed, we are lost in amazement at the constant recurrence of two or three carucates in demesne, with folkland occupied by ten or a dozen villeins, valued all together at forty shillings, as the return of a manor which now would yield a competent income to a gentleman[36].”

Whether, the population at the Domesday survey were nearer two millions than one, the people were almost wholly on the land. Of the size of the chief towns, as the Normans found them, we may form a not incorrect estimate from the Domesday enumeration of houses held of the king or of other superiors[37]. London, Winchester and Bristol do not come at all into the survey. Besides these, the towns of the first rank are Norwich, York, Lincoln, Thetford, Colchester, Ipswich, Gloucester, Oxford, Cambridge, and Exeter.

Norwich had 1320 burgesses in the time of Edward the Confessor; in the borough were 665 English burgesses rendering custom, and 480 bordarii rendering none on account of their poverty; there were also more than one hundred French households. Lincoln had 970 inhabited houses in King Edward’s time, of which 200 were waste at the survey. Thetford had 943 burgesses before the Conquest, and at the survey 720, with 224 houses vacant. York was so desolated just before the survey that it is not easy to estimate its ordinary population; but it may be put at about 1200 houses. Gloucester had 612 burgesses. Oxford seems to have had about 800 houses; and for Cambridge we find an enumeration of the houses in nine of the ten wards of the town in King Edward’s time, the total being about 400. Colchester appears to have had some 700 houses, Ipswich 538 burgesses, with 328 houses “waste” so far as tax was concerned. Exeter had 300 king’s houses, and an uncertain number more. Next in importance come such places as Southampton, Wallingford, Northampton, Leicester, Warwick, Shrewsbury, Nottingham, Coventry, Derby, Canterbury, Yarmouth, Rochester, Dover, Sandwich (about 400 houses), and Sudbury. In a third class may be placed towns like Dorchester, Ilchester, Bridport, Wareham, Shaftesbury, Bath, Chichester, Lewes, Guildford, Hythe, Romney, Pevensey, Windsor, Bath, Chester, Worcester, Hereford, Huntingdon, Stamford, Grantham, Hertford, St Albans, Torchesey, Maldon, each with from 100 to 200 burgesses. Dover and Sandwich each supplied twenty ships, with crews of twenty-four men, for King Edward’s service during fifteen days of the year. In Hereford there were six smiths, each rendering one penny a year for his forge, and making 120 nails of the king’s iron. Many of these houses were exceedingly small, with a frontage of seven feet; the poorest[Pg 24] class were mere sheds, built in the ditch against the town wall, as at York and Canterbury.

It would be within the mark to say that less than one-tenth of the population of England was urban in any distinctive sense of the term. After London, Norwich, York, and Lincoln, there were probably no towns with five thousand inhabitants. There were, of course, the simpler forms of industries, and there was a certain amount of commerce from the Thames, the East Coast, and the Channel ports. The fertile soil of England doubtless sustained abundance of fruit trees and produced corn to the measure of perhaps four or six times the seed. There were flocks of sheep, yielding more wool than the country used, herds of swine and of cattle. The exports of wool, hides, iron, lead, and white metal gave occasion to the importation of commodities and luxuries from Flanders, Normandy, and Gascony. If there was “rude plenty” in England, it was for a sparse population, and it was dependent upon the clemency of the skies. A bad season brought scarcity and murrain, and two bad seasons in succession brought famine and pestilence.

Of the general state of health we may form some idea from the Anglo-Saxon leechdoms, or collections of remedies, charms and divinations, supposed to date from the eleventh century[38]. The maladies to which the English people were liable in these early times correspond on the whole to the everyday diseases of our own age. There were then, as now, cancers and consumptions, scrofula or “kernels,” the gout and the stone, the falling sickness and St Vitus’ dance, apoplexies and palsies, jaundice, dropsies and fluxes, quinsies and anginas, sore eyes and putrid mouth, carbuncles, boils and wildfire, agues, rheums and coughs. Maladies peculiar to women occupy a chief place, and there is evidence that hysteria, the outcome of hardships, entered largely into the forms of sickness, as it did in the time of Sydenham. Among the curiosities of the nosology may be mentioned wrist-drop, doubtless from working in lead. One great chapter in disease, the sickness and mortality of infants[Pg 25] and children, is almost a complete blank. It ought doubtless to have been the greatest chapter of all. The population remained small, for one reason among others, that the children would be difficult to rear. There is no direct evidence; but we may infer from analogous circumstances, that the inexpansive population meant an enormous infant mortality. The sounds which fell on the ear of Æneas as he crossed the threshold of the nether world may be taken as prophetic, like so much else in Virgil, of the experience of the Middle Ages:

“Continuo auditae voces, vagitus et ingens
Infantumque animae flentes, in limine primo:
Quos dulcis vitae exsortes, et ab ubere raptos,
Abstulit atra dies, et funere mersit acerbo.”

We come, then, to the chronology of famine-pestilences, and first in the Anglo-Saxon period. The years from 664 to 685 are occupied, as we have seen, by a great plague, probably the bubo-plague, which returned in 1348 as the Black Death, affecting, like the latter, the whole of England and Ireland on its first appearance, and afterwards particular monasteries, such as Barking and Jarrow. But it is clear that famine-sickness was also an incident of the same years. The metrical romancist of the fourteenth century, Robert of Brunne, was probably mistaken in tracing the great plague of “Cadwaladre’s time” to famine in the first instance; there is no such suggestion in the authentic history of Beda. But that historian does make a clear reference to famine in Sussex about the year 679[39]. Describing the conversion of Sussex to Christianity by Wilfrid, he says that the province had been afflicted with famine owing to three seasons of drought, that the people were dying of hunger, and that often forty or fifty together, “inedia macerati,” would proceed to the edge of the Sussex cliffs, and, joining hands, throw themselves into the sea. But on the very day when the people accepted the Christian baptism, there fell a plenteous[Pg 26] rain, the earth flourished anew, and a glad and fruitful season ensued[40].

The anarchy in Northumbria which followed the death of Beda (in 735), with the decline of piety and learning in the northern monasteries, is said to have led to famine and plague[41]. It is not until the year 793 that an entry of famine and mortality occurs in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. It is in keeping with the disappointing nature of all these early records that Simeon of Durham and Roger of Howden, the two compilers who had access to lost records, are more particular in enumerating the portents that preceded the calamity than in describing its actual circumstances. Then a whole century elapses (but for a vague entry under the year 822) until we come to the three calamitous years, with 897 as the centre, which followed Alfred’s famous resistance to the Danes. In that mortality, many of the chief thanes died, and there was a murrain of cattle, with a scarcity of food in Ireland. Two generations pass before the chronicle contains another entry of the kind: in 962 there was a great mortality, and the “great fever” was in London. At no long intervals there are two more famines, in 976 and 986. That of 986 (or 987) would appear to have been severe; the church plate at Winchester was melted for the benefit of the starving[42], and there was “a fever of men and a murrain of cattle[43].” After the expulsion of the Danes in 1005, says Henry of Huntingdon, there was such desolation of famine as no one[Pg 27] remembered. Then in 1010 or 1011 comes the incident of St Elphege, already given. From 1036 to 1049 we find mention of four, or perhaps five, famines, those of the years 1046 and 1049 being marked by a great mortality of men and murrain of cattle.

Except in Yorkshire, the Norman Conquest had no immediate effects upon the people of England in the way of famine and pestilence. From the last great mortality of 1049, a period of nearly forty years elapses until we come to the great pestilence and sharp famine in the last year of the Conqueror’s reign (1086-7). The harrying of Yorkshire, however, is too important a local incident to be passed over in this history. Of these ruthless horrors in the autumn of 1069 we have some particulars from the pen of Simeon of Durham, who has contemporary authority. There was such hunger, he says, that men ate the flesh of their own kind, of horses, of dogs, and of cats. Others sold themselves into perpetual slavery in order that they might be able to sustain their miserable lives on any terms (like the Chinese in later times). Others setting out in exile from their country perished before their journey was ended. It was horrible to look into the houses and farmyards, or by the wayside, and see the human corpses dissolved in corruption and crawling with worms. There was no one to bury them, for all were gone, either in flight or dead by the sword and famine. The country was one wide solitude, and remained so for nine years. Between York and Durham no one dwelt, and travellers went in great fear of wild beasts and of robbers[44]. William of Malmesbury says that the city of York was so wasted by fire that an old inhabitant would not have recognized it; and that the country was still waste for sixty miles at the time of his writing (1125)[45]. In the Domesday survey we find that there were 540 houses so waste that they paid nothing, 400 houses “not inhabited,” of which the better sort pay one penny and others less, and only 50 inhabited houses paying full dues.

The same local chronicler who has left particulars of the[Pg 28] devastation of 1069-70, has given also a picture of the siege of Durham by Malcolm Canmore in 1091, which may serve to realize for us what a medieval siege was, and what the Scots marches had to endure for intervals during several centuries:—

Malcolm advancing drives the Northumbrians before him, some into the woods and hills, others into the city of Durham; for there have they always a sure refuge. Thither they drive their whole flocks and herds and carry their furniture, so that there is hardly room within the town for so great a crowd. Malcolm arrives and invests the city. It was not easy for one to go outside, and the sheep and cattle could not be driven to pasture: the churchyard was filled with them, and the church itself was scarcely kept clear of them. Mixed with the cattle, a crowd of women and children surrounded the church, so that the voices of the choristers were drowned by the clamour. The heat of summer adds to the miseries of famine. Every-where throughout the town were the sounds of grief, ‘et plurima mortis imago,’ as in the sack of Troy. The siege is raised by the miraculous intervention of St Cuthbert[46].

The wasting of Yorkshire by William and the five incursions of the Scots into Northumberland and Durham in the reign of Malcolm Canmore had the effect of reducing a large part of the soil of England to a comparatively unproductive state. The effacement of farms (and churches) in Hampshire, for the planting of the New Forest, had the same effect in a minor degree. The rigorous enforcement of the forest laws in the interests of the Norman nobles must have served also to remove one considerable source of the means of subsistence from the people. Whether these things, together with the general oppression of the poor, contributed much or little to what followed, it is the fact that the long period from the last two years of William to the welcomed advent of Henry II. to the throne in 1154, is filled with a record of famines, pestilences, and other national misfortunes such as no other period of English history shows.

The first general famine and pestilence under Norman rule was in the years 1086 and 1087, the last of the Conqueror’s reign. It is probable from the entries in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that the aggravation (for which we must always look in order to explain a historical famine and pestilence) was due to two[Pg 29] bad harvests in succession. The year 1086 was “heavy, toilsome and sorrowful,” through failure of the corn and fruit crops owing to an inclement season, and through murrain of cattle[47]. Some form of sickness appears to have been prevalent between that harvest and the next. Almost every other man, says the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, was stricken with fever, and that so sharply that many died of it. “Alas! how miserable and how rueful a time was then! when the wretched men lay driven almost to death, and afterwards came the sharp famine and destroyed them quite.” It is probably a careless gloss upon that, by a historian of the next generation[48], when he says that “a promiscuous fever destroyed more than half the people,” and that famine, coming after, destroyed those whom the fever had spared[49]. But there can be no question that this was one of those great periodic conjunctions of famine and fever (λιμὸν ὁμοῦ καὶ λοιμόν), of which we shall find fuller details in the chronicles of the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. It is easy to understand that England, with all her wealth of fruits and corn in a good season, had no reserve for the poor at least, and sometimes not even for the rich, to get through two or more bad seasons with. How much the corn crop in those days depended on the season is clear from the entry in the chronicle two years after (1089), that reaping was still in progress at Martinmas (11 November) and even later. Fields cultivated to yield an average of only four or six times the seed were, of course, more at the mercy of the seasons than the highly cultivated corn-land of our own time.

The next famine with pestilence in England, seven years later, or in the seventh year of William Rufus, introduces us to a new set of considerations. It was the time when the exactions of tribute for the king’s wars in Normandy, or for the satisfaction of his greed and that of his court, were severely felt both by the church and the people. England, says one[50], was[Pg 30] suffocated and unable to breathe. Both clergy and laity, says another[51], were in such misery that they were weary of life. But the most remarkable phraseology is that of William of Malmesbury, the chief historian of the period, who seldom descends from the region of high political and ecclesiastical affairs to take notice of such things as famine and pestilence. In the 7th year of Rufus, he says, “agriculture failed” on account of the tributes which the king had decreed from his position in Normandy. The fields running to waste, a famine followed, and that in turn was succeeded by a mortality so general that the dying were left untended and the dead unburied[52]. The phrase about the lack of cultivation is a significant and not incredible statement, which places the England of Rufus in the same light as certain belated feudal parts of India within recent memory.

In the villages of Gujerat, when the festival comes round early in May, the chief of a village collects the cultivators and tells them that it is time for them to commence work. They say: “No! the assessment was too heavy last year, you lay too many taxes upon us.” However, after much higgling, and presents made to the more important men, a day is fixed for cultivation to begin, and the clearing and manuring of the fields proceeds as before[53]. But while Gujerat was still possessed by hundreds of petty feudal chiefs under the Mahratta rule, previous to the establishment of the British Agency in 1821, the exactions of tribute by the Baroda government were so extreme, and enforced by so violent means[54], that cultivation was almost neglected; the towns and villages swarmed with idlers, who subsisted upon milk and ghee from their cows, while indolence and inactivity affected the whole community[55]. A dreadful famine had “raged with destructive fury” over Gujerat and Kattiwar for more than one year about 1812-13-14, which was followed, not by a contagious fever, but by the true bubo-plague.

If the English historian’s language, “agricultura defecit,” with[Pg 31] reference to the tribute exacted by Rufus, have that fitness which we have reason to expect from him,—Higden varies it to “ita ut agricultura cessaret et fames succederet,”—then the famine and mortality about the years 1094-5 were due to no less remarkable a cause than a refusal to cultivate the land. It is not to be supposed that the incubus of excessive tribute passed away with the accession of Henry I. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle repeats the complaint of heavy taxation in connexion with bad harvests and murrains in 1103, 1105 and 1110[56]. Severe winters, or autumn floods, with murrains and scarcity, are recorded also for the years 1111, 1115, 1116, 1117, 1124 and 1125, the famine of 1125 having been attended with a mortality, and having been sufficiently great and general to be mentioned by several chroniclers[57]. In the midst of these years of scarcity and its effects upon the population, there occurs one singular entry of another kind in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, under the year 1112: “This was a very good year, and very abundant in wood and in field; but it was a very sad and sorrowful one, through a most destructive pestilence[58].” Under the year 1130, the annalist of the Welsh monastery of Margan, who is specially attentive to domestic events, records a murrain of cattle all over England, which lasted several years so that scarcely one township escaped the pest, the pigsties becoming suddenly empty, and whole meadows swept of their cattle. It is to the same murrain that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle refers under the year 1131: in towns where there had been ten or twelve ploughs going there was not one left, and the man who had 200 or 300 swine had not one left; after that died the domestic fowls.

These things happened from time to time in the comparatively prosperous reign of Henry I. But with the death of Henry in 1135, there began a state of misery and lawlessness lasting[Pg 32] almost to the accession of Henry II. in 1154, beside which the former state of England was spoken of as “most flourishing[59].” Besides the barbarities of the Scots and the Welsh on the northern and western marches[60], there were the civil wars of the factions of King Stephen and the Empress Maud, and the cruelties and predations of the unruly nobles under the walls of a thousand newly-built strongholds. A graphic account of the condition of England remains to us from the pen of an eyewitness, the observant author of the Gesta Stephani[61]. Under the year 1143 he writes that there was most dire famine in all England; the people ate the flesh of dogs and horses or the raw garbage of herbs and roots. The people in crowds pined and died, or another part entered on a sorrowful exile with their whole families. One might see houses of great name standing nearly empty, the residents of either sex and of every age being dead. As autumn drew near and the fields whitened for the harvest, there was no one to reap them, for the cultivators were cut off by the pestilent hunger which had come between. To these home troubles was added the presence of a multitude of barbarous adventurers, without bowels of pity and compassion, who had flocked to the country for military service. The occasion was one of those which cause the archdeacon of Huntingdon to break out into his elegiac verse:

“Ecce Stygis facies, consimilisque lues[62].”

“And in those days,” says another, “there was no king in Israel[63].” The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which comes to an end in this scene of universal gloom, describes how one might go a day’s journey and never find a man sitting in a town, or the land[Pg 33] tilled, and how men who once were rich had to go begging their bread, concluding with the words, “And they said openly that Christ and His saints slept.”

Among the penances of Henry II. after the murder of Becket, there is recorded his charity in feeding during a dearth ten thousand persons daily from the first of April, 1171, until the harvest[64]. But, apart from a reference to a flux among the troops in Ireland in 1172, from errors of diet[65], the long reign of Henry II. is marked by only one record of general pestilence. It is recorded by the best contemporary writer, Benedict of Peterborough, and it is the first instance in which the number of burials in a day (perhaps at Peterborough) is given. In the year 1175, he says, there was in England and the adjacent regions a pestilential mortality of men, such that on many days seven or eight corpses were carried out to be buried. And immediately upon that pestilential mortality there followed a dire famine[66]. It is to be observed that the famine is explicitly stated to have come after the pestilence, just as in the great mortality of 1087; and, as in the latter case, it may be that a hard winter, with scarcity of food, brought a general sickness, and that the scarcity had been raised to famine point by a second bad harvest. The entry in the chronicle of Melrose for 1173 may refer to Scotland only: a bad kind of cough, unheard of before, affected almost everyone far and wide, whereof, “or from which pest,” many died. This is perhaps the only special reference to “tussis” as epidemic until the influenzas of the seventeenth century.

The comparative freedom of the long reign of Henry II. from famines and national distress probably arose as much from good government as from the clemency of the seasons. The country was growing rich by foreign trade. In 1190 the two leading Jews of York, Joyce and Benedict, were occupying residences in the heart of the town like royal palaces in size and in the sumptuousness of their furniture. The same historian, William of Newburgh,[Pg 34] who records the king’s protection of these envied capitalists, mentions also his protection of “the poor, the widows and the orphans,” and his liberal charities. That the king’s protection of his poorer subjects was not unneeded, would be obvious if we could trust the extraordinary account of the keen traders of London which is put by Richard of Devizes into the mouth of a hostile witness[67]. The peoples of all nations, it appears, flocked to London, each nationality contributing to the morals of the capital its proper vices and manners. There was no righteous person in London, no, not one; there were more thieves in London than in all France[68]. In the entirely different account, of the same date, by an enthusiastic Londoner, the monk Fitz-Stephen, the only “plagues” of London are said to be “the immoderate drinking of fools and the frequency of fires.” The city and suburbs had one hundred and twenty-six small parish churches, besides thirteen greater conventual churches; and it was a model to all the world for religious observances. “Nearly all the bishops, abbots, and magnates of England are, as it were, citizens and freemen of London; having there their own splendid houses, to which they resort, where they spend largely when summoned to great councils by the king or by their metropolitan, or drawn thither by their own private affairs[69].” The archdeacon of London, of the same date, Peter of Blois, in a letter to the pope, Innocent III., concerning the extent of his duties and the smallness of his stipend, gives the parish churches in the city at one hundred and twenty, and the population at forty thousand[70].[Pg 35] The Germans who came in the train of Richard I. on his return to England in 1194, after his release from the hands of the emperor, were amazed at the display of wealth and finery which the Londoners made to welcome back the king; if the emperor had known the riches of England, they said, he would have demanded a heavier ransom[71]. The ransom, all the same, required a second, or even a third levy before it was raised, owing, it was said, to peculation; and the ecclesiastics, who held a large part of the soil, appear to have had so little in hand to pay their share that they had to pledge the gold and silver vessels of the altar[72].

The year of Richard’s accession, 1189, is given by the annalist of the Welsh monastery of Margan, as a year of severe famine and of a mortality of men. Probably it was a local famine, and it may well have been the same in which Giraldus Cambrensis says that he himself saw crowds of poor people coming day after day to the gates of the monastery of Margan, so that the brethren took counsel and sent a ship to Bristol for corn[73]. The great and general famine with pestilence in Richard’s time was in the years 1193, 1194, 1195, 1196 and 1197, and it appears to have been felt in France, in the basin of the Danube, and over all Europe, as well as in England. Of the pestilence which came with it in England we have an exceptionally full account from the pen of William of Newburgh. The monastery in which William wrote his history was situated among woods by the side of a stream under the Hambledon hills in Yorkshire, on the road between York and the mouth of the Tees; so that when he says of this famine and pestilence, “we speak what we do know, and testify what we have seen,” he may be taken as recording the experience of a sufficiently typical region of rural England.

[Pg 36]His narrative of the pestilence[74] is given under the year 1196, which was the fourth year of the scarcity or famine: After the crowds of poor had been dying on all sides of want, a most savage plague ensued, as if from air corrupted by dead bodies of the poor. This pestilence showed but little respect even for those who had abundance of food; and as to those who were in want, it put an end to their long agony of hunger. The disease crept about everywhere, always of one type, namely that of an acute fever. Day after day it seized so many, and finished so many more, so that there were scarcely to be found any to give heed to the sick or to bury the dead. The usual rites of burial were omitted, except in the case of some nobler or richer person; at whatever hour anyone died the body was forthwith committed to the earth, and in many places great trenches were made if the number of corpses was too great to afford time for burying them one by one. And as so many were dying every day, even those who were in health fell into low spirits, and went about with pale faces, themselves the living picture of death. In the monasteries alone was this pestilence comparatively unfelt. After it had raged on all sides for five or six months, it subsided when the winter cold came.

Those lean years were doubtless followed by seven fat years; for it is not until 1203, the fourth year of John, that we again meet with the records of famine and pestilence. From various monasteries, from Waverley in Sussex, Tewkesbury in Gloucester and Margan in Glamorgan, we have the same testimony—“fames magna et mortalitas,” “fames valida, et saeva mortalitas multitudinem pauperum extinguit,” “maxima fames.” The monks of Waverley had to leave their own house and disperse themselves through various monasteries. Two years after, 1205, there came so hard a season that the winter-sown seed was almost killed by frost. The Thames was crossed on the ice, and there was no ploughing for many weeks. An Essex annalist says there was a famine, and quotes the famine prices: a quarter of wheat was sold for a pound in many parts of England, although in Henry II.’s time it was often as low as twelve pence; a quarter of beans[Pg 37] ten shillings; a quarter of oats forty pence, which used to be four pence[75]. The annalist at Margan enters also the year 1210 as a sickly one throughout England[76].

We are now come to the period when we can read the succession of these events in the domestic life of the people from the more trustworthy records of the St Albans school of historians. Of the scarcity and sickness among the poor in 1234 we have some suggestive particulars by Roger of Wendover[77], and for the series of famines and epidemics from 1257 to 1259 we have a comparatively full account by his famous successor in the office of historiographer to the abbey, Matthew Paris[78]. The next St Albans scriptorius, Rishanger[79], notes the kind of harvest every year from 1259 to 1305, and for only one of those years after the scarcity of 1259 was past, namely the year 1294, does he speak of the people dying of hunger. His successor, John Trokelowe[80], carries on the annals to 1323, and gives us some particulars, not without diagnostic value, of the great famine-sickness of 1315-16, and of the succession of dear years of which the epidemic was an incident. It is on these contemporary accounts by the St Albans school, together with the record for the year 1196 by William of Newburgh, that our knowledge of the famine-pestilences of England must be based.

With the harvest of 1259 begins the tabulation of agricultural prices from farm-bailiffs’ accounts, by Professor Thorold Rogers, a work of vast labour in which the economic history of the English people is written in indubitable characters, and by means of which we are enabled to check the more general and often rhetorical statements of the contemporary historians.

Although the history of the last year or two of John and of the earlier years of Henry III. is full of turbulence and rapine, yet we hear of no general distress among the cultivators of the soil. The contemporary authority, Roger of Wendover, has no[Pg 38] entry of the kind until 1234, excepting a single note under the year 1222, that wheat rose to twelve shillings the quarter. We hear of king John and his following as plundering the rich churchmen and laymen all the way from St Albans to Nottingham, of William Longspée, earl of Salisbury, carrying on the same practices in the counties of Essex, Middlesex, Hertford, Cambridge and Huntingdon, of the spoliation of the Isle of Ely, and of the occupation of towns and villages in Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk by Louis, Dauphin of France, the king-elect, or broken reed, on whom the Barons of Magna Charta thought for a time to lean[81]. But the whole of that period, and of the years following until 1234, is absolutely free from any record of wide-spread distress among the lower class. We are reminded of the observation by Philip de Comines, with the civil wars of York and Lancaster in his mind, a saying which is doubtless true of all the struggles in England for the settlement of the respective claims of king and aristocracy: “England has this peculiar grace,” says the French statesman, “that neither the country, nor the people, nor the houses are wasted or demolished; but the calamities and misfortunes of the war fall only upon the soldiers and especially the nobility, of whom they are more than ordinarily jealous: for nothing is perfect in this world.” That cannot apply of course to the barbarous incursions of the Scots and the Welsh; for the northern marches were often reduced to desolation during a period of three hundred years after the Conquest and were never more desolate than in the reign of Richard II.; while the marches of Wales were subject to not less ruthless spoliations until the concessions to the Welsh by Edward I. Nor is the immunity of the peasantry from the troubles of civil war to be taken as absolute; for we find under the year 1264, when Simon de Montfort was in the field against the king, an explicit statement that the small peasantry were plundered even to the poor furniture of their cottages. But on the whole we may take it that the paralysing effect of civil war seldom reached to the English lower classes in the medieval period, that the tenour of their lives was seldom disturbed except[Pg 39] by famine or plague, and that kings and nobles were left to fight it out among themselves.

We become aware, however, from the time of the Great Charter, and during the steady growth of the country’s prosperity, of a widening chasm between the rich and the poor within the ranks of the commons themselves, and that too, not only in the centres of trade (as we shall see), but also in country districts. The claims of feudal service did not prevent some among the villagers from adding house to house, and field to field, thereby marking in every parish the interval between the thriving and comfortable and a residuum of pauperes composed of the less capable or the less fortunate. A curious story, told by Roger of Wendover of the village of Abbotsley near St Neots, will serve as an illustration of a fact which we might be otherwise well assured of from first principles[82].

The year 1234 was the third of a succession of lean years. So sharp was the famine before the harvest of that year, that crowds of the poor went to the fields in the month of July, and plucked the unripe ears of corn, rubbing them in their hands and eating the raw grain. The St Albans monk is full of indignation against the prevailing spirit of avarice which reduced some of the people to that sad necessity: Alms had everywhere gone out of fashion; the rich, abounding in all manner of temporal goods, were so smitten with blind greed that they suffered Christian men, made in the image of God, to die for want of food. Some, indeed, were so impious as to say that their wealth was due to their own industry, and not to the gift of God. Of that mind seem to have been the more prosperous cultivators of the village of Abbotsley “who looked on the needy with an eye of suspicion[83].”

The following story is told of them. Seeing the poor making free with their corn in the ear, they assembled in the parish church on a Sunday in August, and assailed the parson with their clamours, demanding that he would forthwith pronounce the ban of the Church upon those who helped themselves to the ears of corn. The parson, notwithstanding a well-known precedent in the Gospels, was about to yield to their insistence, when a man[Pg 40] of religion and piety rose in the congregation and adjured the priest, in the name of God and all His saints, to refrain from the sentence, adding that those who were in need were welcome to help themselves to his own corn. The others, however, insisted, and the parson was just beginning to ban the pilferers, when a thunderstorm suddenly burst, with hail and torrents of rain. When the storm had passed, the peasants went out to find their crops destroyed,—all but that one simple and just man who found his corn untouched.

We have only to recall the minute subdivisions of the common field, or fields, of the parish into half-acre strips separated by balks of turf, and the fact that no two half-acres of the same cultivator lay together, to realize how nice must have been the discrimination[84].

But the moral of the story is obvious. It is an appeal to the teaching and the sanction of the Gospels, against the rooted belief of the natural man that he owes what he has to his own industry and thrift, and that it is no business of his to part with his goods for the sustenance of a helpless and improvident class.

The spirit of avarice, according to Wendover, permeated all classes at this period, from high ecclesiastics downwards. Walter, archbishop of York, had his granaries full of corn during the scarcity, some of it five years old. When the peasants on his manors asked to be supplied from these stores in the summer of 1234, the archbishop instructed his bailiffs to give out the old corn on condition of getting new for it when the harvest was over. It need not be told at length how the archbishop’s barns at Ripon were found on examination to be infested with vermin, how the corn had turned mouldy and rotten, and how the whole of it had to be destroyed by fire[85]. Of the same import are the raids upon the barns of the alien or Italian clergy in 1228, in the diocese of Winchester and elsewhere, and the ostentatious distribution by the raiders of doles to the poor[86].

[Pg 41]The somewhat parallel course of public morality in the centres of trade, or, as Wendover would call it, the prevalence of avarice, demands a brief notice for our purpose.

In every state of society, there will of course be rich and poor. But a class of pauperes seems to emerge more distinctly in the life of England from about the beginning of the thirteenth century. The period corresponds to the appearance on the scene of St Francis and his friars. Doubtless St Francis was inspired by a true sense of what the time needed, even if it be open to contend that his ministrations of charity brought out, consolidated, and kept alive a helpless class who would have been less heard of if they had been left to the tender mercies of economic principles. The mission of the friars was not merely to the poor; it was also to the rich, whether of the church or of the world, “to soften the hardness of their hearts by the oil of preaching[87].” It was one of these interpositions, ever needed and never wanting, to reduce the inequalities of the human lot, not by preaching down-right theoretical communism, but, more by force of rhetoric than of logic, to extort from the strong some concessions to the weak, to mitigate the severity of the struggle for existence, and to bring the respectable vices of greed and sharp practice to the bar of conscience.

As early as 1196 there is the significant incident, in the city of London, of the rising of the poorer class and the middling class, headed by Fitzosbert Longbeard, himself one of the privileged citizens, against an assessment in which the class represented by the mayor and aldermen were alleged to have been very tender of their own interests[88]. Longbeard was hailed as “the friend of the poor,” and, having lost his life in their cause (whether in the street before Bow Church, or on a gallows at Tyburn, or at the Smithfield elms, the narratives are not agreed), he is celebrated by the sympathetic Matthew Paris as “the martyr of the poor[89].” That historian continues, after the[Pg 42] manner of his predecessor Wendover, to speak of Londoners as on the one hand the “mediocres, populares et plebei,” and on the other hand the “divites.” In 1258 the latter class overreached themselves: they were caught in actual vulgar peculation of money raised by assessment for repairing the city walls; some of them were thrown into prison and only escaped death through the royal clemency at the instance of the notorious pluralist John Mansel, and on making restitution of their plunder; but one of them, the mayor, never recovered the blow to his respectability, and died soon after of grief[90]. Whether it meant a wide-spread spirit of petty fraud, or some unadjusted change in value, the young king in 1228, during a journey from York to London, took occasion along his route to destroy the “false measures” of corn, ale and wine, to substitute more ample measures, and to increase the weight of the loaf.

The scarcity or famine of 1234, to which the Abbotsley incident belongs, was accompanied, says the St Albans annalist, by a mortality which raged cruelly everywhere. On the other hand the annalist of Tewkesbury may be credited when he says that, although the year was one of scarcity, corn being at eight shillings, yet “by the grace of God the poor were better sustained than in other years[91].”

There was an epidemic in 1247, but it is not clear whether it was due to famine. Although Higden, quoting from some unknown record, says that there was dearth in England in that year, wheat being at twelve shillings the quarter, yet he does not mention sickness at all; and Matthew Paris, who was then living, is explicit that the harvest of 1247 was an abundant one, and that the mortality did not begin until September of that year. There does appear, however, to have been a sharp famine in Wales; and it is recorded that the bishop of Norwich, “about the year 1245,” in a time of great dearth, sold all his plate and distributed it to the poor[92]. All that we know of this epidemic is the statement of Matthew Paris, that it began in September and lasted for three months; and that as many[Pg 43] as nine or ten bodies were buried in one day in the single churchyard of St Peter’s at Saint Albans[93].

Matthew Paris notes the quality of the harvest and the prices of grain every year, and his successor Rishanger continues the practice. The prices noted appear, from comparison with those tabulated by Thorold Rogers from actual accounts, to have been the lowest market rates of the year. The harvest of 1248 was plentiful, and wheat sold at two shillings and sixpence a quarter. In 1249 and 1250 it was at two shillings, oats being at one shilling. But those years of exceptional abundance were followed at no long interval by a series of years of scarcity or famine, which brought pestilential sickness of the severest kind.

The scarcity or famine in the years 1256-59 was all the more acutely felt owing to the dearth of money in the country. The burden of the history of Matthew Paris before he comes to the famine is that England had been emptied of treasure by the exactions of king and pope. Henry III. was under some not quite intelligible obligation of money to his brother, the earl of Cornwall. The English earl was a candidate for the Imperial crown, and had got so far towards the dignity of emperor as to have been made king of the Germans. It was English money that went to pay his German troops, and to further his cause with the electoral princes; but the circulating coin of England does not appear to have sufficed for these and domestic purposes also. The harvest of 1256 had been spoiled by wet, and the weather of the spring of 1257 was wretched in the extreme. All England was in a state of marsh and mud, and the roads were impassable. Many sowed their fields over again; but the autumn proved as wet as the rest of the year. “Whatever had been sown in winter, whatever had germinated in spring, whatever the summer had brought forward—all was drowned in the floods of autumn.” The want of coins in circulation caused unheard-of poverty. At the end of the year the fields lay untilled, and a multitude of people were dead of famine. At Christmas wheat rose to ten shillings a quarter. But the year 1257 appears to have had “lethal fevers” before the loss of the[Pg 44] harvest of that year could be felt. Not to mention other places, says the St Albans historian, there was at St Edmundsbury in the dog-days so great a mortality that more than two thousand bodies were buried in its spacious cemetery[94].

The full effects of the famine were not felt until the spring of 1258. So great was the pinch in London from the failure of the crops and the want of money that fifteen thousand[95] are said to have died of famine, and of a grievous and wide-spread pestilence that broke out about the feast of the Trinity (19 May).

The earl of Cornwall (and king of Germany) who had relieved the country of a great part of its circulating coin, took the opportunity to buy up corn in Germany and Holland for the supply of the London market. Fifty great ships, says Matthew Paris, arrived in the Thames laden with wheat, barley, and other grain. Not three English counties had produced as much as was imported. The corn was for such as could buy it; but the king interposed with an edict that, whereas greed was to be discouraged, no one was to buy the foreign corn in order to store it up and trade in it. Those who had no money, we are expressly told, died of hunger, even after the arrival of the ships; and even men of good position went about with faces pinched by hunger, and passed sleepless nights sighing for bread. No one had seen such famine and misery, although many would have remembered corn at higher prices. The price quoted about this stage of the narrative, although not with special reference to the foreign wheat, is nine shillings the quarter. Elsewhere the price is said to have mounted up to fifteen shillings, which may have been the rate before the foreign supply came in. But such was the scarceness of money, we are told, that if the price of the quarter of wheat had been less, there would hardly have been found anyone to buy it.[Pg 45] Even those who were wont to succour the miserable were now reduced to perish along with them. It is difficult to believe that the historian has not given way to the temptations of rhetoric, and it is pleasing to be able to give the following complement to his picture. After some 15,000 had died in London, mostly of the poorer sort, one might hear a crier making proclamation to the starving multitude to go to a distribution of bread by this or that nobleman, at such and such a place, mentioning the name of the benefactor and the place of dole.

In other passages, which may be taken as picturing the state of matters in the country, the historian says that the bodies of the starved were found swollen and livid, lying five or six together in pig-sties, or on dungheaps, or in the mud of farmyards. The dying were refused shelter and succour for fear of contagion, and scarcely anyone would go near the dead to bury them. Where many corpses were found together, they were buried in capacious trenches in the churchyards.

We come now to the harvest of 1258. After a bleak and late spring the crops had come forward well under excessive heat in summer, and the harvest was an unusually abundant, although a late one. Rains set in before the corn could be cut, and at the feast of All Saints (1 November) the heavy crops had rotted until the fields were like so many dungheaps. Only in some places was any attempt made to carry the harvest home, and then it was so spoiled as to be hardly worth the trouble. Even the mouldy grain sold as high as sixteen shillings a quarter. The famishing people resorted to various shifts, selling their cattle and reducing their households. How the country got through the winter, we are not told. Matthew Paris himself died early in 1259, and the annalist who added a few pages to the Chronica Majora after his death, merely mentions that the corn, the oil and the wine turned corrupt, and that as the sun entered Cancer a pestilence and mortality of men began unexpectedly, in which many died. Among others Fulk, the bishop of London, died of pestilence in the spring of 1259; and, to say nothing of many other places, at Paris —— thousand (the number is left blank) were buried.

[Pg 46]The vagueness of the last statement reminds us that we are now deprived of the comparatively safe guidance of Matthew Paris. His successor in the office of annalist at St Albans, Rishanger, is much less trustworthy. He sums up the year 1259 in a paragraph which repeats exactly the facts of the notorious year 1258, and probably applies to that alone; for the year 1260 his summary is that it was more severe, more cruel and more terrible to all living things than the year before, the pestilence and famine being intolerable. There is, however, no confirmation of that in the authentic prices of the year collected by Thorold Rogers. Parcels of wheat of the harvest of 1259 were sold at about five and six shillings, and of the harvest of 1260 at from three shillings and sixpence to six shillings. For a number of years, corresponding to the Barons’ war and the war in Wales, the price is moderate or low, the figures of extant bailiffs’ accounts agreeing on the whole with Rishanger’s summary statements about the respective harvests[96]. The years from 1271 to 1273 were dear years, and for the first of the series we find a doubtful record by the[Pg 47] Yorkshire continuator of William of Newburgh that there was “a great famine and pestilence in England and Ireland[97].” The harvest of 1288 was so abundant that the price of wheat in the bailiffs’ accounts is mostly about two shillings, ranging from sixteen pence to four and eightpence. Rishanger’s prices for the year are sufficiently near the mark: in some places wheat sold at twenty pence the quarter, in others at sixteen pence, and in others at twelve pence. From that extremely low point, a rise begins which culminates in 1294. The chronicler’s statement for 1289, that in London the bushel of wheat rose from threepence to two shillings, is not borne out by the bailiffs’ accounts, which show a range of from two shillings and eightpence to six shillings the quarter. But these accounts confirm the statement that the years following were dear years, and that 1294 was a year of famine prices, wheat having touched fourteen shillings at Cambridge, in July. Rishanger’s two notes are that the poor perished of hunger, and that the poor died of hunger on all sides, afflicted with a looseness (lienteria)[98]. The two years following are also given as hard for the poor, but not as years of famine or sickness; the country was at the same time heavily taxed for the expenses of the war which Edward I. was waging against the Scots. Ordinary prosperity attends the cultivators of the soil until the end of Rishanger’s chronicle in 1305; and from the beginning of Trokelowe’s in 1307, the year of Edward II.’s accession, there is nothing for our purpose until we come to the great famine of 1315[99].

It is clear, however, that prices were high in every year from 1309 until that famine, with the single exception of the harvest of 1311. At the meeting of Parliament in London before[Pg 48] Easter in 1315, the dearth was a subject of deliberation, and a King’s writ was issued attempting to fix the prices at which fat oxen, cows, sheep, pigs, geese, fowls, capons, chickens, pigeons and eggs should be sold on demand, subject to confiscation if the sale were refused. The statute was ineffective (it was repealed the year after), and provisions became dearer than ever. The quarter of wheat, beans and peas sold for twenty shillings, of oats for ten shillings, and of salt for thirty-five. When the king stopped at St Albans at the feast of St Lawrence, says Trokelowe, it was hardly possible to buy bread for the use of his household. The scarcity was most felt from the month of May until the harvest. With the new crop, ruined as it was by rains and floods, the scarcity lessened somewhat, but not before many had felt the pinch of hunger, and others were seen (as the St Albans annalist says he saw them) lying squalid and dead in the villages and by the road-sides. At Midsummer, 1316, wheat rose to thirty shillings, and after that as high as forty shillings (the highest price found by Thorold Rogers is twenty-six shillings and eightpence at Leatherhead in July). The various forms of famine-sickness are mentioned:—dysentery from corrupt food, affecting nearly everyone, an acute fever which killed many, or a putrid sore throat (pestis gutturuosa). To show the extremities to which England was reduced, Trokelowe specially inserts the following: Ordinary flesh was not to be had, but horse-flesh was eaten, fat dogs were stolen to eat, and it was rumoured abroad that in many places both men and women secretly ate the flesh of their own children, or of the children of others. But the detail which Trokelowe justly thinks posterity will be most horrified to read, is that prisoners in gaols set upon the thieves newly brought in and devoured them alive.

It is probably the same famine and pestilence that we find worked into the metrical romance of Robert of Brunne (1338), under the guise of the plague ‘in Cadwaladre’s time,’ that is, the pestilence recorded by Beda for the year 664. The Lincolnshire romancist must have seen the famine and pestilence of 1315-16, for he was then in the prime of life, and probably he transferred his own experiences of famine and pestilence to the[Pg 49] remote episode of the seventh century, to which he devotes thirty-eight lines of his romance. In Cadwaladre’s time the corn fails and there is great hunger. A man may go for three days before he can buy any food in burgh, or in city, or in upland; he may indeed catch wild creatures, or fishes, or gather leaves and roots. Worse still, a plague comes, from rotten air and wicked winds, so that hale men fall down suddenly and die; gentle and bondmen all go, hardly any are left to till the land, the living cannot bury the dead, those who try fall dead in the grave. Men leave house and land, and few are left in the country. Eleven years does Britain lie waste with but few folk to till the land[100].

After the famine of 1315-16, the third and last of the great and, one may say, disgraceful famines which gave rise to the by-word “Anglorum fames,” prices continued at their ordinary level for several years. But from 1320 to 1323 they again came to a height. To that period probably belongs a mortality which is entered, in a chronicle of the next century[101], under the year 1325. On the contemporary authority of Higden we know that, in 1322, the king went to Scotland about the feast of St Peter ad Vincula, “and though he met not with resistance, lost many of his own by famine and disease.” After that period of scarcity comes a long succession of cheap years, covering the interval to the next great event in the annals of pestilence that concerns us, the arrival of the Black Death in the autumn of 1348. With that great event the history of English epidemics enters upon a new chapter. There were, of course, years of dearth and scarcity in the centuries following, but there were no great famine-pestilences like those of 1196, 1258 and 1315.

The period of the great famines ought not to be left without another reference to the widening gulf between the rich and the poor, and the keenness of traders which led them sometimes to incur the restraints of government and the punishments of justice.

On 26 March, 1269, was issued one of those ordinances against forestalling, of which many more followed for several[Pg 50] centuries: no citizen to go outside the city of London, either by road or river, to meet victuals coming to market. In the 7th year of Edward I., clipping or debasing the coinage was carried on so systematically that nearly three hundred persons, mostly of the Hebrew race, were drawn and hanged for it. In the 11th year of Edward I. (1283) a statute had been directed against cheating by bakers and millers. Meanwhile the nobility retaliated by plundering the traders and merchants at Boston fair, and the king settled the account with these marauding nobles by hanging them. A statute of 1316, the second year of the famine, to fix the price of ale, has an interest on account of its motive—“ne frumentum ulterius per potum consumeretur.” The proportion of the corn of the country turned into malt, or the amount diverted from bread to beer, may be guessed from the fact that in London, for which the beer ordinance was first made, there were in 1309, brewhouses to the number of 1334, and taverns to the number of 354[102]. In the very year of great famine, 1316, an ordinance was issued (in French, dated from King’s Langley) against extravagant housekeeping[103]. In the year of great scarcity and mortality, 1322, there was such a crowd for a funeral dole at Blackfriars (for the soul of Henry Fingret) that fifty-five persons, children and adults, were crushed to death in the scramble[104]. At the same time the prior of Christ Church, Canterbury, was sitting down to dinners of seventeen dishes, the cellarer had thirty-eight servants under him, the chamberlain and sacrist had large numbers of people employed as tailors, furriers, launderers and the like, and the servants and equipages of the one hundred and forty brethren were numerous and splendid[105]. The monasteries, on which the relief of the poor mostly depended, have been thus characterized:

“From the end of the twelfth century until the Reformation,” says Bishop Stubbs, “from the days of Hubert Walter to those of Wolsey, the monasteries remained magnificent hostelries: their churches were splendid chapels for noble patrons; their inhabitants were bachelor country gentlemen, more polished and charitable, but little more learned or more pure in life[Pg 51] than their lay neighbours; their estates were well managed, and enjoyed great advantages and exemptions; they were, in fact, an element of peace in a nation that delighted in war. But, with a few noble exceptions, there was nothing in the system that did spiritual service[106].”

There is little to be said, at this period, of the profession most directly concerned with sickness, epidemic or other, namely the medical. We become aware of its existence on rare occasions: as in the account of the death of William the Conqueror at Rouen on 9 September, 1087, of the illness and death of Hubert, archbishop of Canterbury, on 13 July, 1205, at one of his manors on a journey to Rochester[107], or in the reference by William of Newburgh, to the noted Jewish physician of King’s Lynn, whose honourable repute among the citizens for skill and modesty did not save him from the murderous fanaticism against his race in 1190[108], or in occasional letters of the time[109]. There were doubtless benevolent men among the practitioners of medicine, then as now; but the profession has never been one in which individuals could rise conspicuously above the level of their age, and the moral standard of those centuries was a poor one. It is not surprising, then, that John of Salisbury, indulging a taste for epigram, should have characterized the profession of medicine in the twelfth century as follows: “They have only two maxims which they never violate, ‘Never mind the poor; never refuse money from the rich’[110].”

The one English physician whose writings have come down to us from the period that we are still engaged with, is John of Gaddesden. There is every reason to think that he was practising at the time of the famine and pestilence of 1315-16; but it is not from his bulky treatise on medicine that we learn the nosological types of the epidemic maladies of those years. Some account of his Rosa Anglica will be found in the[Pg 52] chapter on Smallpox; it must suffice to say here that he was a verbalist compiler from other books, themselves not altogether original, and that, according to Dr Freind, he displays no great knowledge of his profession.

It is nothing strange, therefore, that Gaddesden throws no light upon the famine-pestilences of England, such as those of 1315-16, which he lived through. Dysentery and lientery, he treats of almost in the very words of Gilbertus Anglicus; but those maladies might have been among the dwellers in another planet, so far as native experience comes in. He reproduces whole chapters from his predecessors, on synochus and synocha, without a hint that England ever witnessed such scenes of hunger-typhus as the St Albans chroniclers have recorded for us from their own observation. The reference by Trokelowe to the prevalence of pestis gutturuosa in 1316, is one that a medical writer of the time might well have amplified; but Gaddesden missed the opportunity of perhaps anticipating Fothergill’s description of putrid sore-throat by more than four hundred years.


Epidemics of St Anthony’s Fire, or Ergotism.

One form of epidemic malady, intimately connected with bad harvests and a poor state of agriculture, namely Ergotism, from the mixture of poisoned grains in the rye or other corn, is conspicuously missed from English records of the medieval period, although it plays a great part in the history of French epidemics of the Middle Ages, under such names as ignis sacer, ignis S. Antonii, or ignis infernalis. According to the proverbial saying already quoted, France was as notorious for ignis as England for famine, and Normandy for lepra: “Tres plagae tribus regionibus appropriari solent, Anglorum fames, Gallorum ignis, Normannorum lepra[111].” The malady was of a nature to attract notice and excite pity; it is entered by chroniclers, and is a frequent topic in French legends of the Saints. Its occurrence in epidemic form can be traced in France, with a degree[Pg 53] of probability, as far back as 857 (perhaps to 590); six great outbreaks are recorded in the tenth century, seven in the eleventh, ten in the twelfth, and three in the thirteenth, the medieval series ending with one in the year 1373. The estimates of mortality in the several epidemics of ergotism over a larger or smaller area of France, range as high as 40,000, and 14,000, which numbers may be taken to be the roughest of guesses; but in later times upwards of 500 deaths from ergotism have been accurately counted in a single outbreak within a limited district. The epidemics have been observed in particular seasons, sometimes twenty years or more elapsing without the disease being seen; they have occurred also in particular provinces—in the basin of the Loire, in Lorraine, and, since the close of the medieval period, especially in the Sologne. The disease has usually been traced to a spoiled rye crop; but there is undoubted evidence from the more recent period that a poison with corresponding effects can be produced in some other cereals, even in wheat itself.

In a field of rye, especially after a wet sowing or a wet season of growth, a certain proportion of the heads bear long brown or purple corns, one or more upon a head, projecting in the shape of a cock’s spur, whence the French name of ergot. The spur appears to be, and probably is, an overgrown grain of rye; it is grooved like a rye-corn, occupies the place of the corn between the two chaff-coverings, and contains an abundant whitish meal. Microscopic research has detected in or upon the spurred rye the filaments of a minute parasitic mould; so that it is to the invasion by a parasite that we may trace the enormous overgrowth of one or more grains on an ear, and it is probably to the ferment-action of the fungus that we should ascribe the poisonous properties of the meal. The proportion of all the stalks in a field so affected will vary considerably, as well as the proportion of grains on each affected head of corn[112]. Rye affected with ergot is apt to be a poor crop at any rate; one or more spurred corns on a head tend to keep the rest of the grains small or unfilled; and if there be many stalks[Pg 54] in the field so affected, the spurred grain will bulk considerably in the whole yield. When the diseased grains are ground to meal along with the healthy grains, the meal and the bread will contain an appreciable quantity of the poison of ergot; and if rye-bread were the staple food, there would be a great risk, after an unusually bad harvest, of an outbreak of the remarkable constitutional effects of ergotism. Rye-bread with much ergot in it may be rather blacker than usual; but it is said to have no peculiar taste.

It is almost exclusively among the peasantry that symptoms of ergotism have been seen, and among children particularly. The attack usually began with intense pains in the legs or feet, causing the victims to writhe and scream. A fire seemed to burn between the flesh and the bones, and, at a later stage, even in the bowels, the surface of the body being all the while cold as ice. Sometimes the skin of affected limbs became livid or black; now and then large blebs or blisters arose upon it, as in bad kinds of erysipelas. Gangrene or sloughing of the extremities followed; a foot or a hand fell off, or the flesh of a whole limb was destroyed down to the bones, by a process which began in the deeper textures. The spontaneous separation of a gangrenous hand or foot was on the whole a good sign for the recovery of the patient. Such was the ignis sacer, or ignis S. Antonii which figures prominently, I am told, in the French legends of the Saints, and of which epidemics are recorded in the French medieval chronicles. Corresponding effects of ergotism may or may not have occurred during the medieval period in other countries of Europe where rye was grown.

The remarkable thing is, that when we do begin in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to obtain evidence of agrarian epidemics in Germany, Sweden and Russia, which have eventually come to be identified, in the light of more recent knowledge, with ergotism, the type of the disease is different, not perhaps fundamentally or in the ultimate pathological analysis, but at all events different as being a functional disorder of the nervous system, instead of a disorder, on nervous lines, affecting the nutrition of parts and their structural[Pg 55] integrity. This newer form, distinctive of Germany and north-eastern Europe, was known by the name of Kriebelkrankheit, from the creeping or itching sensations in the limbs at the beginning of it; these heightened sensibilities often amounted to acute pain, as in the beginning of the gangrenous form also; but the affection of the sensory nerves, instead of leading to a breakdown in the nutrition of the parts and to gangrene, was followed by disorder of the motor nerves,—by spasms of the hands and arms, feet and legs, very often passing into contractures of the joints which no force could unbend, and in some cases passing into periodic convulsive fits of the whole body like epilepsy, whence the name of convulsive ergotism[113].

Side by side with these German, Swedish and Russian outbreaks of convulsive ergotism, or Kriebelkrankheit (called by Linnaeus in Sweden by the Latin name raphania), there had been a renewal or continuance of the medieval epidemics in France, notably in the Sologne; but the French ergotism has retained its old type of ignis or gangrene. It was not until the eighteenth century that the learned world became clear as to the connexion between either of those forms of disease among the peasantry and a damaged rye-crop, although the country people themselves, and the observant medical practitioners of the affected districts, had put this and that together long before. Thus, as late as 1672-75, there were communications made to the Paris Academy of Medicine[114] by observers in the Sologne and especially around Montargis, in which ergot of rye is clearly described, as well as the associated symptoms of gangrenous disease in the peasantry; but the connexion between the two was still regarded as open to doubt, and as a question that could only be settled by experiment; while there is not a hint given that these modern outbreaks were of the same nature as the notorious medieval ignis sacer. According to Häser, it was not until the French essay of Read (Strasbourg, 1771) that the[Pg 56] identity of the old ignis with the modern gangrenous ergotism was pointed out.

The result of the modern study of outbreaks of ergotism, including the minute record of individual cases, has been to show that there is no hard and fast line between the gangrenous and convulsive forms, that the French epidemics, although on the whole marked by the phenomena of gangrene, have not been wanting in functional nervous symptoms, and that the German or northern outbreaks have often been of a mixed type. Thus, in the French accounts of 1676, “malign fevers accompanied with drowsiness and raving,” are mentioned along with “the gangrene in the arms but mostly in the legs, which ordinarily are corrupted first.”

Again, the observations of Th. O. Heusinger[115] on an outbreak near Marburg in 1855-56, led him decidedly to conclude for the essential sameness of ignis and Kriebelkrankheit, and for the existence of a middle type, although undoubtedly the sensory and motor disorders, including hyperaesthesia, pain and anaesthesia on the one hand, and contractures of the joints, choreic movements and convulsions on the other, were more distinctive of the epidemics of ergotism on German or northern European soil.

Thus far the foreign experience of ergotism, both medieval and modern, and of its several types. We shall now be in a position to examine the English records for indications of the same effects of damaged grain.

In the English medieval chronicles an occasional reference may be found to ignis or wild fire. The reference to wild fire in Derbyshire in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle under the year 1049, probably means some meteorological phenomenon, elsewhere called ignis sylvaticus: “Eac þ wilde fyr on Deorbyscire micel yfel dyde[116].” Whatever the ignis sylvaticus or ignis aereus was, which destroyed houses as well as crops, there appears to be no[Pg 57] warrant for the conclusion of C. F. Heusinger that it was the same as the ignis sacer of the French peasantry[117]. An undoubted reference to ignis infernalis as a human malady occurs in the Topography of Ireland by Giraldus Cambrensis: a certain archer who had ravished a woman at St Fechin’s mill at Fore was overtaken by swift vengeance, “igne infernali in membro percussus, usque in ipsum corpus statim exarsit, et nocte eadem exspiravit.” Taking the incident as legendary, and the diagnosis as valueless, we may still conclude that the name, at least, of ignis infernalis was familiar to English writers. But in all the accounts of English famines and wide-spread sicknesses in the medieval period which have been extracted from the nearest contemporary authorities, I have found no mention of any disease that might correspond to ergotism[118].

The first undoubted instance of ergotism in England belongs to the eighteenth century. On or about the 10th of January, 1762, a peasant’s family (father, mother, and six children) of Wattisham in Suffolk, were attacked almost simultaneously with[Pg 58] the symptoms of gangrenous ergotism, several of them eventually losing portions of their limbs. The disease began with intense pain in the legs, and contractures of the hands and feet. It was proved that they had not been using rye flour; but their bread for a short time before had been made exclusively from damaged wheat, grown in the neighbourhood and kept apart from the farmer’s good corn so as not to spoil his sample. It had been sent to the mill just before Christmas, and had been used by some others besides the family who developed the symptoms of ergotism[119].

In that authentic instance of ergotism (although not from rye), there was one symptom, the contractures of the hands and feet, which is distinctive of the convulsive form; so that the English type may be said to have been a mixture of the French form and of the form special to the north-eastern countries of Europe. With that instance as a type, let us now inquire whether any epidemics in England at earlier periods may not be brought under the head of ergotism. It is to be kept in mind that none of the medieval outbreaks were called by their present name, or traced to their true source, until centuries after; so that our task is, not to search the records for the name of ergotism, but to scrutinize any anomalous outbreak of disease, or any outbreak distinguished in the chronicles by some unusual mark, with a view to discovering whether it suits the hypothesis of ergotism. I shall have to speak of three such outbreaks in the fourteenth century, and of one in Lancashire and Cheshire in 1702[120].

[Pg 59]The first of these is given by Knighton for a period and a locality that may have been within his own cognizance. In the summer of 1340 there happened in England generally, but especially in the county of Leicester, a certain deplorable and enormous infirmity. It was marked by paroxysms or fits, attended by intolerable suffering; while the fit lasted, the victims emitted a noise like the barking of dogs. A “great pestilence,” or perhaps a great mortality, is said to have ensued[121]. In that record the salient points are, firstly the wide or epidemic incidence of the malady, at all events in Leicestershire, which was Knighton’s own county; secondly the paroxysmal nature of the attacks, and the strange noises emitted therewith; thirdly the intolerable suffering (poena) that attended each fit (passio). Except for the clear indication of pain, one might think of the strange hysterical outbreaks, extending, by a kind of psychical contagion, to whole communities, which were observed about the same period in some parts of the continent of Europe. But of these medieval psychopathies, as they are called, there is hardly any trace in England. The Flagellants came over from Zealand to London in 1349, and gave exhibitions at St Paul’s, but that pseudo-religious mania does not appear to have taken hold among the English. The epidemic recorded by Knighton had probably a more material cause. To illustrate the somewhat meagre reference by Knighton to the strange epidemic of 1340, I shall proceed at once to the remarkable outbreak in Lancashire and Cheshire in 1702, which was clearly not a psychopathy or hysterical outbreak, and yet had a seemingly hysterical element in it. An account of it was sent to the Royal Society by Dr Charles Leigh “of Lancashire[122].”

[Pg 60]“We have this year [1702] had an epidemical fever, attended with very surprising symptoms. In the beginning, the patient was frequently attacked with the colica ventriculi; convulsions in various parts, sometimes violent vomitings, and a dysentery; the jaundice, and in many of them, a suppression of urine; and what urine was made was highly saturated with choler. About the state of the distemper, large purple spots appeared, and on each side of ’em two large blisters, which continued three or four days: these blisters were so placed about the spots that they might in some measure be term’d satellites or tenders: of these there were in many four different eruptions. But the most remarkable instance I saw in the fever was in a poor boy of Lymm in Cheshire, one John Pownel, about 13 years of age, who was affected with the following symptoms:—

“Upon the crisis or turn of the fever, he was seized with an aphonia, and was speechless six weeks [? days], with the following convulsions: the distemper infested the nerves of both arms and legs which produced the Chorea Sancti Viti, or St Vitus’s dance; and the legs sometimes were both so contracted that no person could reduce them to their natural position. Besides these, he had most terrible symptoms, which began in the following manner: [description of convulsions follows] ... and then he barked in all the usual notes of a dog, sometimes snarling, barking, and at the last howling like an hound. After this the nerves of the mandibles were convulsed, and then the jaws clashed together with that violence that several of his teeth were beaten out, and then at several times there came a great foam from his mouth.... These symptoms were so amazing that several persons about him believed he was possessed. I told them there was no ground for such suppositions, but that the distemper was natural, and a species of an epilepsy, and by the effects I convinced them of the truth of it; for in a week’s time I recovered the boy his speech, his senses returned, his convulsions vanished, and the boy is now very cheerful. There have been other persons in this country much after the same manner.”

This epidemic of 1702 in Lancashire and Cheshire was recorded as something unusual. It had certain intestinal symptoms such as colic, which may well have followed the use of poisoned food and are indeed described among the symptoms of ergotism; there were also convulsions, large purple spots with blisters coming and going on the skin near them, and, in the single case that is given with details, there were contractures of the legs “so that no person could reduce them to their natural position,” and a continuance for several days of painful epileptiform fits attended with noises like the barking of a dog, or the hissing of a goose, “all which different sounds (I take it) proceed from the different contractions of the[Pg 61] lungs variously forcing out the air.” The remarkable case of the boy, certified by several witnesses, is expressly given as one belonging to the general epidemic of the locality, others having been affected “much after the same manner.” Whatever suggestion there may be of ergotism in these particulars, nothing is said of gangrene of the limbs, although the livid spots and blisters are part of the symptoms of gangrenous ergotism, just as the convulsions and contractures are of convulsive ergotism. In the Suffolk cases of 1762 there were both contractures of the limbs and gangrene.

Knighton’s mention of the barking noises emitted by the sufferers of 1340 has suggested to Nichols, the author of the History of Leicestershire[123], a comparison of them with the cases investigated by Dr Freind in the year 1700, at the village of Blackthorn in Oxfordshire. Having heard a great rumour in the summer of that year that certain girls at that Oxfordshire village were taken with frequent barkings like dogs, Dr Freind made a journey to the place to investigate the cases[124].

He found that this pestis or plague had invaded two families in the village, on terms of close intimacy with each other. Two or three girls in each family are specially referred to: they were seized at intervals of a few hours with spasms of the neck and mouth, attended by vociferous cries; the spasmodic movements increased to a climax, when the victims sank exhausted. The fits had kept occurring for several weeks, and had appeared in the second family at a considerable interval after the first. The symptoms, said Freind, were those that had been described by Seidelius—distortion of the mouth, indecorous working of the tongue, and noises emitted like barking. He found nothing in the girls’ symptoms that could not be referred to a form of St Vitus’ dance or to hysteria, in which maladies, laughter, howling and beating of the breast are occasionally seen as well as the spasmodic working of the neck and limbs.

The question remains whether the cases of 1700 in the Oxfordshire village, assuming Dr Freind’s reading of them to be correct, were as illustrative of the outbreak of 1340 as the cases of 1702 in Lancashire and Cheshire, which were probably too numerous and too much complicated with symptoms of[Pg 62] material toxic disorder to be explained as hysterical. There is, indeed, a larger question raised, whether the so-called psychopathies of the medieval and more recent periods may not have had a beginning, at least, in some toxic property of the staple food. The imagination readily fixes upon such symptoms as foaming at the mouth and barking noises, exalts these phenomena over deeper symptoms that a physician might have detected, and finds a simple explanation of the whole complex seizure as demoniac possession or, in modern phrase, as a psychopathy. Without questioning the subjective or imitative nature of many outbreaks which have been set down to hysteria, it may be well to use some discrimination before we exclude altogether an element of material poisoning such as ergot in the staple food, more especially in the case of the wide-spread hysterical epidemics of Sweden, a country subject to ergotism also[125].

These eighteenth-century instances have been brought in to illustrate Knighton’s account of the epidemic of 1340. The next strange outbreak of the fourteenth century is recorded by the St Albans historian (“Walsingham”) under a year between 1361 and 1365, probably the year 1362. Like so many more of the medieval records of epidemic sickness, it is a meagre and confused statement: “Numbers died of the disease of lethargy, prophesying troubles to many; many women also died by the flux; and there was a general murrain of cattle[126].” Along with that enigmatical entry, we may take the last of the kind that here concerns us. At Cambridge, in 1389, there occurred an epidemic of “phrensy;” it is described as “a great and formidable pestilence, which arose suddenly, and in which men were attacked all at once by the disease of phrensy of the mind, dying[Pg 63] without the viaticum, and in a state of unconsciousness[127].” The names of phrensy and lethargy occur in the manuscript medical treatises of the time in the chapters upon diseases of the brain and nerves[128]; strictly they are names of symptoms, and not of forms or types of disease, and they may be used loosely of various morbid states which have little in common. A lethargy would in some cases be a name for coma in fever, or for a paralytic stroke; a phrensy might be actual mania, or it might be the delirium of plague or typhus fever. The “lethargy” of 1362 is alleged of a number of people as if in an epidemic, whatever the singular phrase “prophetantes infortunia multis” may mean; and the “phrensy of the mind” of which many died suddenly at Cambridge in 1389, does not look as if it had been a symptom of plague or pestilential fever. The judicious reader will make what he can of these disappointingly meagre details. But for his guidance it may be added that the French accounts of ergotism in 1676 give one of the poisonous effects as being “to cause sometimes malign fevers accompanied with drowsiness and raving,” which terms might stand for lethargy and phrensy; also that it has not always been easy, in an epidemic among the peasantry after a bad harvest, to distinguish the cases of ergotism from the cases of typhus, the contractures of the limbs, which seem so special to ergotism, having been described also for undoubted cases of typhus[129].

Whether these anomalous epidemics in medieval England[Pg 64] were instances of convulsive ergotism or not, the English records are on the whole wanting in the evidence of such wide-spread and frequent disasters from a poisoned harvest as distinguish the French annals of the same period. One reason of our immunity may have been that the grain was better grown; another reason certainly is that rye was a comparatively rare crop in England, wheaten bread being preferred, although bread made from beans and barley was not uncommon. Thorold Rogers says: “Rye was scantily cultivated. An occasional crop on many estates, it is habitually sown in few. It is regularly sown in Cambridgeshire and some other of the eastern counties. As the period before us passes on [1259-1400], it becomes still more rare, and as will be seen below, some of the later years of this enquiry contain no entries of its purchase and sale[130].” But it is clear from the entries in chronicles, more particularly about the very period of the fourteenth century to which the three epidemics suggestive of ergotism belong, that the English peasantry suffered from the poisonous effects of damaged food, even if they suffered little from spurred rye. Thus, under the year 1383, in the history known as Walsingham’s, there is an unmistakeable reference to many fatalities, as well as serious maladies, caused by the eating of damaged fruit[131]. Again, under 1391, it is stated that this was “a hard and difficult year for the poor owing to a dearth of fruits, which had now lasted two years; whence it happened that at the time of the nuts and apples, many of the poor died of dysentery brought on by eating them; and the pestilence would have been worse had it not been for the laudable diligence of the Mayor of London, who caused corn to be brought to London from over sea[132].”

 [Pg 65]

Generalities on Medieval Famines in England.

Summing up the English famine-pestilences of the medieval period, we find that they included the usual forms of such sickness—spotted fever of the nature of typhus, dysentery, lientery or looseness (such as has often subsequently accompanied typhus or famine-fever in Ireland), and putrid sore-throat. That some of these effects were due to spoiled grain and fruits, as well as to absolute want, we may reasonably conclude; for example the harvest of 1258 rotted on the ground, and yet the mouldy corn was sold at famine prices. With all those records of famines and their attendant sicknesses in England, it is significant that there is little indication of ergotism. The immunity of England from ergotism, with such a record of famines as the annals show, can only have been because little rye was grown and little black bread eaten. The standard of living would appear to have been higher among the English peasantry than among the French. A bad harvest, still more two bad harvests in succession, made them feel the pinch of famine more acutely, perhaps, than if they had accommodated themselves to the more sober level of rye bread. Hence the somewhat paradoxical but doubtless true saying of the Middle Ages—“Anglorum fames, Francorum ignis.” The saying really means, not that England was a poor country, which would be an absurd repute for foreigners to have fixed upon her; but that the English were subject to alternating periods of abundance and scarcity, of surfeit and starvation. The earliest English work which deals fully and concretely with the social condition of the country is the fourteenth-century poem of “The Vision of Piers the Ploughman.” A few passages from that poem will be of use as throwing light upon the famines of England, before we finally leave the period of which they are characteristic.

Langland’s poem describes the social state of England in peculiar circumstances, namely, after the upheaval and dislocation of the Great Mortality of 1349; and in that respect it has an interest for our subject which comes into a later chapter. But in so far as it illustrates the alternating periods of abundance[Pg 66] and scarcity, the vision of medieval England concerns us here before we quit the subject of famine-pestilences. The average industrious ploughman, represented by Piers himself, fares but soberly until Lammas comes round[133]:—

“I have no penny, quod Piers, pullets for to buy,
Ne neither geese nor pigs, but two green cheeses,
A few cruddes and cream, and an haver-cake,
And two loaves of beans and bran ybake for my fauntis.
And yet I say, by my soul, I have no salt bacon,
Nor no cookeney, by Christ, collops for to maken.
And I have percil and porettes and many kole-plantes,
And eke a cow and a calf, and a cart-mare
To draw afield my dung the while the drought lasteth.
And by this lyflode me mot live till lammas time;
And by that I hope to have harvest in my croft;
And then may I digte thy dinner as me dear liketh.”

Some are worse off than the ploughman in the slack time before the harvest:

“All the poor people tho pesecoddes fetched,
Beans and baken apples they brought in their lappes,
Chibolles and chervelles and ripe cherries many,
And proferred Piers this present to plead with Hunger.
All Hunger ate in haste, and axed after more.
Then poor folk for fear fed Hunger eagerlie,
With green poret and pesen, to poison Hunger they thought.
By that it nighed near harvest, new corn came to chipping.
Then was folk fain, and fed Hunger with the best,
With good ale, as glutton taught, and gerte Hunger go sleep.
And though would waster not work but wandren about,
Ne no beggar eat bread that beans in were,
But of cocket or clerematyn or else of clean wheat:
Ne no halfpenny ale in none wise drink,
But of the best and of the brownest that in burgh is to sell.
Labourers that have no land to live on, but their hands,
Deigned nought to dine a-day night-old wortes.
May no penny ale them pay ne no piece of bacon,
But if it be fresh flesh other fish fried other bake.”

The waster being now in his season of plenty falls to abusing the Statute of Labourers:

[Pg 67] “And then cursed he the king and all his council after,
Such laws to loke, labourers to grieve.
But whiles Hunger was their master there would none of them chide,
Nor strive against his statute, so sternly he looked.
And I warn you, workmen, wynneth while ye mowe,
For Hunger hitherward hasteth him fast.
He shall awake with water wasters to chasten.
Ere five year be fulfilled such famine shall arise
Through floods and through foul weathers fruits shall fail.
And so said Saturn, and sent you to warn ...
Then shall death withdraw and dearth be justice,
And Daw the dyker die for hunger,
But if God of his goodness grant us a truce.”

He proposes to feed the lazy wasters on beans:

“And gif the groomes grudge, bid them go swynk,
And he shall sup the sweeter when he hath deserved.”

The ploughman asks Hunger the reason why both himself and his servants are unable to work:

“I wot well, quod Hunger, what sickness you aileth.
Ye have maunged over much, and that maketh you groan ...
Let not sir Surfeit sitten at thy board ...
And gif thy diet be thus, I dare lay mine ears
That Physic shall his furred hoods for his food sell,
And his cloak of calabre with all the knaps of gold,
And be fain, by my faith, his physic to let,
And learn to labour with land, for lyflode is sweet:
For murtherers are many leeches, Lord them amend!
They do men kill through their drinks, or destiny it would.
By Saint Poul, quod Piers, these aren profitable words.”

In another place, Hawkin the minstrel confesses to gluttony:

“And more meat ate and drank than nature might digest,
And caught sickness some time for my surfeits oft.”

A liking for the best of food, and plenty of it, when it was to be had, has clearly been an English trait from the earliest times. Conversely thrift does not appear to have been a virtue or a grace of the labouring class in England. Thus a bad harvest brought wide-spread scarcity, and two bad harvests brought famine and famine-pestilences. The contrasts were sharp because the standard of living was high. And although three, at[Pg 68] least, of the English famines were disgraceful to so rich a country, and were probably the occasion of the foreign reproach of “Anglorum fames;” yet the significant fact remains that the disease of the European peasantry, which is the truest index of an inferior diet, namely ergotism, has little or no place in our annals of sickness.



[Pg 69]



The history of leprosy in Britain can hardly be the history of leprosy alone, but of that disease along with others which were either mistaken for it or conveniently and euphemistically included under it. That there was leprosy in the country is undoubted; but it is just as certain that there was lues venerea; that the latter as a primary lesion led an anonymous existence or was called lepra or morphaea if it were called anything; that the remote effects of the lues were not known as such, being taken for detached or original outcomes of the disordered humours and therefore in the same general class as leprous manifestations; and that the popular and clerical notions of leprosy were too superstitious and inexact, even if the diagnostic intention had been more resolute than it was, to permit of any clear separation of the leprous from the syphilitic, to say nothing of their separation from the poor victims of lupus and cancer of the face, of scrofulous running sores, or of neglected skin-eruptions more repulsive to the eye than serious in their nature. I shall give some proof of each of those assertions—as an essential preliminary to any correct handling of the historical records of British leprosy.


Leprosy in Medieval Medical Treatises.

The picture given of true leprosy in the medieval treatises on medicine is unmistakeable. There are two systematic[Pg 70] writers about the year 1300 who have left a better account of it than the Arabian authors from whom they mostly copied. While the writers in question have transferred whole chapters unaltered from Avicenna, Rhazes and Theodoric, they have improved upon their models in the stock chapter ‘De Lepra.’ It so happens that those two writers, Bernard Gordonio and Gilbertus Anglicus, bear names which have been taken to indicate British nationality, and the picture of leprosy by the latter has actually been adduced as a contemporary account of the disease observed in England[134]. Gordonio was a professor at Montpellier, and his experience and scholarship are purely foreign. The circumstances of Gilbert the Englishman are not so well known; but it is tolerably certain that he was not, as often assumed, the Gilbert Langley, Gilbert de l’Aigle, or Gilbertus de Aquila, who was physician to Hubert, archbishop of Canterbury († 13 July, 1205)[135], having been a pupil at Salerno in the time of Aegidius of Corbeil (about 1180). The treatise of Gilbertus Anglicus bears internal evidence of a later century and school; it is distinguished by method and comprehensiveness, and is almost exactly on the lines of the Lilium Medicinae by Gordonio, whose date at Montpellier is known with some exactness to have been from 1285 to about 1307. Future research may perhaps discover where Gilbert taught or was taught; meanwhile we may safely assume that his scholarship and system were of a foreign colour. The medical writer of that time in England was John of Gaddesden, mentioned in the end of the foregoing chapter; he is the merest plagiary, and the one or two original remarks in his chapter ‘De Lepra’ would almost justify the epithet of “fatuous” which Guy de Chauliac applied to him.

Although we cannot appeal to Gilbertus Anglicus for native English experience any more than we can to his alter ego, Gordonio, yet we may assume that the picture of leprosy which they give might have been sketched in England as well as in Italy or in Provence. The conditions were practically[Pg 71] uniform throughout Christendom; the true leprosy of any one part of medieval Europe is the true leprosy of the whole.

Gilbert’s picture[136], as we have said, is unmistakeable, and the same might be said of Bernard’s[137]—the eyebrows falling bare and getting knotted with uneven tuberosities, the nose and other features becoming thick, coarse and lumpy, the face losing its mobility or play of expression, the raucous voice, the loss of sensibility in the hands, and the ultimate break-up or naufragium of the leprous growths into foul running sores. The enumeration of nervous symptoms, which are now recognised to be fundamental in the pathology of leprosy, shows that Gilbert went below the surface. Among the “signa leprae generalia” he mentions such forms of hyperaesthesia as formicatio (the creeping of ants), and the feeling of “needles and pins;” and, in the way of anaesthesia, he speaks of the loss of sensibility from the little finger to the elbow, as well as in the exposed parts where the blanched spots or thickenings come—the forehead, cheeks, eyebrows, to which he adds the tongue. Gilbert’s whole chapter ‘De Lepra’ is an obvious improvement upon the corresponding one in Avicenna, who says that lepra is a cancer of the whole body, cancer being the lepra of a single member, and is probably confusing lupus with leprosy when he describes the cartilages of the nose as corroded in the latter, and the nostrils destroyed by the same kind of naufragium as the fingers and toes. All students of the history or clinical characters of leprosy, from Guy de Chauliac, who wrote about 1350, down to Hensler and Sprengel, have recognised in Gilbert’s and Bernard’s account of it the marks of first-hand observation; so that we may take it, without farther debate, that leprosy, as correctly diagnosed, was a disease of Europe and of Britain in the Middle Ages.

Having got so far, we come next to a region of almost inextricable confusion, a region of secrecy and mystification, as well as of real contemporary ignorance. We may best approach it by one or two passages from Gilbert and Gordonio themselves.[Pg 72] The systematic handling of lepra in their writings is one thing, and their more concrete remarks on its conditions of origin, its occasions, or circumstances are another. What are we to make of this kind of leprosy?—“In hoc genere, causa est accessus ad mulierem ad quam accessit prius leprosus; et corrumpit velocius vir sanus quam mulier a leproso.... Et penetrant [venena] in nervos calidos et arterias et venas viriles, et inficiunt spiritus et bubones, et hoc velocius si mulier,” etc. Or to quote Gilbert again: “Ex accessu ad mulieres, diximus superius, lepram in plerisque generari post coitûs leprosos[138].” Or in Gordonio: “Et provenit [lepra] etiam ex nimia confibulatione cum leprosis, et ex coitu cum leprosa, et qui jacuit cum muliere cum qua jacuit leprosus[139].” That these circumstances of contracting lepra were not mere verbal theorizings inspired by the pathology of the day and capable of being now set aside, is obvious from a historia or case which Gordonio introduces into his text. “I shall tell what happened,” he says; and then proceeds to the following relation:[140]

“Quaedam comtissa venit leprosa ad Montem Pessulanum [Montpellier], et erat in fine in cura mea; et quidam Baccalarius in medicina ministrabat ei, et jacuit cum ea, et impregnavit eam, et perfectissime leprosus factus est.” Happy is he therefore, he adds, who learns caution from the risks of others.

Here we have sufficient evidence, from the beginning of the fourteenth century, of a disease being called lepra which does not conform to the conditions of leprosy as we now understand them. The same confusion between leprosy and the lues venerea prevailed through the whole medieval period. Thus, in the single known instance of a severe edict against lepers in England, the order of Edward III. to the mayor and sheriffs of London in 1346[141], the reasons for driving lepers out of the City are given,—among others, because they communicate their disease “by carnal intercourse with women in stews and other secret places,” and by their polluted breath. It was pointed[Pg 73] out long ago by Beckett in his paper on the antiquity of the lues venerea[142], that the polluted breath was characteristic of the latter, but not of leprosy. Of course the pollution of their breath might have meant no more than the theoretical reasoning of the books (as in Gilbert, where the breath of lepers, as well as the mere sight of them, is said to give the disease, p. 337), but the breath was probably obnoxious in a more real way, just as we know, from Gordonio’s case at Montpellier, that the other alleged source of “leprous” contagion was no mere theoretical deduction. As the medieval period came to an end the leper-houses (in France) were found to contain a miscellaneous gathering of cases generically called leprous; and about the same time, the year 1488, an edict of the same purport as Edward III.’s London one of 1346, was issued by the provost of Paris against les lépreux of that city. The year 1488 is so near the epidemic outburst of the morbus Gallicus during the French campaigns on Italian soil in 1494-95, that the historian has not hesitated to set down that sudden reappearance of leprous contagion, in a proclamation of the State, to a real prevalence already in Paris of the contagious malady which was to be heard of to the farthest corners of Europe a few years after[143].

There is no difficulty in producing evidence from medieval English records of the prevalence of lues venerea, which was not[Pg 74] concealed under the euphemistic or mistaken diagnosis of leprosy. Instances of a very bad kind, authenticated with the names of the individuals, are given in Gascoigne’s Liber Veritatum, under the date of 1433[144].

In the medieval text-books of Avicenna, Gilbert and others, there are invariably paragraphs on pustulae et apostemata virgae. In the only original English medical work of those times, by John Ardern, who was practising at Newark from 1349 to 1370, and came afterwards to London, appearances are described which can mean nothing else than condylomata[145]. From a manuscript prescription-book of the medieval period, in the British Museum, I have collected some receipts (or their headings) which relate, as an index of later date prefixed to the MS. says, to “the pox of old[146].”

[Pg 75]Some have refused to see in such cases any real correspondence with the modern forms of syphilis because only local effects are described and no constitutional consequences traced. But no one in those times thought of a primary focus of infection with its remoter effects at large, in the case of any disease whatsoever. Even in the great epidemic of syphilis at the end of the fifteenth century, the sequence of primary and secondary (tertiaries were unheard of until long after), was not at first understood; the eruption of the skin, which was compared to a bad kind of variola, the imposthumes of the head and of the bones elsewhere, together with all other constitutional or general symptoms, were traced, in good faith, to a disordered liver, an organ which was chosen on theoretical grounds as the minera morbi or laboratory of the disease[147]. The circumstances of the great epidemic were, of course, special, but they were not altogether new. No medieval miracle could have been more of a suspension of the order of nature than that luxuria, immunditia, and foeditas, with their attendant corruptio membrorum, should have been free from those consequences, in the individual and in the community, which are more familiar in our own not less clean-living days merely because the sequence of events is better understood. That such vices abounded in the medieval world we have sufficient evidence. They were notorious among the Norman conquerors of England, especially notorious in the reign of William Rufus[148]; hence, perhaps, the significance of the phrase lepra Normannorum. That particular vice which amounts to a felony was the subject of the sixth charge (unproved) in the indictment of the order of the Templars before the Pope Clement V. in 1307. Effects on the public health traceable to such causes, for the most part sub rosa, have been often felt in the history of nations, from the Biblical episode of Baal-peor down to modern times. The evidence is written at large in the works of Astruc, Hensler and Rosenbaum. We are here concerned with a much smaller matter, namely, any evidence from England which may throw light upon the classes of cases that were called leprous if they were called by a name at all.

[Pg 76]Under the year 1258, Matthew Paris introduces a singular paragraph, which is headed, “The Bishop of Hereford smitten with polypus.” The bishop, a Provençal, had made himself obnoxious by his treacherous conduct as the agent of Henry III. at the Holy See in the matter of the English subsidies to the pope. Accordingly it was by the justice of God that he was deformed by a most disgraceful disease, to wit, morphea, or again, “morphea polipo, vel quadam specie leprae[149].” According to the medical teaching of the time, as we find it in Gilbertus Anglicus, morphaea was an infection producing a change in the natural colour of the skin; it was confined to the skin, whereas lepra was in the flesh also; the former was curable, the latter incurable; morphaea might be white, red, or black[150]. The account of morphaea by Gordonio is somewhat fuller. All things, he says, that are causes of lepra are causes of morphaea; so that what is in the flesh lepra is morphaea in the skin. It was a patchy discoloration of the skin, reddish, yellowish, whitish, dusky, or black, producing terribilis aspectus; curable if recent, incurable if of long standing; curable also if of moderate extent, but difficult to cure if of great extent[151]. In this description by Gordonio a modern French writer on leprosy[152] discovers the classical characters of the syphilis of our own day: “not one sign is wanting.”

No doubt the medical writers drew a distinction between morphaea and lepra, as we have seen in quoting Gilbert and Gordonio. Gaddesden, also, who mostly copies them, interpolates here an original remark. No one should be adjudged leprous, he says, and separated from his fellows, merely because the “figure and form” (the stock phrase) of the face are corrupted: the disease might be “scabies foeda,” or if in the feet, it might be “cancer.” Nodosities or tubercles should not be taken to mean leprosy, unless they are confirmed (inveterate) in the[Pg 77] face[153]. But how uncertain are these diagnostic indications, as between lepra and morphaea, lepra and “scabies foeda,” lepra and “cancer in pedibus!” If there were any object in calling the disease by one name rather than another, it is clear that the same disease might be called by a euphemism in one case and by a term meant to be opprobrious in another. Although leprosy was not in general a disease that anyone might wish to be credited with, yet there were circumstances when the diagnosis of leprosy had its advantages. It was of use to a beggar or tramp to be called a leper: he would excite more pity, he might get admission to a hospital, and he might solicit alms, under royal privilege, although begging in ordinary was punishable. It is conceivable also that the diagnosis of leprosy was a convenient one for men in conspicuous positions in Church and State. It is most improbable that the “lepra Normannorum” was all leprosy; it is absurd to suppose that leprosy became common in Europe because returning Crusaders introduced it from the East, as if leprosy could be “introduced” in any such way; and it is not easy to arrive at certitude, that all the cases of leprosy in princes and other high-placed personages (Baldwin IV. of Jerusalem who died at the age of twenty-five,[154] Robert the Bruce of Scotland,[155] and Henry IV. of England[156]) were cases that would now be diagnosed leprous.

Instances may be quoted to show that the name of leper was flung about somewhat at random. Thus, in an edict issued by Henry II., during the absence of Becket abroad for the settlement of his quarrel with the king, it was decreed that anyone who brought into the country documents relating to the threatened papal interdict should have his feet cut off if he were a regular cleric, his eyes put out if a secular clerk, should be hanged if a layman, and be burned if a leprosus—that is to[Pg 78] say, a beggar or common tramp. Again, in the charges brought for Henry III. against the powerful minister Hubert de Burg in 1239, one item is that he had prevented the marriage of our lord the king with a certain noble lady by representing to the latter and to her guardian that the king was “a squinter, and a fool, and a good-for-nothing, and that he had a kind of leprosy, and was a deceiver, and a perjurer, and more of a craven than any woman[157]” etc.

There is also a curious instance of the term leprous being applied to the Scots, evidently in the sense in which William of Malmesbury, and many more after him, twitted that nation with their cutaneous infirmities. When the Black Death of 1348-9 had reached the northern counties of England, the Scots took advantage of their prostrate state to gather in the forest of Selkirk for an invasion, exulting in the “foul death of England.” Knighton says that the plague reached them there, that five thousand of them died, and that their rout was completed by the English falling upon them[158]. But the other contemporary chronicler of the Black Death, Geoffrey le Baker[159], tells the story with a curious difference. The Scots, he says, swearing by the foul death of the English, passed from the extreme of exultation to that of grief; the sword of God’s wrath was lifted from the English and fell in its fury upon the Scots, “et [Scotos] per lepram, nec minus quam Anglicos per apostemata et pustulos, mactavit.” The apostemata and pustuli were indeed the buboes, boils and carbuncles of the plague, correctly named; but what was the lepra of the Scots? It was probably a vague term of abuse; but, if the clerk of Osney attached any meaning to it, it is clear that he saw nothing improbable in a disease called lepra springing up suddenly and spreading among a body of men.

[Pg 79]We conclude, then, that lepra was a term used in a generic sense because of a real uncertainty of diagnosis, or because there was some advantage to be got from being called leprosus, or because it was flung about at random. But there is still another reason for the inexact use of the terms lepra and leprosus in the medieval period, namely, the dominant influence of religious tradition. The heritage or accretion of religious sentiment not only perverted the correct use of the name, but led to regulations and proscriptions which were out of place even for the real disease.


The Biblical Associations of Leprosy.

Among the synonyms for leprosi we find the terms “pauperes Christi, videlicet Lazares,” the name of “Christ’s poor” being given to lepers by Aelred in the twelfth century and by Matthew Paris in the thirteenth. The association of ideas with Lazarus is a good sample of the want of discrimination in all that pertains to medieval leprosy. The Lazarus of St Luke’s Gospel, who was laid at the rich man’s gate full of sores, is a representative person, existing only in parable. On the other hand, the Lazarus of St John’s Gospel, Lazarus of Bethany, the brother of Martha and Mary, the man of many friends, is both a historical personage and a saint in the calendar. But there is nothing to show that he was a leper. He had a remarkable experience of restoration to the light of day, and it was probably on account of an episode in his life that made so much talk that he received posthumously the name of Lazarus, or “helped of God[160].” The name of the man in the parable is also generic, just[Pg 80] as generic as that of his contrast Dives is; but specifically there was nothing in common between the one Lazarus and the other. Yet St Lazarus specially named as the brother of Martha and Mary (as in the charter of the leper-house at Sherburn) became the patron of lepers. The ascription to Lazarus of Bethany of the malady of Lazarus in the parable has done much for the prestige of the latter’s disease; in the medieval world it brought all persons full of sores within a nimbus of sanctity, as being in a special sense “pauperes Christi,” the successors at once of him whom Jesus loved and of “Lazarus ulcerosus.” Doubtless the lepers deserved all the charity that they got; but we shall not easily understand the interest exceptionally taken in them, amidst abounding suffering and wretchedness in other forms, unless we keep in mind that they somehow came to be regarded as Christ’s poor.

Next to the image of Lazarus, or rather the composite image of the two Lazaruses, the picture of leprosy that filled the imagination was that of the thirteenth and fourteenth chapters of Leviticus. That picture is even more composite than the other, and for leprosy in the strict sense it is absolutely misleading. The word translated “leprosy” is a generic term for various communicable maladies, most of which were curable within a definite period, sometimes no longer than a week. It rested with the skill of the priesthood to discriminate between the forms of communicable disease, and to prescribe the appropriate ceremonial treatment for each; the people had one common name for them all, and beyond that they were in the hands of their priests, who knew quite well what they were about. The Christian Church dealt with all those archaic institutions of an Eastern people in a child-like spirit of verbal or literal interpretation,[Pg 81] doubtless finding the greater part of them a meaningless jargon. But some verses would touch the imagination and call up a real and vivid picture, such verses, for example, as the following:

“And the leper in whom the plague is, his clothes shall be rent, and his head bare, and he shall put a covering upon his upper lip, and shall cry, Unclean, unclean. All the days wherein the plague shall be in him he shall be defiled; he is unclean; he shall dwell alone; without the camp shall his habitation be.”

Even in that comparatively plain direction, the obvious suggestion that the unclean person would not always be unclean, and that there was a term to his stay outside the camp, would go for little in reading the scripture. The medieval religious world took those parts of the Jewish teaching that appealed to their apprehension, and applied them to the circumstances of their own time with as much of zeal as the common sense of the community would permit. We have clear evidence of the effect of the Levitical teaching about “leprosy” upon English practice in the ordinances of the St Albans leper hospital of St Julian, which will be given in the sequel.


The Medieval Religious Sentiment towards Lepers.

Several incidents told of lepers by the chroniclers bring out that exaggerated religious view of the disease. Roger of Howden has preserved the following mythical story of Edward the Confessor. Proceeding one day from his palace to the Abbey Church in pomp and state, he passed with his train of nobles and ecclesiastics through a street in which sat a leper full of sores. The courtiers were about to drive the wretched man out from the royal presence, when the king ordered them to let him sit where he was. The leper, waxing bold after this concession, addressed the king, “I adjure thee by the living God to take me on thy shoulders and bring me into the church;” whereupon the king bowed his head and took the leper upon his shoulders. And as the king went, he prayed that God would give health to the leper; and his prayer was heard, and the[Pg 82] leper was made whole from that very hour, praising and glorifying God[161].

It is not the miraculous ending of this incident that need surprise us most; for the Royal touch by which the Confessor wrought his numerous cures of the blind and the halt and the scrofulous, continued to be exercised, with unabated virtue, down to the eighteenth century, and came at length to be supervised by Court surgeons who were fellows of the Royal Society. It is the humility of a crowned head in the presence of a leper that marks an old-world kind of religious sentiment. The nearest approach to it in our time is the feet-washing of the poor by the empress at Vienna on Corpus Christi day.

A similar story, with a truer touch of nature in it, is told of Matilda, queen of Henry I.; and it happens to be related on so good authority that we may believe every word of it. Matilda was a Saxon princess, daughter of Margaret the Atheling, the queen of Malcolm Canmore. The other actor in the story was her brother David, afterwards king of Scots and, like his mother, honoured as a saint of the Church. The narrator is Aelred, abbot of Rievaulx, in the North Riding of Yorkshire, celebrated for his Latin style and his care for Saxon history. The abbot was a friend of St David, whose virtues he celebrates at length; the incident of queen Matilda and the lepers was one that he often heard from David’s own lips (quod ex ore saepe Davidis regis audivi). The princess Matilda, taking more after her mother than her father, had been brought up in an English convent under her aunt, the abbess of it. When it came to a marriage between her and Henry I., an alliance which was meant to reconcile the Saxons to Norman rule, the question arose in the mind of Anselm whether the princess Matilda had not actually taken the veil, and whether he could legally marry her to the king. Questioned as to the fact, the princess made answer that she had indeed worn the veil in public, but only as a protection from the licentious insolence of the Norman nobles. She had no liking for the great match arranged for her, and[Pg 83] consented unwillingly although the king was enamoured of her. Such was her humility that Aelred designates her “the Esther of our times.” The marriage was on the 15th of November, 1100; and in the next year, according to the usual date given, the young queen sought relief and effusion for her religious instincts by founding the leper hospital of St Giles in the Fields, “with a chapel and a sufficient edifice.” Matthew Paris, a century and a half after, saw it standing as queen Matilda had built it, and made a sketch of it in colours on the margin of his page, still remaining to us in a library at Cambridge, with the description, “Memoriale Matild. Regine.”

The story which her brother David told to the abbot of Rievaulx is as follows:

When he was serving as a youth at the English Court, one evening he was with his companions in his lodging, when the queen called him into her chamber. He found the place full of lepers, and the queen standing in the midst, with her robe laid aside and a towel girt round her. Having filled a basin with water, she proceeded to wash the feet of the lepers and to wipe them with the towel, and then taking them in both her hands, she kissed them with devotion. To whom her brother: “What dost thou, my lady? Certes if the king were to know this, never would he deign to kiss with his lips that mouth of thine polluted with the soil of leprous feet.” But she answered with a smile: “Who does not know that the feet of an Eternal King are to be preferred to the lips of a mortal king? See, then, dearest brother, wherefore I have called thee, that thou mayest learn by my example to do so also. Take the basin, and do what thou hast seen me do.” “At this,” said David, narrating to the abbot, “I was sore afraid, and answered that I could on no account endure it. For as yet I did not know the Lord, nor had His Spirit been revealed to me. And as she proceeded with her task, I laughed—mea culpa—and returned to my comrades[162].”

[Pg 84]The example of his sister, however, was not lost upon him; for when he acquired the earldom and manor of Huntingdon, and so became an opulent English noble, he founded a leper-hospital there. Aelred sees him in Abraham’s bosom with Lazarus.

The meaning of all this devotion to lepers is shown in the name which Aelred applies to them—pauperes Christi. In washing their feet the pious Matilda was in effect washing the feet of an Eternal King; and that, in her estimation, was better than kissing the lips of a mortal king.

Again, in the Life of St Hugh of Lincoln we see the good bishop moved to treat the leprous poor with a sort of attention which they can hardly have needed or expected, merely because they were, as his biographer says, the successors of Lazarus ulcerosus, and the special protegés of Jesus. Not a few, says the biographer, were kept in seclusion owing to that disease, both men and women. Bishop Hugh would take up his abode among them and speak to them words of good cheer, promising them the flowers of Paradise and an immortal crown. Having sent the women lepers out of the way, he would go round among the men to kiss them, and when he came to one who was more atrociously marked by the disease than another, he would hold him in a longer and more gracious embrace. It was too much for the bishop’s biographer: “Spare, good Jesus, the unhappy soul of him who relates these things”—horrified, as he says he was, at seeing the “swollen and livid faces, deformed and sanious, with the eyelids everted, the eyeballs dug out, and the lips wasted away, faces which it were impossible to touch close or even to behold afar off[163]”. But these horrible disfigurements of the face are by no means the distinctive marks of leprosy. The dragging down of the eyelids is an effect of leprosy but as likely to happen in lupus or rodent ulcer. The loss of the eyeball may be a leprous sign, or perhaps from tumour. The wasting of the lips is a characteristic feature of lupus, after it has scarred, or if there be an actual loss of substance, of epithelial[Pg 85] cancer; in leprosy, on the other hand, the lips, as well as other prominent folds of the face, undergo thickening, and will probably remain thickened to the end. The sufferers who excited the compassion of St Hugh must have merited it; only they were not all lepers, nor probably the majority of them[164].

Two leper-stories are told to the honour of St Francis of Assisi. Seeing one day a friar of his order named James the Simple, consorting on the way to church with a leper from the hospital under his care, St Francis rebuked the friar for allowing the leper to be at large. While he thus admonished the friar, he thought that he observed the leper to blush, and was stricken with a sudden remorse that he should have said anything to hurt the wretched man’s feelings. Having confessed and taken counsel, he resolved, by way of penance, to sit beside the leper at table and to eat with him out of the same dish, a penance all the greater, says the biographer, that the leper was covered all over with offensive sores and that the blood and sanies trickled down his fingers as he dipped them in the dish. The other story is a more pleasing one. There was a certain leper among those cared for by the friars, who would appear from the description of him to have been one of the class of truculent impostors, made all the worse by the morbid consideration with which his disease, or supposed disease, was regarded. One of his complaints was that no one would wash him; whereupon St Francis, having ordered a friar to bring a basin of perfumed water, proceeded to wash the leper with his own hands[165].

These four tales, all of them told of saints except that of Matilda—she somehow missed being canonised along with her mother St Margaret and her brother St David—will serve to show what a halo of morbid exaggeration surrounded the idea of leprosy in the medieval religious mind. We live in a time of saner and better-proportioned sentiment; but the critical spirit,[Pg 86] which has set so much else in a sober light, has spared the medieval tradition of leprosy. Not only so, but our more graphic writers have put that disease into the medieval foreground as if it had been the commonest affliction of the time. We are taught to see the figures of lepers in their grey or russet gowns flitting everywhere through the scene; the air of those remote times is as if filled with the dull creaking of St Lazarus’s rattle. Our business here is to apply to the question of leprosy in medieval Britain the same kind of scrutiny which has been applied to the question of famines and famine-fevers, and remains to be applied next in order to the great question of plague—the kind of scrutiny which no historian would be excused from if his business were with politics, or campaigns, or economics, or manners and customs. The best available evidence for our purpose is the history of the leper-houses, to which we shall now proceed.


The English Leper-houses.

The English charitable foundations, or hospitals of all kinds previous to the dissolution of the monasteries, including almshouses, infirmaries, Maisons Dieu and lazar-houses, amount to five hundred and nine in the index of Bishop Tanner’s Notitia Monastica. In the 1830 edition of the Monasticon Anglicanum, the latest recension of those immense volumes of antiquarian research, there are one hundred and four such foundations given, for which the original charters, or confirming charters, or reports of inquisitions, are known; and, besides these, there are about three hundred and sixty given in the section on “Additional Hospitals,” the existence and circumstances of which rest upon such evidence as casual mention in old documents, or entries in monastery annals, or surviving names and traditions of the locality. Our task is to discover, if we can, what share of this charitable provision in medieval England, embracing at least four hundred and sixty houses, was intended for the class of leprosi; what indications there are of the sort of patients reckoned leprosi; how many sick inmates the leper-houses had,[Pg 87] absolutely as well as in proportion to their clerical staff; and how far those refuges were in request among the people, either from a natural desire to find a refuge or from the social pressure upon them to keep themselves out of the way.

It is clear that the endowed hospitals of medieval England were in no exclusive sense leper-hospitals, but a general provision, under religious discipline, for the infirm and sick poor, for infirm and ailing monks and clergy, and here or there for decayed gentlefolk. The earliest of them that is known, St Peter’s and St Leonard’s hospital at York, founded in 936 by king Athelstane, and enlarged more especially on its religious side by king Stephen, was a great establishment for the relief of the poor, with no reference to leprosy; it provided for no fewer than two hundred and six bedesmen, and was served by a master, thirteen brethren, four seculars, eight sisters, thirty choristers and six servitors. When Lanfranc, the first Norman archbishop of Canterbury, set about organising the charitable relief of his see in 1084, he endowed two hospitals, one for the sick and infirm poor in general, and the other for leprosi[166]. The former, St John Baptist’s hospital, was at the north gate, a commodious house of stone, for poor, infirm, lame or blind men and women. The latter was the hospital of Herbaldown, an erection of timber, in the woods of Blean about a mile from the west gate, for persons regia valetudine fluentibus (?), who are styled leprosi in a confirming charter of Henry II.[167] The charge of both these houses was given to the new priory of St Gregory, over against St John Baptist’s hospital, endowed with tithes for secular clergy. The leper-house at Herbaldown was divided between men and women; but in a later reign (Henry II.) a hospital entirely for women (twenty-five leprous sisters) was founded at Tannington, outside Canterbury, with a master, prioress and three priests. There was still a third hospital at Canterbury, St Lawrence’s, founded about 1137, for the relief of leprous monks or for the poor parents and relations of the monks of St Augustine’s.

[Pg 88]London had two endowed leper-hospitals under ecclesiastical government, as well as certain spitals or refuges of comparatively late date. The hospital and chapel of St Giles in the Fields was founded, as we have seen, by Matilda, queen of Henry I., in 1101, and was commonly known for long after as Matilda’s hospital. It was built for forty leprosi, who may or may not all have lived in it; and it was supported in part by the voluntary contributions of the citizens collected by a proctor. Its staff was at first exceptionally small for the number of patients,—a chaplain, a clerk and a messenger; but as its endowments increased several other clerics and some matrons were added. By a king’s charter of 1208 (10th John), it was to receive sixty shillings annually. It is next heard of, in the Rolls of Parliament, in connexion with a petition of 1314-15 (8 Ed. II.), by the terms of which, and of the reply to it, we can see that there were then some lepers in the hospital but also patients of another kind. It is mentioned by Wendover, under the year 1222, as the scene of a trial of strength between the citizens and the comprovinciales extra urbem positos[168]: at that date it stood well in the country, probably near to where the church of St Giles now stands at the end of old High Holborn. The drawing of the hospital on the margin of Matthew Paris’s manuscript shows it as a house of stone, with a tower at the east end and a smaller one over the west porch, and with a chapel and a hall, but probably no dormitories for forty lepers[169].

The other endowed leper-house of the metropolis was the hospital of St James, in the fields beyond Westminster. It was of ancient date, and provided for fourteen female patients, who came somehow to be called the leprosae puellae[170], although youth is by no means specially associated with leprosy. This[Pg 89] house grew rich, and supported eight brethren for the religious services of the sixteen patients[171].

It is usual to enumerate five, and sometimes six, other leper-hospitals, in the outskirts of London—at Kingsland or Hackney, in Kent Street, Southwark (the Lock), at Highgate, at Mile End, at Knightsbridge and at Hammersmith. But the earliest of these were founded in the reign of Edward III. (about 1346) at a time when the old ecclesiastical leper-houses were nearly empty of lepers. It would be misleading to include them among the medieval leper-houses proper, and I shall refer to them in a later part of this chapter.

The example of archbishop Lanfranc at Canterbury and of queen Matilda in London was soon followed by other founders and benefactors. The movement in favour of lepers—there was probably too real an occasion for it to call it a craze—gained much from the appearance on the scene of the Knights of the Order of St Lazarus of Jerusalem. Those knights were the most sentimental of the orders of chivalry, and probably not more reputable than the Templars or the main body of the Hospitallers from which they branched off. If we may judge of them by modern instances, they wanted to do some great thing, and to do it in the most theatrical way, with everybody looking on. What real services they may have rendered to the sick poor, leprous or other, there is little to show. The head-quarters of the order were at Jerusalem, the Grand Master and the Knights there being all leprosi—doubtless in a liberal sense of the term. We should be doing them no injustice if we take them to have been Crusaders so badly hit by their vices or their misfortunes as to be marked off into a separate order by a natural line. However, many others enlisted under the banner of St Lazarus who were not leprosi; these established themselves in various countries of Europe, acquired many manors and built fine houses[172]. In England their chief house was at Burton in Leicestershire; it[Pg 90] was not by any means a great leper-hospital, but a Commandery or Preceptory for eight whole knights, with some provision for an uncertain number of poor brethren—the real Lazaruses who, like their prototype, would receive the crumbs from the high table. The house of Burton Lazars gradually swallowed up the lands of leper-hospitals elsewhere, as these passed into desuetude, and at the valuation of Henry VIII. it headed the list with an annual rental of £250. Their establishment in England dates from the early part of the twelfth century, and although the house at Burton appears to have been their only considerable possession, they are said, on vague evidence, to have enlisted many knights from England, and, curiously enough, still more from Scotland. A letter is extant by the celebrated schoolman, John of Salisbury, afterwards bishop of Chartres, written in the reign of Henry II. to a bishop of Salisbury, from which it would appear that the “Fratres Hospitales” were regarded with jealousy and dislike by the clerical profession; “rapiunt ut distribuant,” says the writer, as if there were something at once forced and forcible in their charities[173].

Coincidently with the appearance in England of the Knights of St Lazarus, we find the monasteries, and sometimes private benefactors among the nobility, beginning to make provision for lepers, either along with other deserving poor or in houses apart. After the hospitals at Canterbury and London (as well as an eleventh-century foundation at Northampton, which may or may not have been originally destined for leprosi), come the two leper-houses founded by the great abbey of St Albans. As these were probably as good instances as can be found, their history is worth following.

In the time of abbot Gregory (1119 to 1146), the hospital and church of St Julian was built on the London road, for six poor brethren (Lazares or pauperes Christi) governed by a master and four chaplains. The mastership of St Julian’s is twice mentioned in the abbey chronicles as a valuable piece of preferment. In 1254 the lands of the hospital were so heavily taxed, for the king and the pope, that the miselli, according to Matthew[Pg 91] Paris, had barely the necessaries of life. But a century after, in 1350, the revenues were too large for its needs, and new statutes were made; the accommodation of its six beds was by no means in request, the number of inmates being never more than three, sometimes only two, and occasionally only one[174]. The fate of the other leper-house of St Albans abbey, that of St Mary de Pratis for women, is not less instructive. The date of its foundation is not known, but in 1254 it had a church and a hospital occupied by misellae[175]. A century later we hear of the house being shared between illiterate sisters and nuns. The former are not called lepers, but simply poor sisters; whatever they were, the nuns and they did not get on comfortably together, and the abbot restored harmony by turning the hospital into a nunnery pure and simple[176]. Similar was the history of one of the richest foundations of the kind, that of Mayden Bradley in Wiltshire. It was originally endowed shortly before or shortly after the accession of Henry II. (1135) by a noble family for an unstated number of poor women, generally assumed to have been leprosae, and for an unstated number of regular and secular clerics to perform the religious offices and manage the property. It had not existed long, however, when the bishop of Salisbury, in 1190, got the charter altered so as to assign the revenues to eight canons and—poor sisters, and so it continued until the valuation of Henry VIII., when it was found to be of considerable wealth. In like manner the hospital of St James, at Tannington near Canterbury, founded in the reign of Henry II. for twenty-five “leprous sisters,” was found, in the reign of Edward III. (1344), to contain no lepers, its “corrodies” being much sought after by needy gentlewomen[177].

Another foundation of Henry II.’s reign was the leper-hospital[Pg 92] of St Mary Magdalen at Sponne, outside the walls of Coventry. It was founded by an Earl of Chester, who, having a certain leprous knight in his household, gave in pure alms for the health of his soul and the souls of his ancestors his chapel at Sponne with the site thereof, and half a carucate of land for the maintenance of such lepers as should happen to be in the town of Coventry. There was one priest to celebrate, and with him were wont to be also certain brethren or sisters together with the lepers, praying to God for the good estate of all their benefactors. “But clear it is,” says Dugdale, “that the monks shortly after appropriated it to their own use.” However, they were in time dispossessed by the Crown, to which the hospital belonged until the 14th of Edward IV[178].

One of the most typical as well as earliest foundations was the hospital of the Holy Innocents at Lincoln, endowed by Henry I. We owe our knowledge of its charter to an inquisition of Edward III. It was intended for ten leprosi, who were to be of the outcasts (de ejectibus) of the city of Lincoln, the presentation to be in the king’s gift or in that of the mayor or other good men of the city, and the administration of it by a master or warden, two chaplains and one clerk. In the space of two centuries from its foundation the character of its inmates had gradually changed. Edward III.’s commissioners found nine poor brethren or sisters in it; only one of them was leprosus, and he had obtained admission by a golden key; also the seven poor women had got in per viam pecuniam. In Henry VI.’s time provision was made for the possibility of lepers still requiring its shelter—quod absit, as the new charter said.

In the same reign (end of Henry I.) the hospital of St Peter was founded at Bury St Edmunds by abbot Anselm, for priests and others when they grew old and infirm, leprous or diseased. The other hospital at Bury, St Saviour’s, had no explicit reference to leprosy at all. It was founded by the famous abbot Samson about 1184, for a warden, twelve chaplain-priests, six clerks, twelve poor gentlemen, and twelve poor women. About a hundred years later the poor sisters had to go, in order to make room for old and infirm priests.

[Pg 93]Sometime before his death in 1139, Thurstan, archbishop of York, founded a hospital at Ripon for the relief of “all the lepers in Richmondshire;” the provision was for eighteen patients, a chaplain and sisters. At an uncertain date afterwards the house was found to contain a master, two or three chaplains and some brethren, who are not styled leprosi; and from the inquisition of Edward III. we learn that its original destination had been for the relief as much of the poor as the leprous (tam pauperum quam leprosorum), and that there was no leprous person in it at the date of the inquisition.

The mixed character of hospitals commonly reckoned leper-hospitals is shown by several other instances. St Mary Magdalene’s at Lynn (1145) provided for a prior and twelve brethren or sisters, nine of whom were to be whole and three leprous. St Leonard’s at Lancaster (time of king John) was endowed for a master, a chaplain, and nine poor persons, three of them to be leprous. St Bartholomew’s at Oxford provided for a master, a clerk, two whole brethren and six infirm or leprous brethren; but the infirm or leprous brethren had all been changed into whole brethren by the time of Edward III[179]. So again the Normans’ spital at Norwich was found to be sheltering “seven whole sisters and seven half-sisters.”

The leper-hospital at Stourbridge, near Cambridge, was founded for lepers by king John, the one king in English history who cared greatly about his leprous subjects. It was committed to the charge of the burgesses of Cambridge, but it was shortly after seized by Hugo de Norwold, bishop of Ely, and within little more than fifty years from its foundation (7 Ed. I.) it was found that the bishop of Ely of that day was using it for some purposes of his own, but “was keeping no lepers in it, as he ought, and as the custom had been[180].”

The ostentatious patronage of lepers by king John, of which something more might be said, was preceded by a more important interposition on their behalf by the third Council of the[Pg 94] Lateran in 1179 (Alexander III.). The position of leprosi in the community had clearly become anomalous, and one of the decrees of the Council was directed to setting it right. Lepers, who were “unable to live with sound persons, or to attend church with them, or to get buried in the same churchyard, or to have the ministrations of the proper priest,” were enjoined to have their own presbytery, church, and churchyard, and their lands were to be exempt from tithe[181]. Within two or three years of that decree, in or near 1181, we find a bishop of Durham, Hugh de Puiset, endowing the greatest of all the English leper-hospitals, at Sherburn, a mile or more outside the city of Durham. The bishop was a noted instance of the worldly ecclesiastic of his time. He was accused by the king of misappropriating money left by the archbishop of York, and his defence was that he had spent it on the blind, the deaf, the dumb, the leprous, and such like deserving objects[182]. William of Newburgh has left us his opinion of the bishop’s charity: it was a noble hospital lavishly provided for, “but with largess not quite honestly come by” (sed tamen ex parte minus honesta largitione[183]). The hospital of bishop Hugh, dedicated to the Saviour, the Blessed Virgin, St Lazarus, and his sisters Mary and Martha, still exists as Christ’s Hospital, a quadrangular building enclosing about an acre in a sunny valley to the south of the city, with a fine chapel, a great hall (of which the ancient raftered roof existed into the present century), a master’s lodge, and a low range of buildings on the west side of the square for the poor brethren, with their own modest hall in the middle of it. The original foundation was certainly on a princely scale, as things then went: it was for five “convents” of lepers, including in all sixty-five persons of both sexes, with a steward or guardian to be their own proper representative or protector, three priests, four attendant clerks, and a prior and prioress. We hear nothing more of the hospital for a century and a half, during which time it had doubtless been filled by a succession of poor brethren, or sick[Pg 95] poor brethren, but whether leprous brethren, or even mainly leprous, may well be doubted after the recorded experiences of Ripon, Lincoln and Stourbridge. Its charter was confirmed by bishop Kellaw about 1311-1316; and in an ordinance of 1349 we still read, but not without a feeling of something forced and unreal, of the hospital ministering to the hunger, the thirst, the nakedness of the leprous, and to the other wants and miseries by which they are incessantly afflicted. But within ninety years of that time (1434) the real state of the case becomes apparent; the poor brethren had been neglected, and the estates so mismanaged or alienated to other uses, that new statutes were made reducing the number of inmates to thirteen poor brethren and two lepers, the latter being thrown in, “if they can be found in these parts,” in order to preserve the memory of the original foundation[184].

To these samples, which are also the chief instances of English leper-hospitals, may be added two or three more to bring out another side of the matter. In the cases already given, it has been seen that the provision for the clerical staff was either a very liberal one at first or became so in course of time. The hospitals, whether leprous or other, were for the most part dependencies of the abbeys, affording occupation and residence to so many more monks, just as if they had been “cells” of the abbey. The enormous disproportion of the clerical staff to the inmates of hospitals (not, however, leprous) is seen in the instances of St Giles’s at Norwich, St Saviour’s at Bury and St Cross at Winchester. The provision was about six for the poor and half-a-dozen for the monks. But even the purely nosocomial part of these charities was in not a few instances for the immediate relief of the monasteries themselves. St Bartholomew’s at Chatham, one of the earliest foundations usually counted among the leper-hospitals, was for sick or infirm monks. The hospital at Basingstoke, endowed by Merton College, Oxford, was for incurably sick fellows and scholars of Merton itself. The leper-hospital at Ilford in Essex was founded about 1180 by the rich abbey of Barking, for the leprous tenants and servants of the abbey, the provision being[Pg 96] for a secular master, a leprous master, thirteen leprous brethren, two chaplains and a clerk. St Lawrence’s at Canterbury (1137) was for leprous monks or for the poor parents and relations of monks. St Peter’s at Bury St Edmunds, founded by abbot Anselm in the reign of Henry I., was for priests and others when they grew old, infirm, leprous, or diseased.

The instances which have been detailed in the last few pages, perhaps not without risk of tediousness, have not been chosen to give a colour to the view of medieval leprosy; they are a fair sample of the whole, and they include nearly all those leper-hospitals of which the charters or other authentic records are known[185]. It is possible by using every verbal reference to leprosy that may be found in connexion with all the five hundred or more medieval English hospitals in Bishop Tanner’s Notitia Monastica or in Dugdale’s Monasticon, to make out a list of over a hundred leper-hospitals of one kind or another. But there are probably not thirty of them for which the special destination of the charity is known from charters or inquisitions; and even these, as we have seen, were not all purely for lepers or even mainly for lepers. As to the rest of the list of one hundred, the connexion with leprosy is of the vaguest kind. Thus, four out of the five hospitals in Cornwall are called lazar-houses or leper-hospitals, but they were so called merely on the authority of antiquaries subsequent to the sixteenth century. The same criticism applies almost equally to the eight so-called leper-hospitals, out of a total of fourteen medieval hospitals of all kinds, in Devonshire. It is clear that “lazar-house” became an even more widely generic term than the terms lepra and leprosus themselves[186].

[Pg 97]Thus our doubts as to the amount of true leprosy that once existed in England, and was provided for in the access of chivalrous sentiment that came upon Christendom in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, tend to multiply in a compound ratio. We doubt whether many of the so-called leper-houses or lazar-houses in the list of one hundred, more or less, that may be compiled from the Monasticon, were not ordinary refuges for the sick and infirm poor, like the three or four hundred other religious charities of the country. We know that, in some instances of leper-hospitals with authentic charters, the provision for the leprous was in the proportion of one to three or four of non-leprous inmates. We know that as early as the end of the thirteenth century the leprosi were disappearing or getting displaced even from hospitals where the intentions of the founder were explicit. And lastly we doubt the homogeneity of the disease called lepra and of the class called leprosi.

As to the foundations of a later age they were no longer under ecclesiastical management, and they seem to have been mostly rude shelters on the outskirts of the larger towns. In 1316 a burgess of Rochester, who had sat in Parliament, left a house in Eastgate to be called St Katharine’s Spital, “for poor men of the city, leprous or otherwise diseased, impotent and poor”—or, in other words, a common almshouse. The remarkable ordinance of Edward III. in 1346, for the expulsion of lepers from London, seems to have been the occasion of the founding of two so-called lazar-houses, one in Kent Street, Southwark, called “the Loke[187],” and the other at Hackney or Kingsland. These are the only two mentioned in the subsequent orders to the porters of the City Gates in 1375; and as late as the reign of Henry VI. they are the only two, besides the ancient Matilda’s Hospital in St Giles’s Fields, to which bequests[Pg 98] were made in the will of Ralph Holland, merchant taylor[188]. Another of the suburban leper-spitals was founded at Highgate by a citizen in 1468[189], and it is not until the reign of Henry VIII. that we hear of the spitals at Mile End, Knightsbridge and Hammersmith[190]. By that time leprosy had ceased to be heard of in England; but another disease, syphilis, had become exceedingly common; and it is known that those spitals, together with the older leper-hospitals, were used for the poorer victims of that disease. Stow is unable to give the exact date of any of these foundations except that at Highgate. He assumes that the others were all built on the occasion of the ordinance of 20 Edward III.; but it is probable that only two of them, the Lock and the Kingsland or Hackney spital were built at that time[191].

An early instance of a leper-spital or refuge apparently without ecclesiastical discipline is mentioned in a charter roll of 1207-8, in which king John grants to the leprosi of Bristol a croft outside the Laffard gate, whereon to reside under the king’s protection and to beg with impunity. On the roads leading to Norwich there were four such shelters, outside the gates of St Mary Magdalene, St Bennet, St Giles and St Stephen respectively; these houses were each under a keeper, and were supported by the alms of the townsfolk or of travellers; only one of the four is alleged to have had a chapel attached. The date of these is unknown, but they were probably late. On the roads leading from Lynn, there were three such erections, at Cowgate, Letchhythe and West Lynn, which are first mentioned in a will of 1432. These non-religious and unendowed leper-spitals[Pg 99] were probably rude erections on the outskirts of the town, at the door of which, or on the roadside near, one or more lepers would sit and beg. The liberty of soliciting alms was one of their privileges, only they were not allowed to carry their importunity too far; hence the ordinance of most countries that the lepers were not to enter mills and bake-houses; and hence some ordinances of the Scots parliament limiting the excursions of the leper folk. One of the most considerable privileges to lepers was granted to the lepers of Shrewsbury in 1204 by king John, who did not lose the chance of earning a cheap reputation for Christian charity by his ostentatious patronage of the pauperes Christi: they were entitled to take a handful of corn or flour from all sacks exposed in Shrewsbury market.


Leper-houses in Scotland and Ireland.

Most of the leper-spitals of Scotland would appear to have been of the poorest kind, unendowed and unprovided with priests. The richest foundation for lepers in Scotland was at Kingcase, near Prestwick in Ayrshire, endowed with lands and consisting of a hospital of eight beds. One or more leper-hospitals were built by the rich abbeys on the Tweed (at Aldcambus in Berwickshire and probably at another place). Another great ecclesiastical centre in Scotland, Elgin, had a leper-house at Rothfan, with accommodation for seven lepers, a chaplain, and a servant. After these, the Scots leper-houses may be taken to have been mere refuges, in which the lepers supported themselves by begging. One such secular hospital was in the Gorbals of Glasgow, founded in 1350. Liberton, near Edinburgh, is supposed to mean Leper-town, and to have been a resort of the sick on account of its medicinal spring. The hospital at Greenside, then outside Edinburgh, was built in 1589. There was a leper-spital outside the Gallow-gate of Aberdeen, on a road which still bears the name of the Spital. Similar shelters may be inferred to have existed at Perth, Stirling, Linlithgow and other places. James IV., in his journeys, used to distribute small sums to the sick folk in[Pg 100] the “grandgore” (syphilis), to the poor folk, and to the lipper-folk, “at the town end[192].”

There were some leper-hospitals in Ireland, but it is not easy to distinguish them in every case from general hospitals for the sick poor. Thus the hospital built by the monks of Innisfallen in 869 is merely called nosocomium, although it is usually reckoned an early foundation for lepers in Ireland. A hospital at Waterford was “confirmed to the poor” by the Benedictines in 1185. St Stephen’s in Dublin (1344) is specially named as the residence of the “poor lepers of the city” in a deed of gift about 1360-70; a locality of the city called Leper-hill was perhaps the site of another refuge. Lepers also may have been the occupants of the hospitals at Kilbrixy in Westmeath (St Bridget’s), of St Mary Magdalene’s at Wexford (previous to 1408), of the house at “Hospital,” Lismore (1467), at Downpatrick, at Kilclief in county Down, at Cloyne, and of one or more of four old hospitals in or near Cork. The hospital at Galway, built “for the poor of the town” about 1543, was not a leper-house, nor is there reason to take the old hospital at Dungarvan as a foundation specially for lepers[193].


The Prejudice against Lepers.

It will have been inferred, from many particulars given, that the segregation of lepers in the Middle Ages was far from complete, and that many ministered to them without fear and without risk. The same hospital received both leprosi and others, the hospitals were served by staffs of chaplains, clerks and sometimes women attendants; and yet nothing is anywhere said of contagion being feared or of the disease spreading by contagion. The experience of these medieval hospitals was doubtless the same as in the West Indies and other parts[Pg 101] of the world in our own day. It is true that the medical writers pronounce the disease to be contagious, ut docet Avicenna; but the public would seem to have been unaware of that, and they certainly lost nothing by their ignorance of the medical dogma, which, in the text-books, is merely the result of a concatenation of verbalist arguments. At the same time it is clear that there was a certain amount of segregation of the leprous. The inmates of the hospital at Lincoln are significantly described as “de ejectibus” of the city. The third Lateran Council based one of its decrees upon what must have been a common experience, namely, that lepers were unable to mix freely with others, and that they were objected to in the same church, and even as corpses in the same churchyard. There are some particular indications of that feeling to be gathered from the chroniclers.

One of the most remarkable histories is that of a high ecclesiastic in the pre-Norman period. In the year 1044, Aelfward, bishop of London, being stricken with leprosy (lepra perfusus) sought an asylum in the monastery of Evesham, of which he was the prior. The monks may have had more than one reason for not welcoming back their prior; at all events they declined to let him stay, so that he repaired to the abbey of Ramsey, where he had passed his noviciate and been shorn a monk. He carried off with him from Evesham certain valuables and relics; and his old comrades at Ramsey, undeterred by his leprosy or counter-attracted by his treasures, took him in and kept him until his death. The incident can hardly be legendary for it is related in the annals of Ramsey Abbey by one who wrote within a hundred years of the event[194].

Another case, which may also be accepted as authentic, is given by Eadmer in his Life of Anselm. Among the penitents who sought counsel and consolation of Anselm while he was still abbot of Bec in Normandy, with a great name for sanctity,[Pg 102] was a certain powerful noble from the marches of Flanders. He had been stricken with leprosy in his body, and his grief was all the greater that he saw himself despised beneath his hereditary rank, and shunned by his peers pro obscenitate tanti mali[195].

Besides such notable cases, we find more evidence in the ordinances of the hospital of St Julian at St Albans, which have been preserved more completely than those of any other leper-house. Forasmuch as the disease of leprosy is of all infirmities held the most in contempt, the unfortunate person who is about to be received into the St Albans house is directed to work himself up into a state of the most factitious melancholy; he is reminded, not only of the passage in Leviticus about “Unclean, unclean!”, but also of the blessed Job, who was himself a leper (in the 14th century his boils became identified with the plague, and in the end of the 15th century the patriarch was claimed as an early victim of the lues venerea); and further of the verse in the 53rd of Isaiah: “Et nos putavimus eum leprosum, percussum a Deo, et humiliatum[196].” The St Albans house, with its six beds, appears to have been carefully managed, and its inmates well provided for; but the unreal atmosphere of the place had been too much for the leprous or other patients of the district; for we find it on record that they could hardly be persuaded to don its russet uniform, and submit themselves for the rest of their lives to its discipline.

There can be no question, then, that persons adjudged leprous were shunned, driven out or ostracised by public opinion, and even legislated against. The reality of these practices should not be confounded with a real need for them. Least of all should they be ascribed to a general belief in the contagiousness of the disease. In practice no one heeded the medical dogma of leprous contagion, because no one attached any concrete meaning to it or had any real experience of it. There was prejudice against lepers, partly on account of Biblical tradition, and partly because the “terribilis aspectus” of a leper was repulsive or uncanny. Further, in genuine leprosy, the most wretched part of the victim’s condition was not his appearance[Pg 103] (which in a large proportion of cases may present little that is noticeable to passing observation), but his unfitness for exertion, his listlessness, and depression of spirits, owing to the profound disorganisation of his nerves. A leprous member of a family would be a real burden to his relatives; and in a hard and cruel age he would be little better off than the stricken deer of the herd or the winged bird of the flock. To become a beggar was his natural fate; and as a beggar he became privileged, by royal patent or by prescription, while beggars in ordinary were under a ban.

It is undoubted that the privilege of begging accorded to lepers was abused, and was claimed by numbers who feigned to be lepers[197]. The one severe edict against lepers in England was the ordinance of Edward III. for the exclusion of lepers from London in 1346; it is clear, however, from the text of the ordinance that the occasion of it was not any fixed persuasion of the need for isolating leprous subjects, but some intolerable behaviour of lepers or of those who passed as such. The mayor and sheriffs are ordered to procure that all lepers should avoid the city within fifteen days, for the reason that persons of that class, as well by the pollution of their breath, etc. “as by carnal intercourse with women in stews and other secret places, detestably frequenting the same, do so taint persons who are sound, both male and female, to the great injury etc.[198]” That is the[Pg 104] old confusion which we have already noticed in Bernard Gordonio and Gilbert; it is an edict against lepra in its generic sense, and against the same class that William Clowes characterizes so forcibly in his book on the morbus Gallicus in 1579. At a date intermediate between those two, in 1488, an order was made by the provost of Paris, that “lepers” should leave the city; but that is too late a date for leprosy, although not too early for syphilis. On the 24th August, 1375, the porters of the City Gates were sworn to prevent lepers from entering the city, or from staying in the same, or in the suburbs thereof; and on the same date, the foreman at ‘Le Loke’ (the Lock Hospital in Southwark) and the foreman at the leper-spital of Hackney took oath that they will not bring lepers, or know of their being brought, into the city, but that they will inform the said porters and prevent the said lepers from entering, so far as they may[199].

When all word of leprosy had long ceased in England the porters of the City Gates had the same duties towards beggars in general. Thus in Bullein’s Dialogue of 1564, the action begins with a whining beggar from Northumberland saying the Lord’s Prayer at the door of a citizen. The citizen asks him, “How got you in at the gates?” whereupon it appears that the Northumbrian had a friend at Court: “I have many countrymen in the city,” among the rest an influential personage, the Beadle of the Beggars[200].

While it cannot be maintained that lepers were tolerated or looked upon with indifference, yet it was for other reasons than fear of contagion that they were objectionable. The prejudices against them have been already illustrated from periods as early as the eleventh century. They were, to say the least, undesirable companions, and in certain occupations they must have been peculiarly objectionable. Thus, on the 11th June, 1372, in the[Pg 105] city of London, John Mayn, baker, who had often times before been commanded by the mayor and aldermen to depart from the city, and provide for himself some dwelling without the same, and avoid the common conversation of mankind, seeing that he the same John was smitten with the blemish of leprosy—was again ordered to depart[201]. It does not appear whether the baker departed that time, nor is there any good diagnosis of his leprosy; there was certainly a prejudice against him, but the occasion of it may have been nothing more than the eczematous crusts on the hands and arms, sometimes very inveterate, which men of his trade are subject to.

It is clear also from a singular case in the Foedera, that a false accusation of leprosy was sometimes brought against an individual, perhaps out of enmity, like an accusation of witchcraft. In 1468 a woman accused of leprosy appealed to Edward IV., who issued a chancery warrant for her examination.

The writ of 3rd July, 1468, is to the king’s physicians, “sworn to the safe-keeping of our person,” William Hatteclyff, Roger Marschall, and Dominic de Serego, doctors of Arts and Medicine; and the subject of the inquisition is Johanna Nightyngale of Brentwood in Essex, who was presumed by certain of her neighbours to be infected by the foul contagion of lepra, and for whose removal from the common intercourse of men a petition had been laid in Chancery. She had refused to remove herself to a solitary place, prout moris est; the physicians are accordingly ordered to associate with themselves certain legal persons, to inquire whether the woman was leprous, and, if so, to have her removed to a solitary place honestiori modo quo poteris. On the 1st of November, 1468, the court of inquiry reported that they found the woman to be in no way leprous, nor to have been. The woman had been brought before them: they had passed in review twenty-five or more of the commonly reputed signs of lepra, but they had not found that she could be convicted of leprosy from them, or from a sufficient number of them; again, passing in review each of the four species of lepra (alopecia, tinia, leonina, and elephantia) and the forty or more distinctive signs of the species of lepra, they found not that the woman was marked by any of the species of lepra, but that she was altogether free and immune from every species of lepra[202].

 [Pg 106]

Laws against Lepers.

The ordinance of 21 Edward III. (1346) against the harbouring of lepers in London is the only one of the kind (so far as I know) in English history; the Statutes of the realm contain no reference to lepers or leprosy from first to last; the references in the Rolls of Parliament are to the taxing of their houses and lands. The laws which deprived lepers of marital rights and of heirship appear to have been wholly foreign; in England, leprosy as a bar to succession was made a plea in the law courts. It appears, however, that a law against lepers was made by a Welsh king in the tenth century[203]. It is not easy to realize the state of Welsh society in the tenth century; but we know enough of it in the twelfth century, from the description of Giraldus Cambrensis, to assert with some confidence that “leprosy” might have meant anything—perhaps the “lepra Normannorum[204].”

In Scotland the laws and ordinances, civil and ecclesiastical, against lepers have been more numerous. In 1242 and 1269, canons of the Scots Church were made, ordering that lepers should be separated from society in accordance with general custom. In 1283-84, the statutes of the Society of Merchants, or the Guildry, of Berwick provided that lepers should not enter the borough, and that “some gude man sall gather alms for them.” In 1427 the Parliament of Perth authorised ministers and others to search the parishes for lepers[205].

We conclude, then, that little was made of leprosy by English legislators (rather more by the Scots), just as we have found that in the endowment of charities, the leprous had only[Pg 107] a small share, and that share a somewhat exaggerated one owing to the morbid sentimentality of the chivalrous period. The most liberal estimate of the amount of true leprosy at any time in England would hardly place it so high as in the worst provinces of India at the present day. In the province of Burdwan, with a population of over two millions, which may be taken to have been nearly the population of England in the thirteenth century, there are enumerated 4604 lepers, or 2·26 in every thousand inhabitants. But even with that excessive prevalence of leprosy, and with no seclusion of the lepers, a traveller may visit the province of Burdwan, and not be aware that leprosy is “frightfully common” in it. In medieval England the village leper may have been about as common as the village fool; while in the larger towns or cities, such as London, Norwich, York, Bristol, and Lincoln, true lepers can hardly have been so numerous as the friars themselves, who are supposed to have found a large part of their occupation in ministering to their wants. A rigorous scepticism might be justified, by the absence of any good diagnostic evidence, in going farther than this. But the convergence of probabilities does point to a real prevalence of leprosy in medieval England; and those probabilities will be greatly strengthened by discovering in the then habits of English living a vera causa for the disease.


Causes of Medieval Leprosy.

What was there in the medieval manner of life to give rise to a certain number of cases of leprosy in all the countries of Europe? Granting that not all who were called leprosi and leprosae, were actually the subjects of lepra as correctly diagnosed, and that the misnomer was not unlikely to have been applied in the case of princes, nobles and great ecclesiastics, we have still to reckon with the apparition of leprosy among the people in medieval Europe and with its gradual extinction, an extinction that became absolute in most parts of Europe before the Modern period had begun.

Of the “importation” of leprosy into Britain from some[Pg 108] source outside there can be no serious thought; the words are a meaningless phrase, which no one with a real knowledge of the conditions, nature and affinities of leprosy would care to resort to. The varying types of diseases, or their existence at one time and absence at another, are a reflex of the variations in the life of the people—in food and drink, wages, domestic comfort, town life or country life, and the like. No one doubts that the birth-rate and the death-rate have had great variations from time to time, depending on the greater or less abundance of the means of subsistence, on overcrowding, or other things; and the variation in the birth-rate and death-rate is only the most obvious and numerically precise of a whole series of variations in vital phenomena, of which the successions, alternations, and novelties in the types of disease are the least simple, and least within the reach of mere notional apprehension or mere statistical management. The apparition and vanishing of leprosy in medieval Europe was one of those vital phenomena. It may be more easily apprehended by placing beside it a simple example from our own times.

The pellagra of the North Italian peasantry (and of Roumania, Gascony and some other limited areas) is the nearest affinity to leprosy among the species of disease. Strip leprosy of all its superficial and sentimental characters, analyse its essential phenomena, reduce its pathology to the most correct outlines, and we shall find it a chronic constitutional malady not far removed in type from pellagra. In both diseases there are the early warnings in the excessive sensibility, excessive redness and changes of colour, at certain spots of skin on or about the face or on the hands and feet. In both diseases, permanent loss of sensibility follows the previous exaggeration, blanching of the skin will remain for good at the spots where redness and discoloration were apt to come and go, and these affections of the end-regions of nerves will settle, in less definite way, upon the nervous system at large,—the cerebro-spinal nervous system, or the organic nervous system, or both together. What makes leprosy seem a disease in a different class from that, is the formation of nodules, or lumps, in the regions of affected skin in a certain proportion of the cases. If leprosy were all anaesthetic[Pg 109] leprosy, its affinities to pellagra would be more quickly perceived; it is because about one-half of it has more or less of the tuberculated character that a diversion is created towards another kind of pathology. But the fact that some cases of leprosy develop nodules along the disordered nerves does not remove the disease as a whole from the class to which pellagra belongs. In both diseases we are dealing essentially with a profound disorder of the nerves and nerve-centres, commencing in local skin-affections which come and go and at length settle, proceeding to implicate the nervous functions generally, impairing the efficiency of the individual, and bringing him to a miserable end. The two diseases diverge each along its own path, leprosy becoming more a hopeless disorder of the nerves of tissue-nutrition, and so taking on a structural character mainly but not exclusively, and pellagra becoming more a hopeless disorder of the organic nervous system (digestion, circulation, etc.) with implication of the higher nervous functions, such as the senses, the intellect, and the emotions, and so taking on a functional character mainly but not exclusively. The correlation of structure and function is one that goes all through pathology as well as biology; and here we find it giving character to each of two chronic disorders of the nervous system, according as the structural side or the functional side comes uppermost.

What, then, are the circumstances of pellagra, and do these throw light upon the medieval prevalence of leprosy? Pellagra has been proved with the highest attainable scientific certainty to be due to a staple diet of bread or porridge made from damaged or spoilt maize. It followed the introduction of maize into Lombardy at an interval of two or three generations, and its distribution corresponds closely to the poorer kinds of maize on colder soils, and to the class of the peasantry who get the worst kind of corn or meal for their food. The cases of the disease among the peasantry of Lombardy and some other maize-growing provinces of Northern Italy, were about one hundred thousand when last estimated; the endowed charitable houses and lunatic asylums are full of them. The connexion of the disease with its causes is perfectly well understood; but the economic questions of starvation wages, of truck, of large farms with[Pg 110] bailiffs, and of agricultural usage, have proved too much for the chambers of commerce and the Government; so that there is as yet little or no sign of the decline of pellagra in the richest provinces of Italy. This disease is not mentioned in the Bible, therefore it has no traditional vogue; it is not well suited to knight-errantry, because it is a common evil of whole provinces; its causes are economic and social, therefore there is no ready favour to be earned by systematic attempts to deal with them; and there is absolutely no opening for heroism and self-sacrifice of the more ostentatious kind. These are among the reasons why this great object-lesson of a chronic disorder of nutrition, proceeding steadily before our eyes, has been so little perceived. It is in pellagra, however, that we find the key to the ancient problem of leprosy. The two diseases are closely allied in the insidious approach of their symptoms, in their implicating the tissue-nutrition through the nerves, or the nervous functions through the nutrition, in their cumulating and incurable character, and in their transmissibility by inheritance. Thus nosologically allied, they may be reasonably suspected of having analogous causes; and as we know the cause of modern pellagra to be something noxious in the habitual diet of the people, we may look for the cause of medieval leprosy in something of the same kind.

The dietetic cause is not far to seek, and it cannot be stated better than in the following well-known passage by the philosophical Gilbert White in his Natural History of Selborne[206]:—

“It must, therefore, in these days be, to a humane and thinking person, a matter of equal wonder and satisfaction, when he contemplates how nearly this pest is eradicated, and observes that a leper is now [1778] a rare sight. He will, moreover, when engaged in such a train of thought, naturally inquire for the reason. This happy change perhaps may have originated and been continued from the much smaller quantity of salted meat and fish now eaten in these kingdoms; from the use of linen next the skin; from the plenty of bread; and from the profusion of fruits, roots, legumes, and greens, so common in every family. Three or four centuries ago, before there were any enclosures, sown-grasses, field-turnips, or field-carrots, or hay, all the cattle which had grown fat in summer, and were not killed for winter use, were turned out soon after Michaelmas to shift as they could through the dead months; so that no fresh meat could be had in winter[Pg 111] or spring. Hence the marvellous account of vast stores of salted flesh found in the larder of the eldest Spencer even so late in the spring as the 3rd of May (600 bacons, 80 carcases of beef, and 600 muttons)[207]. It was from magazines like these that the turbulent barons supported in idleness their riotous swarms of retainers, ready for any disorder or mischief. But agriculture is now arrived at such pitch of perfection, that our best and fattest meats are killed in the winter; and no man needs eat salted flesh, unless he prefers it, that has money to buy fresh.

“One cause of this distemper might be no doubt the quantity of wretched fresh and salt fish consumed by the commonalty at all seasons as well as in Lent, which our poor now would hardly be persuaded to touch.... The plenty of good wheaten bread that now is found among all ranks of people in the south, instead of that miserable sort which used, in old days, to be made of barley or beans, may contribute not a little to the sweetening their blood and correcting their juices.”

Let us add to this, that the meat diet of the poorer class, whether serfs or freemen, would be apt to consist of the more worthless portions, the semi-putrid pieces in the salted sides of bacon, mutton or beef, and that badly-cured pork was in many parts the usual kind of flesh-food; and we shall have no difficulty in finding the noxious element in the diet of the Middle Ages, which the dietetic hypothesis of leprosy requires. Some who have advocated that hypothesis for modern leprosy, have laid themselves open, notwithstanding the ability and industry of their research, to plausible objections which have no bearing if the hypothesis be sufficiently safe-guarded. Leprosy, like every other morbus miseriae, needs a number of things working together to produce it, its more or less uniform specific character or distinctive mark being determined by the presence of one factor in particular. The special factor should be generalised as much as possible, so as to cover the whole circumstances of leprosy: it is not only half-cured or semi-putrid fish[208], but half-cured or[Pg 112] semi-putrid flesh of any kind. The most general expression for leprosy is a semi-putrid or toxic character of animal food, just as for the allied pellagra, it is a semi-putrid or toxic character of the bread or porridge. Moreover it is that noxious or unnatural thing in the food, not once and again, or as a bonne bouche, but somewhat steadily from day to day as a chief part of the sustenance, and from year to year. As the rain-drops wear the stones, so the poison in the daily diet tells upon the constitution. Once more, such special causes may be present in a country generally, among the poor of all the towns, villages and hamlets, and yet only one person here and there may show specific effects that are recognisable as a disease to which we give a name. Unless there be present the aiding and abetting things, the special factor will hardly make itself felt; and if there be not the special factor, there may be some other morbus miseriae but there will not be that one. These aiding things are for the most part the usual concomitants of poverty and hardships, wearing out the nerves far more than is commonly supposed and producing in ordinary an excessive amount of nervous affections among the poor. But among the poor themselves, as well as among the well-to-do, there are special susceptibilities in individuals and in families. One person may have the same unwholesome surroundings as another and the same poisonous element in his diet, but he may fall into no such train of symptoms as his leprous neighbour because he is not formed in quite the same way, because he has “no nerves,” or is of a hardier stock, or because his unwholesome manner of life comes out in some other form of disease (scrofula perhaps, less probably gout), or for some other reason deeply hidden in his ancestry and his personal peculiarities. The chances would be always largely against that particular combination of factors needed to make leprosy. It was a morbus miseriae of the Middle Ages, but on the whole not a very common one; and it was easily shaken off by the national life when the conditions changed ever so little. It was all the more easily shaken off by reason of the facilities for divorce, the prohibition of marriage, and the monastic discipline.

The staple diet as a cause of leprosy was suspected in the Middle Ages, and by writers as ancient as Galen. It is not without[Pg 113] significance that the minute directions for the dieting of the lepers in the rich hospital of Sherburn, near Durham, urge special caution as to the freshness of the fish: when fresh fish was not to be had, red herrings might be substituted, but only if they were well cured, not putrid nor corrupt. Those directions were in accordance with the best medical teaching of the time on the dietetics of leprosy, or on how to prevent leprosy, as it is given with considerable minuteness in Gordonio and Gilbert[209].

On the other hand we find a singular ordinance of the Scots Parliament at Scone in 1386, or some forty years after the date of the Durham regulations: “Gif ony man brings to the market corrupt swine or salmond to be sauld, they sall be taken by the Bailie and incontinent without ony question sall be sent to the lepper-folke; and gif there be na lepper-folke, they sall be destroyed alluterlie[210].” Nothing could be more significant for the prevalence and persistence of leprosy in Scotland[211]. Putrid fish and pork did actually come to market; the dangers of them as regarded the production of leprosy were unsuspected; and the lepers (genuine or mistaken) were actually directed to be fed with them. Such food for “lepers” could only have fed the disease; and if it be the case that genuine leprosy was met with in Edinburgh and Glasgow more than two centuries after it ceased to be heard of in England, we need be at no loss to assign the reason why the disease was more inveterate in the one country than in the other.



[Pg 114]



The most likely of the fourteenth-century English annalists to have given us a good account of the Black Death was the historian Ranulphus Higden, author of the Polychronicon, who became a monk of St Werburgh’s abbey at Chester about the beginning of the century, and lived to see the disastrous year of 1349[212]. That part of his history which relates to his own period he brings down year by year to 1348, with less fulness of detail in the later years, as if old age were making him brief. Under the year 1348 he begins the subject of the great mortality, speaks of the incessant rains of the second half of the year from Midsummer to Christmas, refers to the ravages of the plague at Avignon, the then ecclesiastical capital of Christendom, just mentions England and Ireland, and then lets the pen fall from his hand. Higden is believed to have resumed his annals after 1352; but he was then a very old man, and the last entries are unimportant. But the period from 1348 to 1352 is an absolute blank. He comes to the edge of the great subject of that time, as if he had intended to deal with it comprehensively, beginning with a notice of the previous weather, which is by no means irrelevant, and after two or three lines more he breaks off. Most of the monastic chronicles are interrupted at the same point; if there is an entry at all under the year 1349 it is for the most part[Pg 115] merely the words magna mortalitas. The prevailing sense of desolation and despair comes out in the record made by a friar of Kilkenny, who kept a chronicle of passing events, and escaped the fate of his brethren in the convent only long enough to record a few particulars of the great mortality[213]:

“And I, friar John Clyn, of the Order of Friars Minor, and of the convent of Kilkenny, wrote in this book those notable things which happened in my time, which I saw with my eyes, or which I learned from persons worthy of credit. And lest things worthy of remembrance should perish with time, and fall away from the memory of those who are to come after us, I, seeing these many evils, and the whole world lying, as it were, in the wicked one, among the dead waiting for death till it come—as I have truly heard and examined, so have I reduced these things to writing; and lest the writing should perish with the writer, and the work fail together with the workman, I leave parchment for continuing the work, if haply any man survive, and any of the race of Adam escape this pestilence and continue the work which I have commenced.”

There is nothing in the English chronicles so directly personal as that, but there are some facts recorded of the mortality in four of them which have contemporary value, or almost contemporary. The best of these accounts, as a piece of history, is that of Henry Knighton, canon of Leicester[214], who acknowledges his indebtedness to Higden’s Polychronicon for the events down to 1326, but after that date either writes from his own observation or takes his facts from some unknown contemporary source. The next in importance is Geoffrey le Baker[215], a clerk of the abbey of Osney, near Oxford, whose account of the arrival of the Black Death in England has obtained wide currency as copied literally in the 1605 edition of[Pg 116] Stow’s Annals. The third is Robert de Avesbury[216], whose History of Edward III. serves as a chronicle for the city of London more particularly. The fourth is the Malmesbury monk who wrote, about 1367, the chronicle known as the Eulogium[217].

From the systematic paragraphs of those writers, and from various other incidental notices, an outline of the progress of the pestilence in England, Scotland and Ireland, may be traced. It entered English soil at a port of Dorsetshire—said in the Eulogium to have been Melcombe (Weymouth)—in the beginning of August, 1348. It is said to have spread rapidly through Dorset, Devon and Somerset, almost stripping those counties of their inhabitants, and to have reached Bristol by the 15th of August. The people of Gloucester in vain tried to keep out the infection by cutting off all intercourse with Bristol; from Gloucester it came to Oxford, and from Oxford to London, reaching the capital at Michaelmas, according to one account, or at All Saints (1st November) according to another. Although the 15th of August is definitely given as the date of its arrival at Bristol from the Dorset coast, it must not be assumed that the infection covered the ground so quickly as that in the rest of its progresses. We have a measure of the rate of its advance south-westward through Devonshire to Cornwall, in a contemporary entry in the register of the Church of Friars Minor at Bodmin[218]: confirming the independent statements that the pestilence entered England at the beginning of August, the register goes on to record that it reached the town of Bodmin shortly before Christmas, and that there died in that town about fifteen hundred persons, as estimated.

The corporation records of Bridport, a town near to the place in Dorset where the infection landed, show that four bailiffs held[Pg 117] office, instead of two, in the 23rd of Edward III., in tempore pestilentiae; the 23rd of Edward III. would begin 25 Jan. 1349, but the municipal year would probably have extended from September 1348, so that Bridport may have had the infection before the end of that year[219]. It seems probable that the smaller towns, and the villages, all over the South-west, had been infected in the end of 1348, but somewhat later than Bristol and Gloucester. The mandate of Ralph, bishop of Bath and Wells, “On confessions in the time of the pestilence,” is dated Wynchelcomb, 4. id. Jan. M.CCC.XLVIII. (10 January, 1349) and it speaks of the contagion spreading everywhere, and of many parish churches and other cures in his diocese being left without curate and priest to visit the sick and administer the sacraments[220].

The autumn of 1348 may be taken, then, as correct for the South-west; and there is no doubt that the infection had been severe enough in London before the end of that year to move the authorities to action.

“Owing to the increasing severity of the sudden plague day by day at Westminster and places adjoining,” Parliament was prorogued on the 1st of January, 1349[221]. There was a further prorogation on the 10th of March, for the reason given that “the pestilence was continuing at Westminster, in the city of London, and in other places, more severely than before” (gravius solito)[222]. This agrees with Avesbury’s statement that the epidemic in London reached a height (in tantum excrevit) after Candlemas, 1349, and that it was over about Pentecost. One of the best proofs of the season and duration of the Black Death in London is got from the number of wills enrolled in the Husting Court[Pg 118] of the city in the successive months. Those who died of the plague leaving wills were, of course, but a small fraction of the whole mortality; but the wills during some eight months of 1349 are ten or fifteen times more numerous than in any other year before or after, excepting perhaps the year of the pestis secunda, 1361. Starting from 3 in November, 1348 (none in December), the probates rise to 18 in January, 1349, 42 in February, 41 in March, none in April (owing to paralysis of business, doubtless), but 121 in May, 31 in June, 51 in July, none in August and September, 18 in October, 27 in November, and then an ordinary average[223]. Thus it would have had a duration of some seven or eight months in the capital, with a curve of increase, maximum intensity, and decrease, just as the great London epidemics of the same disease in the 16th and 17th centuries are known from the weekly bills to have had.

It does not appear to have been felt at all in Norwich and other places in the Eastern Counties until the end of March, 1349, its enormous ravages in that part of England falling mostly in the summer. There is a definite statement that it began at York about the feast of the Ascension, by which time it had almost ceased in London, and that it lasted in the capital of the northern province until the end of July. The infection almost emptied the abbey of Meaux, in Holdernesse, of its monks, and the abbey lands of their tenants; and the date given in the abbey chronicle is the month of August, 1349. The spring and summer of that year appear to have been the seasons of the great mortality all over England, excepting perhaps in the southern counties where the outbreak began; even at Oxford, which is one of the towns mentioned as on the route of the pestilence from Dorsetshire to London, the mortality is entered under the year 1349, which was also the year of its enormous prevalence among the farmers and peasants on the manor of Winslow, in the county of Bucks.

Its invasion of the mountainous country of Wales (by no means exempt from plague in the 17th century) may have been a season later—anno sequenti, says Le Baker, which may mean either 1349 or 1350. In the Irish annals, the first mention of[Pg 119] the pestilence is under the year 1348; but it was probably only the rumour of the mortality at Avignon and elsewhere abroad that caused the alarm in Ireland among ecclesiastics and in gatherings of the people. It was first seen on the shores of Dublin Bay, at Howth and Dalkey, and a little farther north on the coast at Drogheda; it raged in Dublin “from the beginning of August until the Nativity[224],” which may mean the year 1348, although the year 1349 is the date given for the great mortality in Ireland in later chronicles.

The experience of Scotland illustrates still farther the slow progression of the plague, and its dependence to some extent upon the season of the year. Two English chroniclers (Le Baker and Knighton) mention that it got among the Scots assembled in the forest of Selkirk for an invasion at the time when the mortality was greatest in the northern counties, the autumn of 1349. But the winter cold must have held it in check as regards the rest of Scotland; for it is clear from Fordoun that its great season in that country generally was the year 1350. Thus the Black Death may be said to have extended over three seasons in the British Islands—a partial season in the south of England in 1348, a great season all over England, in Ireland and in the south of Scotland in 1349, and a late extension to Scotland generally in 1350. The experience of all Europe was similar, the Mediterranean provinces receiving the infection as early as 1347, and the northern countries, on the Baltic and North Seas, as late as 1350.


Symptoms and Type of the Black Death.

This sweeping pestilence was part of a great wave of infection which passed over Europe from the remote East, and of which we shall trace the antecedents in the latter part of this chapter.[Pg 120] The type and symptoms of the disease are sufficiently well-known from foreign descriptions—by Guy de Chauliac and Raymond de Chalin, both of Avignon, by Boccaccio, and by the Villani of Florence. It was the bubo-plague, a disease which is known to have existed in Egypt in the time of the Ptolemies, and made its first great incursion from that country into Europe in the reign of Justinian in the year 543 (see Chapter I.). Its second great invasion, but from a new direction, was the Black Death of 1347-9; and from that time it remained domesticated in the soil of Europe for more than three hundred years as “the plague.” The first medical descriptions of it by native British writers are comparatively late. Manuscript treatises or “ordinances” on the plague circulated in England from the reign of Richard II., most of them being copies of a short work of no great value by one John of Burgoyne or John of Bordeaux. There is also extant an English translation in manuscript, assigned to the 14th century (but belonging to the end of it, if not to the 15th), of a really good work on the plague by the bishop of Aarhus, in Denmark, of which I shall have more to say in the next chapter. But none of these give English experience; and the earliest of our 16th century plague-books, by Phaer, is a compilation mostly, if not entirely, from the Danish bishop’s treatise, the latter having been printed in its English form in or near 1480. It is not until we come to the work of Dr Gilbert Skene of Edinburgh, printed in 1568, that we find a treatise on plague showing traces of first-hand observation and reflection. Then follow the essay of Simon Kellwaye on the London plague of 1593, and that of the well-known Elizabethan poet and physician Thomas Lodge, on the plague of 1603. Thus the reign of the plague in Britain was approaching an end before the native medical profession began to write upon it. Its eventful history from its arrival in 1348 down to a comparatively late period has to be constructed from other materials than the records or systematic writings of the faculty.

The type of the Black Death in England is sufficiently indicated by Le Baker, who was probably living at Osney, near Oxford, when the infection began, and indubitably by friar Clyn of Kilkenny. Le Baker mentions the apostemata or swellings in[Pg 121] diverse parts, their sudden eruption, and their extreme hardness and dryness, so that hardly any fluid escaped when they were lanced according to the usual method of treating them[225]. He speaks also of a peculiarly fatal form, from which few or none recovered; it was characterised by “small black pustules” on the skin, probably the livid spots or “tokens” which came to be considered the peculiar mark of the plague, and were certainly the index of a malignant type of it, just as the corresponding haemorrhages are in pestilential fever (or typhus) and in yellow fever. The disease, he adds, was swift in doing its work: one day people were in high health and the next day dead and buried. Knighton also says, with special reference to Bristol, that the attack was fatal sometimes within twelve hours, and usually within three days at the most. The treatment, which would have been, according to all subsequent experience, the privilege only of those who could pay for it, would appear to have consisted in lancing the risings or botches in the armpits, neck, or groins; these were the lymph-glands enlarged to the size of a walnut or of a hen’s egg, and of a livid colour,—the most striking and certain of all the plague-signs.

Clyn’s account of the disease, as he saw it at Kilkenny in 1349, is important for including one remarkable symptom on which great importance has been laid as distinctive of the Black Death among the epidemics of bubo-plague, namely haemorrhage from the lungs: “For many died from carbuncles, and boils, and botches which grew on the legs and under the arms; others from passion of the head, as if thrown into a frenzy; others by vomiting blood[226].” It was so contagious, he says, that those who touched the dead, or even the sick, were incontinently infected that they died, and both penitent and confessor were borne together to the same grave. Such was the fear and horror of it[Pg 122] that men scarce dared exercise the offices of pity, namely, to visit the sick and bury the dead. Clyn’s list of symptoms includes all the most prominent features of the plague as we shall find them described for the great epidemics of the Stuart period—the botches in the armpits or groins, the carbuncles, the boils (or blains), and the frenzy or delirium, as well as the special symptom of the great mortality—vomiting of blood.

Of the botch, which was the most striking sign of the plague, the following description, by Woodall (1639), may be introduced here, to supplement the more meagre accounts of the bubo-plague on its first appearance. Woodall had himself suffered from the bubo or botch on two occasions, in its comparatively safe suppurating form; his description relates to the hard, tense, and dry botch, especially mentioned by Le Baker for 1349, and always the index of great malignity:

“But the pestilential bubo or boyle commeth ever furiously on, and as in a rage of a Feaver, and as being in haste; sometimes it lighteth on or near the inguen thwart, but more often lower upon the thigh, pointing downward with one end, the upper end towards the belly being commonly the biggest or the fullest part of the bubo, the whole thigh being also inflamed[227].”

Of this disease, says Le Baker, few of the first rank died, but of the common people an incalculable number, and of the clergy and the cleric class a multitude known to God only. It was mostly the young and strong who were cut off, the aged and weakly being commonly spared. No one dared come near the sick, and the bodies of the dead were shunned. Both Le Baker and Knighton speak of whole villages and hamlets left desolate, and of numbers of houses, both great and small, left empty and falling to ruin. It was not merely one in a house that died, says friar Clyn of Kilkenny, but commonly husband, wife, children and domestics all went the same way of death; the friar himself wrote as one inter mortuos mortem expectans. Without naming the locality, Avesbury says that in a single day, twenty, forty,[Pg 123] sixty or more corpses were buried in the same trench[228]. The stereotyped phrase in the monastic chronicles is that not more than a tenth part of the people were left alive. However, the author of the Eulogium, a monk of Malmesbury who brought his history down to 1366, gives a numerical estimate at the other extreme. He says that the plague entered England at Melcumbe, destroyed innumerable people in Dorset, Devon and Somerset, and, having left few alive in Bristol, proceeded northwards, leaving no city, nor town, nor hamlet, nor scarcely a house, in which it did not cut off the greater part of the people, or the whole of them; but he adds, somewhat inconsequently, “so that a fifth part of the men, women and children in all England were consigned to the grave[229].” These are the vague contemporary estimates of the mortality—ranging from nine-tenths to one-fifth of the whole population. It is possible, however, to come much nearer to precision by the systematic use of documents; and in that exercise we shall now proceed, in an order from the more general to the more particular.


Estimates of the Mortality.

There are two State documents the language of which favours the more moderate kind of estimate. In a letter of the king[230], dated 1 December, 1349, or after the epidemic was over, to the mayor and bailiffs of Sandwich, ordering them to watch all who took ship for foreign parts so as to arrest the exit of men and money, the preamble or motive is: “Quia non modica pars populi regni nostri Angliae praesenti Pestilentia est defuncta.” (Forasmuch as no mean part of the people of our kingdom of England is dead of the present pestilence.) The Statute of Labourers, 18 November, 1350, begins: “Quia magna pars populi, et maximé operariorum et servientium jam in ultima pestilentia est defuncta.” (Forasmuch as a great part of the people, principally of artisans and labourers, is dead in the late[Pg 124] pestilence.) The statute would have emphasized the loss of artizans and labourers as these were its special subjects, but the maximé operariorum et servientium may be fairly taken in a literal sense to mean that the adult and able-bodied of the working class suffered most. One of the contemporary chronicles says that the women and children were sent to take the places of the men in field labour[231]. It is also significant that the “second plague” of 1361 is named by two independent chroniclers the pestis puerorum, or plague of the juveniles, as if it were now their turn. The pestis secunda was also notable, both in England and on the Continent, for the numbers of the nobility which it carried off, and in that respect it was contrasted with the Black Death.

Next we come to certain numerical statements as to the mortality of 1349, which have an air of precision. They relate to Leicester, Oxford, Bodmin, Norwich, Yarmouth and London. In Leicester, according to Knighton, who was a canon there at the time or shortly after, the burials from the Black Death were more than 700 in St Margaret’s churchyard, more than 400 in Holy Cross parish (afterwards St Martin’s), more than 380 in St Leonard’s parish, which was a small one, and in the same proportion in the other parishes, which were three or four in number, and none of them so large as the two first named. Knighton’s round numbers for three parishes are not improbable, considering that Leicester was a comparatively populous town at the time of the poll-tax of 1377: the numbers who paid the tax were 2101, which would give, by the usual way of reckoning, a population of 3939. The population of the same three parishes in 1558, or shortly after the period when English towns were described in the statute of 32 Henry VIII. as being much decayed, would have been about 820 in St Margaret’s, 800 in St Martin’s (Holy Cross), and 160 in St Leonard’s[232]. In 1712, when the hosiery industry had been flourishing for thirty years, the population of St Margaret’s was about 1900 and of St Martin’s about 1750, the estimated population of the whole[Pg 125] town having been 6450, or about one-half more than we may assume it to have been in 1349.

In order to realise what the pestilence of 1349 meant to these parishes of Leicester, let us take the actual burials from the parish register of one of them, St Martin’s, in the comparatively mild plague years of 1610 and 1611, a period when the population, as calculated from the annual averages of births and deaths, would have been from 3000 to 3500, probably less, therefore, by some hundreds than it was in the years before the Black Death. In 1610 there were 82 burials in St Martin’s parish, or about twice the average of non-plague years; in 1611 there were 128 burials, or three to four times the annual average[233]. Knighton’s 400 deaths for the same parish in 1349 would mean that the ordinary burials were multiplied about ten times; while his figures for two other parishes would mean a still greater ratio of increase[234].

For Oxford the estimate is not less precise or more moderate. “’Tis reported,” says Anthony Wood, under the year 1349, “that no less than sixteen bodies in one day were carried to one churchyard[235].”

The information for Bodmin, in Cornwall, comes from William of Worcester[236] who read it, about a century after the event, in the register of the Franciscan church in that town. The entry in the register was doubtless made at the time, and as made by Franciscans familiar with burials it deserves some credit for approximate accuracy. The deaths are put down in round numbers at fifteen hundred, which may seem large for Bodmin at that date. But the truth is that the Cornish borough[Pg 126] was a place of relatively greater importance then than afterwards. In the king’s writ of 1351, for men-at-arms, in which each town was rated on the old basis before the Black Death, Bodmin comes fourteenth in order, being rated at eight men, while such towns as Gloucester, Hereford and Shrewsbury are rated at ten each. It may well have had a population of three or four thousand, of which the numbers said to have died in the great mortality would be less than one-half.

Perhaps the most satisfactory reckoning of the dead from contemporary statements is that which can be made for London. The disease, as we know, reached the capital at Michaelmas or All Souls (1st November), and its prevalence led to a prorogation of Parliament on the 1st of January, and again on the 10th of March, the reason assigned for the farther prorogation being that the pestilence was raging gravius solito—more severely than usual. The winter mortality must have been considerable, although doubtless the season of the year kept it in check, as in all subsequent experience. But there is evidence that three more burying-places became necessary early in the year 1349. One of these, of no great extent, was on the east side of the City, in the part that is now the Minories[237]; and two were on the north side, not far apart. Of the latter, one formerly called Nomansland, in West Smithfield, was also of small extent[238]; but the other was a field of thirteen acres and a rood, which became in the course of years the property of the Carthusians and the site of the Charterhouse (partly covered now by Merchant Taylors School). The larger burial-ground, called Manny’s cemetery after its donor sir Walter Manny, the king’s minister and high admiral, was consecrated by the bishop of London and opened for use at Candlemas, 1349. Now comes in the testimony of Avesbury, the only chronicler of good authority for London in those years. The mortality increased so much, he says (in tantum excrevit), that there were buried in Manny’s cemetery from the feast of the[Pg 127] Purification (when it was opened) until Easter more than 200 in a single day (quasi diebus singulis), besides the burials in other cemeteries[239]. The language of the chronicler implies that the burials in the new cemetery rose to a maximum of 200 in a day. The Black Death must have been like the great London plagues of later times in this respect, at least, that it rose to a height, remained at its highest level for some two, three or four weeks, and gradually declined. A maximum of 200 in a day, in the cemetery which would have at that stage received nearly all the dead, would mean a plague-mortality from first to last, or an epidemic curve, not unlike that of the London plague of 1563, for which we have the exact weekly totals[240]: the five successive weeks at the height of that plague (Sept. 3 to Oct. 8) produced mortalities of 1454, 1626, 1372, 1828 and 1262; and the epidemic throughout its whole curve of intensity from June to December caused a mortality of 17,404. If Avesbury’s figures had been at all near the mark, the Black Death in London would have been a twenty-thousand plague, or to make a most liberal allowance for burials in other cemeteries than Manny’s when the epidemic was at its worst, it might have been a thirty-thousand plague. Even at the smaller of those estimates it would have been a much more severe visitation upon the London of Edward III. than the plague with 17,404 deaths was upon the London of the 5th of Elizabeth.

The mortality of London in the Black Death has been usually estimated at a far higher figure than 20,000 or 30,000. There was a brass fixed to a stone monument in the Charterhouse churchyard (Manny’s cemetery), bearing an inscription which was read there both by Stow and Camden. Stow gives the Latin words, of which the following is a translation: “Anno Domini 1349, while the great pestilence was reigning, this cemetery was consecrated, wherein, and within the walls of the[Pg 128] present monastery, were buried more than fifty thousand bodies of the dead, besides many more from that time to the present, on whose souls may God have mercy. Amen.” Camden says the number on the brass was forty thousand, but his memory had probably misled him[241]. This has been accepted as if trustworthy, apparently because it was inscribed upon a monument in the cemetery; and it has been argued that if one cemetery received 50,000 corpses in the plague, the other cemeteries and parish churchyards of London would have together received as many more, so that the whole mortality of London would have been 100,000[242].

But that mode of reckoning disregards alike the scrutiny of documents and the probabilities of the case. The inscription bears upon it that it was written subsequent to the erection of the Carthusian monastery, which was not begun until 1371[243]. The round estimate of 50,000 is at least twenty-two years later than the mortality to which it relates, and may easily have been magnified by rumour in the course of transmission. Even if it had contemporary value we should have to take it as the roughest of guesses. The latter objection applies in a measure to Avesbury’s estimate of 200 burials in a day at the height of the epidemic; but clearly it is easier to count correctly up to 200 in a day than to 50,000 in the space of three or four months. On the ground of probability, also, the number of 50,000 in one cemetery (or 100,000 for all London) is wholly incredible. The evidence to be given in the sequel shows that the mortality was about one-half the population. Assuming one-half as the death-rate, that would have brought the whole population of London in the 23rd of Edward III. up to about 200,000—a number hardly exceeded at the accession of James I., after a great expansion which had proceeded visibly in the Elizabethan period under the eyes of citizens like John Stow, had crowded the half-occupied space between the City gates and the bars of the Liberties, and had overflowed into the out-parishes to[Pg 129] such an extent that proclamations from the year 1580 onwards were thought necessary for its restraint[244].

Hardly any details of the Black Death in London are known, but the few personal facts that we have are significant. Thus, in the charter of incorporation of the Company of Cutlers, granted in 1344, eight persons are named as wardens, and these are stated in a note to have been all dead five years after, that is to say, in the year of the Black Death, 1349, although their deaths are not set down to the plague[245]. Again, in the articles of the Hatters’ Company, which were drawn up only a year before the plague began (Dec. 13, 1347), six persons are named as wardens, and these according to a note of the time were all dead before the 7th of July, 1350[246], the cause of mortality being again unmentioned probably because it was familiar knowledge to those then living. It is known also that four wardens of the Goldsmiths’ Company died in the year of the Black Death. These instances show that the plague, on its first arrival, carried off many more of the richer class of citizens than it did in the disastrous epidemics of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The same is shown by the number of wills, already given. Perhaps the greatest of the victims of plague in London was Bradwardine, “doctor profundus,” the newly-appointed archbishop of Canterbury, who died at Lambeth, with the fatal botch in the armpits, on 26 Aug. 1349, just a week after landing at Dover from Avignon.

The often-quoted figures for Norwich, 57,374 deaths in the city from the pestilence of 1349, are wholly incredible. They are derived from an entry in the borough records in the Gildhall[247]: “In yis yere was swiche a Dethe in Norwic that there[Pg 130] died of ye Pestilence LVII Mil III C LXXIIII besyd Relygius and Beggars.” We should probably come much nearer the truth by reading “XVII Mil.” for “LVII Mil.” It does not appear at what time the entry was made, nor by what computation the numbers were got. Norwich was certainly smaller than London; in the king’s writ of 1351 for men-at-arms, London’s quota is 100, and that of Norwich 60; the next in order being Bristol’s, 20, and Lynn’s, 20. These were probably the old proportions, fixed before the Black Death, and re-issued in 1351 without regard to what had happened meanwhile, and they correspond on the whole to the number of parishes in each city (about 120 in London and 60 in Norwich[248]). Norwich may have had from 25,000 to 30,000 people before the pestilence, but almost certainly not more. The city must have suffered terribly in 1349, for we find, by the returns in the Subsidy Roll showing the amount raised by the poll-tax of 1377 and the numbers in each county and town on whom it was levied, that only 3952 paid the tax in Norwich, whereas 23,314 paid it in London[249]. That is a very different proportion from the 60 to 100, as in the writ for men-at-arms; and the difference is the index of the decline of Norwich down to the year 1377. In that year, the population, by the usual reckoning from the poll-tax, would have been about 7410; and it is conceivable that at least twice that number had died of the plague within the city during the spring and summer of 1349.

The figures given of the mortality at Yarmouth, 7052, are those inscribed upon a document or a brass that once stood in the parish church; it was seen there in the fifteenth century by William of Worcester, a squire of the Fastolf family connected with Yarmouth, who gives the numbers as 7000, giving also the exact dimensions of the great church itself[250]. They are adduced by the burgesses of Yarmouth in a petition of 17 Henry VII.[Pg 131] (1502), as follows: “Buried in the parish church and churchyard of the said town 7052 men.” Yarmouth, like Norwich, suffered unusually from the Black Death; in 1377, by the poll-tax reckoning, its population was about 3639. It may be assumed to have lost more than half its people; but it recovered quickly, was made a seat of the wool-staple, and threatened to rival Norwich.

Clyn’s statement that 14,000 died in Dublin from the beginning of August until Christmas may also be taken merely as illustrating the inability of early writers to count correctly up to large numbers.

The most trustworthy figures of mortality in the Black Death which were recorded at the time are those given for the inmates of particular monasteries; and these are such as to give colour to the remark interpolated in Higden’s Polychronicon that “in some houses of religion, of twenty there were left but twain.”

At St Albans, the abbot Michael died of the common plague at Easter, 1349, one of the first victims in the monastery. The mortality in the house increased daily, until forty-seven monks, “eminent for religion,” and including the prior and sub-prior, were dead, besides those who died in large numbers in the various cells or dependencies of the great religious house[251]. At the Yorkshire abbey of Meaux, in Holdernesse, the visitation was in August, although the epidemic in the city of York was already over by the end of July[252]. The abbot Hugh died at Meaux on the 12th of August, and five other monks were lying unburied the same day. Before the end of August twenty-two monks and six lay-brethren had died, and when the epidemic was over there were only ten monks and lay-brethren left alive out of a total of forty-three monks (including the abbot) and seven lay-brethren. The chronicler adds that the greater part of the tenants on the abbey lands died also[253]. In the Lincolnshire monastery of Croxton, all[Pg 132] the monks died save the abbot and prior[254]. In the hospital of Sandon, Surrey, the master and brethren all died[255].

At Ely 28 monks survived out of 43[256]. In the Irish monasteries the mortality had been equally severe: in the Franciscan convent at Drogheda, 25 friars died; in the corresponding fraternity at Dublin, 23; and in that of Kilkenny 8 down to the 6th of March[257], with probably others (Clyn himself) afterwards.

The following mortalities have been collected for East Anglian religious houses: At Hickling, a religious house in Norfolk, with a prior and nine or ten canons (‘Monasticon’), only one canon survived. At Heveringham in the same county the prior and canons died to a man. At the College of St Mary in the Fields, near Norwich, five of the seven prebendaries died. Of seven nunneries in Norfolk and Suffolk, five lost their prioress as well as an unknown number of nuns[258]. At the nunnery of Great Winthorp on the Hill, near Stamford, all the nuns save one either died of the plague or fled from it, so that the house fell to ruin and the lands were annexed by a convent near it[259].

The experience of Canterbury appears to have been altogether different, and was perhaps exceptional. In a community of some eighty monks only four died of the plague in 1349[260]. It is known, however, that when the new abbot of St Albans halted at Canterbury on his way to Avignon after his election at Easter, one of the two monks who accompanied him was there seized with plague and died[261].

[Pg 133]These monastic experiences in England were the same as in other parts of Europe. At Avignon, in 1348, sixty-six Carmelite monks were found lying dead in one monastery, no one outside the walls having heard that the plague was amongst them. In the English College at Avignon the whole of the monks are said to have died[262].

What remains to be said of the death-rate in the great mortality of 1349 is constructive or inferential, and that part of the evidence, not the least valuable of the whole, has been worked out only within a recent period. The enormous thinning of the ranks of the clergy was recorded at the time, in general terms, by Knighton, and the difficulty of supplying the parishes with educated priests is brought to light by various things, including the founding of colleges for their education at Cambridge (Corpus Christi) and at Oxford (Durham College). The first to examine closely the number of vacancies in cures after the great mortality was Blomefield in the third volume of the History of Norfolk published in 1741. The Institution Book of the diocese of Norwich, he says (with a reference to No. IV. of the Lib. Instit.), shows 863 institutions to benefices in 1349, “the clergy dying so fast that they were obliged to admit numbers of youths, that had only devoted themselves for clerks by being shaven, to be rectors of parishes[263].” A more precise use of Institution Books, but more to show how zealous the clergy had been in exposing themselves to infection than to ascertain the death-rate, was made (1825) for the archdeaconry of Salop. It was found that twenty-nine new presentations, after death-vacancies, had been made in the single year of 1349, the average number of death vacancies at the time having been three in two years[264]. The first systematic attempt to deduce the mortality of 1349 from the number of benefices vacant through death was[Pg 134] made in 1865 by Mr Seebohm, by original researches for the diocese of York and by using Blomefield’s collections for the diocese of Norwich[265]. In the archdeaconry of the West Riding there were 96 death vacancies in 1349, leaving only 45 parishes in which the incumbent had survived. In the East Riding 60 incumbents died out of 95 parishes. In the archdeaconry of Nottingham there were deaths of priests in 65 parishes, and 61 survivals. In the diocese of Norwich there were 527 vacancies by death or transfer, while in 272 benefices there was no change. Thus the statement made to the pope by the bishop of Norwich, that two-thirds of the clergy had died in the great mortality is almost exact for his own diocese as well as for the diocese of York. These figures of mortality among the Norfolk clergy were confirmed, with fuller details, by a later writer[266]: the 527 new institutions in the diocese of Norwich fall between the months of March and October—23 before the end of April; 74 in May; 39 from 30th May to 10th June; 100 from 10th June to 4th July; 209 in July; and 82 more to October. According to another enumeration of the same author for East Anglia, upwards of 800 parishes lost their parsons from March 1349 to March 1350, 83 parishes having been twice vacant, and 10 three times.

There is no mistaking the significance of these facts as regards the clergy: some two-thirds of a class composed of adult males in moderate circumstances, and living mostly in country villages, were cut off by the plague in Norfolk and Suffolk, in Yorkshire and Shropshire, and probably all over England. That alone would suffice to show that the virus of the Black Death permeated the soil everywhere, country and town[Pg 135] alike. It is this universality of incidence that chiefly distinguishes the Black Death from the later outbreaks of plague, which were more often in towns than in villages or scattered houses, and were seldom in many places in the same year. But there remains to be mentioned, lastly, evidence inferential from another source, which shows that the incidence in the country districts was upon the people at large. That evidence is derived from the rolls of the manor courts.

It was remarked in one of the earliest works (1852) upon the history of an English manor and of its courts, that “the real life or history of a nation is to be gathered from the humble and seemingly trivial records of these petty local courts[267],” and so the researches of the generation following have abundantly proved. Much of this curious learning lies outside the present subject and is unfamiliar to the writer, but some of it intimately concerns us, and a few general remarks appear to be called for.

The manor was the unit of local government as the Normans found it. The lord of the manor and the cultivators of the soil had respectively their rights and duties, with a court to exact them. There are no written records of manor courts extant from a period before the reign of Edward I., when justice began to be administered according to regular forms. But in the year 1279 we find written rolls of a manor court[268]. From the reign of Edward III. these rolls begin to be fairly numerous; for example, there is extant a complete series of them for the manor of Chedzey in Somerset from 1329-30 to 1413-14. The court met twice, thrice, or four times in the year, and the business transacted at each sitting was engrossed by the clerk upon a long roll of parchment. The business related to fines and heriots payable to the lord by the various orders of tenants on various occasions, including changes in tenancy, successions by heirship, death-duties, the marriages of daughters, the births of illegitimate children, the commission of nuisances, poaching, and[Pg 136] all matters of petty local government. The first court of the year has usually the longest roll, the parchment being written on one side, perhaps to the length of twenty or twenty-four inches; the margin bears the amount of fines opposite each entry; there are occasionally jury lists where causes had to be tried. Of the community whose business was thus managed a notion may be formed from the instance of the Castle Combe manor[269]: in 1340 it had two open fields, each of about 500 acres, on its hill-slopes, cultivated by 10 freemen tenants, 15 villeins, 11 other bondsmen cultivating a half-acre each; 8 tenants of cottages with crofts, 12 tenants of cottages without crofts, as well as 3 tenants of cottages in Malmesbury.

It will be readily understood that an unusual event such as the great mortality of 1348-49 would leave its mark upon the rolls of the manor courts; the death-vacancies, with their fines and heriots, and all entries relating to changes in tenancy, would be unusually numerous. Accordingly we find in the rolls for that year that there was much to record; at the first glance the parchments are seen to be written within and without, like the roll in the prophet’s vision; and that is perhaps all that the inspection will show unless the student be expert in one of the most difficult of all kinds of ancient handwriting,—most difficult because most full of contractions and conventional forms. But by a few those palaeographic difficulties have been surmounted (doubtless at some cost of expert labour), and the results as regards the great mortality of 1349 have been disclosed.

The manor of Winslow, in Buckinghamshire, belonging to the great abbey of St Albans, was a large and typical one[270]. Besides the principal village it had six hamlets. At the manor courts held in 1348-9 no fewer than 153 holdings are entered as changing hands from the deaths of previous holders, the tenancies being either re-granted to the single heir of the deceased or to reversioners, or, in default of such, retained by the lord. Of the 153 deceased tenants, 28 were holders of[Pg 137] virgates and 14 of half-virgates; or, in other words, there died 42 small farmers, cultivating from forty to fifteen acres each, in half-acre strips scattered all over the common fields of the manor. These 42 held twice as much land as all the remaining 111 together; the latter more numerous class were the crofters, who cultivated one or more half-acre strips: they would include the various small traders, artisans and labourers of the village and its hamlets; while the former class represented “the highest grades of tenants in villenage.”

Of both classes together 153 had died in the great mortality. What proportion that number bore to the whole body of tenants on the manor may be inferred from the following: out of 43 jurymen belonging almost exclusively to the class of larger holders, who had served upon the petty jury in 1346, 1347 and 1348, as many as 27 had died in 1349; so that we may reckon three out of every five adult males to have died in the Winslow district, although it would be erroneous to conclude that the same proportion of adult women had died, or of aged persons, or of infants and young children.

Another more varied body of evidence has been obtained from researches in the rolls of manor courts in East Anglia[271].

In the parish of Hunstanton, in the extreme north of Norfolk, with an area of about 2000 to 2500 acres, 63 men and 15 women had been carried off in two months: in 31 of these instances there were only women and children to succeed, and in 9 of the cases there were no heirs at all; the whole number of tenants of the manor dead in eight months was 172, of whom 74 left no heirs male, and 19 others had no blood relations left to claim the inheritance. The following is the record of the manor court of Cornard Parva, a small parish in Suffolk: on 31st March, 1349, 6 women and 3 men reported dead; on 1st May, 13 men and 2 women, of whom 7 had no heirs; at the next meeting on 3 November, 36 more deaths of tenants, of whom 13 left no heirs. At Hadeston, a hamlet of Bunwell, twelve miles from Norwich, which could not possibly have had 400 inhabitants, 54 men and 14 women were carried off in six[Pg 138] months, 24 of them without anyone to inherit. At the manor court of Croxton, near Thetford, on 24th July, 17 deaths are reported since last court, 8 of these without heirs. At the Raynham court, on the same day, 18 tenements had fallen into the lord’s hands, 8 of them absolutely escheated, and the rest retained until the heir should appear. At other courts, the suits set down for hearing could not be proceeded with owing to the deaths of witnesses (e.g. 11 deaths among 16 witnesses) or of principals. The manor court rolls of Lessingham have an entry, 15th January, 1350, that only thirty shillings of tallage was demanded, “because the greater part of those tenants who were wont to render tallage had died in the previous year by reason of the deadly pestilence[272].”

[Pg 139]Further research upon the records of the manor courts will doubtless show that the experience of Buckinghamshire, Norfolk, Suffolk and Lancashire was not singular. From the Castle Combe rolls nothing has been extracted as to the mortality in 1348-9, except one entry (Nov. 13, 1357) that a certain tenement was ruinous, having remained in the lord’s hands since the time of the pestilence for want of a purchaser; but it would be unsafe to conclude that this sequestered manor of Wiltshire had not shared the common fate. The accounts of certain manors in Hertfordshire were headed, for thirty years after the Black Death, with a list of those who had vacated tenancies by death in that pestilence[273]. A decayed inscription cut in the stone of the parish church of Ashwell, in the same county, records the great mortality of 1349 and the great tempest in January, 1362[274]. The tenants of the abbey of Meaux, in the Holdernesse division of Yorkshire, were nearly all dead, as well as the monks within the monastery walls. On the manor of Ensham, near Oxford, “there remained hardly two tenants[275].”

The immediate effects of the great mortality were not so striking as might have been supposed. Although it fell upon town and country in one terrific blow, yet some places had recovered from it before others felt it; it was over in Bristol (so far as we know) before it came to a height in London, and nearly over in London before it began in York. The dead were[Pg 140] expeditiously buried in trenches; vacancies among the clergy were promptly filled; the manor courts met and transacted business, and had their records engrossed for the most part in the usual clerkly style. So great a dislocation of society naturally gave rise to some irregularities: stripping the dead is reported from one district in Norfolk, fights and quarrels came into court more often than ever in 1349 and 1350, and we read of two women who each had three husbands in as many months[276]. Knighton says that sheep and cattle were left to wander about untended, and that they often perished in ditches by the wayside. A murrain occurred the same year; at one place five thousand sheep died in the pasture and were left to putrefy[277]. The price of a horse fell from forty shillings to half a marc; a fat ox could be bought for four shillings, a cow for twelve pence, a heifer for sixpence, a fat sheep for four pence, a stone of wool for nine pence[278]. On the other hand, when the harvest of 1349 had to be gathered, the price of labour rose enormously. According to Knighton, a reaper got eightpence a day, with his food, and a mower twelvepence. The extant accounts tabulated by Thorold Rogers confirm the contemporary statement: the rates for threshing the harvest of 1349 were those of panic and compulsion, being unparalleled, whether before or after, in the Eastern, Midland and Southern counties; the immediate effect of the scarcity of hands was to nearly double the wages of labour for the time being. Many villeins or bondsmen took the opportunity of escaping to the towns or to distant manors, where they could make their own terms. Of the last kind of incident, probably a very common one, we have an instance recorded[279]:[Pg 141] At an inquest, some years after the Black Death, upon sundry manors near Oxford belonging to Christ Church, it was ascertained that, “in the time of the mortality or pestilence, which was in the year 1349, there remained hardly two tenants in the said manor [Ensham], and these had wished to leave, had not brother Nicholas de Upton, then abbot of the said manor, compounded anew with them, as well as with other tenants who came in.”

So far as regards the immediate effects of the great mortality. Its after-effects, felt within a year or two, upon the economics and morals of the country, upon the power of the old governing class, upon the dispersion of industries and the new life of towns, upon the system of farming, upon the development of the legal profession in London, and upon various other things, are a much more intricate and disputable subject, some part of which will be dealt with in the next chapter in connexion with the subsequent history of plague or its domestication upon the soil of England. Many things in England were noted as having happened “sithen the Pestilence,” to quote the stock phrase of the ‘Vision of Piers the Ploughman,’ and not the least of them was the frequent recurrence of plague, or a prevalence of sickness so steady that the poet compares it to the rain coming in through a leaky roof.

Some historians have doubted whether after all the Black Death made so very much difference to the course of affairs[280]. It is perhaps inevitable that scholars, accustomed to deal only with obvious human causation, should look with some distrust[Pg 142] upon the large claims made, in the way of moral and social consequences, for a phenomenon which has been apt to be classed with comets and earthquakes. The sudden thinning of the population may indeed become a subject for economists without any regard to the causation, and irrespectively of the means by which the numbers were reduced; and that has been the only historic interest of the great mortality hitherto. But the operation of pestilence is peculiar; the thinning of the population is not effected as if in the due course of nature; the analogy is closer with a decimating or exterminating war. The invasion of the Black Death was part of the great human drama, just as if a swarming people or a barbarous conqueror had been visibly present in it. If things were moving in the fourteenth century towards a particular issue, as historians find in their retrospect that they were, then the coming of a great plague was part of that movement, organically bound up with the other forces of it, and no more arbitrary than they. Thus it becomes of interest to trace the antecedents of the Black Death before we attempt to follow out its consequences; and it is not the less of interest to do so, that the train of events leads us as far eastwards as the soil of China, and to the incidents that attended the collapse of the greatest government of the Middle Ages, the empire of the Great Khan.


The Antecedents of the Black Death.

When the Black Death in its progress westwards came to Constantinople in 1347, the emperor-historian, John Cantacuzenes, was present in his capital to witness the arrival of the pestilence; in his history he wrote that it came among them from the country of the hyperborean Scythians, that is to say, the Tartars of the Crimea. The other contemporary Byzantine historian, Nicephorus Gregoras, says that the pestilence began among the Scythians in the Crimea and at the mouths of the Don. The Russian annals, which are an independent source, and likely enough to have a correct tradition, also say that the plague was God’s punishment on the people of the Don territory and of several other localities with obsolete names, including the[Pg 143] famous city of Sarai on the Volga[281]. The Chersonese, and the country from the Don to the Volga, or from the Euxine to the Caspian, are the regions thus clearly indicated as the scene of the first outburst of the Black Death; but there was no clue to its unaccountable appearance there, or to the connexion between its outburst on the confines of Europe and the distant home in the East which the rumour of the day vaguely assigned to it. The more definite association of the Black Death with China dates from 1757, when the abbé Des Guignes, in his Histoire des Huns[282], took up the old tradition of the Arab historian, Aboel Mahasin, that the plague began in Tartary, that the smell of corpses spread on every side, that the infection passed from Cathay or Tartary to the Tartars of the Kaptchac (Crimea), and from them to Constantinople and Europe on the one hand, and to Asia Minor, Syria, Egypt and North Africa on the other. He pointed out also that the overland caravan trade was a ready means of transport for the infection. That which specially attracted his attention as the historian of the Mongol power was the other statement of the Arab historian in the same context, that China had been visited by floods so disastrous that men, beasts, and even birds perished, and that the country was almost depopulated. Upon that hint Des Guignes collected from the Chinese annals of the first half of the fourteenth century a considerable list[283] of calamities, which had actually happened—floods causing the loss of millions of lives, earthquakes, and the like, appending the catalogue without comment as a note to the text where he has occasion to mention the Black Death. Des Guignes’ note was reproduced verbatim by Hecker in his essay on the Black Death in 1832, and the unwonted series of phenomena in China was made the basis of certain mystical speculations as to the effect of earthquakes in causing a “progressive infection of the zones,” a perturbation of “the earth’s organism,” a “baneful commotion of the atmosphere,” or the like. In that nebulous and unsatisfactory state the old tradition of the Black Death originating in China has remained to the present hour;[Pg 144] the intuition of the Peking Jesuit had merely been appropriated and set forth in his own way by the German “Naturphilosoph[284].”

Meanwhile, in 1842 a clue to Des Guignes’ conjecture of a connexion between the importation of the Black Death and the China land-route was found (but not followed up) in the discovery by Henschel of a Latin manuscript in the Rhediger Library at Breslau[285]. This was a narrative compiled by one Gabriel de Mussis, a jurist of Piacenza, who had been practising as a notary or advocate among the Genoese and Venetians trading around the shores of the Euxine and Caspian, and had been an eyewitness of the outbreak of the plague in that region. De Mussis has no theory of the origin of the plague; he merely narrates the events as they unfolded themselves before his own eyes; so much was he in the midst of them that he was a passenger on board the very ship which brought the first seeds of the Black Death direct from the Crimea to Genoa as early as the spring of 1347.

The substance of this story is that the Italian merchants, who were then settled in considerable numbers at the various termini or entrepôts of the overland trade from China and Central Asia by the more northern route, were harassed by the Tartar hordes; that they had stood a siege in Tana, on the Don, but had been driven out of it, and had sought refuge for themselves and their merchandise within the walls of Caffa, a small fortified post on the Crimean Straits (of Kertch), built by Genoese not long before; that Caffa was besieged in due course by the Tartar barbarians; that the investment lasted nearly three years; that the merchants and others, crowded into the narrow space within the walls, were put to great straits and could hardly breathe, being only partially relieved by the arrival of a ship with supplies; that the plague broke out among the besieging Tartar host and daily destroyed thousands; that the Tartars threw the pestilent dead bodies inside the walls by their engines of siege, so that the infection took hold of those within the fort; that the Tartars dispersed in panic and spread the infection all over the shores of the Euxine, Caspian[Pg 145] and Levant; that such of the Italian traders as were able, De Mussis himself with them, escaped from Caffa in a ship; and that the infection appeared in Genoa in its most deadly form a day or two after the arrival of the ship, although none of those on board were suffering from the plague.

These are all the circumstances related by De Mussis of the beginning of the outbreak as known to himself at first hand: the rest of his narrative is occupied with various incidents of the plague in Europe, with pious reflections, and accounts of portents. His single reference to China is as follows: “In the Orient, about Cathay, where is the head of the world and the beginning of the earth, horrible and fearful signs appeared; for serpents and frogs, descending in dense rains, entered the dwellings and consumed countless numbers, wounding them by their venom and corroding them with their teeth. In the meridian parts, about the Indies, regions were overturned by earthquakes, and cities wasted in ruin, tongues of flame being shot forth. Fiery vapours burnt up many, and in places there were copious rains of blood and murderous showers of stones.” De Mussis has certainly no scientific intention; nor can it be said that any scientific use has been made of his manuscript since its discovery. For Häser, its editor, merely reproduces in his history the passage from Hecker on the three overland routes between Europe and the East, without remarking on the fact that De Mussis definitely places the outbreak of the plague at the European terminus of one of them: its remote origin is involved in “impenetrable obscurity;” all we can say is that it came from the East, “the cradle of the human race[286].”

But the entirely credible narrative by De Mussis of the outbreak of plague at the siege of Caffa is just the clue that was wanting to unravel the meaning of the widespread rumour of the time, that the plague came from China. Let us first examine somewhat closely the source of that rumour. It finds its most definite expression in an Arabic account of the Black Death at Granada, by the famous Moorish statesman of that[Pg 146] city, Ibn-ul-Khatib[287]. Besides giving the local circumstances for Granada, he makes various remarks on the nature of the plague, and on its mode of spreading, which are not exceeded in shrewdness and insight by the more scientific doctrines of later times. Its origin in China he repeats on the authority of several trustworthy and far-travelled men, more particularly of his celebrated countryman Ibn-Batuta, or “the Traveller,” whose story was that the plague arose in China from the corruption of many corpses after a war, a famine, and a conflagration.

The mention of Ibn-Batuta, as the authority more particularly, has a special interest. That traveller was actually in China from 1342 to 1346. In his book of travels[288] he tells us how on his way back (he took the East-Indian sea-route to the Persian Gulf) he came at length to Damascus, Aleppo and Cairo in the summer of 1348, and was a witness of the Black Death at each of those places, and of the mixed religious processions at Damascus of Jews with their Hebrew Scriptures and Christians with their Gospels. But he says not one word anywhere as to the origin of the plague in China, whence he was journeying homewards. He continued his journey to Tangier, his birthplace, and crossed thence to Spain about the beginning of 1350. At Granada he spent some days among his countrymen, of whom he mentions in his journal four by name; but the most famous of them, Ibn-ul-Khatib, he does not mention. However, here was Ibn-Batuta at Granada, a year or two after the Black Death, discoursing on all manner of topics with the most eminent Moors of the place; and here is one of them, Ibn-ul-Khatib, in an account of the Black Death at Granada, quoting the report of Ibn-Batuta that the pestilence arose in China from the corruption of unburied corpses. None of the other statements of an Eastern origin can compare with this in precision or in credibility; they all indeed confuse the backward extension of the plague from the Euxine eastwards to Khiva,[Pg 147] Bokhara and the like, with its original progress towards Europe from a source still farther east. The authority of Ibn-Batuta himself is not, of course, that of historian or observer; although he was in China during part, at least, of the national calamities which the Chinese Annals record, he says nothing of them, and probably witnessed nothing of them. But the traveller was a likely person to have heard correctly the gossip of the East and to have judged of its credibility; so that there is a satisfaction in tracing it through him.

The siege of Caffa, and the general circumstances of it, we may take as historical on the authority of the Italian notary who was there; but it may be doubted whether the plague began, as he says, among the nomade hordes outside the fort. In sieges it has been not unusual for both sides to suffer from infective disease; and although it is not always easy to say where the disease may have begun, the presumption is that it arose among those who were most crowded, most pressed by want, and most desponding in spirit. It is, of course, not altogether inconceivable that the Tartar besiegers of Caffa had bred a pestilential disease in their camp; the nomades of the Cyrenaic plateau have bred bubo-plague itself more than once in recent years in their wretched summer tents, and plague has appeared from time to time in isolated or remote Bedouin villages on the basaltic plateaus of Arabia. There is nothing in the nomade manner of life adverse to pestilential products, least of all in the life of nomades encamped for a season. But such outbreaks of bubo-plague or of typhus fever have been local, sporadic, or non-diffusive. On the other hand the plague which arose at the siege of Caffa was the Black Death, one of the two greatest pestilences in the history of the world. Let us then see whether there is any greater likelihood of finding inside the walls of Caffa the lurking germs of so great a pestilence. Within the walls of the Genoese trading fort were the Italian merchants driven in from all around that region, with their merchandise—as De Mussis says, fugientes pro suarum tutione personarum et rerum. Previous to their three years’ siege in Caffa they, or some of them, had stood a siege in Tana, and had retreated to the next post on the homeward route. Tana was[Pg 148] at the eastward bend of the Don, whence the road across the steppe is shortest to the westward bend of the Volga; a little above the bend of the Volga was the great city of Sarai—whence the caravans started on their overland journey along northern parallels, across mountain ranges and the desert of Gobi, to enter China at its north-western angle, just within the end of the Great Wall[289]. The merchandise of Sarai and Tana was the return merchandise of China—the bales of silks and fine cloths, spices and drugs, which had become the articles of a great commerce between China and Europe since Marco Polo first showed the way, and which continued to reach Europe by the caravan routes until about 1360: then the route was closed owing to the final overthrow of the authority of the Great Khan, which had once secured a peaceful transit from the Yellow Sea to the Black Sea—so completely closed that men forgot, two hundred years after, that it had ever existed.

Did these bales of Chinese stuffs, carried into Caffa for protection, contain the seeds of the Black Death? There is, at least, nothing improbable in the seeds of plague lurking in bales of goods; that mode of transmission was afterwards recognized as highly characteristic of the plague during its Levantine days. Nor is there anything improbable in the seeds of an infection being carried thousands of miles across the deserts of Central Asia; cholera came in that way from India in 1827-8 by the caravan-route to Cabul, Balkh, Bokhara, Khiva and the Kirghiz Steppe to Orenburg, and again in 1847 to Astrakhan; and the slow land-borne viruses of those two great epidemics exceeded in virulence the later importations of cholera by the sea route from the East. Still farther, there is nothing improbable in the germs of plague lying latent for a long time, or in the disease existing as a potency although not manifested in a succession of cases. The next stage of its progress, from Caffa to Genoa, illustrates that very point; for we know that there were no cases of plague on board ship, although the very atmosphere or smell of the new arrival seemed sufficient to taint the whole air of[Pg 149] Genoa, and to carry death to every part of the city within a couple of days. And lastly the long imprisonment of a virus in bales of goods, the crowding of merchants and merchandise into the narrow space of a walled seaport, amidst the almost inevitable squalor and fœtor of a three years’ siege, were the very circumstances needed to raise the potency of the assumed virus to an unusual height, to give it a degree of virulence that would make it effective, and a power of diffusion that would spread and continue the liberated infection after the manner of the greatest of pestilences.

Thus, if we have to choose between the origin of the plague-virus among the Tartar hordes besieging the China merchants within the walls of Caffa, and the pre-existence of that virus, for a long time latent, among the goods or effects of the besieged, the latter hypothesis must be accorded the advantage in probability. Accepting it, we follow the virus back to Tana on the Don, from Tana to Sarai on the Volga, from Sarai by a well-trodden route which need not be particularized[290], for many weeks’ journey until we come to the soil of China. According to a dominant school of epidemiologists it is always enough to have traced a virus to a remote source, to the “roof of the world” or to the back of the east wind, and there to leave it, in the full assurance that there must have been circumstances to account for its engendering there, perhaps in an equally remote past, if only we knew them. If, however, we follow the trail back definitely to China, it is our duty to connect it there with an actual history or tradition, immemorial if need be, of Chinese plague. But there is no such history or tradition to be found. We know something of the China of Kublai Khan, fifty years before, from the book of Marco Polo; and the only possible reference to plague there is an ambiguous statement about “carbuncles” in a remote province, which was probably Yun-nan. Not only so, but if we scrutinize the Chinese Annals closely, we shall find that the thirty years preceding the Black Death were indeed marked by many great calamities and loss of[Pg 150] life on a vast scale, by floods, droughts, earthquakes, famines and famine-fevers, but not by pestilence unconnected with these; on the other hand, the thirty or forty years after the Black Death had overrun Europe, beginning with the year 1352, are marked in the Chinese Annals (as summarized in the Imperial Encyclopædia of Peking, 1726) by a succession of “great plagues” in various provinces of the Empire, which are not associated with calamitous seasons, but stand alone as disease-calamities pure and simple[291]. If the Black Death connects at all with events in China, these events were natural calamities and their attendant loss of life, and not outbreaks of plague itself; for the latter, assuming them to have been bubo-plague, were subsequent in China to the devastation of Europe by the plague.

We are left, then, to make what we can of the antecedent calamities of China; and we may now revert to the curious rumour of the time that the relevant thing in China was the corruption of many corpses left unburied after inundation, war and conflagration. So far as war and conflagration are concerned they are quite subordinate; there was no war except an occasional ineffective revolt in some remote western province, and the conflagrations were minor affairs, noticed, indeed, in the Annals, but lost among the greater calamities. The floods, droughts and famines were events of almost annual recurrence for many years before, so that no period in the Annals of China presents such a continuous picture of national calamity, full as Chinese history has at all times been of disasters of the same kind. It was the decadence of the great Mongol empire, founded by Genghiz and carried by Kublai to that marvellous height of splendour and prosperity which we read of in the book of Marco Polo. The warlike virtues of the earlier Mongol rulers had degenerated in their successors into sensual vices during the times of peace; and the history of the country, priest-ridden, tax-burdened, and ruled by women and eunuchs, neglected in its thousand water-ways and in all the safeguards against floods and famine which wiser rulers had set up, became from year to year an illustration of the ancient Chinese maxim,[Pg 151] that misgovernment in the palace is visited by the anger of the sky.

The following epitome of the calamities in China is taken from De Mailla’s Histoire générale de la Chine. Paris, 1777, 9 vols. 4to., a translation of the abridged official annals.

The year 1308 marks the beginning of the series of bad seasons. Droughts in some places, floods in others, locusts and failure of the crops, brought famine and pestilence. The people in Kiang-Hoaï were reduced to live on wild roots and the bark of trees. In Ho-nan and Chan-tong the fathers ate the flesh of the children. The imperial granaries were still able to supply grain, but not nearly enough for the people’s wants. The provinces of Kiang-si and Che-kiang were depopulated by the plague or malignant fever which followed the famine. The ministers sent in their resignations, which were not accepted.

In 1313 the same events recur, including the resignations of ministers. An epidemic carried off many in the capital, and the whole empire was desolated by drought. At a council of ministers to devise remedies and avert further calamities it was proposed by some to copy the institutions of ancient empires celebrated for their virtue, and by others to abolish the Bhuddist priesthood of Foh as the cause of all misfortunes. The throne is now occupied by Gin-tsong, an emperor of a serious and ascetic disposition. In 1314 he revived the old Chinese system of competitive examinations and the distinctive dress among the grades of mandarins, which the earlier Mongol rulers had been able to dispense with. Next year there is a public distribution of grain, and a check to the exactions of tax-gatherers in the distressed districts. In 1317, it appears that the provincial mandarins, in defiance of express orders, had neglected the laws of Kublai with reference to the distribution of grain, although it was dangerous to defer such public aid longer; they had failed also to relax their rigour in collecting the taxes. One day the emperor found at Peking a soldier in rags from a distant garrison, and discovered that a system of embezzlement in the army clothing department had been going on for five years. Gin-tsong is reported to have said to his ministers, “My august predecessors have left wise laws, which I have always had at heart to follow closely; but I see with pain that they are neglected, and that my people are unhappy.”

In 1318 we read of a great flood in one province, of multitudes drowned, and of a public distribution of grain. In 1320, forty of the Censors of the Empire remonstrated against the cruel exactions of “public leeches,” and against a practice of calumniating honest men so as to get them out of the way. The emperor Gin-tsong died in that year, aged thirty-three, and with his death the last serious attempt to check the flood of corruption came to an end. In 1321 there is drought in Ho-nan, followed by famine. In 1324 we read of droughts, locusts, inundations and earthquakes. The emperor [Pg 152]demanded advice of the nobles, ministers and wise men, and received the following answer: “While the palace of the prince is full of eunuchs, astrologers, physicians, women, and other idle people, whose maintenance costs the State an enormous sum, the people are plunged in extreme misery. The empire is a family, and the emperor its father: let him listen to the cries of the miserable.” In 1325 famine follows the disasters of the year before; and we learn that the people were supplied from the full granaries of the rich, who were paid, not out of the State treasury, but by places in the mandarinate! In 1326 the tyranny and licentiousness of the Bhuddist lamas reaches a climax, and an edict is issued against them. The year 1327 is marked by a series of calamities and portents—drought, locusts, ruined crops, earthquakes, inundations. In 1330, again floods and the harvest destroyed, a cruel famine in Hou-Kouang, millions of acres of land ruined, and 400,000 families reduced to beggary. In 1331 the harvest is worse than in the year before—in Che-kiang there were more than 800,000 families who did not gather a single grain of corn or rice,—and all the while enormous taxes were ground out of universal poverty.

In 1333 begins the long and calamitous reign of Shun-ti, who came to the throne a weak youth of thirteen. Next year the misfortunes of China touch their highest point. Inundations ruined the crops in Chan-tong; a drought in Che-kiang brought famine and pestilence; in the southern provinces generally, famine and floods caused the deaths of 2,270,000 families, or of 13,000,000 individuals. In 1336 inundations in Chan-tong ruined the harvest; in Kiang-nan and Che-kiang the first harvest was a failure from drought, multitudes perished of hunger, and a plague broke out. The emperor, insensible to the misfortunes of his people, abandons himself to his pleasures. Next year sees the first of those provincial revolts, led by obscure Chinese peasants, which eventually overthrew the dynasty in 1368. Floods occurred in more than one river basin, by which multitudes of men and beasts were drowned; in the valley of the Kiang (a tributary of the Hoang-ho) four millions perished. For several years we read of numerous and repeated shocks of earthquakes, in 1341 of a great famine, in 1342 of a famine so severe that human flesh was eaten, in 1343 of seven towns submerged, in 1344 of a great tract of country inundated by the sea in consequence of an earthquake, in 1345 of earthquakes in Pe-chili, in 1346 of earthquakes for seven days in Chan-tong, and of a great famine in Chan-si. In 1347 earthquakes in various provinces, and drought in Ho-tong, followed by many deaths. The record of disasters in De Mailla’s abridged annals, and in Des Guignes, who had clearly access to fuller narrations, comes to an end for a time at the year 1347.

It will be observed that in these records there is comparatively little said of epidemic sickness. The references to pestilence would in no case suggest more than the typhus fever which has been the usual attendant upon Chinese famines, and[Pg 153] has never shown the independent vitality and diffusive properties of plague. But the minor place occupied by actual pestilence in China, in the years before the Black Death in Europe, is brought out even more clearly on comparing that period with the section of the Chinese annals for the generation following. In the chronology of Chinese epidemics drawn up by Gordon (London, 1884) from the Peking Encyclopædia of 1726, there are, from 1308-1347, just the same entries of pestilence as are given above from De Mailla’s and Des Guignes’ French adaptation of the Annals. (Gordon makes the obvious mistake of attributing to pestilence the enormous loss of life which the Annals clearly assigned to floods and famines, with their attendant sickness.) But with the year 1352 we enter upon a great pestilential period, as clearly marked in the history of China by the annual recurrence of vast epidemics as the decades before it were marked by the unusual frequency of floods, famines and earthquakes. Every year from 1352 to 1363, except 1355, has an entry of “great pestilence” or “great plague” (yi-li), in one province or another, although the old tale of floods and famines has come to an end in the Annals. The last of the nearly continuous series of great pestilences is in 1369, when there was a great pest in Fukien, and “the dead lay in heaps on the ground.” There is then a break until 1380, and after that a longer break until 1403. It would thus appear as if the great pestilential period of China in the fourteenth century had not coincided with the succession of disastrous seasons, but had followed the latter at a distinct interval. Conversely the years of plague from 1352 to 1369 do not appear to have been years of inundations and bad harvests; they stand out in the chronology, by comparison, as years of plague-sickness pure and simple; and although nothing is said to indicate the type of bubo-plague, yet the disease can hardly be assumed to have been the old famine fevers or other sickness directly due to floods and scarcity, so long as not a word is said of floods and famines in that context or in the Annals generally. The suggestion is that the soil of China may not have felt the full effects of the plague virus, originally engendered thereon, until some few years after the same had been carried to Europe, having produced there within a short space of time the stupendous[Pg 154] phenomenon of the Black Death. If there be something of a paradox in that view, it is the facts themselves that refuse to fall into what might be thought the natural sequence.

The historian Gaubil thinks that the national Annals make the most of these recurring calamities, having been written by the official scribes of the next dynasty, who sought to discredit the Mongol rule as much as possible[292]; but it is not suggested that the compilers had invented the series of disasters,—now in one province or river basin, now in another, at one time with thirteen millions of lives lost, at another with four hundred thousand families reduced to beggary, this time a drought, and next time a flood, and in another series of years a succession of destructive earthquakes.

We are here concerned with discovering any possible relation that these disasters, coming one upon another almost without time for recovery, can have had to the engendering of the plague-virus. According to the rumours of the time, it was the corruption of unburied corpses in China which caused the Black Death; and certainly the unburied corpses were there, a vera causa, if that were all. Recent experiences in China make it easy for us to construct in imagination the state of the shores of rivers after those fatal inundations of the fourteenth century, or of the roadsides after the recurring famines. Thus, of the famine of 1878 it is said[293]: “Coffins are not to be got for the corpses, nor can graves be prepared for them. Their blood is a dispersed mass on the ground, their bones lie all about.... Pestilence [it is otherwise known to have been typhus fever] comes with the famine, and who can think of medicine for the plague or coffins for the multitude of the dead?” Or, again, according to a memorial in the official Peking Gazette of 16 January, 1878, “the roads are lined with corpses in such numbers as to distance all efforts for their interment[294].”

There is much of sameness in the history of China from century to century; what happened in 1878, and again on a[Pg 155] lesser scale two or three years ago, must have happened on an unparalleled scale year after year during the ill-starred period which ended about 1342; there must have been no ordinary break-down in the decencies and sanitary safeguards of interment in such years as 1334, when thirteen millions (two million, two hundred and seventy thousand families) were swept away by the floods of the Yang-tsi, or destroyed by hunger and disease. But we are not left altogether to the exercise of the imagination. A strangely vivid picture remains to us of a scene in China in those years, which a returning missionary saw as in a vision. The friar Odoric, of Pordenone, had spent six years in Northern China previous to 1327 or 1328, when he returned to Italy by one of the overland routes. The story of his travels[295] was afterwards taken down from his lips, and it is made to end with one gruesome scene, which is brought in without naming the time or the place. It is a vision of a valley of death, invested with the same air of generality as in Bunyan’s allegory of the common lot.

“Another great and terrible thing I saw. For, as I went through a certain valley which lieth by the River of Delights (flumen deliciarum) I saw therein many dead corpses lying. And I heard also therein sundry kinds of music, but chiefly nakers, which were marvellously played upon. And so great was the noise thereof that very great fear came upon me. Now, this valley is seven or eight miles long; and if any unbeliever enter therein, he quitteth it never again, but perisheth incontinently. Yet I hesitated not to go in that I might see once for all what the matter was. And when I had gone in I saw there, as I have said, such numbers of corpses as no one without seeing it could deem credible. And at one side of the valley, in the very rock, I beheld as it were the face of a man very great and terrible, so very terrible indeed that for my exceeding great fear my spirit seemed to die in me. Wherefore I made the sign of the Cross, and began continually to repeat Verbum caro factum, but I dared not at all come nigh that face, but kept at seven or eight paces from it. And so I came at length to the other end of the valley, and there I ascended a hill of sand and looked around me.”

Narrated as it is of no specified place and of no one year of his journey, it may stand, and perhaps it was meant to stand, for a common experience of China in the period of Mongol decadence. Whether he left the country by the gorges of the[Pg 156] Yang-tsi and the Yun-nan route, or along the upper basin of the Hoang-ho by the more usual northern route to the desert of Gobi, his vision of a Valley of Corpses is equally significant.


The Theory of the Plague-Virus.

The question that remains is the connexion, in pathological theory, between the bubo-plague and the corruption of the unburied dead or of the imperfectly buried dead. Some such connexion was the rumour of the time, before any scientific theory can well have existed. Also the factor in question was undoubtedly there among the antecedents, if it were not even the most conspicuous of the antecedents. But we might still be following a wandering light if we were to trust the theory of the Black Death to those empirical suggestions, striking and plausible though they be. It is not for the Black Death only, but for the great plagues of the Mohammedan conquests, which preceded the Black Death by many centuries and also followed that great intercurrent wave until long after in their own strict succession, for the circumscribed spots of plague in various parts of Asia and Africa in our own day, and above all for the great plague of Justinian’s reign,—it is for them all that a theory of bubo-plague is needed. A survey of the circumstances of all these plagues will either weaken or strengthen, destroy or establish, the theory that the virus of the Black Death had arisen on the soil of China from the cadaveric poison present in some peculiar potency, and had been carried to Europe in the course of that overland trade at whose terminus we first hear of its virulence being manifested.

The theory of the origin of the plague-virus from the corruption of the dead was a common one in the sixteenth century. It was held by Ambroise Paré among others, and it was elaborately worked out for the Egypt of his day by Prosper Alpinus, physician to the Venetian Consulate at Cairo towards the end of the same century. But the most brilliant exposition of it, one of the finest exercises of diction and of reasoning that has ever issued from the profession of medicine, was that given for the origin in Egypt of the great plague of Justinian’s reign[Pg 157] by Etienne Pariset, secretary to the Académie de Médecine and commissioner from France to study the plague in Syria and Egypt in 1829[296].

In the plague-stricken Egypt of that time, overburdened with population and still awaiting the beneficent rule of Mehemet Ali, Dr Pariset had his attention forcibly directed to the same contrast between the modern and ancient manner of disposing of the dead, and to the insuitability of the former to the Delta, which had been remarked by Prosper Alpinus in 1591, and by De Maillet, French consul at Cairo, in 1735, and had been specially dwelt upon by philosophes of the eighteenth century, such as Montesquieu, Volney and De Pauw. On the one hand he saw under his eyes various revolting things in the Delta,—brick tombs invaded by water, an occasional corpse floating at large, canals choked with the putrefying bodies of bullocks dead of a murrain, the courtyards of Coptic and Jewish houses, and the floors of mosques, churches and monasteries filled with generations of the dead in their flooded vaults and catacombs. On the other hand he saw, on the slopes of the Libyan range and on the edge of the desert beyond the reach of the inundation, the occasional openings of a vast and uncounted series of rock-grottoes in which the Egyptians of the pre-Christian era had carefully put away every dead body, whether of bird, or of beast, or of human kind. He was persuaded of the truth of Volney’s remark, “In a crowded population, under a hot sun, and in a soil filled deep with water during several months of every year, the rapid putrefaction of bodies becomes a leaven of plague and of other disease[297].” The remark of De Pauw, although it is not adduced, was equally to the point: “Neither men nor beasts are any longer embalmed in Egypt; but the ancient Egyptians seem to have done well in following that mode, and in keeping the mummies in the deepest recesses of excavated rocks.... Were we to note here all that those two nations [Arabs and Turks] have left undone, and everything that they ought not to have done, it would be easy to understand how a country formerly not altogether unhealthy, is now become a hotbed of the[Pg 158] plague[298].” These eighteenth-century reflections, casual and discursive after the manner of the time, were amplified by Pariset to scientific fulness and order, and set in permanent classical form. Like De Pauw and Volney, he extolled the ancient sanitary wisdom of Egypt, and excused the priestly mask of superstition for the implicit obedience that it secured. De Pauw had pointed out that the towns most remarkable for the worship of crocodiles,—Coptos, Arsinöe (Crocodilopolis), and Athribis,—were all situated on canals at some distance from the Nile; the crocodiles could never have got to them unless the canals were kept clear; according to Aelian and Eusebius the crocodile was the symbol of water fit to drink; so that the superstitious worship of the animal was in effect the motive for keeping the canals of the Nile in repair. The priests of Egypt, says Pariset, with their apparatus of fictions and emblems, sought to veil from the profane eyes of the vulgar and of strangers the secrets of a sublime philosophy[299]. They made things sacred so as to make them binding, so as to constrain by the force of religion, as Moses did, their disciple. They had to reckon with the annual overflow of the Nile, with a hot sun, and a crowded population. Suppose that all the dead animal matter, human or other, were to be incorporated with the soil under these rapid changes of saturation and drying, of diffusion and emanation, what a mass of poison, what danger to the living! What foresight they showed in avoiding it, what labour and effort, but what results! Can anyone pretend that a system so vast, so beautiful, so coherent in all its parts, had been engendered and conserved merely by an ignorant fanaticism, or that a people who had so much of wisdom in their actions had none in their thoughts? Looking around him at the Egypt of the Christian and Mohammedan eras, he asks, What has become of that hygiene, attentive, scrupulous and enlightened, of that[Pg 159] marvellous police of sepulture, of that prodigious care to preserve the soil from all admixture of putrescible matters? The ancient learning of Egypt, the wisdom taught by hard experience in remote ages and perfected in prosperous times, had gradually been overthrown, first by the Persian and Greek conquests which weakened the national spirit, then by the Roman conquest which broke it, then by the prevalence of the Christian doctrines, and lastly by the Mohammedan domination, more hostile than all the others to sanitary precaution.

Pariset’s remaining argument was that ancient Egypt, by its systematic care in providing for a slow mouldering of human and animal bodies beyond the reach of the inundation, had been saved from the plague; in the historic period there had been epidemics, but these had been of typhus or other sickness of prisons, slavery, and famines. According to Herodotus, Egypt and Libya were the two healthiest countries under the sun. But when St Paul’s vehement argument as to the natural and the spiritual body began to make way, when men began to ask the question, “How are the dead raised up, and with what body do they come?” the ancient practice of Egypt was judged to be out of harmony with Christian doctrine. Embalming was denounced as sinful by St Anthony, the founder of Egyptian monachism, in the third century; and by the time that the church of North Africa had reached its point of highest influence under St Augustine, bishop of Hippo, the ancient religious rites of Egypt had everywhere given place to Christian burial[300]. Bubo-plague had already been prevalent in at least one disastrous epidemic in Lower Egypt at the time of the great massacres of Christians in the episcopate of Cyprian; and in the year 542 it broke out at Pelusium, one of the uncleannest spots in the Delta, spread thence on the one hand along the North African coast, and on the other hand by the corn ships to Byzantium, and grew into the disastrous world-wide pestilence which has ever since been associated with the reign of Justinian.

After the Mohammedan conquest things went from bad to[Pg 160] worse; and from the tenth century until the year 1846, plague had been domesticated on the soil of Egypt.

The theory of Pariset was communicated by him to the Académie de Médecine on 12 July, 1831, and finally published in a carefully designed and highly finished essay in 1837. It was received with much disfavour; according to his colleague Daremberg, the learned librarian of the Academy, nothing but its brilliant style could have saved it from being forgotten in a week. It was vigorously opposed by Clot Bey, on behalf of Egyptian officialdom, because it fixed upon Egypt the stigma of holding in the soil an inherent and abiding cause of the plague[301]. Besides the general objection that it was the theorizing of a philosophe, exception was taken to particular parts of the argument. Thus Labat demonstrated by arithmetic that the mummied carcases of all the generations of men and animals in Egypt for three thousand years would have required a space as large as the whole of Egypt, which should thus have become one vast ossuary. And as to the fact, he added, embalming was the privilege of the rich, and of some sacred species of animals. Clot Bey asserted that the whole class of slaves were not thought worthy of embalming. He found also, in the language used by Herodotus, evidence that the people of Egypt felt themselves to be under “the continual menace” of some great epidemic scourge and took precautions accordingly—the very ground on which Pariset based his theory. The objection which weighed most with Daremberg was the fact that, just about the time when Pariset had asserted the immunity of Egypt from plague in her prosperous days, evidence had been found, in the newly-discovered collections of Oribasius, that a bubonic disease was recorded for Egypt and Libya by a Greek physician two centuries before the Christian era, and by another Greek medical writer about the beginning of our era.

It does not appear to have occurred to the opponents of Pariset’s theory that the two chief objections, first that embalming was far from general, and second that cases of plague did occur in ancient Egypt, answered each other. But, as matter of fact, it can be shown that there were cheaper forms of embalming[Pg 161] practised for the great mass of the people. Again, it was found by De Maillet that bodies not embalmed at all, but laid in coarse cloths upon beds of charcoal under six or eight feet of sand at an elevation on the edge of the great plain of mummies at Memphis, and beyond the reach of the water, were as perfectly preserved from putrid decay as if they had been embalmed, the dry air and the nitrous soil contributing to their slow and inoffensive decomposition[302]. These facts tended to support the notion that it was not ceremony which really determined the national practice, but utility, into which neither art nor religion necessarily entered. The existence also of bubonic disease in the period of the Ptolemies proved that the risk assumed in Pariset’s theory was a real risk, the precautions having been not always sufficient to meet it.

The plague which overran the known world in Justinian’s reign (542) was, according to this theory, the effect on a grand scale of an equally grand cause, namely, the final overthrow of a most ancient religion and national life, which had not been built up for nothing and had a true principle concealed beneath its superstitions. The parallelism between China and ancient Egypt has been a favourite subject. In China whatever of religion there is runs upon the Egyptian lines—reverence for the dead or worship of ancestors. The Chinese do not indeed embalm their dead, but they practise an equivalent art of preservation which may be read in almost identical terms in the book of Marco Polo and in modern works on the social life of China[303]. To prevent the products of cadaveric decay from passing into the soil may be said to be the object of their practices. The pains taken to secure dry burial-places are especially obvious in those parts of the country, such as the “reed lands” of the Yang-tsi, which are subject to inundations, annual or occasional[304]. Much of the national art of Feng-shui is concerned, under the mask of divination, with these common-sense aims.

[Pg 162]Both Egypt and China are liable to have their river-basins flooded at one time and parched to dust at another. These extreme fluctuations of the ground water are now known to scientific research to be the cause of peculiar and unwholesome products of putrefaction in the soil: given a soil charged with animal matters, the risk to those living upon it is in proportion to the range of fluctuation of the ground water. If it happen as an annual thing that the pores of the ground are now full of water, now full of air, or if these extreme alternations be a common liability, then a soil with the products of animal decomposition dispersed through it will be always unwholesome, and unwholesome on a national scale. It is often held that even vegetables rotting on the ground are pestiferous; Ambroise Paré believed that the rotting carcase of a stranded whale caused an outbreak of bubo-plague at Genoa; but human decomposition is something special—at least for the living of the same species[305]. Most special of all is it when its gross and crude matters pass rapidly into the ground, getting carried hither and thither by the movements of the ground water, and giving off those half-products of oxidation which the extreme alternations from air to water, or from water to air, in the pores of the ground are known to favour. There may be nothing offensive to the sense, but the emanations from such a soil will in all probability be poisonous or pestilent. In particular circumstances of locality the permeation or leavening of the soil with the products of organic decomposition produces Asiatic cholera; in still more special circumstances the result is yellow fever; in circumstances familiar enough to ourselves the result is typhoid fever, and probably also summer diarrhœa or British cholera. These are all soil poisons. Bubo-plague also is a soil poison; and it is claimed as specially related to the products of cadaveric decomposition, diffused at large in such a soil as soil-poisons are ordinarily engendered in.

[Pg 163]It is possible to subject that theory of the plague to the test of facts still further. Thus bubo-plague dogged the steps of Mohammedan conquest from the first century after the Hegira, now in Syria when Damascus was the capital, now in Irak when Bagdad was the centre of Mohammedan rule, now in Egypt when the seat of empire shifted to Grand Cairo; and, over a great part of the period, simultaneously in all the regions of Islam. That long series of plague-epidemics has been recorded in Arabic annals, and has lately been published in an abstract accessible to all, with a summary of conclusions[306].

What are the conclusions of the learned commentator on the Arabic annals, as to the general causes of the thousand years of Mohammedan plague?—“War, with the wasting of whole nations, in disregard of all established rights, with plundering of towns and concentration of great masses of men ill provided for and unregulated, who developed the seeds of communicable and malignant diseases. Add to these things the negligent or wholly neglected burial of those who had fallen in battle, the straits and privations of the wounded, and the effects of a hot climate, especially in flooded and swampy tracts of country.... The kind of burial, in very shallow and often badly covered graves, which used to be practised in most Eastern towns, and in part is still practised, may also have had disastrous consequences not unfrequently.”


The Theory tested by Modern Instances.

With that general statement for the long succession of plague-epidemics in Islam during nine centuries from the Hegira, beginning with a Syrian epidemic in A.D. 628 and ending with a close succession of twelve epidemics in Egypt from 1410 to 1492, we may pass to the more detailed accounts of the conditions under which bubo-plague has been found in various localities, often circumscribed spots far apart and out of the way, during recent years. These spots are so varied, have so little apparently in common, and are so capriciously chosen in the midst of their[Pg 164] several regions of the globe, that they do not readily fall into any order or classification. What are we to make of a few spots of plague among nomade Arabs of the Cyrenaic plateau; of plague in some stricken villages high up in the highlands of Kurdistan, or in low-lying towns such as Resht, near the shore of the Caspian, or amidst the black ooze of amphibious habitations in the lower valley of Tigris and Euphrates; of true bubonic disease in some few Bedouin villages or small towns on the summits of the basaltic plateaus that rise like gigantic warts from the Arabian desert; of bubo-plague in Yun-nan, at or near the capital Talifoo, where the Mohammedan and Chinese influences have been struggling for mastery, as well as among the cabins in the rocky valleys of the Salwen; of some forty or fifty Himalayan hamlets picked out as plague-spots among the six thousand villages of Kumaon; and of the now extinct but comparatively recent centres of the same disease in the walled towns and walled villages of Kutch, Kattiwar, and Marwar? And lastly what are we to make of those cases of typhus fever with buboes which have been observed in villages of the Yusufzai valley, near Peshawur, in 1852; in the Chinese town of Pakhoi, on the gulf of Tonking, in 1886; occasionally among the fever-cases in Burdwan since the health of that province underwent so disastrous a change about the year 1870; and, on credible report, among the troops in the Russo-Turkish war of 1879? It is surely unnecessary, at least, to refute the sterile dogmatism that these are all the effects of one pre-existing virus, carried, we know not how, from point to point of the globe in an unbroken succession. It is a far cry even on a small-scale map from Kumaon to Kutch, from Yun-nan to the Gulf of Tonking, from Resht to the Armenian highlands, from the centre of Arabia to Tripoli, and from Mesopotamia to North Yemen. And what is the use of assuming that there has always been bubo-plague in the “cradle of the human race,” and concluding that the Black Death was one of its excursions westwards, so long as the plagues of Islam were going on from decade to decade, all through the Middle Ages, at no great distance from Byzantium and from Western Europe? Are not Damascus, Bagdad and Grand Cairo of more account[Pg 165] as plague-foci than a few villages in the Himalaya or in Kattiwar, even granting that the plague may have been in the latter at an earlier date than we know? It is not communication that connects the several seats of plague, scattered widely in time and place; but it is community of conditions, or of the causes and associated circumstances which breed the plague in each separately. Let us take them in some sort of order.

Among the most remarkable habitats of modern bubo-plague are the villages on the basalt plateaus of the Arabian desert. We have information of these plague-spots from Doughty[307], who did not indeed visit Assir, the most notorious of them, but several others more to the north and east. He describes the ruined villages of Mogug, Gofar, Hâyil and others, where the people had died of plague some years before. A year of dearth preceded the plague in some, if not in all of them. The author is struck by the carelessness of burial, or the difficulties of it in the baked soil, although he does not directly connect that with the epidemics. Thus, in passing the graveyard of Hâyil, one of the plague-towns, he remarks: “Aheyd was a man of much might and glory in his day; he lies a yard under the squalid gravel in his shirt.” Of Kheybar, with vague traditions of plague, he says: “We passed through a burial-ground of black volcanic mould and salt-warp; the squalid grave heaps are marked with headstones of wild basalt. That funeral earth is chapped and ghastly, bulging over her enwombed corses, like a garden soil in spring-time which is pushed by the new spring plants. All is horror at Kheybar!” He is led to the following general remarks: “The care of sepulture was beyond measure in the religions of antiquity, which were without humility. Under the new religion [of Arabia] the deceased is wound in a shirt-cloth of calico, and his corse is laid in the shallow pit of droughty earth.” Again, of Bedouin burials in general: “The deceased is buried the same day or on the morrow. They scrape out painfully with a stick and their hands in the hard-burned soil a shallow grave. I have seen their graves in the desert ruined by foul hyenas, and their winding-sheets lay half above ground.”

[Pg 166]Of the best known of these Arabian plague-spots the plateau of Assir, to the south-east of Mecca, we have the following information relating to the years 1874-79[308]; the chief plague-locality is Namasse, the principal town of Beny Sheir, with five other villages.

The site is on a mountain ridge too high for camels, the climate is cold and moist, the soil fruitful, springs abundant, and no standing water. The houses are built of stone, and stand close together. The ground-floor of each house is used as the stable; and as the winter in these mountains is very severe, so that water freezes, the inhabitants live with their cattle in a horrible state of filth. According to information from the district superintendent, there had been plague in a few villages every two or three years for the previous thirty-five or forty years. It has seldom extended further than five or six leagues. The region is a mountain canton, with no trade; it is cut off from the rest of the world. The disease is mostly attended with buboes in the groins, armpits, and neck, but not always; sometimes petechial spots were spoken of; in the sheikh Faïk’s own household the disease began with rigors, and developed buboes, petechiæ, headache and burning thirst. Dr Nury counted up in six villages, with a population of eight hundred, cases of plague to the number of 184 (68 men, 45 women, 50 boys and 21 girls), with 155 deaths and 29 recoveries.

Let us now place beside this the accounts of the plague in the mountains village of Kumaon[309].

Of the plague-villages of Danpore and Munsharee, near the snow, we read:

“Their houses are generally built of stone, one storey high. On the ground-floor herd the cattle; in this compartment the dung is allowed to accumulate till such time as there is no room left for the cattle to stand erect; it is then removed and carefully packed close around all sides, so that the house literally stands in the centre of a hot-bed.... In many instances we have seen it accumulated above the level of the floor of the upper story in which the family lives.” In that compartment, four feet high, with no window and a door of some three feet by eighteen inches, ten or fifteen people live, lying huddled together with the door shut. Their food is as poor as their lodging. When plague breaks out, the family ties are rudely loosened: those who can, flee to the jungle, leaving the stricken to their fate.

[Pg 167]The following is by Renny: “Fourteen died at a place in the forest half a mile or more from Duddoli, respecting which I had the best description yet given to me of the career of the sickness. Here were only two houses, or long low huts, occupied by two separate families, the heads being two brothers, sixteen souls in all. These two huts had to contain also thirty head of cattle, large and small, at the worst season of the year. In these two huts the Mahamurree [bubo-plague] commenced about ten or eleven months ago, corresponding to the time it appeared in Duddoli. At this place the sixteen residents kept together till fourteen died, and one adult only, a man of about thirty years of age, with his female child of six years old, survived. There was no particular disorder among the cattle, but the outbreak of the plague was preceded and accompanied by a great mortality among the rats in their houses.”

Let us now take the accounts, twenty-five years later, of the plague in the same district in 1876-77[310].

Confirming the earlier statements as to the extraordinary filth of the houses—the cattle under the same roof and the baskets of damp and unripe grain—he directs attention specially to the disposal of the dead. The custom of the country is to burn the body beside the most convenient mountain stream terminating in the Ganges. But from that good practice the people have deviated in regard to bodies dead of any pestilence (smallpox, cholera, plague), which are buried. Of all countries the Himalaya is least suited to the burial of the dead. For, by reason of the rocky subsoil, it is seldom possible to dig a grave more than two feet deep; and, as a rule, the pestilent dead are laid in shallow trenches in the surface soil of the field nearest to the place of death, or of the terrace facing the house, or even of the floor of the house itself. This bad practice is begotten of fear to handle the body, and has been long established. Such mismanagement of the dead is sufficient to account for the continuous existence of the active principle of plague-disease, sometimes dormant for want of opportunity, but ever ready to affect persons suitably prepared by any cause producing a low or bad state of health. In the houses of families about to suffer from an outbreak of plague, rats are sometimes found dead on the floor. Planck had seen them himself; all that he had seen appeared to have died suddenly, as by suffocation, their bodies being in good condition, a piece of rag sometimes clenched in the teeth. He mentions nine villages, all of them endemic seats of plague, in which the premonitory death of rats in the infected houses was testified. The affected villages were not one in a hundred of all the villages of Kumaon, and were widely scattered throughout[Pg 168] the northern half of the province. Even in each of those few villages, the plague is confined to one house, or one terrace, or one portion of the village.

Let us turn next to the small spots of bubo-plague in the remote province of Yun-nan. Our information comes from members of the British and French Consular services[311].

The plague occurs in towns and villages and is the cause of much mortality. After ravaging villages scattered about the plains, it frequently ascends the mountains, and takes off many of the aborigines inhabiting the high lands. What, in M. Rocher’s opinion, aggravates the evil is the practice of not burying the bodies of those who die of this disease. Instead of being buried, the body is placed on a bier and exposed to the sun. As a consequence of this practice the traveller passing the outskirts of a village where the plague is raging is nearly choked with the nauseous smell emanating from the exposed and rotting corpses. Burial is the usual mode of disposal, although many of the villages are on rocky mountain sides, as in Kumaon. The rats are first affected; as soon as they sicken, they leave their holes in troops, and after staggering about and falling over each other, drop down dead. Mr Baber had the same information from a French missionary in the upper valley of the Salwen, a long, low valley about two miles broad, walled in by immense precipices, so hot in summer that the inhabitants go up the hill sides to live. The approach of bubo-plague (the buboes may be as large as a hen’s or goose’s egg) may often be known from the extraordinary behaviour of the rats, who leave their holes and crevices and issue on to the floors without a trace of their accustomed timidity, springing continually upwards from their hind legs as if they were trying to jump out of something. The rats fall dead, and then comes the turn of the poultry, pigs, goats, etc. The good father had a theory of his own that the plague is really a pestilential emanation slowly rising in an equable stratum from the ground, the smallest creatures being first engulfed. The larger plague-centre at or near the capital, Talifoo, appears to be related to Mohammedan warfare, and possibly to the neglect to bury the dead, which is an admitted fact, although not connected by the narrator with the prevalence of plague.

The other Chinese plague-spot is hundreds of miles away, on the shores of the Gulf of Tonking. The best known centre of plague is the port of Pakhoi, the native quarter of which is described as peculiarly filthy. The houses are little cleaner than[Pg 169] the streets, the floors being saturated with excrement, and the drains being either close to the surface or open altogether. An outbreak of plague there in 1882 is minutely described by Dr Lowry[312].

It occurred in the hot weather of June (85° Fahr. day, 76° Fahr. night); for fear of thieves the houses are carefully shut up even on the hottest night. The epidemic caused about 400 to 500 deaths in a population of 25,000. The disease does not spread. In nearly every house where the disease broke out, the rats had been coming out of their holes and dying on the floors: Dr Lowry dissected several of them, and found the lungs congested. In the human subject, except for the buboes, the disease resembled typhus: “anyone going to the bedside of a patient would certainly at first think it was that disease he had to deal with.” The same disease occurred at Lien-chow, a city twelve miles off. Another English physician in the service of the China Maritime Customs heard of a malady with the symptoms of plague in certain districts of Southern Kiangsi in the autumn of 1886; but no particulars were to be had. Typhus was prevalent, and very fatal, every year in the towns, villages and hamlets of Northern Kiangsi.

One curious piece of evidence as to the death of rats, not associated with plague in men, comes from a more northern province of China. In the autumn of 1881, on the opposite side of the Yang-tsi from Nanking and in the western suburbs of the ancient capital, the rats emerged from holes in dwellings, jumped up, turned round, and fell dead. Baskets and boxes filled with their bodies were cast into the canal. “Here,” says Dr Macgowan, “was evidently a subsoil poison which affected the animals precisely in the same way as the malaria of the Yun-nan pest. Happily the subterranean miasm at Nanking did not affect animals that live above ground[313].”

The evidence from Kutch, Kattiwar, and Marwar relates to the years 1815-20, and 1838. In circumstances peculiar in some respects, namely, of walled towns and stockaded villages, but the same as those already given in the matter of filth from cattle crowded into the human dwellings, we find bubo-plague breaking out so long as the unwholesome state of things lasted under Mahratta rule and until British rule had been fairly at work. The causes of the bubo-plague, says Whyte, were the same as of typhus—walled and crowded towns, cattle housed with human beings, slow wasting diseases among the cattle, which were not[Pg 170] killed for food but kept for milk and ghee. He questions whether, in shutting out their enemies, they had not shut in one far more powerful[314]. Here also we have various independent witnesses[315] testifying to the premonitory death of the rats; they lay dead in all places and directions—in the streets, houses, and hiding-places of the walls. This happened in every town that was affected in Marwar, so that the inhabitants of any house instantly quitted it on seeing a dead rat.


Relation of Typhus to Bubo-plague.

The smallest and the most easily surveyed of all the recent foci of bubo-plague, is that among the Bedouin of the Cyrenaic plateau in North Africa (port of Benghazi), a desert region corresponding to one of the most famous corn-lands of antiquity.

There was no difference of opinion that the small outbreak of plague in 1874 began simultaneously in the tents of Orphas and the tents of Ferig-el-Hanan, containing together about a hundred souls[316]. These Arabs keep cows, sheep and goats; some of them also cultivate small patches of corn. They are subject to periodic famines, and there had been much want among them in 1869, 1870, 1871, 1872 and 1873, attended by epidemics of typhus, cholera and smallpox. In the winter they found employment among the traders of Merdjé, and at the end of March, 1873, had quitted that village to place their animals in the neighbouring hill-pastures. The ground had been saturated, after long drought, by the rains of the winter. Their tents are pitched in hollows which may be filled by water in a few minutes. The encampments, like those of the Bedouin in Arabia, are excessively filthy and are often the scene of typhus fever. In April, 1874, the plague began, the first case being in a child; the buboes were in the groin, armpit or neck. The other symptoms were bilious vomiting, black vomit, haematemesis, petechiae, anthraceous boils, pains in the head, collapse, and delirium. A few cases were mild, but the majority grave and fatal; in several cases there was a relapse with new buboes. The disease was brought from the tents to the village of Merdjé, in which 270 were attacked in a population of[Pg 171] 310, with 100 deaths. The total known attacks from 5 April to 24 July were 533 in a population of 734, with 208 deaths and 325 recoveries, 201 resisting the infection. The sanitary state of the village was as bad as that of the tents: the houses, entered by a low door, had windows not to the sun, but to the courtyard, which is a stable choked with filth; the floors of the houses are covered with filth. The graveyard is in the centre of the village, beside a pool of standing water: the graves are shallow, and the corpses are sometimes unearthed by jackals. Both in the village and in the encampments a fall of rain was followed by a new series of attacks. The advice of the sanitary commisioner was to make graves at least six feet deep, and to cover them with lime.

These events in 1874 were an exact repetition of those of 1858. In both years heavy rains followed long drought, giving promise of an abundant harvest after a period of famine. The dry years, in both instances, were attended with sickness, typhus and other; the first wet season turned the sickness to plague, that is to say, it added the complication of buboes and haemorrhagic symptoms to the characters of typhus. The meaning of that seems to be that the saturation of the ground generated a soil-poison where there had previously been the milder aerial poison of typhus. This view of plague, as a typhus of the soil, or a disease made so much more malignant than typhus just because of underground fermentation of the putrescible animal matters, is borne out by the facts already given for China and for India. The latter country furnishes other illustrations of typhus fever becoming complicated with buboes, and so becoming something like plague. Perhaps the best instance is the fever observed in the Yusufzai valley, near Peshawur, in 1852[317].

It arose mostly in the filthy Mohammedan houses, shared by cattle and human beings; but it invaded some of the cleaner Hindoo houses also. The disease began in low, marshy situations, which were covered with water after rain and heavy night dews. It was of the type of typhus, or relapsing fever, with yellowness of the skin, bleeding from the gums, and from the bowels, and often from the nose. One of the observers says: “The only other concomitant affection worthy of note is swelling of the lymphatic glands over various parts of the body; this, however, is only met with in a very few instances.” The other authority says: “Inflammation[Pg 172] and suppuration of the glands in the groin, axilla, and neck occurred in some that survived the first or second relapse.” To this outbreak, which is removed only in degree from the Benghazi plague, the Pakhoi plague, and the Pali plague (Gujerat), may be added some others, about which the information is more general. Thus, the fevers which have become notorious in Burdwan since the health of that province changed so disastrously owing to the damming of the ground-water, are said to have been attended now and then with buboes. The typhus fever at Saugor in 1859 was occasionally complicated with suppuration of the lymphatic glands: “In the Doab, as in the subsequent gaol attack, the glands in the groin were very rarely affected; those in the neck were more frequently affected, but this was not a prominent feature in the disease[318].” Again, General Loris Melikoff told the correspondent of the Golos that twenty men died in a day in the Russo-Turkish war in the winter of 1878, with glandular swellings; everywhere there was Schmutz, Schmutz! And lastly, in the epidemic of 1878 at Vetlianka, on the Volga, which is reckoned among the historic occurrences of bubo-plague in Europe, the first ten cases in November, 1878, had suppurating glands in the axilla, did not take to bed, and recovered; there had been ordinary typhus in the filthy fisher cottages in 1877, and there was typhus concurrent with the disease which at length became, and was at length recognized as, true bubo-plague in the winter of 1878-79[319].

One thing which distinguishes these recent outbreaks of plague from the great plague of Justinian’s reign, in part from the series of Mohammedan plagues, and from the Black Death, is that they have for the most part shown no independent vitality and no diffusive power. As in typhus fever itself (except on great occasions), they have been almost confined to those who lived in the filthy houses, and to those who came within the influence of the pestilential emanations. The great plagues of the 6th and 14th centuries had, on the other hand, a diffusive power which carried them over the whole known world. The buboes of Egypt and of China became familiar as far as Norway and Greenland.

But, apart from diffusiveness, the conditions of recent local plagues are not unlike those of the great historical epidemics. The very same observation of the rats leaving their holes, which is so abundantly confirmed from the recent plague-spots of Southern China, of Yun-nan, of Kumaon, and of Gujerat, was[Pg 173] familiar in the plague-books of London and of Edinburgh in the Elizabethan period. Of the great outbreak in 1603, Thomas Lodge writes: “And when as rats, moules, and other creatures (accustomed to live underground) forsake their holes and habitations, it is a token of corruption in the same, by reason that such sorts of creatures forsake their wonted places of aboade[320].” That is only one of many proofs that the virus of plague has its habitat in the soil, although it may be carried long distances clinging to other things. In its most diffusive potency it is a soil-poison generated, we may now say with some confidence, out of the products of cadaveric decay[321]; in its less diffusive but hardly less malignant potency, it is a soil-poison generated out of the filth of cattle housed with human beings, or out of domestic filth generally, and in nearly all the known instances of such generation, associated with, but perhaps not absolutely dependent upon, carelessness in the disposal of the dead after famine or fever; in the least malignant form, when plague is only a small part of an epidemic of typhus and with the buboes inclined to suppurate, it appears to be still a soil-poison, and to differ from typhus itself, just because the pestilential product of decomposing filth has been engendered in the pores of the ground, rather than in the atmosphere of living-rooms.

The Black Death, which here concerns us immediately, is one of the two great instances of a plague-virus with vast diffusive power, enormous momentum, and centuries of endurance. So great effects may be said to postulate adequate causes; and one must assume that the virus had been bred from cadaveric decomposition in circumstances of peculiar[Pg 174] aggravation and on some vast or national scale. The sequence of events carries us to China; and the annals of China do furnish evidence that the assumed cause was there on a vast scale through a long period of national disaster, while the national customs of China for the disposal of the dead, like those of ancient Egypt, point to the existence of a real risk from allowing the soil to be permeated at large by the crude or hasty products of cadaveric decomposition.

It is our duty to construct the best hypothesis we can, sparing no labour. No one really dispenses with theory, whatever his protestations to the contrary; those who are the loudest professors of suspended judgment are the most likely to fall victims to some empty verbalism which hangs loose at both ends, some ill-considered piece of argument which ignores the historical antecedents and stops short of the concrete conclusions. It has been so in the case of infective diseases, and of bubo-plague in particular. The virus of the plague, we are told, is specific; it has existed from an unknown antiquity, and has come down in an unbroken succession; we can no more discover how it arose, than we can tell how the first man arose, or the first mollusc, or the first moss or lichen; its species is, indeed, of the nature of the lowest vegetable organisms.

The objection to that hypothesis of plague is that it involves a total disregard of facts. It is a mere formula, which saves all trouble, dispenses with all historical inquiry, and appears to be adapted equally to popular apprehension and to academic ease. The bubo-plagues of history have not, in fact, been all of the same descent; notably the Black Death was a wave of pestilence which Mohammedan countries, accustomed as they had been to native bubo-plagues for centuries before, recognized as an invasion from a foreign source, as an interruption of the sequence of their own plagues. Again, the attempt to link in one series the various scattered and circumscribed spots of plague now or lately existing must fail disastrously the moment it is seriously attempted. The hypothesis of one single source of the plague, of a species of disease arising we know not how, beginning we know not when or where, but at all events reproduced by ordinary generation in an unbroken series of cases, ab aevo, ab[Pg 175] ovo, is the merest verbalism, wanting in reality or concreteness, and dictated by the curious illusion that a species of disease, because it reproduces itself after its kind, must resemble in other respects a species of living things.

The diffusive power of the virus of the Black Death, which has been equalled only by that of the plague in Justinian’s reign, may seem to have depended upon the favouring conditions that it met with. But although favouring conditions count for much, they are not all. The Black Death raged as furiously as anywhere among the nomade Tartars who were its first victims; the virus, as soon as it was let loose, put forth a degree of virulence which must have been native to it, or brought with it from its place of engendering. None the less the incidence of the Black Death in Europe had depended in part upon the preparedness of the soil. It came to Europe in the age of feudalism and of walled towns, with a cramped and unwholesome manner of life, and inhabited spots of ground choked with the waste matters of generations. But even amidst these generally fostering conditions, there would have been more special things that determined its election. It is a principle exemplified in all importations of disease from remote sources, in smallpox among the aerial contagions and in Asiatic cholera among the soil-poisons, that the conditions which favour diffusion abroad are approximately the same amidst which the infection had been originally engendered. A soil-poison of foreign origin makes straight for the most likely spots in the line of its travels; it may not, and often does not confine itself to these, but it gives them a preference. Thus, if we conclude on the evidence that the bubo-plague is a soil-poison having a special affinity to the products of cadaveric decomposition, we shall understand why the Black Death, when it came to England, found so congenial a soil in the monasteries, and in the homes of the clergy. Within the monastery walls, under the floor of the chapel or cloisters, were buried not only generations of monks, but often the bodies of princes, of notables of the surrounding country, and of great ecclesiastics. In every parish the house of the priest would have stood close to the church and the churchyard. One has to figure the virus of the Black Death not so much as[Pg 176] carried by individuals from place to place in their persons, or in their clothes and effects, but rather as a leaven which had passed into the ground, spreading hither and thither therein as if by polarizing the adjacent particles of the soil, and that not instantaneously like a physical force, but so gradually as to occupy a whole twelvemonth between Dorset and Yorkshire. Sooner or later it reached to every corner of the land, manifesting its presence wherever there were people resident. Such universality in the soil of England, we have reason to think, it had. But it appears to have put forth its greatest power in the walled town, in the monastery, and in the neighbourhood of the village churchyard.



[Pg 177]



The great mortality came to an end everywhere in England by Michaelmas, 1349. The pestilence had lasted some fourteen months, from its first appearance on the Dorset coast at the beginning of August, 1348, until its subsidence in the northern counties in the autumn of 1349. It came to an end, as all devastating epidemics do, through having spent its force, exhausted its pabulum, run through all the susceptible subjects. A letter-writer of Charles I.’s reign has put into colloquial language the corresponding reason for a pause in the ravages of the plague towards the end of its stay in London: “And I think the only reason why the plague is somewhat slackened is because the place is dead already, and no bodie left in it worth the killing[322].” The exhausted state of the country, and of all Europe, is not easy for us to realize. Petrarch, a witness of the Black Death in Italy, foresaw the incredulity of after ages, or their inability to image the state of things—the empty houses, the abandoned towns, the squalid country, the fields crowded with the dead, the vast and dreadful solitude over the whole world. If you inquire of historians, he continues, they are silent; if you consult the physicians, they are at their wits’ end; if you question the philosophers, they shrug their shoulders, wrinkle their brows, and lay the finger on the lip. Is it possible that posterity can[Pg 178] believe these things? For we who have seen them can hardly believe them[323].

The blow fell upon every country of Europe within a period of two or three years; and it must have paralysed all trade and industry, war and politics, for the time being. Edward III.’s wars in France, which had resulted in the victory of Crecy in 1346 and the conquest of Calais in 1347, had been suspended by a truce, which was renewed from time to time. Thus, in the very midst of the pestilence, on the 2nd of May, 1349, the envoys of the English and French kings, “in their tents between Calais and Guines,” agreed upon a form of treaty continuing the truce until Pentecost, 1350[324]. In the last days of 1349, Edward III. in person, with a small force, was able to repel an attack upon his new possession of Calais[325]. It was in the year after the Black Death (1350) according to both Stow and Selden, that Edward III. held a great feast at Windsor, to which his heralds invited knights from abroad, to celebrate the institution of the Order of the Garter, the statutes of the Order having been drawn up the year before. What is styled “the necessary defence of the realm,” was a chief subject of concern throughout the year 1350. On the 12th February an order was made to the sheriffs of counties for a supply of so many arrows from each[326]. On the 20th March the mayors and bailiffs of 110 towns are ordered to provide their respective quotas of men-at-arms—London 100, Norwich 60, Bristol 20, and so on—and to send them to Sandwich “for the necessary defence of our realm[327].” On the 1st of May a commission was issued to engage mariners for certain ships, and on the 20th May, an order for ships, pinnaces and barges.

On the 22nd July and 10th August there are proclamations relating to the piratical fleet of Spanish ships, intercepting the English traders to Gascony, and threatening an invasion of England[328]; the Spaniards were routed, their ships taken, and[Pg 179] the Channel cleared, in a famous engagement off Winchelsea, on 29th August, 1350, which the king directed in person[329]. On 15th June, three days before the first of the ordinances against the Labourers, the king issued two orders to counties, to raise men “for our passage against the parts over sea”—one to the Welsh lords, and the other to the sheriffs of English counties, the demands being in all for 4170 bowmen from England, and for 1350 men from Wales[330]. Whatever these edicts may have resulted in, it was not until four years after that the king really resumed his wars with France. On the 8th September, 1355, the Black Prince sailed from Plymouth with a fleet of some three hundred ships carrying an army of knights, men-at-arms, English bowmen and Welshmen, to the Garonne, for his famous raid across the south of France[331]. Later in the autumn the king collected at Portsmouth[332] and Sandwich, and at Calais, a force of three thousand men-at-arms, two thousand mounted bowmen, and an immense number of bowmen on foot, with which he took the field on the 2nd November[333]. The same summer, a fleet of forty great ships was fitted out at Rotherhithe, for a force of foot under Henry, duke of Lancaster, to aid the king of Navarre; it sailed on the 10th of July, but was unable to clear the Channel, and for various reasons did not proceed[334]; next year, however, the duke of Lancaster crossed from Southampton to Normandy with a force in forty-eight ships[335].

Thus was the war with France resumed six years after the great mortality. The means for equipping these expeditions had been provided by loans raised on the security of the enormous subsidy which the Parliament of 1353-54 was induced to vote, in the form of an export duty of fifty shillings on every sack of wool shipped to foreign countries during the next six years. According to Avesbury’s calculation, Edward had a revenue, from that source, of a thousand marks a day; it was the common opinion, he says, that more than 100,000 sacks of[Pg 180] wool were exported in a year[336]. But another and perhaps better authority gives the annual export of wool in the middle of the fourteenth century at nearly 32,000 sacks[337].


Direct effects of the Black Death.

Meanwhile internal affairs were demanding the king’s attention, although they occupy less space in the extant State papers than the warlike preparations. On the 23rd August, while the mortality was raging in the north, a proclamation was issued to the sheriff of Northumberland against the migration of people to Scotland, with arms, victuals, goods and merchandise, the pestilence not being mentioned[338]. The first State paper which relates to the recent great mortality is the king’s proclamation of 1st December, 1349, to the mayor and bailiffs of Sandwich, and of forty-eight other English ports, including London[339]. The proclamation begins:

“Forasmuch as no mean part of the people of our realm of England is dead in the present pestilence, and the treasure of the said realm is mostly exhausted, and (as we have learned) numbers of this our kingdom are daily passing, or proposing to pass, to parts over sea with money which they were able to have kept within the realm, Now we, taking heed that if passage after this manner be tolerated, the kingdom will in a short time be stripped both of men and of treasure, and so therefrom grave danger may easily arise to us and to the said realm, unless a fitting remedy be speedily appointed—do[Pg 181] command the mayor and bailiffs of Sandwich (and of forty-eight other ports) to stop the passage beyond sea of them that have no mandate, especially if they be Englishmen, excepting merchants, notaries, or the king’s envoys.”

The edict was probably directed more against the drain of treasure than against the emigration of people; but this not uninteresting question really belongs to other historians, who do not appear to have dealt with it[340].

On the 18th of June, 1350, the first summer after the mortality, there was issued the first proclamation, to the sheriffs of counties, on the demands of the labourers and artificers for higher wages, entitled “De magna parte populi in ultima pestilentia defuncta, et de servientium salariis proinde moderandis[341].” The preamble or motive is one that cannot but seem strange to modern ideas, although it must have been correct and conventional according to feudal notions: “Forasmuch as some, having regard to the necessities of lords and to the scarcity of servants, are unwilling to serve unless they receive excessive wages, while others prefer to beg in idleness, rather than to seek their living by labour—be it therefore enacted that any man or woman, bond or free, under the age of sixty, and not living by a trade or handicraft, nor possessing private means, nor having land to cultivate, shall be obliged, when required, to serve any master who is willing to hire him or her at such wages as were usually paid in the locality in the year 1346, or on the average of five or six years preceding; provided that the lords of villeins or tenants shall have the preference of their labour, so that they retain no more than shall be necessary for them.” It was strictly forbidden either to offer or to demand wages above the old rate. Another clause forbids the giving of alms to beggars. Handicraftsmen of various kinds are also ordered to be paid at the old rate. Lastly, victuallers and other traders are directed to sell[Pg 182] their wares at reasonable prices[342]. The same ordinance, with some added paragraphs, was reissued on the 18th November, 1350, to the county of Suffolk and to the district of Lindsey (Lincolnshire), the latter being one of the chief sheep-grazing parts of England; in those two localities, it is stated in so many words, the labourers had set at nought the ordinance of 18th June[343]. When Parliament met—for the first time since the mortality—on the 9th of February, 1351, it was acknowledged that the commissions to sheriffs issued by the king and his council had been ineffective, and that wages had been at twice or thrice the old rate[344]. The Parliament, having legislated for a number of technical matters in connexion with the enormous number of wills and successions, proceeded next to the labour question, and passed the famous Statute of Labourers, by which the generalities of the ordinance of 18th June, 1350, are replaced by an elaborate schedule of wages for harvest-time and other times[345]. One clause of the Act is specially directed against the migration of labourers to other counties. It was the ancient manorial system that was threatened most of all by the depopulation. The surviving labourers sought work where they could command the best wages, and at the same time could escape from the few degrading bonds of servitude which still[Pg 183] clung to the nativi or serfs of a manor. But the Manor Court was still the unit of government, and the Act would have been inoperative except on that basis. That fundamental intention of the statute of the 9th February, 1351, comes out, not only in the explicit clause against migrations, but also by contrast, in the special permission given to the labourers of the counties of Stafford, Derby and Lancaster, to the people of Craven, and to the dwellers in the Marches of Wales and Scotland, to go about in search of work in harvest “as they were wont to do before this time[346].”

The immediate effect of the depopulation had been to mobilise, as it were, the labouring class. Many of them must have taken the road at once; for, in the first ordinance of 18th June, 1350, before the harvest of that year had begun, it is stated that certain of the labourers preferred to live by begging instead of by labour, and it is therefore forbidden to give alms to beggars. According to Knighton, the effect of the ordinance itself was to swell the ranks of the wandering poor; when some were arrested, imprisoned, or fined in terms of the commission to the sheriffs, others fled to the woods and wastes (ad silvas et boscos)[347]. These escapes continued for years after; the rolls of the Manor Court of Winslow have entries of many such cases long after the pestilence[348]. Many of these fugitive villeins formed the class of “wasters,” often referred to in the Vision of Piers the Ploughman: “waster would not work, but wander about,” or he would work only in harvest, squander his earnings, and for the rest of the year feel the pinch of hunger “until both his eyen watered.” But it is clear that others went to distant manors, and settled down again to steady employment, freed from their bonds as nativi; and it cannot be doubted that some went to the towns[349].

[Pg 184]In order to realize the causes and circumstances of the labour difficulty after the enormous thinning of the population, it may be well to recall the composition of the village communities. In each manor the arable land was in two portions—on the one hand the immense open fields (two or perhaps three) in which the villagers had each so many half-acre strips, and on the other hand the lord’s demesne, or home-farm. Part of the latter would often be let to free tenants, or even to villeins, who would count for the occasion as free tenants. For the cultivation of his demesne the lord was dependent on his tenants in villenage, who owed him, in form, so many days’ work in the year, but in reality were often able to commute their personal services for a money payment and are said to have done so very generally[350]. Thus the lord of the manor was no longer able to call upon his serfs to plough or to sow or to reap; he had to hire them for his occasions. The free tenants would also be dependent to some extent upon hired labour; and as some even of the villeins cultivated up to forty acres or more, in the open fields of the manor, these would also have to hire unless their families were old enough to help. All that labour for hire would naturally be supplied by the poorer villagers, the cottars and bordars, who would seldom cultivate more than a few half-acres, and in some cases perhaps none[351]. The lower order of tenants in villenage formed accordingly the class of labourers; and it was their demands which gave occasion for the ordinances of 1350 and the statute of 1351. In each manor the lord would have been affected more than all the rest by the scarcity of labour, in respect of the extensive demesne or home-farm managed by his bailiff. It is conjectured that he tried, in some cases, to go back to his rights of customary service from his[Pg 185] villeins, which had gradually become commutable for rents paid in money, and that the attempts to do so led to insubordination[352]. He had to pay wages, notwithstanding all his rights of lordship. The wages paid in the harvest of 1349 were, says Rogers, those of panic. In the form of petition which brought the labour-question before Parliament in February 1351, it is stated that the wages demanded were at double or treble the old rate; of the year preceding (1350) it is recorded that the wages paid to labourers for gathering the harvest on the manor of Ham, belonging to the lord Berkeley, amounted to 1144 days’ work, on the old scale of commutation[353].

The labourers, although the lowest order on the manors, were accordingly masters of the situation. Personal service to the lord, measurable merely by days, and having no reference to fluctuations in the rate of wages, had become obsolete; nor do the ordinance of 1350 and the statute of 1351 give any hint of trying to revive it. If the men refused to be hired at the old rate, they were to be arrested and imprisoned.

There were, of course, many things besides the statute, tending to keep the majority of peasants on the manors where they had been born; so that the formal abolition of villenage remained to be carried by rebellion in 1381, while many traces of it in practice remained for long after. Those who stayed on their old manors, or removed to another county or hundred to become tenants under new lords, were able to get permanently better wages; the price of labour remained about forty per cent. higher than it had been before the mortality; so that the statute was on the whole ineffective. But another large proportion of the labouring class appears to have been driven to a wandering life. It is not easy to explain on economical principles why the class of “wasters,” of whom we hear so much, should have been called into existence. Hands were scarce, and wages were high;[Pg 186] the conditions look on the surface to be entirely adverse to the creation of a class of sturdy beggars and idle tramps. But the economic conditions were really complex; and when all has been said on the head of economics, there will remain something to be explained on the side of ethics.

Not only the labourers but also the employers of labour were cut off in the mortality. A great part of the capital of the country passed suddenly into new hands. Before the Parliament of 1351 legislated upon wages, it was occupied with a number of technical difficulties about wills. Of the proving of wills and the granting of letters of administration on a great scale we have had an instance from an archdeaconry in Lancashire. In Colchester, a town with some four hundred burgesses, one hundred and eleven wills were proved[354]. In the Husting Court of London, three hundred and sixty wills were enrolled and proved from 13th January, 1349, to 13th January, 1350. An immense number of persons came into money who could not all have had the inclination, even if they had the skill and aptitude, for employing it as capital. If there were wasters among the labourers, there were wasters also among the moneyed class. The mortality produced, indeed, that demoralisation of the whole national life which has been usually observed to follow in the like circumstances. “Almost all great epochs of moral degradation are connected with great epidemics,” says Niebuhr, generalizing the evidence which Thucydides gives specially for the plague of Athens[355]. The fourteenth century was by no means a period of high morality before the Black Death; but it was undoubtedly worse after it. Langland’s poem of the vision of Piers the Ploughman is one long diatribe against the vices of the age, and some of the worst of them he expressly dates “sith the pestilence time.” It will be convenient to take these ethical illustrations, before we proceed with the effects of the mortality upon material prosperity and population, and with the domestication of plague on the soil.

So far from the labouring class being the chief sinners, it is in the humbler ranks that the root of goodness remains. Langland’s hero, the Ploughman, is obviously chosen to represent[Pg 187] “that ingenuous simplicity and native candour and integrity,” which, as Burke says, “formerly characterized the English nation,” and, one may add, have been at all times its saving grace. It was in that class that the reforming movement, led by Wyclif twenty years after, had its strength. Lollardy and the Peasants’ Rebellion were closely allied. The grievance of the latter was that the gulf between the gentleman and the workman had become wider than in nature it should be. An ultimate and very indirect effect of the great mortality was to strengthen the middle class by recruits from beneath; it created the circumstances which produced the English yeoman of the fifteenth century. But we are here engaged with the immediate effect; and that was to broaden the contrast between the rich and the poor.

Luxury had already touched so high a point as to call for a statute against extravagant living, the curious sumptuary law of 1336 which prohibited many courses at table. Nothing could be more significant of its later developments in London than the sarcastic description, which fills an unusual space in one of the chroniclers, of the fantastic excesses of dress and ornament among the male sex about the year 1362[356]. Some of the names of the men’s ornaments occur also in Langland’s verses:

“Sir John and Sir Goffray hath a gerdel of silver,
A basellarde or a ballok-knyf with botones overgilt.”

These effeminate fashions actually led to a Statute of Dress in 1363, in which also the lower class are forbidden to ape their betters. It is perhaps to these hangers-on of wealth that Langland refers in his bitter lines:

“Right so! ye rich, ye robeth that be rich | and helpeth them that helpeth you, and giveth where no need is. | As who so filled a tun of a fresh river | and went forth with that water to woke with Thames. | Right so! ye rich, ye robe and feed | them that have as ye have, them ye make at ease.”

But, as for the poor, Avarice considers them fair game:

“I have as moche pite of pore men as pedlere hath of cattes, | that wolde kill them if he cacche hem myghte, for covetise of their skynnes.”

[Pg 188]In London the preaching clergy are accused of pandering to the avarice of the rich:

“And were mercy in mean men no more than in rich | mendicants meatless might go to bed. | God is much in the gorge of these great masters, | but among mean men his mercy and his works. | Friars and faitours have found such questions, | to plese with proud men sithen the pestilence tyme, | and prechers at Saint Poules, for pure envye of clerkis, | that folke is nought firmed in the feith ne fill of their goodes. | ... Ne be plentyous to the pore as pure charitye wolde, | but in gayness and in glotonye forglotten her goode hem selve, | and breken noughte to the beggar as the Boke techeth.”

The friars had lost altogether the enthusiasm of their early days:

“And how that friars followed folk that was rich, | and folk that was poor at little price they set; | and no corpse in their kirk-yard nor in their kirk was buried, | but quick he bequeath them aughte or should help quit their debts.”

As for the monks, the same might have been said of them before; but now more land had been thrown into their possession by the mortality:

“Ac now is Religion a ryder, a rowmer bi streetes,
A leader of love-days, and a lond-buyer,
A pricker on a palfrey fro manere to manere,
An heap of houndes at his ers, as he a lord were.
And but if his knave kneel, that shall his cup bringe,
He lowreth on hym, and axeth hym who taught hym curtesye.”

According to Langland’s poem, the country clergy left their livings and came up to London:—

“Parsons and parish priests plained them to the bishop | that their parishes were poor sith the pestilence time; | to have licence and leave at London to dwell | and syngen there for simony, for silver is sweet. | Bishops and bachelors, both masters and doctours, | that have cures under Christ and crowning in token and sign, | that they should shrive their parishours, preach and pray for them and the poor feed, | live in London in Lent and all”—

some of them serving the king in the offices of Exchequer and Chancery, and some acting as the stewards of lords.

It is undoubted that the business of the courts in London received a great impetus after the mortality, as one can readily[Pg 189] understand from the number of inheritances, successions, and feudal claims that had to be settled. Several of the Inns of Chancery date from about that time. Gascoigne, who was “cancellarius” at Oxford about 1430, and had access to the rolls of former “cancellarii,” was struck by the increase of legists after the commotion of 1349: “Before the great pestilence there were few disputes among the people, and few pleas; and, accordingly, there were few legists in the realm of England, and few legists in Oxford, at a time when there were thirty thousand scholars in Oxford, as I have seen in the rolls,” etc.[357]

The country clergy, such of them as remained in their cures were a notoriously illiterate class; according to Knighton, they could read the Latin services without understanding what they read. Langland makes a parson confess his poor qualifications to be the spiritual guide of his flock; on the other hand he was not without skill in the sports of the field: “But I can fynde in a felde or in a furlonge an hare.” At one of the manor courts in Wiltshire in 1361, a gang of the district clergy were convicted of night poaching[358].

Such being the state of matters among the upper and middle classes, it is not surprising to find a lax morality among the lower orders. The ploughman is as severe a satirist of his own class as he is of the rich. In London we have a picture of the interior of a tavern crowded with loafers of all sorts “early in the morning.” In the country also the contrast is drawn between the industrious and the idle class:

“And whoso helpeth me to erie [plough] or sowen here ere I wende | shall have leve, bi oure Lorde to lese here in harvest, | and make him merry there-mydde, maugre whoso begruccheth it: | save Jakke the jogeloure and Jonet of the stewes, | and Danget the dys-playere, and Denot the bawd, | and Frere the faytoure and folk of his order, | and Robyn the rybaudoure for his rusty wordes.”

To live out of wedlock was nothing unusual:

“Many of you ne wedde nought the wimmen that ye with delen, | but as [Pg 190]wilde bestis with wehe worthen up and worchen, | and bryngeth forth barnes that bastardes men calleth.”

Ill-assorted marriages also appear to have been common:

“It is an oncomely couple, bi Cryst, as me-thinketh, | to gyven a yonge wenche to an olde feble, | or wedden any widwe for welth of hir goodis, | that never shall bairne bere but if it be in armes. | Many a paire sithen the pestilence have plight hem togiders: | the fruit that thei brynge forth aren foule wordes: | in jalousye joyeles and jangling in bedde | have thei no children but cheste and choppyng hem betweene.”

Chapmen did not chastise their children. Old traditions of weather-lore, and of reckoning the yield of harvest, were forgotten.

As a set-off to the uniformly bad picture of the times given by Langland, we may turn to the gay and good-humoured scenes of the ‘Canterbury Tales.’ But Chaucer was emphatically the poet of the cultured class, and it is proper to his muse to keep within the limits of a well-bred cynicism. Again, Langland’s strictures on the avarice and other vices of the rich may seem to be a mere echo of a very old cry, which finds equally strong expression in Roger of Wendover, about the year 1235, and in Robert of Brunne’s ‘Handlyng Synne’ in the year 1303. But the Vision of the Ploughman is too consistent, and too concrete, to be considered as a mere homily on the wickedness of the times, such as might have been written of almost any age or of any country in which the Seven Mortal Sins were still called by their plain names. The words “sithen the pestilence” recur so often, that this contemporary author must be held as sharing the belief that the Black Death made a marked difference to the morals of the nation throughout all classes.


More lasting effects on Farming, Industries, and Population.

Turning from things moral to things material, we shall find that the Great Mortality left its mark on the cultivated area of the country, on rents of land, on the kind of tenure and the system of farming, on industry, trade and municipal government,[Pg 191] on the population, and, on what chiefly concerns us, the subsequent health of the country.

Corn-growing would appear to have met with at least a temporary check. Three water-mills near Shrewsbury fell in annual value by one half, owing to the scarcity of corn to grind[359]. Richmond, one of the chief corn-markets in Yorkshire, is said, on rather uncertain evidence, to have been permanently reduced for the same reason; besides losing an enormous number by the plague itself (vaguely stated at 2000), the town lost its corn-trade through the land around falling out of cultivation, so that some of the burgesses, being unable to pay rent, had to wander abroad as mendicants[360].

The general statements of Knighton, Le Baker and others for England (not to mention numerous rhetorical passages of foreign writers), to the effect that whole villages were left desolate, are borne out by the petitions recurring in the Rolls of Parliament for many years after. There are also some references to the continuing desolateness of particular places, which are probably fair samples of a larger number.

Thus a rich clergyman in Hertfordshire had given, just before the Black Death, all his lands and tenements in Braghinge, Herts, to the prior and convent of Anglesey, Cambridgeshire, in consideration that they should find at their proper expense a chantry of two priests for ever in the church of Anglesey, to say masses for the souls of the benefactor and his family. But on the 10th of May, 1351, he remitted the charge and support of one of the two said priests, on the ground that, “on account of the vast mortality, lands lie uncultivated in many and innumerable places, not a few tenements daily and suddenly decay and are pulled down, rents and services cannot be levied, but a much smaller profit is obliged to be taken than usual[361].” An instance of a long-abiding effect is that of the manor of Hockham belonging to the earl of Arundel, which was not tenanted for thirty years[362].

[Pg 192]The history of rents is peculiar. The immediate effect, as we learn from Knighton, as well as from the rolls of particular manor courts, was a remission of them by the lords, lest their tenants in villenage should quit the lands. There was, indeed, a competition among landlords for tenants to occupy their manors, so that the cultivators could make their own terms. Of that we have had an instance from the manor of Ensham, belonging to Christ Church, Oxford[363]. But, after a few years, rents appear to have come back to near their old level. The following figures have been compiled from the Tower records of assizes made for the purpose of taxation[364]:


1268   9d.
1417   6d.
1446   8d.
1271   12d.
1359   d.
1422   4d.
1336   11½d.
1368   10½d.
1429   4d.
1338   11½d.
1381   d.
1432   6d.


The great fall, it will be seen, was in the next century.

Perhaps the most striking effect upon agriculture of the upheaval produced by the great mortality was, as Thorold Rogers has shown, in changing the system of farming and in creating the type of the English yeoman. The system of farming the lord’s demesne or home-farm by a bailiff, never very profitable, became, says that historian, quite unproductive, owing especially to the permanent rise in wages. The small men who took the lord’s land to farm—they had been doing so to some extent before[365]—had not sufficient of their own for stock and seed; but they got advances from the lord, which were repaid in due course. It was a kind of métairie farming. It prevailed for about fifty years, by which time the ordinary system of farming on lease was becoming general. Finally, and especially in the Civil Wars of the fifteenth century, much of the land which had belonged in fee to the feudal lords, passed away by purchase to the tenant farmers[366]. Thus arose the[Pg 193] famous breed of English yeomen—the “good yeomen whose limbs were made in England.”

The effect of the mortality upon trade and industry was, momentarily, to paralyse them. Of the great wool-trade, Rogers, the historian of English prices, says: “Nothing, I think, in the whole history of these prices is more significant of the terror and prostration induced by the plague than the sudden fall in the price of wool at this time. It is a long time before a recovery takes place[367].” But from 1364 to 1380, the price of wool was uniformly above the average; and, if there be any accuracy in Avesbury’s figures already given for the years following 1355, the export of bales of wool to the Continent (100,000 sacks in a year, he says, each sack being a bale of the present colonial size, or weighing about three hundredweights) meant a very considerable amount of labour, tonnage and exchange. Among other articles of export, we hear specially of iron, in a petition to Parliament of 28 Ed. III. (1354); the price of iron had risen to four times what it was before the plague, and it was desired to stop the export of it and to fix the price[368].

The effect of the mortality upon the industries of the country was shown most in Norwich. That city was the centre of the Flemish cloth-weaving, which had been flourishing in Norfolk for some twenty years, under the direct encouragement of Edward III., and of a protective statute against foreign-made cloth. Before the pestilence, Norwich was the second city in the kingdom. In the king’s warrant for men-at-arms, which was indeed issued in 1350, but may be taken as drawn up on the old lines and irrespective of the pestilence, the quota of[Pg 194] Norwich is rated at 60, London’s being 100, Bristol’s and Lynn’s 20 each, that of Coventry, Gloucester, Hereford, Shrewsbury, Winchester, Sarum, Oxford, Canterbury and Bury St Edmund’s 10 each, and of other towns from 8 to 1 each, York not being mentioned. But in the Subsidy Roll of 1377, which shows how many persons, above the age of fourteen, paid the poll-tax of a groat in each county and in each principal town, Norwich comes sixth in the list instead of second, being far surpassed in numbers by York and Bristol, and surpassed considerably by Coventry and Plymouth. So far from being in a proportion to London of 60 to 100, it is now in a proportion of 3952 to 23,314, its whole population, as estimated, being 7410 against 44,770 in the capital which at one time it bade fair to rival. It had lost heavily in the Black Death, and so had the populous district around it, where the Flemish industries and trade were planted in numerous villages. By 1368, ten of the sixty very small parishes of Norwich had disappeared, and fourteen more disappeared by degrees, the ruins of twenty of them being still visible[369].

There is no mistaking the significance of these figures and facts for the second city of the kingdom. At least one generation passed before Norwich recovered something of its old prosperity. In the fifteenth century it was still the chief seat of the woollen manufactures; the county of Norfolk kept its old pre-eminence, although rival centres of industry had grown up. There were, however, causes at work which at length reduced the capital of East Anglia to a comparatively poor state. One of the intermediate glimpses that we get of it—they are not many, even in Blomefield’s history—is the statute of 1455, to put down the enormous number of “pettifogging attorneys” in the city and county[370]. Its real decline was in the early Tudor reigns. When Henry VII. visited Norwich in 1497, the mayor in presenting the Queen’s usual gold cup with a hundred pieces in it, took occasion to tell the monarch “howbeit that they are more poor, and not of such wealth as they have been afore[Pg 195] these days[371].” When the town suffered much from fires about the year 1505, the city of London raised large sums in aid of its rebuilding. To the same period belongs a municipal order that no one should dig holes in the market-place to get sand, without the mayor’s licence. In 1525, there was a general decay of work, the clothiers and farmers being unable to employ the artisans and labourers, who began to rise in revolt against the heavy taxes. An Act of 33 Hen. VIII. recites that the making and weaving of worsteds is wholly decayed and taken away from the city of Norwich and county of Norfolk—by the deceit and crafty practices of the great multitude of regrators and buyers of the said yarn. These evidences of decline in prosperity are in part long after the Black Death; but they seem to have been continuous from that event.

So far as concerns the other large towns of England, they did not all fare alike. The capital was more luxurious, and probably not less populous, after the mortality than before it. The chancery and exchequer business alone would have served to draw numbers to it; and we may be sure, from all subsequent experience, that the gaps left by the plague were filled up by influx from the provinces and from abroad in the course of two or three years. Nor does it appear from the poll-tax that York had suffered to anything like the same extent as Norwich; while Bristol and Coventry became towns of much greater consequence than before the plague. On the other hand, Lincoln is described, in a petition for relief in 1399 (1 Hen. IV.) as being “in the greater part empty and uninhabited.” In the same year, Yarmouth has its houses “vacant and void,” although, in 1369, it is said to have “gained so much upon Norwich” that it was made a seat of the wool-staple. Other towns which figure in petitions to Parliament as “impoverished and desolate of people,” are Ilchester (1407) and Truro (1410). Camden instances the ancient borough of Wallingford, on the Thames, as having been permanently reduced by the Black Death, although the inhabitants, he says, traced the decay of the town to the diversion of traffic over the new bridges at Abingdon and Dorchester[372].[Pg 196] Some parts of Cambridge would appear to have borne the traces of the pestilence for a number of years after. A charter of the bishop of Ely, dated 12 September, 1365, mentions that the parishioners of All Saints (on the north-east side) are for the most part dead by pestilence, and those that are alive are gone to the parishes of other churches; that the parishioners of St Giles’s (the adjoining parish, near the Castle) have died; and that the nave of All Saints is ruinous and the bones of dead bodies are exposed to beasts; therefore the bishop unites All Saints and St Giles’s[373]. At that time the churches of those parishes would have been small, perhaps not much larger than the little church of St Peter still standing on the high ground opposite to the great modern church of St Giles.

These instances of the chequered history of English towns subsequent to the great mortality are not altogether favourable to the generality which has been put forward by an able historian[374], that the great social revolution produced by that event was to detach the people from the soil, to drive them into the towns, to increase the urban population disproportionately to the rural, to plant the germs of commerce and industry, and to determine that expansion of England which became manifest in the end of the Elizabethan period and under the Stuarts, the British nation being “doomed by its economic conditions to take the course which it has taken.” Many things happened between the Black Death and the expansion of England. The fifteenth century intervened, which was in its middle period, at least, distinguished as much by the rise of the yeoman class as by the growth of trade guilds in the town. But that which mars the generality most of all was the decline of industries and the decay of towns (London and Bristol always excepted) in the reigns of Henry VII. and Henry VIII.; the country had to recover from that before the Elizabethan expansion,—before the nation began “to increase rapidly in population until at length it should overflow the limits of its island home.”

[Pg 197]At the same time, one effect of the great mortality was to mobilise the class of agricultural labourers, and to drive a certain number of them into the towns. Proof of that migration comes from the statutes and the Rolls of Parliament.

An Act of 34 Edward III. (1360) imposes a fine of ten pounds to the king on the mayor and bailiffs of any town refusing “to deliver up a labourer, servant, or artificer” who had absented himself from his master’s service, with a farther fine of five pounds to the lord. In 1376 the “Good Parliament” makes complaint that servants and labourers quitted service on the slightest cause, and then led an idle life in towns, or wandered in parties about the country, “many becoming beggars, others staff-strikers, but the greater number taking to robbing.” More direct evidence of industries diverting hands from farm labour is found in the various statutes about apprentices. In the Act of 12 Ric. II. (1388) it is provided that “he or she which use to labour at the plough and cart or other labour or service of husbandry till they be of the age of twelve years, shall abide at that labour without being put to any mystery or handicraft; and if any covenant or bond of apprentice be from henceforth made to the contrary, the same shall be holden for none.” A more definite provision of the same kind was made in 7 Hen. IV. (1405-6): “Notwithstanding the good statutes aforemade, infants whose fathers and mothers have no land, nor rent, nor other living, but only their service or mystery, be put to serve and bound apprentices to divers crafts within cities and boroughs, sometimes at the age of twelve years, sometimes within the said age, and that for the pride of clothing and other evil customs which servants do use in the same” etc.—the result being that farm labourers were scarce; therefore no one, not having land or rent of twenty-shillings a year, to bind his son or daughter of whatsoever age to serve as apprentice within any city or borough. In the 8th of Henry VI. (1429) this statute was repealed so far as respected London, on account of the hindrance which the said statute might occasion to the inhabitants of that city[375].

It may be doubted if, after the Black Death, the towns underwent any marked industrial development, except in such cases as Coventry and Bristol. On the other hand, the cloth-weaving of East Anglia was dispersed over the country, more particularly to the western and south-western counties, so that the west of England gained an industrial character which it retained until the comparatively modern rise of the cloth-industries of Yorkshire and Lancashire. But it was in great part[Pg 198] a development of village industries upon the old manorial basis, as well as a migration of labour to the towns.

We have an authentic instance, and probably a typical instance, in the manor and barony of Castle Combe, of which the social history has been pieced together from the rolls of its manor court by one of the earliest students of that class of documents. Before the middle of the fifteenth century this village situated among the Wiltshire hills, difficult of access and almost secluded from the highways, had grown into a thriving community of weavers, fullers, dyers, glovers, and the like, with their attendant tradings and marketings, all upon its old manorial basis, and with its old agriculture going hand in hand with its new industries. There were free or copyhold tenants occupying their farms, while several clothiers and occupiers of fulling-mills held farms also, “driving a double and evidently a very thriving trade, accumulating considerable wealth and giving employment to a large number of artizans who had been attracted to the place for this purpose. Yet, strange to say, some of the wealthiest and most prosperous of these tradesmen were still subject to the odious bonds of serfship, adscript the soil[376].” It is clear, however, that the jury of the manor court took care that the lord should not have the best of it. The morals of this industrial village were, as might have been expected, somewhat lax[377]. At the same time the removal of nuisances was insisted upon by this self-governing community as effectively, perhaps, as if it had been under the Local Government Acts[378].

Another kind of effect than the industrial, upon the state of[Pg 199] the towns, is exemplified in the case of Shrewsbury. The dislocation of the old social order had somehow touched the privileges and monopolies of municipal corporations and guilds, and given power to a hitherto unenfranchised class. The general question, besides being a somewhat new one, is foreign to this subject; but the reference to Shrewsbury is given, as the “late pestilence” is expressly connected with the municipal changes. A patent of the 35th of Edward III. (1361), relating to the town of Shrewsbury, recites the grievous debates and dissensions which had arisen therein, “through the strangers who had newly come to reside in the said town after the late pestilence, and were plotting to draw to themselves the government of the said town[379].”

It has been conjectured that population in the country at large speedily righted itself, according to the principle that population always tends to come close to the limit of subsistence. But there is reason to think that the means of subsistence were themselves reduced. We read of corn-land running to waste, although most of the references to desolation are perhaps to be taken as true for only one or two harvests following the plague. Again, it is undoubted that sheep-farming and the pasturing of cattle at length took the place of much of the old agriculture. It is not easy to make out when the change begins; but there are instances of rural depopulation as early as 1414[380], and the same had become a burning grievance in the time of cardinal Morton and the early years of sir Thomas More. It has been assumed, also, that the “positive checks” to population[Pg 200] had been taken off, when they ought in theory so to have been: that is to say, after the inhabitants had been enormously thinned. The statement of Hecker, that there was increased fecundity after the pestilence, appears to be an instance of that author’s a priori habit of mind[381]. What we read in an English chronicle of the time is just the opposite, namely, that “the women who survived remained for the most part barren during several years[382].” The authority is not conclusive, but the statement is in keeping with what we may gather from Langland’s poem as to ill-assorted and sterile marriages, and as to illicit unions, which, as Malthus teaches, are comparatively unfruitful. The alleged sterility is also in keeping with, although not strictly parallel to, the experience of crowded Indian provinces, such as Orissa, where a thinning of the population by famine and disease has been statistically proved to be followed by a marked decrease of fecundity. More direct evidence of a permanent loss of people occurs a generation after the Black Death, at a time when the circumstances of health were such as would explain it.

The poll-tax of 1377 was a means of estimating the population. The tax was levied on every person, male or female, above the age of fourteen. In estimating the population from the poll-tax returns, it is usual to add one-fifth for taxable subjects who had evaded it, and to reckon the taxable subjects above fourteen years as two-thirds of the whole population. On that basis of reckoning, the population of the whole of England, except Cheshire and Durham, in the year 1377 would have been 2,580,828 (or 1,376,442 who actually paid their groat each). The population of the principal towns is calculated, in the second column of the Table, from the numbers in the first column who actually paid the poll-tax, according to the Subsidy Roll of 51 Edward III.

 [Pg 201]

Laity assessed for the Poll-tax of 1377 in each of the following Towns,
being persons of either sex above the age of fourteen years.


  Taxed Estimated
London 23,314 44,770
York 7248 13,590
Bristol 6345 11,904
Plymouth 4837 9069
Coventry 4817 9032
Norwich 3952 7410
Lincoln 3412 6399
Sarum 3226 6048
Lynn 3127 5863
Colchester 2955 5540
Beverley 2663 4993
Newcastle-on-Tyne 2647 4963
Canterbury 2574 4826
Bury St Edmunds 2442 4580
Oxford 2357 4420
Gloucester 2239 4198
Leicester 2101 3939
Shrewsbury 2082 3904
Yarmouth 1941 3640
Hereford 1903 3568
Cambridge 1722 3230
Ely 1722 3230
Exeter 1560 2925
Hull 1557 2920
Worcester 1557 2920
Ipswich 1507 2825
Nottingham 1447 2713
Northampton 1447 2713
Winchester 1440 2700
Stamford 1218 2284
Newark 1178 2209
Wells 1172 2198
Ludlow 1172 2198
Southampton 1152 2160
Derby 1046 1961
Lichfield 1024 1920
Chichester 869 1630
Boston 814 1526
Carlisle 678 1271
Bath 570 1070
Rochester 570 1070
Dartmouth 506 949


That this indirect census was taken on a declining population may be inferred from the language of contemporaries. In the year of the poll-tax (1377), Richard II. addressed certain questions to Wyclif concerning the papal exactions of tribute; the reformer’s reply gives as the second objection to the tribute “that the people decreases by reason of (praetextu) the withdrawal of this treasure, which should be spent in England[383].”

In the political poems of the time there are numerous references to the pestilences and famines. One of these doggerel productions, “On the Council of London,” 1382, contains a clear reference to a decrease of the people:

“In nos pestilentia saeva jam crescit,
Quod virorum fortium jam populus decrescit[384].”

[Pg 202]These general expressions in writings of the time will appear the more credible after we have carried the history of plague and other forms of epidemic sickness down through a whole generation from 1349.


The Epidemics following the Black Death.

Not the least of the effects of the Black Death upon England was the domestication of the foreign pestilence on the soil. For more than three centuries bubo-plague was never long absent from one part of Britain or another. The whole country was never again swamped by a vast wave of plague as in the fourteen months of 1348-49. Nor does it appear that the succeeding plagues of the fourteenth century, the pestis secunda, tertia, quarta and quinta were all of the same type as the first, or otherwise comparable to it. Disastrous as many subsequent English epidemics of bubo-plague were, they appear to have been localised in the North, perhaps, or in Norfolk, or confined to the young; and, above all, the bubo-plague became, in its later period, peculiarly a disease of the poor in the towns, although it did not cease altogether in the villages and country houses until it ceased absolutely in 1666. For three hundred years plague was the grand “zymotic” disease of England—the same type of plague that came from the East in 1347-49, continuously reproduced in a succession of epidemics at one place or another, which, by diligent search, can be made to fill the annals with few gaps, and, if the records were better, could probably be made to fill most years. Britain was not peculiar among the countries of Europe in that respect, although the chronology of plagues abroad has not been worked out minutely, except for an occasional province in which some zealous archaeologist had happened to take up the subject[385].

From 1349 to 1361 there is no record of pestilence in England. There was scarcity or famine in 1353, owing to an unfavourable harvest, but nothing is said of an unusual amount[Pg 203] of sickness. In 1361 came the pestis secunda, which would hardly have been so called had it not presented the same type as the great bubo-plague. There is little said of it in the chroniclers; but two of them mention that it was called the pestis puerorum, or plague of the juveniles; and a third gives the names of several great personages who died of it, including three bishops and Henry, duke of Lancaster, at his castle of Leicester, in Lent, 1362. This recrudescence, then, of the seeds of plague in English soil, may be taken as having cut off the nobles and the young: that is to say, the members of a class who had, by all accounts, escaped the first plague, and the rising generation who had either escaped the first plague as infants or had been born subsequent to it. The same selection of victims was observed, according to Guy de Chauliac, in the very same year at Avignon; in contrast to the Black Death, the second plague there cut off the upper and well-to-do classes, and an innumerable number of children[386]; among the former, it is said, were five cardinals and a hundred bishops. From Poland, also, it is reported that the return of the plague, which happened in 1360, affected mostly, although not exclusively, the upper classes and children. It is clear from the Continental evidence that the second pestilence was marked by the same buboes, carbuncles, and other signs as the first. In some places, at least, it must have been as destructive as the Black Death itself; thus, in Florence, says Petrarch (with obvious exaggeration) hardly ten in the thousand remained alive in the city after the epidemic of 1359, while Boccaccio estimates the mortality of the year at the equally incredible figure of a hundred thousand. In London many more wills than usual were enrolled in 1361, but not more than a third of the number enrolled in 1349: viz. 4 in February, 2 in March, 8 in April, 8 in May, 12 in June, 39 in July, 28 in October, 15 in November, 11 in December.

The pestis secunda is only one of a series of pestilences in the reigns of Edward III. and Richard II., which the chroniclers number in succession to the pestis quinta in 1391. The entries in the annals are for the most part so meagre and colourless that[Pg 204] they give us no help in realizing the share that a continuous infection in the soil, from the Black Death onwards, may have had in bringing about the disastrous state of the country in the latter half of the fourteenth century. Edward III. was ruined in reputation by his French wars, and ended his long reign in dishonour. His grandson Richard II. found the task of government too much for him, and was deposed. The history of this period is not complete without some account of the health of the country; a single line or sentence in a chronicle, to mark the date of a pestis tertia or quarta or quinta, hardly does justice to the place of national sickness among the events with which historians fill their pages. The graphic picture of the times is ‘The Vision of Piers the Ploughman,’ some passages of which may help us to realize what the bare enumeration of second, third, fourth and fifth pestilences meant. Some Latin poems of the time may be cited in support; and for more particular evidence of the type of pestilence which remained in England after the Black Death, we shall have to refer to certain extant manuscript treatises, from the latter part of the fourteenth century, which had been written in English to meet the wants of the people.

The Latin poems of the time of Edward III. and Richard II. need only be referred to so as to bring out by contrast the immense superiority of the ‘Vision of Piers the Ploughman.’ The poems of John of Bridlington, which are the most considerable of the Latin series of verses, contain numerous references to the epidemics of the time, both at home and abroad. Curiously, he dwells more upon the effects of famine—flux and fever—than upon the plague proper, which he nowhere distinguishes. Thus, of France about the time of the Black Death:

“Destructis granis, deerit mox copia panis;
Poena fames panis, venter fluxu fit inanis.”

Or again, with specific reference to the pestis secunda of 1361, which we know to have been bubo-plague:

“... fluxus nocet, undique febris
Extirpat fluxus pollutos crimine luxus.”

Another reference, in the form of a prophecy, which from the[Pg 205] context is clearly to the pestilence of 1368-69, again dwells exclusively upon famine:

“In mensis justi pandetur copia crusti:
Fundis falsorum premet arcta fames famulorum.”

followed by a note in Latin: “from which it appears that the poor in those days were ill off for want of food[387].” One Latin poem of the end of the fourteenth century is expressly “On the Pestilence,” in the following manner:

“Ecce dolet Anglia luctibus imbuta,
Gens tremit tristitia sordibus polluta,
Necat pestilentia viros atque bruta.
Cur? Quia flagitia regnant resoluta[388].”

Turning to the far more real or observant work of the same date by Langland, we find among his general references to sickness a most significant one in which he compares it to the continual dropping of rain through a leaky roof: “The rain that raineth where we rest should, be sicknesses and sorrows that we suffer oft.” Again, in the allegory of Conscience and Nature, the former makes appeal to Nature to come forth as the scourge of evil-living:

“Nature Conscience heard, and came out of the planets, and sent forth his fore-goers, fevers and fluxes, coughs and cardiacles, cramps and toothaches, rheums and radegoundes and roynous scalls, boils and botches and burning agues, frenzies and foul evils—foragers of Nature had ypricked and preyed polls of people that largely a legion lose their life soon. Eld the hoary, he was in the vanguard, and bare the banner before Death, by right he it claimed. Nature came after, with many keen sores, as pokkes and pestilences, and much people shent. So Nature through corruptions killed many. Death came driving after, and all to dust dashed kings and knights, kaisers and popes, learned and lewd, he let no man stand that he hit even, that ever stirred after. Many a lovely lady, and lemans of knights, swooned and swelted for sorrow of Death’s dints.”

But “Conscience of his courtesy to Nature he besought, to cease and suffer and see whether they would leave pride privily and be perfect Christens. And Nature ceased then, to see the people amend. Fortune gan[Pg 206] flatter those few that were alive, and promised them long life; and Lechery he sent among all manner men, wedded and unwedded, and gathered a great host all against Conscience[389].”

Next came Avarice, Envy and other of the deadly sins, so that the respite which Nature had given was of no real avail.

A clear reference to pestilence continuing in the country comes in where the pope’s exactions are mentioned. The pope did nothing in return for his English tribute:

“Had I a clerk that could write, I would cast him a bill
That he send me under his seal a salve for the pestilence,
And that his blessing and his bulls botches might destroy.
For, sith he hath the power that Peter himself had,
He hath the pot with the salve, soothly as me thinketh.”

Among the other consequences “sithen the pestilence,” was this: “So is pride waxen, in religion and in all the realm among rich and poor, that prayers have no power the pestilence to let; ... ne for dread of the death withdraw not their pride.”

The pestis secunda of 1361, or pestis puerorum, may perhaps be pointed to in the passage where chapmen are blamed for indulging their children, “ne for no pouste of pestilence correct them overmuch.” The ill-assorted marriages had doubtless followed the great mortality itself; but the second pestilence, of 1361, which affected the upper classes especially, and is said by one chronicler to have cut off more men than women[390], may have been more specially pointed to in Langland’s reference. Of that pestilence a chronicle of the next century has preserved a curious reminiscence: among its victims were men, doubtless of the upper class, “whose wives, as women out of gouvernance, took as well strangers to their husbands and other lewd and simple people, the which, forgetting their awe, worship and birth, coupled and married them with them that were of low degree and low reputation[391].”

Although Langland, when he speaks of changes “sith the[Pg 207] pestilence time,” means the great mortality of 1349, he means in other places, the second, third, and perhaps also fourth pestilences[392]. The years of the pestilences down to the fifth are not the same in all the chronicles; there are indeed some nine outbreaks that might have been enumerated after the Black Death to the end of the century. Some of these are clearly associated with scarcity, and may have been of the old type of famine-sickness; dysentery is, indeed, mentioned in connexion with the sickness of 1391[393]. Again, an epidemic in London in 1382 is said by a chronicler to have affected children (boys and girls), while the same chronicler is explicit that the sickness in Norfolk the year after was confined to the young of both sexes under a certain age. Lastly, the epidemic of 1391 was so severe in the North as to recall the great mortality itself; but under the same year is the reference to sickness of the type of dysentery due to rotten fruit; and under the year before, 1390, two chroniclers agree that the epidemic was “mostly among children,” or that it cut off “more young than old.” It would be unsafe, therefore, to conclude that all the outbreaks of pestis in England subsequent to the Black Death, were of bubo-plague itself. The list of sicknesses in Langland’s poem gives, indeed, as much space to fevers and fluxes, burning agues and frenzies, as to boils and botches, foul evils, pokkes and pestilences—by which latter group of synonyms the bubo-plague is meant. Pestis, it is well known, was a generic name in the medieval period, just as pest and pestilence are generic now. So generic was it that some may doubt whether bubo-plague, of the type of 1349, was included at all among the pestes of the generations following. Positive evidence of the continued existence of bubo-plague in England is, at least, not superfluous, and this will be the best place to bring it in.

 [Pg 208]

Medical Evidence of the Continuance of Plague.

The plague was called “the botch” down to the Elizabethan and Stuart periods; and the “botches” in Langland’s poem, or, as he writes it, “boches,” were the familiar risings, under the arms and elsewhere, which had given the disease its popular name when it began to recur time after time. Apart from this verbal or philological evidence, there is a clear proof of the prevalence of true bubo-plague during the latter part of the fourteenth century, in the manuscript ordinances or rules of prevention and treatment which were in circulation. Most of the extant copies bear the name of one John of Burgoyne, or John of Bordeaux[394]. A fragment in comparatively late handwriting purports to be the ordinance of “a great Clark, Mr John Cordewe, at the prayer of King Richard and other the Lords, for pestilence[395]”; from which it may be concluded that this, the commonly used ordinance, dates from the time of Richard II. The names used in the text are “pestilence” and “pestilential sores,” and the handling of the subject is the conventional one for the plague. The ordinance contains exceedingly little that is of practical interest, and it is difficult to believe that it can have been of real use to anyone. We are introduced to the subject with a few empty common-places; but whenever we come to business, we are plainly told to go and consult those who know—and this, be it observed, in a disease which was remarkably uniform in its type and circumstances:

“Wherefore they that have not dronken of that swete drynke of Astronomye may putte to these pestilentiall sores no fit remedies; for, because that they know not the cause and the quality of the sickness, they may not hele it, as sayeth the prince of physic Avicenna: ‘How shouldest thou hele a sore and yknowe not the cause?’ He that knoweth not the cause, it is impossible that he hele the sickness.”

If there were any doubt about the date of John of Burgoyne,[Pg 209] or John of Bordeaux[396], it ought to be set at rest by the discovery that he corresponds in the closest way with the physician in the Prologue of the Canterbury Tales. Chaucer’s doctor of physic stands for the well-grounded practitioner of the time—“grounded in astronomie,” it is true, but at all events academically grounded, in contrast to the charlatans and pretenders who had not been to Paris or Bologna, probably knew no Latin, to say nothing of “astronomy,” and therefore knew not how to let a patient die (or recover) secundum artem. The doctor of physic uses his astrological knowledge so much in the manner of John of Bordeaux, that one suspects Chaucer to have seen the passage quoted above, and to have condensed it into the two following lines:

“The cause yknowne, and of his harm the rote,
Anon he gave to the sick man his bote.”

It was in the pestilence that this practitioner had made the money which he kept so tightly. Richly clad he was;

“And yet he was but easy of dispense;
He kept that he wan in the pestilence.
For gold in physic is a cordial:
Therefore he loved gold in special.”

This is John of Burgoyne all over; it would have been an anachronism in England by more than two hundred years to have represented a physician as caring for any but paying patients, or as regarding an epidemic sickness from any other point of view than as a source of income.

Besides the “ordinance” of John of Burgoyne, which may be assigned to the reign of Richard II., there was another essay on the plague circulating in England in an English translation, of which the copy among the Sloane manuscripts is assigned to the fourteenth century[397]. The importance attached to this manuscript work is shown in the fact that it was chosen among the very first to be printed at an English press, probably in the year[Pg 210] 1480[398]. It was reprinted in 1536, and the substance of it was copied into nearly all the English books on plague (from one to another) as late as the seventeenth century, much of its original matter passing under the name of one Phaer, or Phayre or Thayre, who was a compiler about the middle of the sixteenth century. Writers on early English printing have made much of the printed book of 1480; but they do not appear to have known of the manuscript which was used as the printer’s “copy[399].” If one happens to use the latter first, and comes later to the printed book, he will observe the identity not merely in the words and spelling but even in the very form in which the type had been cut. The authorship of a manuscript which is thus invested with a various interest may deserve a few lines of inquiry.

The author of it describes himself in the (translated) introduction as “I the bisshop of Arusiens, Doctour of phisike,” that is to say, bishop of Aarhus, in Denmark. In the text, he claims to have practised physic at Montpellier:

“In the Mount of Pessulane I might not eschewe the company of people, for I went from house to house, because of my poverty, to cure sick folk. Therefore bread or a sponge sopped in vinegar I took with me, holding it to my mouth and nose, because all aigre things stoppen the ways of humours and suffereth no venomous thing to enter into a man’s body; and so I escaped the pestilence, my fellows supposing that I should not live. These foresaid things I have proved by myself[400].”

[Pg 211]The fact that this medieval treatise, whatever its exact date, was turned into English and circulated in manuscript, and that it was chosen for printing almost as soon as English printing began, in the reign of Edward IV., is sufficient evidence, if more were needed, that the English had to reckon with bubo-plague as one of their standing diseases throughout the latter part of the medieval period. Before we come to the chronology of English plagues in that period, from the Black Death to the accession of the Tudor dynasty in 1485, it will be convenient to consider here, with the help of the above treatise, how the endemic plague was viewed in those days,—what it was ascribed to in its origin, in its incidence upon houses and persons, and in its propagation, what was advised for its avoidance or prevention, and what was prescribed for its treatment. As the bishop’s essay was the source of most that was taught on these matters in England for the next two or three hundred years, it will be an economy to give a brief account of it here once for all.

The remote causes, or warnings of the approach of pestilence, are given under seven heads, including the kind of weather, swarms of flies, shooting stars, comets, thunder and lightning out of the south, and winds out of the south; this list was reproduced, with little or no change, by the Elizabethan writers of popular health-manuals. The second section of the essay is on the “causes of pestilence.” There are three causes:—

“Sometime it cometh from the root beneath; other while from the root above, so that we may feel sensibly howwith change of the air appeareth[Pg 212] unto us; and sometime it cometh of both together, as well from the root above as from the root beneath, as we see a siege or privy next to a chamber, or of any other particular thing which corrupteth the air in his substance and quality, which is a thing may happen every day. And thereof cometh the ague of pestilence (and about the same many physicians be deceived, not supposing this ague to be a pestilence). Sometimes it cometh of dead carrion, or corruption of standing waters in ditches or sloughs and other corrupt places. These things sometime be universal, sometime particular.” Then follow sentences on the “root above” which are somewhat transcendental. When both “roots” work together, when, by “th’ ynp‘ffyons[401]” above, the air is corrupt and by the putrefaction or rotten carrion of the vile places beneath,—an infirmity is caused in man. “And such infirmity sometimes is an ague, sometimes a posthume or a swelling, and that is in many things. Also the air inspired sometimes is venomous and corrupt, hurting the heart, that nature many ways is grieved, so that he perceiveth not his harm....

“These things written before are the causes of pestilence. But about these things, two questions be mooted. The first is, wherefore one dieth and another dieth not, in a town where men be dead in one house and in another house there dieth none. The second question is, whether pestilence sores be contagious.

“To the first question, I say it may hap to be of two causes: that is to say, of that thing that doth, and of that thing that suffereth. An ensample of that thing that doth: The influence of the bodies above beholdeth that place or that place, more than this place or this place. And one patient is more disposed to die than another. Therefore it is to be noted that bodies be more hot disposed, of open pores, than bodies infect having the pores stopped with many humours. Where bodies be of resolution or opening, as men which abusen them selfe with wymmen, or usen often times bathis; or men that be hot with labour or great anger—they have their bodies more disposed to this great sickness.

“To the second question I say, that pestilence sores be contagious by cause of infect humoures bodies, and the reek or smoke of such sores is venomous and corrupteth the air. And therefore it is to flee from such persons as be infect. In pestilence time nobody should stand in great press of people, because some man of them may be infect. Therefore wise physicians, in visiting sick folk, stand far from the patient, holding their face toward the door or window. And so should the servants of sick folk stand. Also it is good to a patient every day for to change his chamber, and often times to have the windows open against the North and East, and to spar the windows against the South. For the south wind hath two causes of putrefaction. The first is, it maketh a man, being whole or sick, feeble in[Pg 213] their bodies. The second cause is, as it is written in the Third of Aphorisms, the south wind grieveth the hearing and hurteth the heart, because it openeth the pores of man and entereth into the heart. Wherefore it is good to an whole man in time of pestilence, when the wind is in the South, to keep within the house all the day. And if it shall need a man to go out, yet let him abide in his house till the sun be up in the East passing southward.”

These explanations of the incidence of plague are in part repeated in the section of the essay where the author gives directions for avoiding it. After enjoining penance, he proceeds:

“It is a good remedy to void and change the infect place. But some may not profitably change their places. Therefore as much as to them is possible, it is to be eschewed every cause of putrefaction and stinking, and namely every fleshly lust with women is to be eschewed. Also the southern wind, which wind is naturally infective: therefore spar the windows, etc. Of the same cause, every foul stink is to be eschewed—of stable, stinking fields, ways, or streets, and namely of stinking dead carrion; and most of stinking waters, where in many places water is kept two days or two nights, or else there be gutters of water casten under the earth which caused great stink and corruption. And of this cause some die in that house where such things happen, and in another house die none, as it is said afore. Likewise in that place where the worts and coles putrefied, it maketh noifull savour and stinking. For in like wise as by the sweet odour of bawme the heart and spirits have recreation, so of evil savours they be made feeble. Therefore keep your house that an infect air enter not in. For an infect air most causeth putrefaction in places and houses where folk sleep. Therefore let your house be clean, and make clear fire of wood flaming: let your house be made with fumigation of herbs, that is to say, with leaves of bay-tree, juniper, yberiorgam—it is in the apothecary shops—wormwood etc.... For a little crust corrupteth all the body.

“Also in the time of the pestilence it is better to abide within the house; for it is not wholesome to go into the city or town. Also let your house be sprinkled, specially in summer, with vinegar and roses, and with the leaves of vine tree. Also it is good to wash your hands ofttimes in the day with water and vinegar, and wipe your face with your hands, and smell to them. Also it is good always to savour aigre things.”

Then follows his own Montpellier experience, already quoted.

The diagnostics come in casually along with the treatment:

“But some would understand how may a man feel when he is infect. I say that a man which is infect, that day eateth not much meat for he is replenished with evil humours; and forthwith after dinner he hath lust to[Pg 214] sleep, and feeleth great heat under cold. Also he hath great pain in the forehead.... He shall feel a swelling under the arm, or about the share, or about the ears.... When a man feeleth himself infect, as soon as he may, let him be let blood plenteously till he swoon: then stop the vein. For a little letting of blood moveth or stirreth venom.”

Then follow directions for bleeding, according to the position of the bubo—in the armpit, groin or neck, the direction “if on the back” probably having reference to the carbuncle[402]. The section on treatment, which is the last, ends with a prescription for a medicine “that the sooner a swelling be made ripe.”

These are sufficiently clear indications of the bubonic nature of the disease called pestilence. At the same time the writer includes an ague as also pestilential, due to similar causes and arising on similar occasions. This is a use of the name ague which should not be mistaken for its common application to intermittent fever. Ague was simply (febris) acuta; and pestilential ague was a name for typhus fever in the sixteenth century (as in Jones’ Dyall of Agues), as well as in Ireland until a much later period. This early association of acute pestilential fever with true bubo-plague means the same relationship of typhus to plague which was systematically taught by Sydenham, Willis, and Morton in the seventeenth century; typhus in their time was the frequent attendant of plague,—a pestis mitior; and it would appear to have been its attendant and congener in the fourteenth century also.

 [Pg 215]

The Fourteenth Century Chronology continued.

Two epidemics contend in the chronicles for being the pestis tertia—that of 1368-69, and that of 1375. The former is described as a “great pestilence of men and the larger animals[403],” and it appears to have been associated with unfavourable seasons and with the beginning of that scarcity which Langland’s poem refers to the month of April, 1370:

Atte Londoun, I leve, liketh wel my wafres
And louren whan thei lakken hem.—It is nought longe passed,
There was a careful comune whan no cart cam to towne
With bred fro Strethforth, tho gan beggeres wepe
And werkmen were agast a lite. This wole be thought longe
In the date of our Drighte in a drye Aprille,
A thousand and thre hondreth tweis thretty and ten
My wafres there were gesen whan Chichestre was Maire[404].

The pestis of 1368 and 1369 may have been primarily a famine-sickness; but it does not follow that there was no bubo-plague mixed therewith. On the contrary, seasons of scarcity were often in after experience found to be the seasons of plague, the lowered vitality probably offering the opportunity to the plague-virus. Previous to the harvests of 1376 and 1377, which were abundant, there had been an unbroken period of high prices for many years, of which 1371 was remembered as “the grete dere yere[405].” But the pestis tertia appears to have been most severe in the summer of 1368; for, on 23 July of that year, Simon, archbishop of Canterbury, ordered public prayers for the[Pg 216] cessation of the pestilence[406], and it is under the same year that the wills of deceased London citizens are enrolled in unusual numbers, although not in such numbers as in the pestis secunda of 1361[407]. Public prayers for the cessation of pestilence (without reference to famine) and an unusual mortality of the richer citizens, point to the plague proper, which may or may not have been the type of sickness in the country districts in 1369, the second year of the epidemic[408].

There is, furthermore, some indirect evidence that pestilential disease, and probably bubo-plague, occurred in London subsequent to the scarcity of the dry April, 1370, to which Langland’s verses relate. This evidence lies in the comparison of the wording of two ordinances of Edward III., one of 1369 and the other of 1371, both relating to nuisances in the city[409]. In an order of the king in Council (43 Edward III.) for stopping the carrying of slaughter-house offal from the shambles in St Nicholas parish, within Newgate, through the streets, lanes, and other places to the banks of the water of Thames near to Baynard’s Castle, where there was a jetty for throwing the refuse from into the river, the motive assigned is that divers prelates, nobles, and other persons having houses in the line of traffic, had complained grievously of these offences to the sight and smell. But, in an amended order of 28th October, 1371, against the same nuisance and with a definite (but futile) relegation of all slaughtering to Stratford on the one side and Knightsbridge on the other, the motive is differently stated: “Whereas of late, from the putrefied blood of slaughtered beasts running in the streets, and the entrails thereof thrown into the water of Thames, the air in the same city has been greatly corrupted and infected, and whereby the worst of[Pg 217] abominations and stenches have been generated, and sicknesses and many other maladies have befallen persons dwelling in the same city and resorting thereto:—We, desiring to take precautions against such perils, and to provide for the decency of the said city, and the safety of the same our people” etc.

Up to this date, the Rolls of Parliament contain frequent references to the wasting and impoverishment of the country by pestilence. A petition of 1362 begs the king “to consider the divers mischiefs that have come to his commons by divers pestilences of wind and water, and mortality of men and beasts”—the destructive wind being the tornado-like storm, on the 16th January, 1362, “on Saturday at even,” which was long remembered, and is commemorated, along with the Black Death itself, in an inscription in the church of Ashwell, Herts. Next year, another petition states that “pestilences and great winds have done divers mischiefs”—manors and tenements held direct from the king having become desolate and ruinous. In 1369 a petition states that “the king’s ferms [rents] in every county of England are greatly abated by the great mortalities.” The parliament of 1376, the “good Parliament” so-called, is able to point the moral of its petitions by frequent references to the pestilences “that have been in the kingdom one after another,” the pestilences “of people and servants,” the murrains of cattle, and “the failure of their corn and other fruits of the earth.” The same language recurs in the second parliament of Richard II. in 1378 (the year after the poll-tax), and from that time until the end of his reign, it becomes stereotyped in the petitions deprecating heavy subsidies or excusing the smallness of the sums voted.

The pestilence of 1375 would appear to have been considered as one of the greater sort. The author of the Eulogium reckons it the pestis tertia (passing over that of 1368-69). The season was one of great heat, there was “grandis pestilentia” both in England and other countries, an infinity of both sexes died, the mortality being so swift that the pope, “at the instance of the cardinal of England” granted plenary remission to all dying contrite and confessing their sins[410]. That looks like an epidemic[Pg 218] of true bubo-plague,—probably the pestis quarta correctly so-called[411].

In 1379 there was a great plague in the Northern parts, which were stripped of their best men; the Scots made a raid, with the following prayer on their lips: “God and Sen Mungo, Sen Ninian and Seynt Andrew scheld us this day and ilka day fro Goddis grace, and the foule deth that Ynglessh men dyene upon”—foul death being the name given to plague also in 1349[412]. The northern counties send a petition to the parliament of 1379-80, that the king would “consider the very great hurt and damage which they have suffered, and are still suffering, both by pestilence and by the continual devastations of the Scots enemy[413].”

In the parliament of 1381-82 there is a petition from the convent of Salisbury as to want of money to repair the losses caused by the pestilence, of which the tenants are nearly all dead, and by the murrain of cattle. This is more than thirty years from the Black Death, and can hardly refer, as some earlier petitions may have done, to the enduring effects of that calamity. The sixth parliament of Richard II. (1382), has two of the stereotyped petitions deprecating a heavy subsidy on the ground of “the great poverty and disease” of the commons, through pestilence of people, murrain of cattle, failure of crops, great floods, etc.[414] This was the year after the Peasant Revolt, which had coincided with troubles of various kinds. A Norwich chronicle, perhaps of contemporary authority, enters, under the year 1382, a very pestilential fever in many places of the country, and very extraordinary inundations of the fens[415]. In[Pg 219] London the epidemic of 1382 is said to have been “chiefly among boys and girls[416].” A primitive English poem of the time has for its subject the earthquake of 1382, and with that portent it associates not only the Peasant’s Rebellion but also “the pestilens[417].”

The year 1383 was a bad one for the fruit, which was spoiled by “foetid fogs, exhalations and various corruptions of the air”: from eating of the spoiled fruits many died, or incurred serious illness and infirmities[418]. By another account, a great pestilence in Kent and other parts of England destroyed many, sparing no age or sex. In Norfolk the sickness that year is said to have been confined to young persons[419]. This was only one of the occasions which might have been referred to in ‘Piers Ploughman,’ when the poor people thought to “poison Hunger” by bad food.

The next pestilence, that of 1390 and 1391, was so prolonged and so serious as to be compared with the Great Mortality itself. It is called the pestis quinta by two annalists[420], and is described not without some detail by several. It is clear that the seeds of disease were ready to burst forth at various parts of the country; for we read that in 1389, the king was in the south of England, and seeing some of his men prostrated by sudden death, he returned to Windsor[421]. Another outburst came the year after. Intense heat began in June and lasted until September; great mortality ensued, the epidemic continuing in diverse parts of England, but not everywhere, until Michaelmas; it cut off more young than old, as well as several famous soldiers[422]. The St Albans entry confirms this: “A great plague, especially of youths and children, who died everywhere in towns and villages, in incredible and excessive numbers[423].” After the epidemic[Pg 220] there was scarcity, of which we have special accounts from Norfolk[424]. But the heaviest mortality fell in the year 1391. There was first of all scarcity, now in its second year, and aggravated by six weeks of continual gloom in July and August. At the time of the nuts, apples and other fruits of the kind, many poor people died of dysentery, and the sickness would have been worse but for the laudable care of the mayor of London who caused corn to be brought from over sea. In Norfolk and many other counties the sickness was compared even to the Great Mortality, and was probably a mixture of famine-pestilence with bubo-plague. At York “eleven thousand” were said to have been buried[425]. Another account says that the North suffered severely, and also the West, and that the sickness lasted all summer[426]. Under the year 1393 one annalist states that many died in Essex in September and October, “on the pestilence setting in[427].” The next evidence comes from the Rolls of Parliament; in the first parliament of Henry IV. (1399) a petition is presented “that the king would graciously consider the great pestilence which is in the northern parts,” and send sufficient men to defend the Scots marches.

The first great outburst of plague in the fifteenth century falls somewhere between 1405 and 1407. “So great pestilence,” says the St Albans annalist, under the year 1407, “had not been seen for many years.” In London “thirty thousand men and women” are reported to have died in a short space; and “in[Pg 221] country villages the sickness fell so heavily upon the wretched peasants that many homes that had before been gladdened by a numerous family were left almost empty[428].” But it is under the 7th of Henry IV. (1405) that Hall’s chronicle narrates how the king, to avoid the city on account of the plague, sailed from Queenborough to a port in Essex, and so to Plashey, “there to pass his time till the plague were ceased” (p. 36). Another chronicle says that the plague of 1407 was mostly in the West country. In that year, the 9th of Henry IV., there is a petition from Ilchester in Somerset for a remission of dues “because the town is so impoverished and desolate of people that the burgesses are unable to pay the said ferme,” and for the cancelling of all arrears due since the 43rd year of Edward III. (1369). In the 11th of Henry IV. (1410-11), the burgesses of Truro represent “that the said town is impoverished by pestilence and the death of men, and by invasions and loss by the enemy by sea, and by the surcharge of twelve lives, and by default of inhabitants in the said town”—a petition apparently similar in terms to one that had been submitted in the previous reign. In the 1st of Henry IV. (1399), petitions of the same kind had been presented from Lincoln and Yarmouth; the former was “in great part empty and uninhabited,” while the latter had “its houses vacant and void, owing to pestilence and other things.”

For the year 1413 there is a brief entry that “numbers of Englishmen were struck by plague and ceased to live[429].” A single chronicler mentions a pestilence in Norfolk in 1420[430]; but the Rolls of Parliament bear undoubted witness to a very severe prevalence of plague in the North about the same time: a petition from the Marches in 1421 speaks of “great numbers of persons dead by the great mortalities and pestilences which have raged for three years past and still reign; where a hundred men used to be there are not ten, and these of small account; where[Pg 222] people of position kept twenty men at arms they now keep only themselves”; the enemy were making raids and food was scarce[431]. Another petition the same year (9 Henry V.) states that “both by pestilence within the realm and wars without there are not sufficient men of estate to hold the office of sheriff[432].” That was shortly after Agincourt and the conquest of France, when the fortunes of Henry V. were at their highest point. The horrors of the siege of Rouen (1419) were a favourite subject with poets of the time[433], but they were of a kind foreign to English experience in that age, and, indeed, in all periods of our history, save that of the Danish invasions. The Cromwellian Civil Wars, as we shall see, do indeed furnish many instances of plague, and some of typhus fever, in besieged or occupied towns; but, for the middle part of the fifteenth century, including the period of the wars of York and Lancaster, there is no good reason to suppose that fevers or other morbi miseriae, were rife among the common people, least of all among the peasantry.


The Public Health in the Fifteenth Century.

Our safest indications are got from the prices of commodities and the rates of wages, and these, according to the most competent authority, Thorold Rogers, were more favourable to the working class in the fifteenth century than at other periods: “As the agriculturist throve in the fifteenth century, so the mechanic and the artisan was also prosperous. This was the age in which the property of the guilds was generally acquired.” On famines in particular, I shall quote one other passage, which entirely confirms the view that I had independently stated in the first chapter when speaking of Ergotism:

“Famine, in the strict sense of the word, has rarely occurred in England, owing to the practice which the inhabitants of this island have persistently[Pg 223] maintained of living mainly on the dearest kind of corn.... The people lived abundantly, and, except when extraordinary scarcity occurred, regularly on the best provision which could be procured[434].”

One such period of extraordinary scarcity all over England fell in the years 1438-39. The chronicle of Croyland says that there were three wet harvests in succession, that famine had been almost constant for two years, and that the people were reduced to eating dried herbs and roots[435]. That would have been a famine of the old kind, like those of 1258 and 1315, wheat having touched 20s. But it should not lead us to suppose that the disastrous period of the end of Edward III.’s reign and of the reign of Richard II. was continued throughout the fifteenth century. It is true that the records of that century are scantier than for earlier periods; the monastic chronicles have all ceased, except those of St Albans and Croyland, and the citizens’ diaries, which took their place, have hardly begun. It is possible that a fuller record would have shown a greater prevalence of distress throughout the country. It is probably owing to the scantiness of the history that the views of the fifteenth century range from the extreme of optimism to the extreme of pessimism. Where little is known, much may be imagined. Thus, a recent writer on England in the Fifteenth Century[436], says that “all attempts to specify the years of scarcity would only mislead”; and again: “There is hardly any period of five years during that time [15th century] without these ghastly records.” Another recent writer[437] remarks upon the fifteenth century being called a time of rude plenty, and sets against that “the famines, the plagues, the skin-diseases, the miserable quality of the food, the insecurity of life and property, the hovels in which the people lived, and the tyranny and oppression of a time of unsettled government.” It is needless to controvert the merely subjective impression in an author’s mind. But, in order to clear our ideas, let us take these things one by one. What were firstly the famines? There is no[Pg 224] great one but that of 1438-39, which was due to a succession of wet harvests, and was equally severe in Scotland and in France, having in them caused famine-sickness as well as plague. Of the plagues, which were certainly no worse than in the Elizabethan and Stuart times, I shall speak in detail almost at once. Of the skin-diseases, there is nowhere a word said: another writer[438] specifies leprosy as afflicting England “all over the country” in the fifteenth century, whereas it can be shown that the prevalence of that disease, such as it had ever been in England, had almost ceased, and its sentimental vogue passed, in the reign of Edward III. The miserable quality of the food and the wretched hovels have certainly no special relevancy to the period[439]; on the contrary, the picture that we get of the manor of Castle Combe in the fifteenth century is that of a prosperous community, although not a highly moral one. As to insecurity of life and property, and oppression of government, there seems to be some illusion because the time was that of the wars of York and Lancaster. But we have the significant observation of Philip de Comines, a contemporary French statesman who kept his eye on the state of other countries; writing of the effects of civil war, he says:—

“England has this peculiar grace that neither the country, nor the people, nor the houses are wasted or demolished; but the calamities and misfortunes of the war fall only upon the soldiers and especially the nobility, of whom they are more than ordinarily jealous: for nothing is perfect in this world.”

The truth seems to be that the middle part of the fifteenth century was really the time “ere England’s woes began, when[Pg 225] every rood of ground maintained its man,” and that the Golden Age came to an end as soon as the dynastic and aristocratic quarrel was ended, and the nobles left free to turn their attention to their lapsing feudal rights. It is then that we begin to hear of enclosures, of adding house to house and field to field, of huge sheep-farms with no labourers on the soil, and of deserted villages. Goldsmith meant it of his own time; but Auburn flourishing belonged to the fifteenth century, and Auburn deserted was a common English experience in the time of Henry VIII. It is just because the fifteenth century is bounded on either side by periods of known distress among the commons, and is itself without a history, that one thinks of it as happy; and that view of it is borne out by the economic history which has been laboriously constructed for it.

So much being premised of the country’s well-being at large, we may now return to the particular records of epidemics of plague.


Chronology of Plagues in the Fifteenth Century.

With the exception of an undoubted reference to influenza epidemic all over England in 1427 (a year of its prevalence in France also), which I shall postpone to a future chapter, the history down to the arrival of the sweating sickness in 1485, is concerned almost exclusively with notices of plague, and of plague mostly in the towns. It cannot be maintained that rural districts were exempt, or that some great epidemics of plague did not fall on town and country alike. Thus, the St Albans annalist, under the year 1431, has an entry of “pestilence at Codycote and divers places of this domain in this year.” Again, in 1439, the Rolls of Parliament contain a petition to the king “how that a sickness called the Pestilence universally through this your realm more commonly reigneth than hath been usual before this time, the which is an infirmity most infective, and the presence of such so infect must be eschewed, as by noble Fisisseanes and wise Philosofors before this time plainly it hath been determined, and as experience daily showeth”—therefore to omit the ceremony of kissing the king in doing knightly[Pg 226] service, “and the homage to be as though they kissed you.” That may have been a plague both of town and country during famine, comparable to the epidemic of 1407, which, as “Walsingham” expressly says, was severely felt in the homes of the peasantry as well as in London. But plague henceforth is seldom universal; it becomes more and more a disease of the towns, and when it does occur in the country, it is for the most part at some few limited spots. A Paston letter of the years between 1461 and 1466 gives us a glimpse of the sort of the incidence of plague in country places, and of the avoidance of such infected spots, which we shall find often mentioned in the documents of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries[440]. There is, of course, no means of estimating the frequency of plague in these almost sporadic circumstances. The disease must have had its seats of election in the country, but we may safely conclude that these, after the Black Death and the recurrences thereof down, say, to 1407, were much fewer than in the towns. One significant piece of evidence comes from the great monastery of Canterbury. Among its records is an obituary, on twenty sheets, of all the monks from 1286 to 1517. Out of a hundred cases taken without selection from the record, there died, of pestilence, 33; of phthisis, 10; of chronic diseases, 29. “Pestilence” appears to mean specifically bubo-plague; for we find besides, among the sample hundred, two deaths from flux, one of these corpses having been buried immediately propter infexionem. The inference, under correction from further inquiry, would be that one-third of the deaths in the monastery of Canterbury during the first half of the reign of plague in England were from that disease. And that was in a monastery which, in the Black Death itself, is reported, in the same record, to have lost “only four” out of a membership of about eighty[441].

[Pg 227]It remains to enumerate briefly the known instances of plague in London or other towns, from the last date given (1420) down to the beginning of the Tudor period (1485). Its prevalence “in England,” but more probably in London only, in 1426, comes out in a letter from the Senate of Venice cautioning the captain of the Flanders galleys and the vice-captain of the London galleys[442]. We hear also of that plague in London owing to the fact that certain Scotsmen of rank, hostages for the ransom of the king of Scots, died of the plague in London. An envoy who proceeded to Scotland on 12th March, 1427, was instructed to ask that the dead hostages be replaced by others of equal rank; and if the king of Scots objected on the ground that they had died because they had been kept in places where the late pestilence raged, notwithstanding their request to be removed, the envoy was to say that the hostages had been kept in London, where the dukes of Bedford and Gloucester and all other lords of the Council remained during the time; and that the hostages were “neither pinned nor barred up” in any house, but went at large in the city, and might have taken any measures they pleased for their own preservation. It appears, however, that the council removed from the city, and that the courts were adjourned, at a stage of the epidemic subsequent to the deaths of the Scots. The last plea of the envoy was that, supposing the pestilence had prevailed throughout England, the king was not therefore bound to send the hostages out of England; from which hypothetical construction, we may conclude that the epidemic was special to London—one of a long series requiring the king’s Court, the Parliament, and the Law Courts to be adjourned[443].

In 1433, the Parliament which met at Westminster on the 8th July, was prorogued on the 15th August, on account of the gravis pestilentia which began to arise in London and the suburbs[444]. A London chronicler enters, under the 12th of Henry VI. (1433) “a grete pestilence and a grete frost,” a conjunction that would be interesting if the hard winter had[Pg 228] preceded[445]. The plague revived in London in the following autumn; for, on the 27th October, 1434, the Privy Council ordered all pleas then pending to be continued from the morrow of All Souls to the octaves of St Hilary on account of the epidemic[446]. After three years, in 1437, the Chief Justice of the Common Pleas paid a visit to St Albans Abbey and remained there some time, “on account of the epidemic plague which was then reigning in the city of London[447].” Two years after, 1439, comes the entry in the Rolls of Parliament, already quoted, with reference to omitting the ceremony of kissing the king, because “a sickness called the Pestilence universally through this your realm more commonly reigneth than hath been usual before this time, the which is an infirmity most infective[448].” Thus we have in the decade from 1430 to 1440 no fewer than four distinct outbreaks of plague, three of them confined to the city of London, and one of them, that of 1439, general throughout the realm. The last was “a sickness called the pestilence,” which should mean the bubo-plague. The year was one of great distress abroad, many thousands having died in Paris. It was a year of famine in Scotland, where the disease was undoubtedly dysentery in part; but the information from Scotland (given in the sequel) points to the true plague supervening on the other. There was famine in England at the time when it was in France and in Scotland, so that the type of sickness may have been, in England also, fever and dysentery first and plague afterwards.

In 1444, on the 5th of June, the Rolls contain the entry that grave pestilence began to arise. A severe pestilence is reported at Oxford in 1448[449]. On the 30th May, 1449, Parliament is[Pg 229] adjourned to Winchester to avoid “the corrupt and infected airs” of Westminster. On the 6th November of the same year it adjourns to Ludgate, in the city of London, owing to the infection of the air in Westminster. The infected state of Westminster and other places around is again the subject of an entry on the 4th December, with this addition: “it has been sufficiently decreed as to avoiding and extinguishing the said corrupt and infectious air.” About three months later, on 30th March, 1450, Parliament adjourns to Leicester on account of the insalubrity of the air at Westminster. In 1452 it adjourns on 20th November to Reading for the same reason, but is soon after adjourned to the 11th February, owing to plague in Reading itself:—“de magna mortalitate in dicta villa de Redyng jam regnante.” These years must have been a really severe plague-period, for we find in 1454, a reference in the Paston Letters to the alarm caused by the plague in London. Wm. Paston writes to John Paston, 6 September: “Sergeant-at-law Billing came to London this week. He sent for me and asked me how I fared. I told him, here is pestilence, and said I fared the better he was in good hele, for it was noised that he was dead.... Here is great pestilence. I purpose to flee into the country[450].”

From 1454 (and the year following in Scotland) there is a clear interval of ten years without mention of plague in the not very complete records of the time. With the year 1464 there began a series of outbreaks of plague which appear to have lasted in one part of the country or another with few intermissions until 1478. This plague-period is said to have been foretold in a remarkable prophecy. In the year 1462 a boy at Cambridge, while walking in a lane between King’s College and the adjoining buildings of Clare and Trinity Halls, met an old man with a long beard, who addressed him thus: “Go now and tell to anyone that within these two years there will be such pestilence, and famine, and slaughter of men, as no one living has seen.” Having said this he disappeared. Doubts[Pg 230] however, were at once thrown on the reality of these words; for the boy, on being questioned by Master Myleton, doctor of theology, and others, said that he neither saw the old man walking on the ground nor heard him speak[451].

The authentic intelligence of plague in England in 1464 is contained in a letter to the Seignory of Venice from Bruges, dated 5th October, 1464, to the effect that some Venetian merchants have arrived from London, which they had quitted on the 26th September. They say the plague is at work there at the rate of two hundred [deaths] per diem, “and thus writes [also] Carlo Ziglio.” In April next year, 1465, we hear of it still in London, through a casual reference in a letter written by one of the Paston family[452]; and as prevailing all over England, through a formal entry in the chronicle of Croyland, the last of the monastic records which continued to be kept. There was an infection of the air, we read, in the whole of England, so that many thousands of people of every age came to their death suddenly, like sheep slaughtered[453].

The very next year, 1466, Parliament is adjourned from Westminster on account of the infection in London, to meet at Reading. Next summer, 1st July, 1467, there is another adjournment to Reading (6 November), because of the heat and because the plague was beginning to reign, by which certain members of the House of Commons had been cut off. After an interval of four years we hear of plague, in a Paston letter, and by a Southwell record. On 2 August, 1471, the residentiary canons of Southwell Minster vote themselves leave of absence for a month “quia regnat morbus pestiferus in villa Southwell, et furit excessivé morbus pestiferus[454].” On 13 September, 1471, Sir John Paston writes from near Winchester: “I cannot hear by[Pg 231] pilgrims that pass the country, nor none other man that rideth or goeth any country, that any borough town in England is free from that sickness. God cease it when it please him!” Apart from London the English town which has the most disastrous record for this period is Hull[455]. The plague was so severe there, in three epidemics close together, as almost to ruin the place. It broke out in 1472, and had swept off a great number of the inhabitants before the end of the year, including the mayor. In 1476 it broke out afresh, causing a great mortality. In 1478 it was more violent than ever, the number of its victims being given as 1580, including the mayor and all his family; the people fled the town, the church was shut up, and the streets deserted and grass-grown. The epidemic appears to have been, as usual, an autumnal one, ceasing at the approach of winter. Meanwhile, in 1474, there is mention of a serious prevalence of plague in the Royal household, as well as elsewhere in London. The weather of the previous autumn, 1473, had been remarkable. Labourers are said to have died in the harvest-field from the excessive heat, and “fervues, axes, and the bloody flyx” (fevers, agues, and dysentery) to have been universal in divers parts of England; but there was no dearth. The unusual character of that season, or of the season preceding, was indicated by the bursting forth of underground reservoirs of water[456].

The great plague of this period in London should most probably be placed under the years 1478-9. Merely to show the difficulties of the chronology it may be worth while citing the various accounts. The Greyfriars’ Chronicle says, under the year 17 Edward IV., that the term was “deferred from Ester to Michaelmas because of the grete pestylens[457].” The 17th of Edward IV. was 1477. But Fabyan, who was now a citizen of London (afterwards sheriff and alderman), enters it under the civic year 1478-79, or the year which begins for him with the new lord mayor taking office on 30 October. His words are: “This year was great mortality and death in London and many other parts of this realm, the which began in the latter end of[Pg 232] Senii [September] in the preceding year and continued in this year till the beginning of November, in the which passed time died innumerable people in the said city and many places elsewhere[458].” Grafton says, under the year 1478, that the chief mortality fell in four months of great heat, during which the pestilence was so fierce and quick that fifteen years’ war had not consumed a third as many people[459]. To reconcile these dates we should have to take the year of the Greyfriars’ Chronicle as 1478, so that the adjournment of the term from Easter to Michaelmas, might suit the four months in Grafton. At the same time, Fabyan’s statement that the plague “continued in this year till November,” is correct for 1479. Sir John Paston writes home from London, 29 Oct. 1479, of his danger from the sickness; he died there on 15th November; and his brother, who came up from Norfolk to bury him, writes to his mother, who wished him “to haste out of the air that he was in,” that the sickness is “well ceased” in December.

The year 1478, the first of two plague-seasons in London, was also a year of plague at Hull, and at Newcastle and Southwell. The account for Newcastle, in its annals under 1478, is merely that great numbers died of the plague[460]. At Southwell, on 5 July, 1478, the canons residentiary again take leave of absence for the summer, “because it may be probably estimated that the dire pestilential affliction in the town of Southwell will continue, and because the venerable men, with their domestics, have a just fear of incurring the infection of the said pestiferous affliction[461].” Next year, 1479, an “incredible number” died of plague at Norwich[462], and at villages like Swainsthorp, where “they have died and been sick nigh in every house[463].”

Thus in two years, 1478-79, we hear of an epidemic of plague of the first rank in London, an epidemic most severe for the size of the place, at Hull, and epidemics at Southwell, Newcastle and Norwich. This is not unlike the plague-years that we often find in the centuries following. Whether it be that we[Pg 233] are merely coming to a time of better records, or that the disease itself was getting worse in English towns, these later years of Edward IV. are comparable to plague-periods under the Tudors and the Stuarts.

The period from the Black Death of 1349 to the reign of Edward IV. witnesses a considerable change in the habits, so to speak, of plague in England. In the earlier part of that period, the epidemics of “pestilence”—although they were not all of plague or wholly of plague—are general throughout England, like the great mortality itself but on a smaller scale. As late as 1407, or perhaps 1439, we still hear of “the disease called the pestilence” being universal and in the homes of the peasantry. The extent of the sickness in 1465, or even the type of it, is not sufficiently known. From that time onwards town and country are contrasted in the matter of plague; it becomes usual to flee to the country so as to escape the pestilential air in town in the summer heats, and the unwholesomeness of the London air becomes on numerous occasions a real reason, or a pretext, for the adjournment of Parliament. All the while, the plague was the lineal descendant of the Black Death,—a virus so potent on its first entry into English soil as to overrun every parish of the land.


Plague and other pestilences in Scotland and Ireland, 1349-1475.

The materials for the history of plague in Scotland, including the Black Death and subsequent outbreaks down to the end of the medieval period, are much fewer than for England. From the English chroniclers (Knighton and Le Baker) we learn that the Black Death in the autumn of 1349 extended from the northern counties to the Scots army in the Forest of Selkirk. According to Fordoun, plague would have been general in Scotland in 1350; but as he includes in his reference “several years before and after” and “divers parts of the world,” his statement that nearly a third part of the human race paid the debt of nature is perhaps a mere echo of the general estimate and without reference specially to Scotland[464]. His next general[Pg 234] reference to pestilence is under the year 1362, when the same kind of disease and the same extent of mortality as in 1350 occurred throughout all Scotland[465]. But as he says elsewhere that the visit of David, king of Scots, to Aberdeenshire in 1361, when he took Kildrummy Castle from the earl of Mar, was determined in the first instance by the prevalence of plague in the southern part of his kingdom[466], it may be inferred that the epidemic had begun late in that year in the south, coincident with the pestis secunda of England, and had been interrupted by the coming on of winter, as in the first epidemic of 1349 and 1350. The next mortality recorded by Fordoun he names the fourth (quarta mortalitas) and assigns to 1401[467]. The question arises as to the third; and it appears that there were indeed two plague-years in Scotland between 1362 and 1401—namely, 1380 and 1392, both of them corresponding nearly to great plagues in the north of England. In the former year sir John Lyon, lord of Glamis, was unable to hold his court as auditor of the exchequer in certain places owing to the plague[468]. In 1392, also, the custumars of Haddington, Peebles, and Dumbarton did not attend the “chamberlain ayres” on account of the pestilence[469]. In 1402 (not in 1401, as Fordoun has it), the custumars of Stirling were absent from the audit by reason of the plague[470]; and in the same financial year (10 July, 1402, to 18 July, 1403), only one bailie from Dundee attended the audit at Perth, the others being dead in the pestilence[471].

For a whole generation there is no documentary evidence of plague in Scotland. But Fordoun has two entries of a disease which he calls pestilentia volatilis—it can hardly have been plague and may have been influenza—the one in 1430, having begun at Edinburgh in February, and the other in 1432 at Haddington[472].

Under the year 1439, an old chronicle, Ane Addicioun of[Pg 235] Scottis Cornicklis and Deidis records one of those seasons of famine and dysentery or lientery, with some more sudden sickness, which have been described for England in a former chapter. “The samen time there was in Scotland a great dearth, for the boll of wheat was at 40s., and the boll of ait meal 30s.; and verily the dearth was sae great that there died a passing [number of] people for hunger. And als the land-ill, the wame-ill, was so violent, that there died mae that year than ever there died, owther in pestilence, or yet in ony other sickness in Scotland. And that samen year the pestilence came in Scotland, and began at Dumfries, and it was callit the Pestilence but Mercy, for there took it nane that ever recoverit, but they died within twenty-four hours[473].” Here the “land-ill” or “wame-ill” (dysentery or lientery) is contrasted within “the pestilence,” which latter is said to have supervened the same year, beginning at Dumfries and proving peculiarly deadly. This was a year of plague, said to be “universal,” in England (where famine also was severe), and of an enormous mortality in France.

The continuator of Fordoun records under the year 1455 (James II.) a great pestilential mortality of men through the whole kingdom, an epidemic which would be again a year behind the corresponding plague in England[474]. We hear of it next definitely in the year 1475, which falls within the series of plague-years at Hull, and elsewhere in the southern part of the island. On account of an outbreak of pestilence the king of Scots adjourned the meeting of the estates from September 1475 to the Epiphany following[475], when the Parliament actually met. The same year there was a plague-hospital on Inchkeith, in the Firth of Forth, and not for the first time; ten marts from the Orkneys were landed there for the quarantined patients[476].

[Pg 236]The references to plague in Scotland begin again about the year 1498; but these, according to the division of our subject, will come into another chapter.

The references to plagues in Ireland after the invasion of 1349 are extremely meagre; but they make it probable that outbursts of bubo-plague recurred at intervals, as well as occasional epidemics of flux and other diseases brought on by scarcity or bad corn. The continuators of Clyn’s Kilkenny annals enumerate various pestessecunda, tertia, quarta and quinta—just as the English annalists do. The secunda falls in 1362, its season in Scotland also[477]. The tertia is given under 1373; but also under 1370[478]. The quarta is in 1382 (or 1385), and the quinta in 1391. But there is little or no independent evidence that this chronology, originally made for England, is really good for Ireland also. The only other entry, until the Tudor period, is “fames magna in Hibernia” in 1410[479].



[Pg 237]



The strange disease which came to be known all over Europe as sudor Anglicus, or the English Sweat, was a new type or species of infection first seen in the autumn of 1485. Polydore Virgil, an Italian scholar and man of affairs, who arrived in England in 1501, became, in effect, the court historian of Henry VII.’s reign, and of the events which led up to the overthrow of Richard III. at Bosworth Field on the 22nd of August 1485; his account of the movements of Henry Tudor, from his landing at Milford Haven on Saturday the 6th of August until his triumphal entry into London on Saturday the 27th of the same month, is so minute that he must be assumed to have had access to journals written at the time. Polydore’s account of the sweat begins with the statement that it showed itself on the first descent of Henry upon the island—sub primum descensum in insulam[480]. The last continuator of the ancient chronicle of Croyland abbey, who was still making his entries when Bosworth Field was fought, not far from Croyland, and who closed his annals the year after, records an incident which seems to show that the sweat had been prevalent before the battle. Thomas, lord Stanley, lay at Atherstone, not far from Bosworth, with five thousand men nominally in the service of Richard, and was summoned by the king to bring up his force before the battle. He excused himself, says the Croyland[Pg 238] annalist, on the ground that he was suffering from the sweating sickness[481]. I shall examine that evidence, and the general statement of Polydore Virgil, in a later part of this chapter. Meanwhile we may take it that the outbreak of the sweat was somehow associated in popular rumour with the victorious expedition of Henry Tudor. Writers on the English sweat hitherto have had to depend on the somewhat meagre and not always consistent statements of annalists for their knowledge of its first authentic occurrence. I am now able to adduce the testimony of a manuscript treatise on the new epidemic, written by a physician while it was still prevalent in London, and elaborately dedicated to Henry VII., if not composed by his order[482]. The author is Thomas Forrestier, styled in the title a Doctor of Medicine and a native of Normandy, tarrying in London. Whatever his relation with the Tudor court may have been, his name does not occur in the patents as one of the king’s physicians. It appears, indeed, that he had got into trouble in London some two years after this date; for, on the 28th of January, 1488, the king granted to him a general pardon, “with pardon for all escapes and evasions out of the Tower of London or elsewhere, and remissions of forfeiture of all lands and goods[483].” Probably he went back after this to his native Normandy: at all events, he is next heard of in practice at Rouen, where he published, in 1490, a Latin treatise on the plague, one of the first productions of the printing-press of that city.

It is in the opening sentences of his printed book on the plague[484], and not in his manuscript on the sweat, that he fixes the date when the latter began. The sweating sickness, he says,[Pg 239] first unfurled its banners in England in the city of London, on the 19th of September, 1485; and then follow in the text certain astrological signs, representing the positions or conjunctions of heavenly bodies on that date. The London chronicles of the time assign dates for the beginning of the epidemic which differ somewhat from Dr Forrestier’s. One of them, a manuscript of the Cotton collection, by an anonymous citizen of London, records the entry of Henry VII. into the capital on the 27th of August, and proceeds: “And the XXVII day of September began the sweating syknes in London, whereof died Thomas Hyll that yer mayor, for whom was chosen sir William Stokker, knyght, which died within V days after of the same disease. Then for him was chosen John Warde.... And this yere died of that sickness, besides ii mayors above rehersed, John Stokker, Thomas Breten, Richard Pawson, Thomas Norland, aldermen, and many worshipful commoners[485].” In the better known but not always equally full chronicle of Fabyan, who was then a citizen, and afterwards sheriff and alderman, the date of Henry’s reception by the mayor and citizens at Hornsey Park is given as the 28th of August, the reference to the sweat being as follows: “And upon the XI day of Octobre next following, than beynge the swetynge sykeness of newe begun, dyed the same Thomas Hylle, mayor, and for him was chosen sir William Stokker, knyght and draper, which dyed also of the sayd sickness shortly after.” The only other particular date extant for the sweat of 1485 comes from the country: Lambert Fossedike, abbot of Croyland, died there of the sweating sickness, after an illness of eighteen hours, on the 14th of October[486].

Apart from the hitherto unknown manuscript of Forrestier, these are the only contemporary references. Stow, who must have had access to some journal of the time, says that the king[Pg 240] entered London on the 27th August and that “the sweating began the 21st September, and continued till the end of October, of the which a wonderful number died,” including the two mayors and four other aldermen, as above. Hall’s chronicle, which has been the principal source used by Hecker and others, reproduces the account of the sweat by Polydore Virgil almost word for word; and Polydore’s account was certainly not begun until after 1504 and was not published until 1531. Bernard André, historiographer and poet laureate of Henry VII., was present at the entry into London on the 27th August; but he gives no particulars of the sweat of that autumn, in his ‘Life of Henry VII.,’ although it is probable that his ‘Annals of Henry VII.’ would have furnished some information had they not been lost for the year 1485, as it is to his extant annals for the year 1508 that we owe almost all that is known of the second epidemic of the sweat in that year. The state papers of the time do not contain a single reference to the epidemic, although it was so active in the city of London as to carry off two mayors and four aldermen within a few days, and was besides, as Polydore Virgil says, “a new kind of disease, from which no former age had suffered, as all agree.” London was full of people, including some who had stood by Henry Tudor in France, others who had joined his standard in Wales, and still others who came to do homage to the new dynasty; and there is evidence remaining of hundreds of suitors, great and small, attending the court to receive the reward of their services in patents and grants, as well as evidence in the wardrobe accounts of the bustle of preparing for the Coronation on the 30th of October. But in all the extant state records of those busy weeks, there is not a scrap of writing to show that such a thing as a pestilence was raging within the narrow bounds of the city and under the walls of the royal palace in the Tower. It remains, therefore, to make what we can out of the medical essay which Dr Forrestier wrote for the occasion.

In his later reference of 1490, he says that more than fifteen thousand were cut off in sudden death, as if by the visitation of God, many dying while walking in the streets, without warning and without being confessed. That number of the dead need not[Pg 241] be taken as at all exact: nor does it appear whether it is meant for London or for the whole country. But the dramatic suddenness of the attack is illustrated by particular cases in his original treatise of 1485, although deaths so sudden are unheard of in any infection:—

“We saw two prestys standing togeder and speaking togeder, and we saw both of them dye sodenly. Also in die—proximi we se the wyf of a taylour taken and sodenly dyed. Another yonge man walking by the street fell down sodenly. Also another gentylman ryding out of the cyte [date given] dyed. Also many others the which were long to rehearse we have known that have dyed sodenly.” Gentlemen and gentlewomen, priests, righteous men, merchants, rich and poor, were among the victims of this sudden death. Of the symptoms he says: “And this sickness cometh with a grete swetyng and stynkyng, with rednesse of the face and of all the body, and a contynual thurst, with a grete hete and hedache because of the fumes and venoms.” He mentions also “pricking the brains,” and that “some appear red and yellow, as we have seen many, and in two grete ladies that we saw, the which were sick in all their bodies and they felt grete pricking in their bodies. And some had black spots, as it appeared in our frere (?) Alban, a noble leech on whose soul God have mercy!”

Both in his pathology and in his copious appendix of formulae he directs attention to the heart, as the organ that was suddenly overpowered by the pestilential venoms. Many died, he would have us believe, because they listened to the false leeches, who professed to know the disease and to have treated it before. A considerable part of his space is occupied with the denunciation of these irregular practitioners, their greed and their ignorance,—a theme which is a common one in the prefaces of Elizabethan medical works also. It appears that the false leeches wrote and put letters upon gates and church doors, or upon poles, promising to help the people in their sickness. They were also injudicious in the choice of their remedies—some ordaining powders and medicines that are hot until the thirtieth degree and over, others ale or wine, or hot spices, “and many other medicines they have, the which, the best of them, is nothing worth.” These false leeches knew not the causes,—their complexions, their ages, the regions, the times of the year, the climate,—evidently the astrological lore which gave Chaucer’s physician, a century earlier, his academical standing or his[Pg 242] superiority to the vulgar quacks of his day. Those who fell into the hands of quacks, Forrestier implies, had an indifferent chance. Many died for want of help and good guiding; whereas many a one was healed that had received a medicine in due order, “and if he purge himself before.” The clearly written and fully detailed formulae at the end of his essay are so far evidence that Forrestier did not traffic in secret remedies. The first part of the essay is occupied with the doctrine of causes—the nigh causes and the far. The far causes were astrological; but the nigh causes, although they are altogether inadequate to account for sweating sickness as a special type, and are indeed little else than the stock list of nuisances quoted in earlier treatises upon the plague, are suggestive enough of the condition of London streets and houses at the time, and will be referred to in a later part of the chapter.

The account of the treatment given by Polydore Virgil, and from him copied into Hall’s chronicle, is probably the experience of later epidemics of the sweat, although it comes into the history under the year 1485. The evil effects of throwing off the bed-clothes, and of drinking great draughts of cold water, and, on the other hand, the benefits of lying still with the hands and feet well covered, are among the topics discussed in letters during the epidemic of 1517, one of those which came within the historian’s own experience in England. But it is clear from Forrestier’s essay of 1485 that there were great differences in the regimen of patients in the sweat during its very first season, some adopting the hot and cordial treatment, others, perhaps, the cooling, just as in the smallpox long after. Bernard André implies that there was a correct and an incorrect regimen also in the second epidemic of 1508, and there is evidence of conflicting advice in the letters on the sweats of 1517 and 1528. If there were any better regimen in the later epidemics than in the earlier, as Polydore Virgil says there was, it was merely the wisdom of avoiding extremes. Hence the misleading character of his remark that, after an immense loss of life, “a remedy was found, ready to hand for everyone.” Bacon in his ‘Reign of Henry VII.’ took from Polydore almost word for word all that he says of the “remedy” of the sweat; and the unreal[Pg 243] word-spinning thus begun was carried to its full development by bishop Sprat, the historian of the Royal Society (1667), who mistakes the “remedy” for some arcanum or potent drug, gives my lord Verulam the credit of preserving the prescription for the use of posterity, and adduces it as an encouragement to the Royal Society to seek among the secrets of nature for an equally efficacious “antidote” to the plague.

The language of historians is that the sweat of 1485 spread over the whole kingdom. We hear of it definitely at Oxford[487] where it “lasted but a month or six weeks” and is said to have cut off many of the scholars before they could disperse. It is heard of also with equal definiteness at Croyland abbey. There is also mention of it in a contemporary calendar of the mayor of Bristol, but without any special reference to that city[488]. Beyond these notices, there appears to be nothing to show that the sweat went all through England in the late autumn or early winter of 1485. But we may take the following passage by Forrestier, in the dedication of his tract to the king, as expressing the state of matters, with perhaps some exaggeration:

“When that thy highness and thy great power is vexed and troubled with divers sickness, and thy lordships and almost the middle part of thy realm with the venomous fever of pestilence, and, by the reason of that, young and old and of all manner of ages, with divers wailings and sadness they are stricken: therefore, excellent and noble prince, we are moved with every love and duty, and not for no lucre neither covetyse, to ordain a short governing against this foresaid fever[489].”


The Second Sweat in 1508.

After the first outburst of the sweat in 1485 had subsided, probably before winter was well begun, nothing more is heard of it for twenty-three years. It reappeared in 1508, a third time in 1517, a fourth time in 1528, and for the last time in 1551.[Pg 244] With each successive outbreak, our information becomes less meagre, while the epidemic of 1551 actually called forth an English printed book by Dr Caius, the epidemic of 1528 having called forth a whole crop of foreign writings on its spreading to the continent (for the first and only time) in the year following (1529). As the nature, causes, and favouring circumstances of the sweat cannot profitably be dealt with except on a review of its whole history, it will be necessary to take up at once and together the four subsequent epidemics of it in this country, leaving the intercurrent and probably much more disastrous epidemics of bubo-plague, during the same period, as well as the great invasion of syphilis in 1494-6, to be chronicled apart.

Our knowledge of the second outbreak of the sweat, in 1508[490], comes almost exclusively from Bernard André, whose Annals of Henry VII.[491] are fortunately preserved for that year (as they are also for 1504-5). Under the date of July, 1508, he says that some of the household of the Lord Treasurer were seized with the sweat, and died of it, “and everywhere in this city there die not a few.” In August public prayers were made at St Paul’s on account of the plague of sweat. In the same month the king’s movements from place to place in the country round London are described as determined by the prevalence of the sweat. From Hatfield, whither he had gone to visit his mother on the 9th August, he went to Wanstead, where certain of his household “sweated;” on that account the king moved to Barking, and thence to other places about the 14th. He avoided Greenwich and Eltham, in both which places the chief personages of the royal palaces “had sweated,” so much did the sickness then rage in all places (per omnia loca). Some of the king’s personal attendants appear to have caught the infection; nor did it avail, says André, to run away or to follow the chase, quoniam mors omnia vincit. Other visits were paid down to the 17th August, and a strict edict was issued that no one from London[Pg 245] was to come near the court, nor anyone to repair to the city, under penalties specified. The only one near the king’s person who died of it was lord Graystock, a young Cumberland noble. The Lord Privy Seal and the Lord Chamberlain were both attacked but recovered; doctor Symeon, the dean of the Chapel Royal, died of it. There appears to have been a good deal of the sickness in various places, but many recovered, says André, with good tending. The king occupied himself with hunting the stag in the forests at Stratford, Eltham and other places round London.

From the provinces there is one item of information relating to Chester[492]: in the summer of 1507, it is said, the sweating sickness destroyed 91 in three days, of whom only four were women. At Oxford in 1508, or the year before Henry VII.’s death, there was a sore pestilence which caused the dispersion of divers students; but it is not called the sweat[493].


The Third Sweat in 1517.

Except for a single reference to the sweat in 1511, nothing is heard of it between the autumn of 1508 and the summer of 1517. The reference in 1511 occurs in a letter of Erasmus, from Queens’ College, Cambridge, dated 25th August, in which he says that his health is still indifferent a sudore illo. This may possibly refer to the lingering effects of an attack in 1508, or to the influenza of 1510; and as all the other references in 1511 are to plague, and to alarms of plague, it may be doubted if the sweating sickness had really been prevalent in England in that year, or at any time between 1508 and 1517. We begin to hear of it definitely in the summer of the latter year. We have now reached a period from which numerous letters, despatches and other state papers have come down[494]. Among the most useful of[Pg 246] these for our purpose are the despatches of the Venetian ambassador and the apostolic nuncio from London, the letters of Pace to Wolsey when Henry VIII. was in the country and the cardinal not with him, the letters of Erasmus, sir Thomas More and others.

The first that we hear of sickness in London in 1517 is from a letter of the 24th June, written by a cardinal of Arragon to Wolsey, from Calais; the cardinal, who was travelling like a noble, with a train of forty horses, had intended to visit London, but was waiting on the other side owing to a rumour that the sickness was prevalent in London. It is probable that this rumour had referred to the standing infection of English towns in summer and autumn, the bubo-plague; for it is not until five weeks later that we hear of the sweating sickness under its proper name.

On the 1st of August the nuncio writes from London to the marquis of Mantua that a disease is broken out here causing sudden death within six hours; it is called the sweating sickness; an immense number die of it. On the 6th of August he occupies the greater part of a letter of three pages with an account of it. To some it proved fatal in twelve hours, to others in six, and to others in four; it is an easy death. Most patients are seized when lying down, but some when on foot, and even a very few when riding out. The attack lasts about twenty-four hours, more or less. It is fatal to take, during the fit, any cold drink, or to allow a draught of air to reach the drenching skin; the covering should be rather more ample than usual, but there was danger in heaping too many bed-clothes on the patient. A moderate fire should be kept up in the sick chamber; the arms should be crossed on the patient’s breast, and great care should be taken that no cold air reached the armpits[495]. The disease was on the increase, and was already spreading over England;[Pg 247] it was reported that more than four hundred students had died of it at Oxford, which was a small place but for the university there. Burials were occurring on every side; there had been many deaths in the king’s household and in that of cardinal Wolsey, who was in the country “sweating.” Such is the universal dread of the disease that there are very few who do not fear for their lives, while some are so terrified that they suffer more from fear than others do from the sweat itself.

On the same day (6th August), the Venetian ambassador, Sebastian Giustinian, who was on friendly terms with the nuncio and often indebted to him for information, writes to the Doge giving much the same account of “the new malady.” He remarks upon the sudden onset, the rapidity of the issue when it was to be fatal, and the cessation of the sweat within twenty-four hours. His secretary had taken it, as well as many of his domestics. Few strangers are dead, but an immense number of Englishmen. On going to visit Wolsey, he found that he had the sweat; many of the cardinal’s household had died of it, including some of his chief attendants; the bishop of Winchester also had taken it. On the 12th of August, the Venetian envoy writes that he himself and his son have had the sweat; Wolsey has had it three times in a few days, many of his people being dead of it, especially his gentlemen[496]. In London “omnes silent.”

Wolsey’s attack and relapses are confirmed by his own letter to the king; about the end of August he went on a pilgrimage to Walsingham, and remained there most of September, but even after his return he was “vexed with fever.” The relapses of the sweat, which are mentioned by Forrestier in 1485, by André in 1508, and now again in 1517, may have been the origin of the saying in the form of a proverb, which occurs in[Pg 248] an essay of the time by sir Thomas More,—that the relapse is worse than the original disease[497].

The death of a well-known personage, Ammonio, the Latin secretary of the king, is the subject of several letters, including one of the 19th August from More to Erasmus; he died at nine on the morning of the 17th August, after an illness of twenty hours: he had been congratulating himself on being safe by reason of his temperate life. More confirms the statement as to deaths in the university of Oxford, and he adds also at Cambridge. In London the sweat attacks whole families: “I assure you there is less danger in the ranks of war than in this city.” His own family (? in Bucklersbury) are safe so far, and he has composed his mind for any eventuality. He hears that the sweat is now at Calais. On the 27th August, the Venetian envoy writes again that the disease is now making great progress; the king keeps out of the way at Windsor, with only three favourite gentlemen and Dionysius Memo, who is described as his physician, but in other letters as “the Reverend,” and as a musician from Venice. On the 21st September the envoy has gone to the country to avoid “the plague and the sweating sickness.” A few days later (26th Sept.) he writes that “the plague” is making some progress, and that the prolonged absence of the king, the cardinal and other lords from London owing to the sweat, had encouraged the citizens to a turbulent mood against the foreign traders and residents; the state of matters was so threatening that three thousand citizens were under arms to preserve the peace. The references after September, 1517, are mostly to the “common infection” or plague, which was an almost annual autumnal event in London. There was probably some confusion, at the time, between that infection and the sweat, not, of course as regards symptoms, but in common report; thus it is not clear whether the fresh alarm in the king’s court at or near Windsor on the 15th October, owing to the deaths of young lord Grey de Wilton and a German attendant of the king, refers to the sweat or to the plague. As late as the 2nd November, a letter from the[Pg 249] University of Oxford to Wolsey excuses delay in answering his two letters on the ground of the sweating sickness.

The prevalence of “sudor tabificus” at Oxford in 1517 is known from other sources as well: it is said to have caused “the dispersion and sweeping away of most, if not all, of the students[498];” and the nuncio, writing from London on the 6th of August, mentions the current but improbable statement that more than four hundred students had died in less than a week.

Besides these from Oxford, there are hardly any notices of the 1517 sweat in the country remote from London. A record at Chester mentions an outbreak of “plague,” which is taken to mean sweating sickness; it is said also to have been “probably more serious than in 1507;” many died, others fled; and the grass grew a foot high at the Cross[499]. But these are the marks of true plague, which we know to have broken out in London, and in country districts as well, in the autumn and winter of 1517, or almost as soon as the short and sharp outburst of the sweat was past.

Among the references to prevailing diseases on the continent in 1517, besides sir Thomas More’s rumour of the sweat in Calais, there is none which would lead us to suppose that the distinctive English malady had invaded Europe in that year. But there is a significant statement by Erasmus, hitherto overlooked, which almost certainly points to an epidemic of influenza on the other side of the North Sea the year after the sweat was prevalent in England. It is known that there was a suddenly fatal form of throat disease prevalent in the Netherlands that spring, which has been taken to be diphtheria; but the malady to which Erasmus refers can hardly have been the same as that. Writing from Louvain to Barbieri on the 1st June, 1518, he says that a new plague is raging in Germany, affecting people with a cough, and pain in the head and stomach, he himself having suffered from it. The significance of that epidemic, assuming it to have been influenza, will be dealt with in the sequel.

By means of the foregoing contemporary notices of the sweat[Pg 250] in 1517 we are able to judge of the general accuracy of the summary of it in Hall’s chronicle, which has been hitherto almost the only source of information. The sweat killed, he says, in three hours or two hours, which is something of an exaggeration of the shortest duration mentioned by the nuncio and the Venetian envoy in their letters of the 1st and 6th August. Another general statement may be suspected of even greater exaggeration: “For in some one town half the people died, and in some other town the third part, the sweat was so fervent and the infection so great.” The sweat lasted, he says, to the middle of December. Stow, in his Annals, more correctly states that the plague came in the end of the year, after the sweat. The plague was much the more deadly infection of the two; but even plague and sweat together, and at their worst, would hardly have destroyed one-half or one-third of the inhabitants of a town.


The Fourth Sweat in 1528.

As the despatches of the nuncio and the Venetian envoy in London give the best accounts of the sweat of 1517, it is in the despatches of the French ambassador, Du Bellay, that we find the most serviceable particulars of the sweat in 1528. Du Bellay, bishop of Bayonne, and a witty diplomatist, was in London through the whole of it, and during that time sent letters to Paris, in three of which the sweat is a principal topic. From many other state letters of the time various particulars may be gathered, and in one letter by Brian Tuke, one of the king’s ministers, we find some theorizings about the disease. The outbreak befell at the time when Henry VIII.’s passion for Mistress Anne Boleyn, sister to one of the ladies of the Court, was waxing strong; it had the effect of parting the lovers for several weeks, the distance between them having been bridged over by an interchange of tender notes, of which those of the king remain open to the prying eyes of posterity.

The sweat is heard of as early as the 5th of June, 1528, when Brian Tuke writes to Tunstall, bishop of London, that he had fled to Stepney “for fear of the infection,” a servant being ill at[Pg 251] his house. The sickness must have made little talk for some ten days longer. On the 18th June, Du Bellay writes that it had made its appearance “within these four days[500].” On the 16th, the king at Greenwich was alarmed by the intelligence that a maid of Anne Boleyn’s had been attacked by it[501]. He left in great haste for Waltham, and sent the young lady to her father’s in Kent. “As yet,” writes Du Bellay, “the love has not abated. I know not, if absence and the difficulties of Rome may effect anything.” The king wrote to her at once: “There came to me in the night the most afflicting news possible.... I fear to suffer yet longer that absence which has already given me so much pain.” He sends his second physician (Dr Butts) to her. The alarm about her health seems to have been uncalled for just then, although both she and her father caught the disease within a few days. By the 18th June, according to the French envoy, some 2000 had caught the sickness in London. It is, he says, a most perilous disease: “one has a little pain in the head and heart; suddenly a sweat begins; and a physician is useless, for whether you wrap yourself up much or little, in four hours, sometimes in two or three, you are despatched without languishing as in those troublesome fevers.” The day before, on going to swear the truce, he saw the people “as thick as flies rushing from the streets or shops into their houses to take the sweat whenever they felt ill.... In London, I assure you, the priests have a better time than the doctors, except that the latter do not help to bury. If this thing goes on, corn will soon be cheap. [The season was one of scarcity.] It is twelve [eleven] years since there was such a visitation, when there died 10,000 persons in ten or twelve days; but it was not so bad as this has been.” Writing again, twelve days after, on the 30th June, he says that some 40,000 had been attacked in London, only 2000[Pg 252] of whom had died; “but if a man only put his hand out of bed during the twenty-four hours, it becomes as stiff as a pane of glass”—that is to say, by keeping themselves carefully covered, as we learn also from Polydore Virgil’s history and letters on the sweat of 1517, they greatly increased the chance of recovery. In his third despatch, 21st July, he says the danger begins to diminish hereabout and to increase elsewhere; in Kent it is very great. Anne Boleyn and her father have sweated, but have got over it. The notaries have had a fine time of it, nearly everyone having made his will, as those who took the disease in its fatal form “became quite foolish the moment they fell ill.” His estimate of 100,000 wills is, of course, a humorous exaggeration. The sweat had been at its height in London, according to its wont, for only a few weeks, mostly in July. On the 21st of August one writes from London that “the plague at this day is well assuaged, and little or nothing heard thereof.” From other parts of England there are few particulars of the sweat of 1528. We hear of it at Woburn on the 26th June, in a nunnery at Wilton on the 18th July, at Beverley on the 22nd July—it is reported as very serious in Yorkshire generally,—at Cambridge on the 27th July, and at several places in Kent about the same date. The “infection” at Dover as late as the 27th September may not have been the sweat, but the ordinary bubo-plague. But it is probably to the sweat that the deaths of four priests and two lay-brothers at Axholme, in Lincolnshire, are to be referred, as well as the heavy mortality in the Charterhouse, London[502].

As in the previous sweat of 1517, the letters of the time give us many glimpses of the invasion of great households in and around London, including the king’s.

When the French ambassador was walking with Wolsey in his garden at York Place (Whitehall) on a day in June, word was brought to the cardinal that five or six of his household had[Pg 253] taken the sweat, and the diplomatic interview was brought to an abrupt end. Du Bellay writes again in July that only four men in Wolsey’s great house remained well. Among those in his household who died of it were a brother of lord Derby and a nephew of the duke of Norfolk. The cardinal, who had suffered from the sweat and its relapses in 1517, fled from it to Hampton Court on the 30th June, and shut himself up there with only a few attendants, having previously adjourned the law courts and stopped the assizes. On the 21st of July, Du Bellay writes that it was almost impossible to get access to Wolsey, and suggests that he might have to speak with him at Hampton Court through a trumpet. In the same letter the French ambassador refers to the circumstances of his own attack when he was visiting the archbishop of Canterbury (Warham), probably at Lambeth: “The day I sweated at my lord of Canterbury’s, there died eighteen persons in four hours, and hardly anyone escaped but myself, who am not yet quite strong again.” The bishop of London, Tunstall, writes to Wolsey from Fulham on the 10th July, that thirteen of his servants were sick of the sweat at once on St Thomas’s day; he had caused the public processions and prayers to be made, which the king had wished for on the 5th July. The governor of Calais writes on the 10th July: “The sweat has arrived and has attacked many.” Only two were dead, a Lancashire gentleman and a fisherman; but in a second letter of the same night, four more are dead, of whom two “were in good health yestereven when they went to their beds.” Various other letters about the same date make mention of personal experiences of the sweat, or of domestics attacked, at country houses in the home counties. The most minute accounts are those for the king’s household.

On the 16th June the king had left Greenwich hurriedly for Waltham. In a letter to Anne Boleyn, he writes that, when he was at Waltham, two ushers, two valets-de-chambre, George Boleyn and Mr Treasurer (Fitzwilliam) fell ill of the sweat, and are now quite well. “The doubt I had of your health troubled me extremely, and I should scarcely have had any quiet without knowing the certainty; but since you have felt nothing, I hope it is with you as with us.” He had removed to Hunsdon (on 20th[Pg 254] or 21st June) “where we are very well, without one sick person. I think if you would retire from Surrey, as we did, you would avoid all danger. Another thing may comfort you: few women have this illness, and moreover none of our court, and few elsewhere, have died of it.” When Brian Tuke went to Hunsdon on the 21st June, the king spoke to him “of the advantages of this house, and its wholesomeness at this time of sickness.” Two days after, Tuke having business with the king, found him “in secret communication with his physician, Mr Chambre, in a tower where he sometimes sups apart.” The king conversed with his minister about the latter’s ill-health (seemingly stone), and showed him remedies, “as any most cunning physician in England could do.” As to the infection, the king spoke of how folk were taken, how little danger there was if good order be observed, how few were dead, how Mistress Anne and my lord Rochford (her father) both have had it, what jeopardy they have been in by the turning in of the sweat before the time, of the endeavours of Mr Butts who had been with them, and finally of their perfect recovery. The king sends advice to Wolsey to use “the pills of Rhazes” once a week, and, if it come to it, to sweat moderately and to the full time, without suffering it to run in. But the king’s optimist views of the malady were quickly disturbed. William Cary, married to Anne Boleyn’s sister, died of the sweat suddenly at Hunsdon, having just arrived from Plashey, and two others of the Chamber, Poyntz and Compton, died about the same time either there or at Hertford, whither the king removed. On the evening of the 26th June there fell sick at Hertford, the marquis and marchioness of Dorset, sir Thomas Cheyney, Croke, Norris and Wallop. The king hastily left for Hatfield, on the 28th June, where still others appear to have taken the sickness. Du Bellay, writing on the 30th, says all but one of the Chamber have been attacked. From Hatfield the king went at once to Tittenhanger, a country house which belonged to Wolsey as abbot of St Albans, and there he elected to take his chance of the sweat, keeping up immense fires to destroy the infection. On the 7th July, Dr Bell writes from Tittenhanger to Wolsey that “none have had the sweat here these three days except[Pg 255] Mr Butts.” Two days later, however, the marchioness of Exeter “sweated,” and the king ordered all who were of the marquis’s company to depart, he himself removing as far as Ampthill, whence he thought of removing on the 22nd July to Grafton, but was prevented by the prevalence of the infection there. Shortly after Anne Boleyn returned to the court. It is clearly to the period of her return that an undated letter of hers to Wolsey belongs; after writing a few formal lines to make interest with the cardinal, she took her letter to the king for him to add a postscript, which was as follows: “Both of us desire to see you, and are glad to hear you have escaped the plague so well, trusting the fury of it is abated, especially with those that keep good diet as I trust you do.”

Although the attacks mentioned in the correspondence of the time are many, the deaths are few. A letter of Brian Tuke’s to Wolsey’s secretary, on the 14th July, takes a somewhat sceptical line about the whole matter. His wife has “passed the sweat,” but is very weak, and is broken out at the mouth and other places. He himself “puts away the sweat” from himself nightly (directly against the king’s advice to him), though other people think they would kill themselves thereby. He had done that during the last sweat and this, feeling sure that, as long as he is not first sick, the sweat is rather provoked by disposition of the time, and by keeping men close, than by any infection, although the infection was a reality. Thousands have it from fear, who need not else sweat, especially if they observe good diet. He believes that it proceeds much of men’s opinion. It has been brought from London to other parts by report; for when a whole man comes from London and talks of the sweat, the same night all the town is full of it, and thus it spreads as the fame runs. Children, again, lacking this opinion, have it not, unless their mothers kill them by keeping them too hot if they sweat a little. It does not go to Gravelines when it is at Calais, although people go from the one place to the other.

 [Pg 256]

The English Sweat on the Continent in 1529[503].

Whether the sweat went at length to Gravelines or other places in that direction does not appear; but there is abundant evidence that it showed itself in the course of the following year (1529) in many parts of the Continent, excepting France, and that its outbreak was often attended with a heavy mortality. It was observed in Calais, as we have seen, on the 10th of July, 1528. But it is not until the year after, on the 25th of July, 1529, that we hear of it again,—at Hamburg, where a thousand persons are said to have died of it within four or five weeks, most of them within nine days. On the 31st July it was at Lübeck, and about the same time at Bremen and the neighbouring ancient town of Verden; on 14th August in Mecklenburg; at Stettin on the 27th August, and at Wismar, Demmin, Rostock, Stralsund, and Greifswald about the same date; in Danzig on the 1st September; Königsberg, on the 8th; and so eastwards to Livonia in 1530, and to Lithuania, Poland and Russia, the information for which countries is vague. Copenhagen also suffered from it, and towns in the interior of East Prussia, such as Thorn and Kulm. Meanwhile the sweat had proceeded by way of Hanover and Göttingen, about the middle of August afflicting also Brunswick, Lüneburg, Waldeck, Hadeln, Einbeck, Westphalia, the valley of the Weser, and East Friesland. It reached Frankfurt on the 11th September, Worms shortly after, and Marburg at the end of the month, breaking up the conference there between Luther and Zwingli, and their respective adherents, on the doctrine of the Eucharist. Jülich, Liege and Cologne were reached about the middle of September, and[Pg 257] Speyer about the 24th, Augsburg (where there was a most severe and protracted epidemic) on the 6th, Strasburg on the 24th. Freiburg in Breisgau, Mühlhausen and Gebweiler in Alsace, in October. In November, the sickness overran Wurtemberg, Baden, the Upper Rhine, the Palatinate, and the shores of the Lake of Constance. Among the other German provinces visited in due order were Franconia, Thuringia, Saxony, the Saxon Metal Mountains, Meissen, Mannsfeld, Halberstadt, Magdeburg, Wittenberg, Lusatia, the Mark of Brandenburg, and Silesia. In Vienna the sweat prevailed during the siege by Sultan Soliman from the 22nd September to the 14th October. At Berne it is heard of in December, and at Basle in January 1530. The Low Countries had not been affected so soon as their nearness to England might have led one to expect: the sickness is said to have approached them from the Rhine in the latter half of September. They suffered severely, one of the heaviest mortalities being reported for the town of Zierikzee, where three thousand are said to have died subsequent to the 3rd of October, 1529.

In this remarkable progress over the mainland of Europe, France was conspicuously avoided. The sweat does not appear to have entered Spain, nor to have crossed the Alps. But all the rest of the Continent, from the Rhine to the Oder (if not farther east) and from the Baltic to the Alps, was reached by the English sweat in much the same way as if it had been an influenza reversing the order of its usual direction. There need be no hesitation as to the correctness of the diagnosis; the disease was described by several foreign writers from their own observation, and their descriptions agree entirely with those of Forrestier, in 1485, of Polydore Virgil, perhaps for the epidemics of 1508 and 1517, and of the letter-writers who were describing the epidemic of the year before (1528), as they saw it in and around London. The striking thing in the accounts from the continent is the enormous range of its fatality; in some towns the proportion of deaths to cases was hardly more than in influenza, while in others it was the death-rate of a peculiarly pestilential or malignant typhus; and those differences cannot have depended wholly upon the method of treatment.

[Pg 258]These full accounts of the English sweat on the continent of Europe in 1529 are in striking contrast to the meagre records of it at home. They were compiled first in 1805 from the numerous contemporary chronicles, and printed pamphlets or fly-sheets on the sweat, by Gruner, professor at Jena, in his Itinerary of the English Sweat, and his Extant writers on the English Sweat, published in Latin[504]. In 1834 Hecker went over the ground again in his well-known essay, improving somewhat upon the positive erudition of Gruner, but at the same time hazarding a number of doubtful interpretative statements, especially as to the sweat in England, for which the meagreness of the English records then available may be his excuse. The erudition of Gruner, Hecker and Häser deserves every acknowledgement; but it is of value more especially for the extension of the sweat to the continent of Europe in 1529, where it had abundant materials at its service, in chronicles, printed essays, and “regiments.” There are extant no fewer than twenty-one printed essays or sheets of directions on the English sweat, which were issued from the German, Netherlands, or Swiss presses between the month of October 1529 and the month of June 1531, two or three of them being in Latin and most of them brief summaries in the native tongue for popular use. The corresponding epidemic in England did not call forth a single piece by any medical man, so far as is known. Nor does the English treatment appear to have lost anything thereby; for it was based upon the profitable experience of previous epidemics as embodied in oral tradition. Down to the fifth epidemic in 1551, the only English writing on the sweat so far as is known was the manuscript of 1485, by Forrestier. Almost all that we know of the epidemics in England in 1508, 1517 and 1528 comes from Bernard André’s annals and Polydore Virgil’s history, and from the despatches of the apostolic nuncio, the Venetian ambassador and the French ambassador. The fifth and last[Pg 259] outbreak, in 1551, called forth two native writings, one for popular use in English in 1552, and another in Latin in 1555, both by Dr Caius, physician to Henry VIII. and Edward VI.; these are indeed better than nothing at all, but they are too much occupied with pedantry and lugubrious rhetoric to be of much service for historical purposes[505]. The information about the epidemic of 1551 is so scanty as to suggest that the sickness in that year can hardly have been so severe as in 1528; the state papers contain hardly anything relating to it, and we owe nearly all our knowledge of it to the diary of Machyn, a citizen of London, to Edward VI.’s diary, and to Dr Caius. Bills of mortality had been kept in London for two or three weeks when the epidemic was at its height, from which some totals of deaths are extant.


The Fifth Sweat in 1551.

It was not in London that the sweat of 1551 began, but at Shrewsbury—on the 22nd of March, according to the manuscript chronicle of that town[506], or on the 15th of April, according to Caius[507]. No record remains of its prevalence at Shrewsbury; the statement of Caius, that some 900 deaths had occurred in a single city corresponds to the facts for London, and has no more reference to Shrewsbury (where Caius never resided) than it has to Norwich (as in Blomefield’s county history). The strange influence in the air or soil advanced from Salop, as we learn from Caius, by way of Ludlow, Presteign, Westchester, Coventry and Oxford, in only one of which places is anything known of it except Caius’s remark that it proceeded “with great mortality.” The best record of its prevalence on the way from Shrewsbury to London occurs in the parish register of Loughborough, in Leicestershire. Under the date of June, 1551, the register has an[Pg 260] entry that “the swat called New Acquaintance, alias Stoupe! Knave and know thy Master, began on the 24th of this month.” Then follow the names of 12 persons who were buried in four days, and, on the next page, under the heading of “The Sweat or New Acquaintance,” the names of 7 more, all buried in three days—making a total of 19 in six days, presumably all dead of the sweat and presumably also the whole mortality from it in Loughborough, which had far heavier mortalities from the common plague in after years[508].

The date of its arrival at Oxford, on the way to London, is not known; but a physician then resident there, Dr Ethredge, has left it on record that it attacked sixty in Oxford in one night, and next day more than a hundred in the villages around; very few died of it at Oxford, which showed that the air of that university was more salubrious than at Cambridge, where the two sons of the duchess of Suffolk died[509].

The sweat appeared suddenly in London about the beginning of July, and had a short but active career of some three weeks. Deaths from it began to be mentioned on the 7th, and are entered in the king’s (Edward VI.’s) diary as having amounted on the 10th to the number of 120, in the London district, including “one of my nobles and one of my chamberlains,” so that “I repaired to Hampton Court with only a small company.” The royal diarist says that the victims fell into a delirium and died in that state[510]. On the 18th July, the king, in Council at Hampton Court, issued an order to the bishops, that they should “exhort the people to a diligent attendance at common prayer, and so avert the displeasure of Almighty God, having visited the realm with the extreme plague of sudden death[511].”

The diary of a London citizen says that “there died in London many merchants and great rich men and women, and young men and old, of the new sweat[512].” On the 12th died Sir[Pg 261] Thomas Speke, one of the king’s council, at his house in Chancery Lane; next day died Sir John Wallop “an old knight and gentle[513],” the same who had survived an attack of the sweat in 1528 when at Hertford with Henry VIII. It is not clear whether some other deaths of notables in the same few days were due to the sweat. Three independent statements are extant of the mortality in London which had all been taken, doubtless, from the bills regularly compiled. One gives the deaths “from all diseases” in London from the 8th to the 19th July as 872, “no more in all, and so the Chancellor is certified[514];” another gives the deaths “by the sweating sickness” from the 7th to the 20th July as 938[515]; and Caius gives the deaths from the 9th to the 16th July as 761, “besides those that died on the 7th and 8th days, of whom no register was kept[516];” by the 30th of July, 142, more had died, by which time it had practically ceased in London[517]. Caius adds that it next prevailed in the eastern and northern parts of England until the end of August, and ceased everywhere before the end of September. The king, in a letter of the 22nd August, written during his progress, says that the most part of England at that time was clear of any dangerous or infectious sickness[518]. Records at York make mention of a great plague in 1551, but without describing it as the sweat[519]. The event which excited most attention was the death by the sweat of the two sons of the widowed duchess of Suffolk, the young duke Henry and his brother lord Charles Brandon on the 16th of July. They had been taken from Cambridge, for fear of the sweat, to the bishop of Lincoln’s palace at Bugden, in Huntingdonshire, their mother accompanying them; they fell ill[Pg 262] immediately upon their arrival, the elder dying after an illness of five hours and his brother half an hour after him[520].

Besides the cases of the two noble youths and others at Cambridge[521], there are no particulars of its prevalence in “the eastern and northern parts of England” (Caius). But we hear of it in the register of a country parish in Devonshire, under the same name of “Stup-gallant” as in the Loughborough register; and it is probable that those two casual notices indicate its diffusion all over England in the manner of influenza. That conclusion may find some support in the statement of one Hancocke, minister of Poole, Dorset, that “God had plagued this realm most justly with three notable plagues: (1) The Posting Sweat, that posted from town to town thorow England and was named ‘Stop-gallant,’ for it spared none. For there were some dancing in the Court at nine o’clock that were dead at eleven[522].” Its occurrence in Devonshire is proved by entries in the parish register of Uffculme: the whole burials in the year 1551 are 38; and of these no fewer than 27 occur in the first eleven days of August, and 16 of them in three days, the disease of which those persons died being named, in the register, “the hote sickness or stup-gallant[523].”

Comparing these records of the sweat of 1551 with those of the years 1517 and 1528, we may conclude that the latest of those three outbreaks was not more severe than the earlier, and that, in the Court circle, it was probably milder. The gloomy rhetoric of Caius had led Hecker to construct a picture of its disastrous progress along the valley of the Severn, in which there is not a single authentic detail. Caius says that he was a witness of it, but that must have been in London; and the figures for London, although they indicate a very sharp epidemic while it lasted, do not suggest a mortality greater at least than that of 1528. The Venetian ambassador in writing a general[Pg 263] memoir on England four years after, says that all business was suspended in London, the shops closed and nothing attended to but the preservation of life; but as he makes a gross exaggeration in stating the deaths in London at 5000 “during the three first days of its appearance,” we may take it that his impressions were vague or his recollections grown dim[524].

Were it not for the isolated notices of the sweat in Leicestershire and Devonshire, we should hardly have been able to realize that country towns and villages had been visited by an epidemic which was appalling both by its suddenness and by its fatality while it lasted. The name of “Stop-gallant,” by which it is called in these parish registers, shows the sort of impression which it made; but so far as the mortality is concerned, that was often equalled, if not exceeded, in after years by forms of epidemic fever which had nothing of the sweating type, although they might also have been called “stop-gallant,” and indeed were so-called in France (trousse-galante).

Apart from the notices in parish registers, we have the generalities of Dr Caius, which amount to no more than a funereal essay, in the scholastic manner, upon the theme of sudden death. It may be doubted whether Caius really knew the facts about the disease in the country. The 27 deaths within a few days in a small Devonshire village and the 19 in six days in a small Leicestershire town, are hardly to be reconciled with the statement in his Latin treatise of 1555, that “women and serving folk, the plebeian and humble classes, even the middle class,” did not feel it, but the “proceres” or upper classes did: they fled from it, he says, to Belgium, France, Ireland and Scotland. It was for these that he was chiefly concerned; and when he approaches his rhetorical task with the remark that “nothing is more difficult than to find suitable words for a great grief,” we may take it that he was thinking rather of such moving cases as that of the widowed duchess of Suffolk, who had lost her two sons in one day, than of wide-spread sickness and death throughout the homes of the people.

Nothing more is heard of the sweat in England after the autumn of 1551, at least not under that name. Francis Keene,[Pg 264] an “astronomer,” prophesied in his almanack for 1575, that the sweat would return, “wherein he erred not much,” says Cogan[525], “as there were many strange fevers and nervous sickness.” Some years before that, in 1558 (a year after influenza abroad), there prevailed in summer “divers strange and new sicknesses,” among which was a “sweating sickness,” so described by Dr John Jones, who had it at Southampton. We are, indeed, approaching the period of frequent and widespread epidemics of fever and of influenza, in both which types of disease sweating was occasionally a notable symptom, as in the influenza of 1580 abroad, in the fatal typhus of 1644 at Tiverton, in the widespread English fevers of 1658, and in the London typhus as late as 1750. How those other types of fever, due as if to a “corruption of the air,” are related generically to the English sweat is a question upon which something remains to be said before this chapter is concluded. But the history of the English sweat comes to a definite end with the epidemic of 1551. Sweating sickness of the original sort was never again the signum pathognomicum of a whole epidemic of fever. The English Sweat became an extinct species, after a comparatively brief existence on the earth of sixty-six years. Its successors among the forms of pestilential disease may have occasionally put forth the sweating character, as if in a sport of nature; but the most of the travelling, or posting, or universal fevers, and universal colds, are easily distinguished from the sweat—nova febrium terris incubuit cohors[526].

 [Pg 265]

Antecedents of the English Sweat.

The history of the English sweat presents to the student of epidemics much that is paradoxical although not without parallel, and much that his research can never rescue from uncertainty. Where did this hitherto unheard of disease come from? Where was it in the intervals from 1485 to 1508, from 1508 to 1517, from 1517 to 1528, and from 1528 to 1551? What became of it after 1551? Why did it fall mostly on the great houses,—on the king’s court, on the luxurious establishments of prelates and nobles, on the richer citizens, on the lusty and well fed, for the most part sparing the poor? Why did it avoid France when it overran the Continent in 1529? No theory of the sweat can be held sufficient which does not afford some kind of answer to each of those questions, and some harmonizing of them all.

The history of Polydore Virgil is so well informed on all that relates to the arrival in England of Henry VII. that we may accept as the common belief of the time his two statements about the sweat, the first associating it in some vague way with the descent of Henry upon Wales, and the second pronouncing it a disease hitherto unheard of in England. Caius, who wrote in 1552 and 1555, and can have had no other knowledge of the events of 1485 than is open to a historical student of to-day, said that the sweat “arose, so far as can be known, in the army of Henry VII., part of which he had lately brought together in France, and part of which had joined him in Wales.” Hecker, the modern reconstructer of the history (1834), has passed from the tradition of Polydore Virgil and of Caius, clean into the region of conjecture in assuming that the sweat had arisen among the French mercenaries on the voyage and on the march to Bosworth. On the other hand, the one contemporary medical writer in 1485, Forrestier, is explicit enough in his statement that the sweat “first unfurled its banners in England in the city of London, on the 19th of September,” or some three weeks after Henry’s entry into the city. There is nowhere a hint that it was prevalent among the troops, whether French, Welsh or English, who won the battle of Bosworth on the 22nd[Pg 266] of August, the only pretext for asserting that it was prevalent in the neighbourhood before the battle being the gossip of the Croyland chronicle concerning lord Stanley’s excuse to Richard III. for not bringing up his men, which gossip probably arose soon after when the sweat became notorious. Croyland was not very far from the camp of the Stanleys; and yet we know for certain (with the help of the state papers) that the death of the abbot Lambert Fossedike from the sweat happened there after an illness of eighteen hours on the 14th October, some seven or eight weeks from the date of Bosworth Field, and some three or four weeks after the outbreak of the disease in London. The probabilities of the case are all in favour of Forrestier’s view that the first of the sweat in 1485 was its appearance in London; and we shall accordingly take that as our point of departure.

Henry covered the distance between Leicester and London in four days, having left the former, after a rest of two nights, on the Wednesday, slept at St Albans on the Friday, and entered London, very tired by his journey (says Bernard André), on Saturday evening, 27th August, three weeks to a day from his landing at Milford Haven. Whether his whole force travelled from Leicester at the same pace, and entered the city with him, does not appear; but it can hardly be doubted that Henry’s following, French, Welsh and English, had found their way to London without loss of time, to make personal suit for the grants and patents that began to be issued under the royal seal in immense numbers after the first or second week in September. London must have been unusually full of people in the weeks before the Coronation on the 30th October. But the pestilence that broke out was not the “common infection” or plague, which might intelligibly have been fanned into a flame by a great concourse of people. It was the sweat,—a new disease, a stranger not only to England but to all the world. We shall understand the mysteriousness of the visitation and the inadequacy of all ordinary explanations, by taking Forrestier’s account of the causes of it, drawn up in the year of its first occurrence.

Although this earliest writer on the sweat recognized its distinctive type quite clearly, making no confusion between it and the plague, yet he referred both diseases to the same set of[Pg 267] causes; and in his section on the causes of the sweat he merely reproduces the conventional list of nuisances which occurs in nearly all treatises on the plague before and after his time. There was little variation from that list, as it is given in the last chapter from a plague-book of the 14th century, down even to the reign of Elizabeth; thus it is reproduced almost word for word in Bullein’s Dialogue on the Fever Pestilence written in 1564 (the year after a great plague), and it is so uniform in Elyot’s Castle of Health, in Phaer’s, and in all the other hygienic manuals of the time, that it might almost have been stereotyped. This was the causation which Forrestier transferred bodily to the sweat in his manuscript of 1485; almost the same causation had been given in the old essay of the bishop of Aarhus on the plague, actually printed in London in 1480.

“The causes of this sickness,” he says, “be far and nigh. The far causes—they be the signs or the planets, whose operation is not known of leeches and of phisitions; but of astronomers they be known.... The nigh causes be the stynkynge of the erthe as it is in many places.... For these be great causes of putrefaction: and this corrupteth the air, and so our bodies are infect of that corrupt air.... And it happeneth also, that specially where the air is changed into great heat and moistness, they induceth putrefaction of humours, and namely in the humours of the heart; and so cometh this pestilence, whose coming is unknown, as to them that die sodenley, &c.”

Among the causes of the corruption he specially mentions the following, which probably had a real existence in the London of that time, although he is merely reproducing a stock paragraph of foreign origin:

“And of stinking carrion cast into the water nigh to cities or towns,—as the bellies of beasts and of fishes, and the corruption of privies—of this the water is corrupt. And when as meat is boiled, and drink made of the water, many sickness is gendered in man’s body; and [so] also of the casting of stinking waters and many other foul things in the streets, the air is corrupt; and of keeping of stinking matters in houses or in latrines long time; and then, in the night, of those things vapour is lift up into the air, the which doth infect the substance of the air, by the which substance the air corrupts and infects men to die suddenly, going by the streets or by the way. Of the which thing let any man that loveth God and his neighbour amend.”

He then mentions a more distant source of corrupt air, apt to be carried on the wind—the corruption of unburied bodies[Pg 268] after a battle, which enters into all the plague-writings of the time.

These things were, of course, insufficient to account for the special type of the sweat, or for its sudden outbreak, for the first time in history, in September, 1485. There may have been such favouring conditions in London at the time; something of the kind is indeed implied in Henry VII.’s order against the nuisance of the shambles a few years after; but we require a special factor, without which the unsavoury state of the streets, lanes, yards, and ditches, or the crowded state of the houses, would never have come to an issue in so remarkable an infection as the sweating sickness. Common nuisances were the less relevant to the sweat, for the reason that it touched the well-to-do classes most, the classes who suffered least from the “common infection,” or “the poor’s plague,” and were presumably best housed, or located amidst cleanest surroundings. Even within the narrow limits of Old London there were preferences of locality. If the special incidence of the sweat upon the great households of prelates and nobles, and on the families of wealthy citizens, had rested only on the testimony of Dr Caius, who has a theory and a moral to work out, there might have been some reason for the scepticism of Heberden, who questions whether Caius was not probably in error in saying that the sweat spared the poor and the wretched, because he knows of no parallel instance among infective diseases[527]. But the fact is abundantly illustrated in the details, already given, for each of the five English epidemics; and it is confirmed for the continental invasion of 1529, e.g. by Kock, a parish priest of Lübeck, who says that “the poor people, and those living in cellars or garrets were free from the sickness,” and by Renner, of Bremen, who says that it “went most among the rich people[528].” It was, indeed, owing to its being an affliction chiefly of the upper classes that the sweat has been so much heard of. So far as mere numbers went, all the five London epidemics together could not have caused so great a mortality as the plague caused[Pg 269] in a single year of Henry VII., namely the year 1500, or in a single year of Henry VIII., such as the year 1513. But these great mortalities from plague, amounting to perhaps a fifth part of the whole London population in a single season, fell mainly, although not of course exclusively, upon the poorer class. The bubo-plague, domesticated on English soil from 1348 to 1666, was emphatically the “poor’s plague,” and, as such, it illustrated the usual law of infective disease, namely that it specially befell those who were the worst housed, the worst fed, the hardest pressed in the struggle, and the least able to find the means of escaping to the country when the infection in the city gave warning of an outbreak on the approach of warm weather.

But morbus pauperum is not the only principle of infective disease. There are pestilent infections which do not come readily under the law of poor, uncleanly and negligent living, in any ordinary sense of the words; and there are some communicable diseases which directly contradict the principle that infection falls upon those who engender it by their mode of life. Unwholesome conditions of living may be trusted to engender disease, but it does not follow that the infection so engendered will fall upon those who lead the unwholesome lives; sometimes it falls upon the class who are farthest removed from them in social circumstances or domestic habits, or who are widely separated from them in racial characters. This principle I believe to be not only a necessary complement to the more obvious rule, but to be itself one of wide application. It has been an original theme of my own in former writings, to which I take leave to refer in a note[529]; and, I have now to try here whether it may not suit the rather paradoxical and certainly mysterious circumstances of the sweating sickness on its first outbreak in the autumn of 1485.

If the insanitary state of London were insufficient to explain the engendering of the disease, the next thing is to look for[Pg 270] a foreign source. Suspicion falls at once upon the foreign mercenaries who landed with Henry Tudor at Milford Haven on the 6th of August. Who were these mercenaries? Did they suffer from any contagious disease? Were they likely to have engendered the sweat? Can the infection be traced, in matter of fact, to them? In seeking an answer, it will be necessary to enter somewhat fully into the history of the expedition.

The earl of Richmond’s successful expedition in 1485 was his second attempt on the English crown. The first had been made in 1483, when the duke of Gloucester was hardly seated on the throne and the duke of Buckingham was in the field against him. Richmond’s army on that occasion had been furnished by the duke of Brittany, and is roughly estimated at 5000 men in 15 ships[530]; the expedition sailed from St Malo in October, encountered a storm in the Channel which scattered the fleet, and drove some of the ships back to the harbours of Brittany and Normandy, so that Richmond, having reached the Dorset coast with only one or two ships, was unable to land in force. He returned to a Norman port, and nothing more is heard of his army of Bretons; during the next two years he appears to have been left with no other following than two or three English nobles, among them the earl of Oxford, who afterwards led a division of his army at Bosworth. After repeated solicitation, he obtained in 1485 a small body-guard (leve praesidium) from the regents of Charles VIII. at Paris, a few pieces of artillery, and money to help pay for the transport of 3000 or 4000 men. With these resources he betook himself to Rouen in the summer of 1485 and began to fit out his expedition. It would appear that he found some difficulty in making up his force to the intended full complement, and that he was urged by the impatience of his followers and the chance of a fair wind to leave the Seine with what force he had on the 31st of July. His force of Frenchmen, under his kinsman de Shandé (afterwards earl of Bath), consisted of only 2000 men, crowded on board a few ships. It is a fair inference that the[Pg 271] men had been recruited in and around Rouen; we are told, indeed, by Mezeray that Normandy was at that time infested by bands of francs-archers who had been licensed by Louis XI., and that the ministers of Charles VIII. gave them to Henry Tudor, to the number of 3000, regarding the proposed expedition of the latter as a good opportunity of ridding the province of Normandy of a lawless and disreputable soldiery[531].

These, then, were the mercenaries who landed at Milford Haven on the 6th of August, were at once marched through Wales to Shrewsbury and Lichfield, and took a principal part in the battle of Bosworth on the 22nd of August. They were Normans, who had become so great a pest to their own province that Charles VIII.’s ministers were induced to take up Henry Tudor’s cause partly with the intention of ridding French territory of them. Their quality is plainly indicated in the speech just before the battle by Richard III., which had been composed for Hall’s chronicle; only they were not Bretons, as the speech makes out; they were Normans, recruited for the expedition in Rouen and the surrounding country.

I have given so much emphasis to the nationality of these mercenaries because the theory of the English sweat turns upon it[532]. More than two centuries after Bosworth Field, about the year 1717, when the English sweat had been long forgotten, an almost identical type of disease began to show itself among the villages and towns of that very region of France, the lower basin of the Seine, where the mercenaries of 1485 had been recruited.


A form of Sweat afterwards endemic in Normandy.

The Picardy sweat, which was first noticed as a disease of the soil about the year 1717, and has continued off and on[Pg 272] down to recent years, was indigenous to the departments in the basin of the Seine, from the Pas de Calais to Calvados, with Rouen as a centre. Why that strange form of sickness should have sprung up there and continued, now in one town or village now in another, with few blank years for a century and a half, no one can venture to say. It was not the English sweat in all its circumstances; on the contrary it was only rarely epidemic over a large population or a large tract of country at once. It was ordinarily limited to one or two spots at a time, and in the individuals affected it ran a longer course than the English sweat had done. But whenever it did become widely prevalent it also became a short and sharp infection like the English sweat, causing in some years a very considerable number of deaths. Distinctively the Picardy sweat was a somewhat mild sickness of a week or more, seldom fatal, distinctively also of a single town or village, or small group of villages. It was not unknown in some other parts of France, such as the Vosges and Languedoc, in Bavaria and in Northern Italy; but in these other localities it has been much more occasional or even rare. Its distinctive habitat for a century and a half has been the lower basin of the Seine; and there it has been so steady at one point or another from year to year throughout the whole of that period that it may be said to be a disease of the soil, indigenous or domesticated, and depending for its periodic manifestations mostly upon vicissitudes of the seasons, as affecting probably the rise and fall of the ground-water. It has been more a disease of the well-to-do bourgeois class than of the very poor, and it has often shown a preference for the cleaner villages. It has been the subject of a very large number of French writings from the year 1717 down almost to the present date. Strange as this form of disease is, neither its circumstances nor its nosological characters are left in any doubt; it is at once mysterious and perfectly familiar[533].

 [Pg 273]

Theory of the English Sweat.

I have been at some pains to show that Henry Tudor’s mercenaries were enlisted in and around Rouen, or, in other words, they came from that very district of France in which the sweat, in a somewhat modified form, began to make its appearance as an endemic malady two hundred and thirty years after. If the sweat had not become an endemic or standing disease there, as if native to the soil, or if it had become equally a disease of all other parts of Europe, as typhoid fever has, the coincidence would have been less striking, and might have been made to appear altogether irrelevant by the long interval of more than two centuries between the one event and the other. If it were a mere coincidence, we should conclude that the same causes which established in Normandy in the 18th century a steady prevalence of a sweating sickness, not unlike the more familiar prevalence of typhoid, had been at work on English soil more than two centuries earlier, not indeed to establish a form of sweating sickness steadily prevalent from year to year in one place or another, like the plague, but to induce five sharp epidemic outbursts, within a period of sixty-six years, four of which outbursts began in London and extended probably over the whole country, while one began in Shrewsbury, travelled by stages to London, and spread all over England. And, as we are ignorant of the things which determine the type of the endemic sweat of Normandy or Picardy down to the present day, we can neither deny nor affirm that there may have been corresponding factors of disease at work in the England of Henry VII. By such a line of reasoning we are brought to a view of the English sweat which precludes all farther inquiry and makes a permanent blank or maze in our knowledge. Let us try, however, whether the facts of the case do not better fall in with the view that the English sweat had a real relation to the seats of the Norman and Picardy sweat, even at a time when that sweat had not come into existence as a definite form of disease, and although the French provinces appear to have been spared the invasion of the epidemic when it overran the rest of Northern Europe in 1529.

[Pg 274]The means of communication in 1485 was not wanting, namely the Norman soldiery of Henry VII. The tradition of their quality is preserved in the speech composed in Hall’s chronicle for Richard III. before the battle of Bosworth, and versified somewhat closely by Shakespeare:

“A sort of vagabonds, rascals, and run-aways,
A scum of Bretagnes, and base lackey peasants:
... Let’s whip these stragglers o’er the seas again;
Lash hence these over-weening rags of France,
These famished beggars, weary of their lives.”

There is nothing incredible in the supposition that these men had brought a disease into London although they had not themselves presented the symptoms of that disease. Such importations are not unknown; the mystery hanging over them does not make them the less real. A well-known instance is the St Kilda boat-cold, “the wonderful story,” as Boswell says, “that upon the approach of a stranger all the inhabitants catch cold,” a story which Mr Macaulay, the author of the History of St Kilda, had been advised to leave out of his book. “Sir,” said Dr Johnson, “to leave things out of a book merely because people tell you they will not be believed, is meanness: Macaulay acted with more magnanimity.” The St Kilda influenza has been amply corroborated since then by parallel instances from the more remote islands of the Pacific, and by striking instances in veterinary pathology. Among the latter may be quoted the instance which has been heard of in Shropshire, of “sheep which have been imported from vessels, although themselves in a healthy condition, if placed in the same fold with others, frequently producing sickness in the flock[534].” But there is an instance on a vast scale from the United States, the instance of Texas cattle-fever, which has recurred so often, and has been so closely watched on account of the disastrous loss which it causes, that there is no room left to doubt the reality of that mysterious form of contagion. I shall have to speak very shortly of the malignant fevers of the assizes, which spread from prisoners who were not known to be ill of fever; these incidents[Pg 275] are historical from the year 1522, when an epidemic of the kind arose among the court and grand jury at the gaol delivery in the Castle of Cambridge. Lastly the history of yellow fever, as expounded in part in this volume, is an instance of a long-enduring infection arising from the circumstances of the African slave-trade, the negroes themselves having been racially exempt from the fever although they had been the source of the virus.

In all such cases the sickness which ensued among the healthy from contact with strangers had a more or less definite type; and that type in each case must have been determined mainly by the antecedents of the strangers, their racial characters being reckoned among the antecedents as well as their special hardships and their personal habits. In the case of the singular visitation of England in 1485, the strangers were a swarm of disreputable free-booters from Normandy, natives of a soil which developed the sweat as an indigenous malady in the long course of generations. If they themselves had shown the symptoms of the sweat in 1485, one might have said that the circumstances of their passage in crowded ships, of their exhausting march from Wales to Leicestershire, and thence to London, had brought to the definite issue of a specific disease that which was otherwise no more than a habit of body, a constitutional tendency, a disease in the making. But there is no reason to suppose that they themselves incurred the symptoms of the disease at all; it was contact with them in England, particularly in London, that determined the peculiar type of disease in others. Those others were of a different national stock, and for the most part of another manner of life; in their very differences lay their liability, according to well-known analogies. Of course there must have been something material, something more than abstract contact, to cause the sweat in certain Englishmen; and although we cannot image the form of the virulent matter, we are safe to pronounce, in this hypothesis, that it must have come from the persons of the foreign soldiery.

 [Pg 276]

The Habitat of the Virus.

We may go even farther in the way of specific probability, and bring the virus definitely to a habitat in the soil. The English sweat, like the Picardy sweat itself, had certain characters of a soil poison, like the poison of cholera, yellow fever and typhoid fever; only it was not endemic like the two last, but periodic, as well as somewhat volatile in its manner of travelling, like dengue, influenza, and others of the “posting” fevers of former times. This brings us to the singular history of the epidemics of sweat in England,—to the clear intervals of many years and the sudden bursting forth anew. What became of the specific virus from 1485 to 1508, to 1517 to 1528, to 1551, and after?

A fresh importation in each of the epidemic years after 1485 is improbable; certainly the circumstances of Henry VII.’s expedition never occurred again, and the traffic between England and her two French possessions of Calais and Guines had nothing in it at all analogous. Equally improbable is the continuance of the sweat in isolated or sporadic cases from year to year throughout the intervals between the epidemics; the only facts that give any countenance to such a continuous succession are the occasionally mentioned “hot agues,” as in 1518, and, on a more extensive scale, in 1539. The seeds or germs of the infection which arose first in London in September, 1485, must have lain dormant in the city until some favouring conditions came round to call them into life. It is impossible to figure such dormancy of the virus except on the hypothesis that it was a soil-poison, having its habitat in the pores of the ground. The periodic activity of all such poisons depends, as we can now say with a good deal of certainty, upon the movements of the ground-water, which in turn depend on the wetness or dryness of seasons. The kind of weather preceding each of the epidemics of the English sweat has been remarked on by writers, but somewhat loosely or erroneously. The peculiarity of the year of the second sweat, 1508, (not 1506 as in Hecker, nor 1507 as in other writers) was a “marvellous” forwardness of vegetation in the month of January,[Pg 277] unusual heat from the end of May to the 13th of June, much prized rain on that date, on the 16th, and on the 3rd of July[535], the sweat being heard of first in the Lord Treasurer’s household in July. The third year of the sweat, 1517, began with a great frost from the 12th January, so that no boat could go from London to Westminster all the term time[536], while men crossed with horse and cart from Westminster to Lambeth[537]. This great frost would appear to have been without snow, the whole season from September, 1516, to May, 1517, being chronicled as one of unusual drought, “for there fell no rain to be accounted,” so that “in some places men were fain to drive their cattle three or four miles to water.” The kind of weather following the break-up of the drought is not mentioned, but there is implied of course a certain amount of rain. It was about the end of July or first of August, 1517, that the sweat began in London and the suburbs. The fourth, and perhaps the most severe sweat, that of 1528, followed upon two wet seasons, with one spoiled harvest in 1527 and bad prospects for that of 1528. The winter of 1526-27 had been unusually wet from November until the end of January; then dry weather set in until April; after which the rain began again and continued for eight weeks[538]. The harvest before that seems to have been a partial failure, for early in 1527 corn began to run short in London, and for a week or more there was acute general famine, so that the bread carts coming in from Stratford had to be guarded by the sheriffs and their men all the way from Mile End to their proper market. The high price of corn continued into the summer of 1528. The weather of that summer is not specially recorded for England; but we learn from a diplomatic letter dated, Paris, the 4th of[Pg 278] July, that much rain had fallen and destroyed the corn and vines, so that there were fears of universal decay and dearth through all France[539]. On the 5th July, Henry VIII. requests Wolsey to have general processions made through the realm “for good weather and for the plague,” the sweat having already been raging for more than a month. The fifth and last sweat, in 1551, also coincided with an unusually high price of corn, or, in other words, followed one or more bad harvests. In 1550 wheat was at 20 shillings the quarter; at Easter in 1551 the price in London was 26sh. 8d.; ten or twelve ship loads of rye and wheat from Holland and Brittany were sold under the mayor’s direction at a stated but very high price. Meanwhile the sweat was advancing from Shrewsbury to London, where it broke out on the 7th July. The statements of Dr Caius about stinking mists carried from town to town are, like most of his statements, so obviously the product of his uncritical rhetoric that it becomes almost impossible to trust his narrative for matters of fact. But we may go so far as to assume that the first half of 1551 was a season of an unusually moist atmosphere. At all events the fifth season of the sweat, and also the fourth (1528), stand out in the annals as years of scarcity following bad harvests, which had probably failed owing to continuous wet weather.

There is not, on the surface, much uniformity in the weather preceding the epidemics of the sweat in 1508, 1517, 1528 and 1551. In the first of these the winter was mild and the early summer excessively hot and dry; in the second the winter and spring were remarkable for drought, with several weeks of intense black frost in the middle period; in the remaining two the antecedent appears to have been an excessive rainfall. But in all the four we shall find that the law of the sub-soil water, as formulated by the recent Munich school with reference to epidemic outbursts, was exemplified. According to that law, the dangerous products of fermentation arise from the soil when the pores of the ground are either getting filled with water after having been long filled with air, or are getting filled with air after having been long filled with water. It is the range of fluctuation in the ground-water, either downwards or upwards,[Pg 279] that determines the risk to health; and in two of the years of the sweat, 1508 and 1517, we find that there had been a rise from a very low level of the wells, while in the other two, 1528 and 1551, the wells had begun to fall after standing for a length of time at an unusually high level. If this reading of the somewhat imperfect data can be trusted, it is at one and the same time an explanation of the outbreak of the sweat in the respective seasons, and a confirmation of the hypothesis that the virus of the sweat had its habitat in the ground. That hypothesis is, indeed, supported by so great a convergence of probabilities, both for the English sweat and for the endemic sweat of France[540], that it may be used to explain the seasonal incidence without laying the argument open to the charge of running in a vicious circle.

Whatever had been the kind of weather determining the successive outbreaks of the sweat, it is clear that the favouring circumstances were in general not the same as those of the bubo-plague. The greater outbursts of plague, as we shall see, were in 1500, 1509, 1513, 1531, 1535, 1543, 1547, and other years not sweat-years. It is only in the autumn of 1517 that the plague overlaps somewhat on the sweat, and even then it becomes noticeable mostly in the winter following the decline of the sweat. The two poisons had existed in English soil side by side, but had not come out at the same seasons; also the sweat had been mostly a disease of the greater houses, and the plague mostly of the poorer.


The Extinction of the Sweat in England.

The disappearance of the sweat from England after 1551, or its failure to come out again with the appropriate weather, is one of those phenomena of epidemic disease which might be made to appear less of a mystery by finding several more in the like case. A history of all the extinct types of infective disease would probably bring to light some reason why they had each and all died out. But an epidemic disease leaves no bones behind it in the strata; nor has the astonishing progress of science succeeded as yet in detecting palæozoic bacteria,[Pg 280] although that discovery cannot be delayed much longer. Meanwhile we have to make what we can of the ordinary records. In our own time, so to speak, the sweat became extinct in 1551, and the plague in 1666; perhaps someone before long may be able to say that typhus died out (for a time) in Britain in such and such a year, and smallpox (for good) in such and such another. The surprising thing is that an infection which came forth time after time should have one day been missed as if it were dead. If the sweat had five seasons in England, why not fifty? Perhaps its career was short because the circumstances of its origin were transient and, as it were, accidental. But it may have been also subject to the only law of extinct disease-species which our scanty knowledge points to—the law of the succession, or superseding, or supplanting of one epidemic type by another.

Other forms of epidemic fever, in the same pestilential class as the sweat, were coming to the front in England as well as in other parts of Europe. Thus, in 1539, a summer of great heat and drought, “divers and many honest persons died of the hot agues, and of a great laske through the realm.” The hot agues were febrile influenzas, and the great laske was dysentery. Again, in the autumn of 1557, there died “many of the wealthiest men all England through by a strange fever,” according to one writer[541], or, according to another[542], there prevailed “divers strange and new sicknesses, taking men and women in their heads, as strange agues and fevers, whereof many died.” Jones in his Dyall of Agues, describes his own attack near Southampton, in 1558, and calls it the sweating sickness.

That epidemic corresponded to a great prevalence of “influenza” on the continent, which was probably as Protean or composite as the fevers in England. It would not be correct to say that these new fevers or influenzas, with more or less of a sweating type, were the sweat somewhat modified. But they seem to have come in succession to the sweat, if not to have taken its place, or supplanted it. The prevalent types of disease somehow reflect the social condition of the population; they change with the social state of the country or of a group of countries; they depend upon a great number of associated[Pg 281] circumstances which it would be hard to enumerate exhaustively. As early as 1522 we have the gaol fever at Cambridge, at a time when Henry VIII.’s attempts to repress crime were come to the strange pass described in More’s Utopia. These things remain for more systematic handling in another chapter; but in concluding the career of the sweat in England we may pass from it with the remark that it did not cease until other forms of pestilential fever were ready to take its place. The same explanation remains to be given of the total disappearance of plague from England after 1666: it was superseded by pestilential contagious fever, a disease which was its congener, and had been establishing itself more and more steadily from year to year as the conditions of living in the towns were passing more and more from the medieval type to the modern. Meanwhile we have to take up the thread of the plague-history where we left it in the reign of Edward IV.



[Pg 282]



When the town council of York met on the 16th of August, 1485, to take measures on account of Henry Tudor’s landing in Wales, their first resolution was to despatch the sergeant to the mace to Richard III. at Nottingham, with an offer of men (they promised 400 for his army at Bosworth), and their second resolution was to send at once for all such aldermen and others of the council as were sojourning without the city on account of “the plague that reigneth[543].” These leading citizens of York had gone into the country to avoid the infectious exhalations within the walls in the summer heats; the plague that reigned in York was the old bubo-plague, which would show itself in a house here or there in any ordinary season, and on special occasions would rise to the height of an epidemic, driving away all who could afford to remove from the pestilent air of the town to the comparatively wholesome country, and taking its victims mostly among the poorer class who could not afford a “change of air.” In the three centuries following the Black Death, change of air meant a good deal more than it means now. The infection of the air, or the “intemperies” of the air, at Westminster occasioned (along with other reasons) the prorogation or adjournment to country towns of many parliaments; the infection of the air in and around Fleet Street caused the breaking up of many law terms; and the infection of the air in Oxford colleges was so constant an interruption to the studies of the place in the[Pg 283] 15th century that Anthony Wood traces to that cause more than to any other the total decline of learning, the rudeness of manners and the prevalence of “several sorts of vice, which in time appeared so notorious that it was consulted by great personages of annulling the University or else translating it to another place[544].” From the old college registers, chiefly that of his own college of Merton, he has counted some thirty pestilences at Oxford, great and small, during the fifteenth century. The reason why the Oxford annals of plague are so complete is that each outbreak, even if only one or two deaths had occurred[545], meant a dispersion of the scholars and tutors of one or more halls and colleges, their removal in a body to some country house, alteration of the dates of terms, and postponement of the public Acts for degrees in the schools. Experience had taught the necessity of such prompt measures. Thus the first sweat, that of 1485, came so suddenly that it killed many of the scholars before they could disperse, “albeit it lasted but a month or six weeks.” Hardly had the halls and colleges begun to fill again after the dispersion by the sweat of 1485, when “another pestilential disease,” that is to say, the bubo-plague itself, broke forth at the end of August, 1486, in Magdalen parish, and daily increased so much that the scholars were obliged to flee again. In 1491 there was another dispersion; and in 1493 so severe an outbreak of plague from April to Midsummer that many were swept away, both cleric and laic: Magdalen College removed to Brackley in Northamptonshire, Oriel to St Bartholomew’s hospital near Oxford, and Merton to Islip, “instead of Cuxham their usual place of retirement.” The disastrous fifteenth century closes with a specially severe plague in 1499-1500, in which perished “divers of this university accounted worthy in these times;” an accompanying scarcity of grain and consequent failure of scholarships or exhibitions led many students to betake themselves to mechanical occupations. In August, 1503, the plague broke out again in St Alban’s Hall; the principal with all but a few of the students went to Islip, where the[Pg 284] pestilence overtook them (three weeks having been spent first in mirth and jollity), so that several died and were buried, some at Islip, others at Ellesfield and one at Noke; in October it broke out in Merton College and drove some of the fellows and bachelors to the lodge in Stow Wood, others to Wotton near Cumner, where they remained until the 17th December. These interruptions had been so frequent that of fifty-five halls, only thirty-three were now inhabited, and they “but slenderly, as may be seen in our registers.” The town of Oxford shared in the decline; streets and lanes formerly populous were now desolate and forsaken. An epidemic in 1508, which may have been the second sweat, caused another dispersion; then the old bubo-plague again in 1510, 1511, 1512 and 1513, filling up the interval until the summer of 1517, when a “sudor tabificus,” the third sweat, “dispersed and swept away most, if not all, of the students.” The bubo-plague followed in the winter and spring, especially in St Mary Hall and Canterbury College. Meanwhile cardinal Wolsey had founded Cardinal College (afterwards Christ Church), bringing to it an infusion of new learning from Cambridge and elsewhere; but in 1525, “while this selected society was busy in preaching, reading, disputing and performing their scholastic Acts, a vehement plague brake forth, which dispersed most of them, so that they returned not all the year following or two years after,” and Cardinal College “thus settled, was soon after left as ’twere desolate.” The same outbreak affected specially the halls or colleges of St Alban, Jesus, St Edmund and Queen’s[546].

Oxford was not altogether singular in this experience of plague from year to year or at intervals of three or four years. What Sir Thomas More says of the cities of Utopia was true of the towns of England or of any medieval country in Christendom: “As for their cities, whoso knoweth one of them, knoweth them all; they be all so like one to another, as far forth as the nature of the place permitteth.” The limitation as to the nature of the place is not without importance for the frequency and severity of plague; the quantity of standing water around Oxford would certainly appear to have made the epidemics there a more regular[Pg 285] product of the soil[547]. But we hear of plague also on the soil of Cambridge, particularly in 1511, when Erasmus was there: on the 28th November he writes from Queens’ College to Ammonio in London: “Here is great solitude; most are away for fear of the pestilence,” adding rather unkindly, “although there is also solitude when everyone is in residence.” It is from such chance references in letters of the time that we can infer the existence of plague throughout England. These references become much more numerous as the sixteenth century runs on, not perhaps because plague was more frequent, but because all kinds of documents are better preserved. The remarkable difference between the reigns of Henry VII. and Henry VIII. in regard to the quantity of extant materials for the construction of history is as keenly felt by the student of epidemics as by the student of high politics. The local records of towns, London included, are still almost valueless for our purpose: even the skilled antiquaries employed by the Historical Manuscripts Commission have hitherto extracted nothing concerning pre-Elizabethan epidemics from the archives of civic council-chambers, and only a little from muniment-rooms such as that of Canterbury Abbey.

The few details that we possess, such as those for the plague at Hull from 1472 to 1478, had been extracted from local records by the authors of town and county histories. Before the end of the sixteenth century the evidence of plague epidemic all over England, as well in provincial towns and in the country as in London, becomes abundant. There may have been really a great increase, but it is much more probable that the increase is for the most part only apparent. It is of some consequence to determine the probability as exactly as possible; and I shall therefore examine with more minuteness than would otherwise have been necessary the evidence as to the existence and amount of plague in London and elsewhere year after year from the accession of the Tudor dynasty in 1485,[Pg 286] using chiefly the Calendars of State Papers for my purpose. As in the case of the sweat, we happen to hear of plague in London and elsewhere because the Court was kept away by it; the king’s secretaries are informed week after week of the state of health in London, and foreign ambassadors, especially the Venetian envoys, have frequently occasion to mention the hindrance to public business caused by the plague. But for these State papers the historian of epidemics would have little beyond an occasional parish register to build upon. The medical profession in England were not concerned to write or print anything thereon; while there are numerous foreign printed books on the plague (e.g. Forrestier’s at Rouen in 1490) there is not one original English treatise until that of Skene of Edinburgh in 1568. That the physicians were well employed by those who could engage their services, and that they did sustain the credit of their profession by the liberal scale of their fees, we have every reason to believe; thus the Venetian envoy writes on 3rd June, 1535, that he had been ill, and that he had expended seven hundred ducats during his illness, “and for so many physicians,” so that he had only one ducat remaining. But these thriving practitioners did not write books like their brethren abroad. One of their number, Linacre, who was also a prebendary of Westminster, busied himself with editions of certain writings of Galen. Erasmus mentions him in a letter as one of the Oxford scholars in whose society he found pleasure; but there is in the Praise of Folly a reference to a certain grammatical pedant whom Hecker identifies with Linacre. The other physicians and surgeons of the period whose names are known, Butts, Chambre, Borde and the rest of the group in Holbein’s picture of Henry VIII. handing the surgeons their charter, have left nothing in print which illustrates the epidemic diseases of the time, and little of any kind of writing except some formulæ of medicines: Borde, who was patronised by Cromwell, is known only as a humorist or satirist. Thus the inquiry must proceed without any of those aids from the faculty which make the history of epidemics on the Continent comparatively easy.

After the disastrous prevalence of plague in England in the reign of Edward IV., culminating in the great epidemic of 1479[Pg 287] in London and elsewhere, we do not hear of the disease again in London until 1487, two years after the first sweat; in that year, on the 14th April, a king’s writ from Norwich postponed the business of the Common Pleas and King’s Bench until Trinity term, on account of the pestilence in London, Westminster and neighbouring places[548]. The next reference is to the great epidemic of 1499-1500, in London and apparently also in the country. Fabyan, who was then an alderman and likely to know, puts the deaths in London at twenty thousand[549]; Polydore Virgil says thirty thousand[550]; and others say thirty thousand deaths from plague and other diseases together[551]. The smaller total is the more likely to be nearest the mark. There is reason to think that the population of London a generation later was little over 60,000; and it will appear in the sequel that a fourth or a fifth part of the inhabitants was as much as the severest plagues cut off, although it is entirely credible that the Black Death itself had cut off one half.

The enormous mortality in 1499-1500 has left few traces in the records of the City or of the State. Five great prelates died during the plague-year, some of them certainly from it: Morton of Canterbury (a very old man), Langton of Winchester (before he could be transferred to Canterbury), Rotheram of York, Alcock of Ely and Jane of Norwich[552]. Like some of the later plagues in London it lasted through the winter. It was at Oxford in the same years, and casual references in two of the Plumpton letters lead one to infer that it may have been in remote parts of the country also[553].

The infection was still active as late as October, 1501, at Gravesend, and it made some difference to the reception of the[Pg 288] young princess Catharine of Arragon, who had come over for her marriage with Prince Arthur, and became famous in history as the wife of his brother Henry VIII. The following are Henry VII.’s instructions, dated October, 1501:—

“My lord Steward shall shew or cause to be shewed to the said Princess, that the King’s Grace, tenderly considering her great and long pain and travel upon the sea, would full gladly that she landed and lodged for the night at Gravesend; but forasmuch as the plague was there of late, and that is not yet clean purged thereof, the King would not that she should be put in any such adventure or danger, and therefore his Grace hath commanded the bark to be prepared and arrayed for her lodging[554].”

In 1503 there was plague at Oxford, as we have seen, and at Exeter, where two mayors died of it in quick succession, and two bailiffs[555]. The infection was certainly in London in 1504 or 1505 (perhaps in both, and possibly at its low endemic level in the other years from 1501): for Bernard André mentions casually that he had been absent from the City on account of it[556].

In 1509, the first year of Henry VIII., there was a severe outbreak of plague in the garrison of Calais, as well as “great plague” in divers parts of England[557]. In 1511, Erasmus writes from Cambridge on 17th August, 5th October and 16th October, making reference to the plague in London; and on the 27th October, 8th November, and 28th November, Ammonio answers him that the plague has not entirely disappeared, and again that it is abated, but a famine is feared, and lastly that the plague is entirely gone. On the 26th of July the Venetian ambassador had written that the queen-widow (mother of Edward V.) had died of plague and that the king, Henry VIII., was anxious.

On the 1st November, 1512, Erasmus, on a visit to London, was so afraid of the plague that he did not enter his own lodging, and missed a meeting with Colet. The next year, 1513, was a severe plague-year according to many testimonies. In the diary of the Venetian envoy from August to 3rd September it is[Pg 289] stated that deaths from plague are occurring constantly; two of his servants sickened on the 22nd August, but did not recognize the disease; on the 25th they rose from bed, went to a tavern to drink a certain beverage called “ale,” and died the same day: their bed, sheets and other effects were thrown into the sea (? Thames). On the 17th September he writes to Venice that it is perilous to remain in London; the deaths were said to be 200 in a day, there was no business doing, all the Venetian merchants in London had taken houses in the country; the plague is also in the English fleet. In October the deaths are reported by the envoy at 300 to 400 a day; he has gone into the country. On the 6th November and 6th December he writes that plague was still doing much damage. On the 3rd December the rumour of a great prevalence of plague in England had reached Rome. On the 28th November Erasmus writes from Cambridge that he does not intend to come to London before Christmas on account of plague and robbers; and on the 21st December he writes again: “I am shut up in the midst of pestilence and hemmed in with robbers.”

One year is very like another, but it will be desirable to continue the narrative a little longer so as to remove any suspicion of constructing history beyond the facts. In February, 1514, Erasmus writes that he had been disgusted with London, deeming it unsafe to stay there owing to plague. In going in procession to St Paul’s on the 21st May the king preferred to be on horseback, for one reason “to avoid contact with the crowd by reason of the plague;” he had lately recovered from some vaguely reported “fever” at Richmond. On the 1st July Convocation was adjourned on account of the epidemic and the heat.

Next year, 1515, Erasmus writes from London on the 20th April that he is in much trouble; the plague had broken out and it looked as if it would rage everywhere. On the 23rd April Wolsey sends advice to the earl of Shrewsbury in the country (? Wingfield) to “get him into clean air and divide his household,” owing to contagious plague among his servants; on the 28th the earl received from London one pound of manus Christi,—the same remedy that Henry VIII. sent to Wolsey[Pg 290] for the sweat—with coral, and half-a-pound of powder preservative. On the same date “they begin to die in London in divers places suddenly of fearful sickness.” One of the incidents of the plague of 1515 which has fixed the attention of chroniclers was the death of twenty-seven of the nuns in a convent at the Minories outside Aldgate[558]. Next year, on 14th May (1516), the sickness was so extreme in Lord Shrewsbury’s house at Wingfield that he has put away all his horse-keepers and turned his horses out to grass. In London, on the 21st May, the Venetian ambassador removed to Putney owing to a case of plague in his house, and he would not be allowed to see Wolsey until the 30th June, when forty days would have passed since the plague in his house.

The next summer, 1517, was the season of the third sweat. It was hardly over when plague began in London in September. On the 21st the Venetian envoy speaks of having had to avoid “the plague and the sweating sickness;” on the 26th he writes that the plague is making some progress and he has left London to avoid it. On the 15th October the king was at Windsor “in fear of the great plague.” One writes on 25 Oct., “As far as I can hear, there is no parish in London free[559].” On the 16th November the envoy begs the seignory of Venice to send someone to replace him as he thinks it high time to escape from “sedition, sweat and plague.” On the 3rd December the king and the cardinal were still absent from London on account of the plague; on the 22nd their absence was causing general discontent, the plague being somewhat abated. It was not until March, 1518, that the court approached London; on the 15th the Venetian envoy rode out to Richmond to see the king, and found him in some trouble, as three of his pages had died “of the plague.” The court withdrew again to Berkshire, and on the 6th April it was decided by the king’s privy council at Abingdon that London was still infected and must be avoided, the queen (Catharine of Arragon) having declared the day before that she had perfect knowledge[Pg 291] of the sickness being in London, and that she feared for the king, although she was no prophet. On the 7th April the report of four or five deaths at Nottingham (“as appears by a bill enclosed”) was made the ground of postponing a projected visit of the king to the north. The spring was unusually warm, which made the risk of sickness to be judged greater. It is clear that public business was suffering by the prolonged absence of the court from London, and that the existence of infection was being denied. On the 28th April Master More certified from Oxford to the king at Woodstock that three children were dead of the sickness, but none others; he had accordingly charged the mayor and the commissary in the king’s name “that the inhabitants of those houses that be and shall be infected, shall keep in, put out wispes and bear white rods, according as your grace devised for Londoners;” this was approved by the king’s council, and the question was discussed whether the fair in the Austin Friars of Oxford a fortnight later should not be prohibited, as the resort of people “may make Oxford as dangerous as London, next term” (the law courts sat at Oxford in Trinity term). However, the interests of traders had to be kept in view also. On 28th June, 1518, Pace writes from the court at Woodstock to Wolsey that “all are free from sickness here, but many die of it within four or five miles, as Mr Controller is informed.” On the 11th July he writes again from Woodstock that two persons are dead of the sickness, and more infected, one of them a servant to a yeoman of the king’s guard; to-morrow the king and queen lodge at Ewelme, and stop not by the way, as the place appointed for their lodging is infected. On the 14th July he writes to Wolsey from Wallingford that the king moves to-morrow to Bisham “as it is time: for they do die in these parts in every place, not only of the small pokkes and mezils, but also of the great sickness.” The uncertainty as to what these diseases may have been will appear from the next letter, on the 18th July, from Sir Thomas More: “We have daily advertisements here, other of some sweating or the great sickness from places very near unto us; and as for surfeits and drunkenness we have enough at home.” The king had also heard that one of my lady Princess’s servants was sick of “a hot ague” at Enfield.[Pg 292] On the 22nd July, the Venetian ambassador writes from Lambeth asking to be recalled: two of his servants had died of the plague, and he himself had the sweating sickness twice in one week. The pope’s legate, Campeggio, made a state entry into London about the first of August, but the king and Wolsey were not there to receive him, ostensibly for fear of infection. The king was now at Greenwich, and we hear no more of the fear of infection for a time. In the end of March, 1519, deaths from plague occurred on board one of the Venetian galleys at Southampton. On the 4th August, 1520, the king (at Windsor) has heard that the great sickness is still prevalent at Abingdon and other villages towards Woodstock, and has changed his route (“gystes”) accordingly; on 8th August, sickness is reported at Woodstock. The same year some kind of sickness was very disastrous in Ireland.

In the winter of 1521 (2nd November), the sickness continues in London: “it is not much feared, though it is universal in every parish.” According to a vague entry in Hall’s chronicle the year 1522 was in like manner, “not without pestilence nor death,” which may refer to the gaol fever at Cambridge.

Thus from 1511 to 1521 there is not a single year without some reference to the prevalence of plague, the autumn and winter of 1513 having been probably the time of greatest mortality in London. After 1521 or 1522 there comes a break of four or five years in the plague-references, except for a vague mention of plague followed by famine at Shrewsbury in 1525[560]. They begin again in 1526 (from Guildford) and go on until 1532 every year much as in the former period, the year 1528 being mostly occupied with the fourth epidemic of the sweating sickness. On the 4th June, 1529, the legate Campeggio writes from London: “Here we are still wearing our winter clothing, and use fires as if it were January: never did I witness more inconstant weather. The plague begins to rage vigorously, and there is some fear of the sweating sickness.” On the 31st August the Venetian ambassador has a person sick of the plague in his house; on the 9th September he has gone to a village near London on account of the plague. On the 18th[Pg 293] September the French ambassador in London (Bishop Du Bellay) has plague in his household, and in spite of repeated changes of lodging his principal servants are dead; he has been unable to refuse leave to the others to go home, and is now quite alone, but the danger from the plague is much diminished.

In 1530 the plague is heard of as early as March 23, previous to which date two of the Venetian ambassador’s servants had died of it; three more of them died afterwards, and the envoy was forbidden the Court for forty days. Parliament was prorogued on April 26 to June 22, on account of the plague in London and the suburbs, and farther, for the same reason, until October 1. The king was at Greenwich, but even there was not beyond the infection; in the Privy Purse book, there is an entry of £18. 8s. paid “to Rede, the marshall of the king’s hall for to dispose of the king’s charge to such poor folk as were expelled the town of the Greenwiche in the tyme of the plague.” Similar payments are entered on January 13, 1531, April 10, April 26 and November 8[561].

On November 23, 1531, the king was obliged to leave Greenwich on account of the plague, removing to Hampton Court (now a royal palace since Wolsey’s fall). In London it had somewhat abated, but, according to a letter of the Venetian ambassador, had been up to 300 or 400 deaths in a week. In mid-winter, the 15th of January, 1532, Parliament was prorogued on account of the insalubrity of the air in London and Westminster. The infection may be assumed to have gone on, according to the analogy of known years, all through the spring and summer, rising to a greater height in the autumn. We next hear of it on the 18th September, 1532, when the Venetian envoy writes from London that the king’s journey to Gravesend and Dover would be by water, “as there is much plague in those parts, and there is no lack of it in London. Yesterday at the king’s court the master of the kitchen died of it, having waited on his majesty the day before.” On the 24th September, “the plague increases daily in London and well nigh throughout the country.”

On the 14th October, “the plague increases daily, and[Pg 294] makes everybody uneasy.” On the same date the Privy Council write to the king, who had crossed to Calais accompanied by Mr Secretary Cromwell, for a meeting with the French king, that there is a rumour of the plague increasing, especially at the Inns of Court. On the 18th October Hales, one of the justices, writes to Cromwell that “the plague of sickness is so sore here that I never saw so thin a Michaelmas term.” On the 20th, Audeley the Lord Chancellor writes that many die of the plague, the sergeants in Fleet Street have left in consequence, the Inner Temple has broken commons, the lawyers being in great fear. “The Council have commanded the mayor to certify how many have died of the plague.” That is the first known reference to the London bills of mortality, and was probably the very first occasion of them[562]. By that time the plague had been active in London for more than a month, and had clearly begun to alarm the residents. The result of the Privy Council’s order to the mayor of London was a bill on or before the 21st October, showing that 99 persons had died of the plague in the city, and 27 from other causes, the number of deaths from other causes suggesting that this was the bill for a week. On the 23rd the Secretary of State is informed that the sickness is fervent and many die; those who are not citizens are much afeard. On the 25th Sir John Aleyn has assurances for Cromwell (at Calais) from all parts of the country that the whole realm is quiet, but the plague has been more severe than in London. Cromwell’s French gardener was alive and well on Saturday afternoon, the 12th, and he was dead of the plague and buried on Monday morning the 14th. On the 27th the death “is quite abated” in London and Westminster, according to one; but according to the Lord Chancellor, on the 28th, the plague increases, especially about Fleet Street. On the 31st October one writes, “I have not seen London so destitute of people as it was when I came there.” On 2nd November the death is assuaged and there is good rule kept, for Sir Hugh Vaughan takes pains in his office[Pg 295] like an honest gentleman. On the 9th November the plague is abated. There the correspondence ends, the Court having returned from France. But we may here bring in a certain weekly bill of mortality which has come down among the waifs of paper from that period[563]. It is for the week from the 16th to the 23rd of November, the year not being stated; the experts of the national collection of manuscripts were at one time inclined to assign it to “circa 1512;” but the first that we hear of the mayor being called upon to furnish a bill of plague-deaths is the order by the lords of the Council on or about the 20th October 1532, the first bill having shown 99 deaths in the city from plague and 27 deaths (in the week) from other causes. The extant bill for the week 16th to 23rd November is clearly one of a series; there are no good grounds for assigning it to an earlier date than the year 1532, while there are reasons for not placing it later. There are two other plague-bills extant, for August, 1535, written out in a more clerkly fashion, and bearing the marks of greater experience. The bill for the week in November is more primitive in appearance; and we may fairly take it as one of the series first ordered by the Council in 1532: for that was the most considerable year of the plague immediately preceding the outburst of 1535, to which the more finished bills certainly belong. The week in November, for which it gives the deaths from plague and other causes in the city parishes is later than the dates of the 2nd and 9th, when the plague was “suaged” and “abated;” the bill therefore stands for plague on the decline, or near extinction for the season, its total of plague deaths being 33, and of other deaths 32, as against 99 and 27 respectively in the corresponding week of October. As this, the earliest of a great historical series of London bills of mortality, has a peculiar interest, I transcribe it in full, retaining the original spelling.

Syns the XVIth day of November unto the XXIII day of the same moneth ys dead within the cite and freedom yong and old these many folowyng of the plage and other dyseases.

Inprimys benetts gracechurch i of the plage
S Buttolls in front of Bysshops gate i corse
S Nycholas flesshammls i of the plage
[Pg 296]S Peturs in Cornhill i of the plage
Mary Woolnerth i corse
All Halowes Barkyng ii corses
Kateryn Colman i of the plage
Mary Aldermanbury i corse
Michaels in Cornhill iii one of the plage
All halows the Moor ii i of the plage
S Gyliz iiii corses iii of the plage
S Dunstons in the West iiii of the plage
Stevens in Colman Strete i corse
All halowys Lumbert Strete i corse
Martins Owut Whiche i corse
Margett Moyses i of the plage
Kateryn Creechurch ii of the plage
Martyns in the Vintre ii corses
Buttolls in front Algate iiii corses
S Olavs in Hart Strete ii corses
S Andros in Holborn ii of the plage
S Peters at Powls Wharff ii of the plage
S Fayths i corse of the plage
S Alphes i corse of the plage
S Mathows in Fryday Strete i of the plage
Aldermary ii corses
S Pulcres iii corses i of the plage
S Thomas Appostells ii of the plage
S Leonerds Foster Lane i of the plage
Michaels in the Ryall ii corses
S Albornes i corse of the plage
Swytthyns ii corses of the plage
Mary Somersette i corse
S Bryde v corses i of the plage
S Benetts Powls Wharff i of the plage
All halows in the Wall i of the plage
Mary Hyll i corse.

Sum of the plage xxxiiii persons
Sum of other seknes xxxii persons

The holl sum xxiii & vi.

And there is this weke clere xxxiii and iii paryshes as by this bille doth appere.

The execn
of corses
buryed of
the plage
within the
cite of
syns &c.

[Pg 297]There does not appear to have been any occasion for a continuance of plague-bills beyond the date of the one just given until nearly three years after: we hear, indeed, of a severe epidemic of plague at Oxford in 1533, but nothing of it in London until 1535[564]. It so happens that a pair of London bills of mortality is extant from the month of August in that year. Thus, by a singular coincidence, the only original bills of mortality that have come down (so far as is known) from the sixteenth century, are one from the end of the series in the first year of their execution (1532), and another the very first of the series in the second year of their execution (1535), or in the series ordered on account of the epidemic of plague next following. Of that epidemic also it may be permitted to give somewhat full details, for it is only rarely that we have the chance of realizing the facts in so concrete a way.

In the summer and autumn of 1535 Henry VIII., with the queen (Anne Boleyn), was mostly at his manor of Thornbury in Gloucestershire, Cromwell the principal Secretary of State being either with the king or in his immediate neighbourhood. The absence of the Court occasions numerous letters to be sent from and to London, in which we hear of the plague among other things. Cromwell had four houses in or near London at this time,—at the Rolls in Chancery Lane, at Austin Friars in the City, at the fashionable suburb of Stepney, and at Highbury: besides these he had a fine villa building at Hackney. From his steward or other servants at one or more of these he was in receipt of letters constantly during his absence. A letter from the Rolls on the 30th July informs him that twelve heron-shaws had been sent to him from Kent, and had been received at the Rolls “as the city of London is sorely infected with the plague.” Next day another writes that the City is infected but Fleet Street is clean. On the 5th August “the common sickness waxeth very busy in London.” On the 7th Lord Chancellor Audeley writes from “my house at Christchurch” (Creechurch, near Aldgate) that he had been expecting Cromwell in London,[Pg 298] but hears that he will not return for nine or ten days; will therefore go to his house at Colchester meanwhile, as they are dying of the plague in divers parishes in London. Cromwell was naturally desirous to know accurately the state of health in the city, so as to regulate his own movements and perhaps the king’s also; he accordingly makes inquiries of his various correspondents. Another letter from London on the 7th August informs him that there is no death at Court, but only in certain places in the city: “I fear these great humidities will engender pestilence at the end of the year, rather after Bartholomew tide than before. If you be near London you must avoid conference of people.” On receipt of this Cromwell would appear to have written to the mayor of London, for on the 13th August his clerk at the Rolls replies to him that he had delivered the letter to the lord mayor. On the 16th another of the household at the Rolls writes that the plague rages in every parish in London, but not so bad as in many places abroad: “I will send the number of the dead. The mayor keeps his chamber. Some say he is sick of an ague; others that he was cut about the brows for the megrims, which vexeth him sore. Few men come at him, but women.” The bill of mortality which Cromwell had asked for previous to 13th August is extant[565]. It is in two parts: one showing 31 deaths from plague and 31 deaths from other causes in thirty-seven out of one hundred parishes from the 5th to the 12th August, with a list of parishes clear; and the other, headed “14th August” and probably meant to include the former, showing a much heavier mortality and a much shorter list of parishes clear, the whole being endorsed by the mayor, Sir John Champneys, as follows: “So appeareth there be dead within the city of London of the plague and otherwise from the 6th day of this month of August to the 14th day, which be eight days complete, the full number of 152 persons [105 of them from plague]. And this day se’night your mastership [Mr Secretary Cromwell] shall be certified of the number that shall chance to depart in the meantime. Yours as[Pg 299] I am bound, John Champeneys.” This double bill for certain days in August, 1535, is rather more elaborate than, but otherwise not unlike, the above bill, for a week in November, most likely of the year 1532. It will be noticed that the deaths in all the city parishes from other causes than plague are 47 in the bill for eight (or nine) days; 31 in the bill, partly the same, for seven days, and 32 in the earlier bill for seven days, while they are known to have been 27 in another bill of October, 1532, probably also for seven days. These figures, the best to be had, are important for calculating the population of London at the time; they represent quite an ordinary weekly mortality, the deaths from plague being found to be always extra deaths, where we can compare the mortality year after year, as in the London bills of later times.

The weekly bills of mortality called for in the plague of 1535 were sent regularly to the Secretary of State until the end of September—on the 22nd and 30th August, and on the 4th, (and 5th), 11th and 27th September. The one sent on Monday the 30th August showed 157 deaths during the preceding week, of which 140 were put down to plague, leaving only 17 deaths in the week from ordinary causes,—a small number owing perhaps to so many residents having gone to the country. No figures remain from the other bills, but we know from letters that the plague increased considerably in September (e.g. 11th Sept. “By the Lord Mayor’s certificate which I send you will see that the plague increases”) both in London and in the country, justifying the prediction that it would be worse after Bartholomew-tide; it is not until the 28th October that we hear of the deaths being “well stopped” in London. Some few particulars of this epidemic, and of its revival in 1536, remain to be added before we come to speak of the London bills of mortality in general, of the extent of the City and liberties at this period, of its sanitary condition, and of the public health from year to year.

On the 18th August, 1535, one writes to Cromwell from the Temple that the plague “has visited my house near Stepney where my wife lives.” On the 20th August a resident in Lincoln’s Inn was seized with plague and conveyed thence by night to a poor man’s house right against the chamber of one of Cromwell’s[Pg 300] household at the Rolls, where he died. “Such as lodge in your gate seldom go out, and will have less occasion if, before great time pass, you will appoint from Endevill, or elsewhere within your rule, some venison for the household, that men may be the better contented with their fare.” On the same date Cromwell is informed by his steward at Austin Friars that “the Frenchman next your house that was in St Peter’s parish [Cornhill] has buried two, but no more.” The plague looked threatening enough to raise the question whether Bartholomew fair should be held at Smithfield this year. Meanwhile the king and court were at Thornbury in Gloucestershire, having arrived there on the 18th August. The town of Bristol was avoided “because the plague of pestilence then reigned within the said town;” but a deputation of three persons was sent to the king to present him with ten fat oxen and forty sheep, and to present the queen, Anne Boleyn, with a gold cup full of gold pieces, an offering known as “queen gold[566].” On the 25th of August the French ambassador proceeded to Gloucestershire to inform Henry VIII. “of the interview of the two queens,” but he stopped six miles short of the court, owing to a “French merchant” who followed him having died of plague on the road. On the 4th September the plague in London is aggravated by a scarcity of bread; “what was sold for ½d. when you were here is now 1d.,” and it is so musty that it is rather poisonous than nourishing. On the 6th the season has been unfavourable and there is great probability of famine. On the 13th the Lord Chancellor will stay at his house at Old Ford beside Stratford, on account of the plague in London increasing; he will have to go to Westminster on the 3rd November, with the Speaker and others, to prorogue Parliament, and advises the prorogation to be until the 4th of February, and of the law courts until the eve of All Souls, by which time, by coldness of the weather, the plague should cease. Wheat and rye were at a mark and 16/- the quarter. A letter from Exeter on the 17th September shows the danger of famine to have been great there also[567]. On the 23rd September one of the masons[Pg 301] working at Cromwell’s house in Austen Friars is sick of the plague: three corses were buried at Hackney [of men employed at the new house?] last St Matthew’s day. In October the king is on his way back from Gloucestershire, but changes his route owing to a death at Shalford and four deaths at Farnham. On the 24th October the bishop of Winchester, on his way to Paris, lost his servant at Calais by the great sickness “wherewith he was infected at his late being in London longer than I would he should:” travelling is cumbrous in the “strange watery weather” in France. In November the pope has heard that England is troubled with famine and pestilence. The curate of Much Malvern writes in November (but perhaps of 1536): “I have buried four persons of pestilence since Saturday, and I have one more to bury to-day. Yesterday I was in a house where the plague is very sore.”

The sickness appears to have shown itself again in London as early as April, 1536. On the 2nd of May two gentlemen of the Inner Temple had died of the sickness; on the 15th the abbot of York writes to be excused from attending Parliament “because of the plague which has visited my house near Powles [St Paul’s].” In the same summer the election of knights to serve in Parliament for Shropshire could not be held at Shrewsbury because the plague was in the town. In September one of the king’s visitors of the abbeys, previous to their suppression, found hardly any place clear of the plague in Somerset, and was much impeded in his work. On the 27th September one of the numerous coronations of new queens in Henry VIII.’s reign (this time Jane Seymour in succession to Anne Boleyn, beheaded in May) was like to be postponed “seeing how the plague reigned in Westminster, even in the Abbey.” On the 9th October plague was at Dieppe, thought to have been brought over from Rye. In Yorkshire also, the duke of Norfolk, sent to put down the rebellion in November, 1536, came into close contact with plague; many were dying of it at Doncaster: “Where I and my son lay, at a friar’s, ten or twelve houses were infected within a butt’s length. On Friday night the mayor’s wife and two daughters and a servant all died in one house.” Nine soldiers also were dead. At Oxford the plague[Pg 302] was active, and the scholars had gone into the country. In London on the 27th November it was dangerous to tarry at Lincoln’s Inn “for they die daily in the City.” In September, 1536, the small essay on plague by the 14th century bishop of Aarhus, which had circulated in manuscript in the medieval period and was first printed in 1480, was reprinted at London, the regimen, as the title declares, having been “of late practised and proved in mani places within the City of London, and by the same many folke have been recovered and cured[568].” In 1537 there appear to have been a few cases of plague at Shrewsbury, on account of which the town council paid certain moneys[569].

Beyond the year 1538 the domestic records of State are not as yet calendared in such fulness as to bring to light any references to plague in them. It may be, therefore, that the clear interval from 1537 to 1542 is in appearance only. From such sources as are available we can continue the history of plague down to the great London plague of 1563; but it is a history meagre and disappointing after the numerous concrete glimpses and details of the earlier period.

The summer of 1540 was a sickly one throughout England[570]; it introduces us to a different and perhaps new type of disease, “hot agues,” with “laskes” or dysenteries, of which a good deal remains to be said in another chapter.

It was in 1539 that Parish Registers of the births, marriages and deaths began to be kept—very irregularly for the most part but in some few parishes continuously from that year. By their means we can henceforth trace the existence of epidemic disease in the country, which might not have been suspected or thought probable. Thus, at Watford from July to September, 1540, there were 47 burials, of which 40 were from “plague.” Next year, in the month of October, the burials were 14, a number greatly in excess of the average[571]. In 1543 there was “a great death” in London, which lasted so far into the winter that the[Pg 303] Michaelmas law term had to be kept at St Albans[572]. Another civic chronicle adds that there had been a great death the summer before; and from an ordinance of the Privy Council it appears that the plague was in London as early as May 21, 1543[573]. The next definite proof of plague in the capital is under 1547 and 1548. On the 15th November in the former year blue crosses were ordered to be affixed to the door-posts of houses visited by the plague. In 1548, says Stow, there was “great pestilence” in London, and a commission was issued to curates that there should be no burials between the hours of six in the evening and six in the morning, and that the bell should be tolled for three-quarters of an hour[574]. A letter of July 19 says that they had been visited by plague in the Temple, and that it still continued[575]. On August 28, the Common Council adjourned for a fortnight by reason of the violence of the plague[576].

These are the London informations for 1547 and 1548, but it would be unsafe to conclude that the other years from 1543 were free from plague. In 1544 it was raging at Newcastle[577], at Canterbury[578] and at Oxford[579], at which last it continued most of the next year, and was considered to be “the dregs of that which happened anno 1542.” It had been prevalent in Edinburgh previous to June 24, 1545[580]. In April, 1546, there was a severe mortality on board a Venetian ship at Portsmouth, which may have been the plague, as in a similar case at Southampton[581]. In the autumn or early winter of the same year the plague was raging so fervently in Devonshire that the Commissioners for the Musters were obliged to put off their work till it ceased[582]. Within the town of Haddington, which was[Pg 304] held by an English garrison against a large besieging force of French and others, plague broke out in 1547[583]. In 1549 the disease is reported from Lincoln[584]. A letter of November 23, 1550, states that the Princess Mary was driven from Wanstead by one dying of the plague there[585].

The reigns of Edward VI. and Mary, full of trouble as they were in other ways, furnish hardly a single record of plague. The sweating sickness of 1551 we hear of sufficiently; and the pestilent fevers, or influenzas, in 1557-58 are not altogether without record; but of plague down to the 5th year of Elizabeth (1563) there is very little said, and that little not free from ambiguity. Sometime in that interval, or still earlier, must have fallen the pestilence at Northampton, severe enough to require the new cemetery which cardinal Pole, in a deed of March 9, 1557, ordered to be henceforth kept enclosed[586]. Only two of the many centres of sickness in England in 1558 are said to have had the infection of the type, not of fever, but of plague,—Loughborough and Chester. In the Leicestershire town the burials were numerous enough for true plague, and the cause of mortality is so named[587]. In Chester also the sickness is called the plague, and it is added that many fled the town, although the deaths were few[588]. A State paper of February 25, 1559, speaks of the county of Cheshire as “weakened by the prevalence of plague[589].”


The London Plague of 1563.

The activity of the plague in London in 1563 made up for its dormancy in the years preceding. The epidemic of that summer and autumn was one of the most severe in the history of the city, the mortality in proportion to the population having[Pg 305] been tremendous. This is the first London plague for which we have the authentic weekly deaths. How they were obtained is not stated, but it was probably by the same means that furnished the plague-bills of 1532 and 1535. John Stow must have had before him a complete set of weekly bills from the beginning of June, 1563, to the 26th of July, 1566, of which series not one is known to be extant; but the totals of the weekly deaths from plague for the whole of that period are among Stow’s manuscript memoranda in the Lambeth Library[590]. After the week ending the 31st December, 1563, the weekly deaths are few, many of the weeks of 1564, 1565 and 1566 having only one death from plague, and some of them none. The following are the weekly mortalities during the severe period of the epidemic:


Week ending   Plague-deaths
1563. 12 June   17
  19 "   25
  26 "   23
  3 July   44
  10 "   64
  17 "   131
  23 "   174
  30 "   289
  6 August   299
  13 "   542
  20 "   608
  27 "   976
  3 September   963
  10 "   1454
  17 "   1626
  24 "   1372
  1 October   1828
  8 "   1262
  15 "   829
  22 "   1000
  29 "   905
  5 November   380
  12 "   283
  19 "   506
  26 "   281
  3 December   178
  10 "   249
  17 "   239
  24 "   134
  31 "   121
1564. 7 January   45
  14 "   26
  21 "   13


Stow’s summary of this epidemic in his Annales is as follows: “In the same whole year, i.e. from the 1st January, 1562 [old style] till the last of December, 1563, there died in the city and liberties thereof, containing 108 parishes, of all diseases 20,372, and of the plague, being part of the number aforesaid,[Pg 306] 17,404; and in out parishes adjoining to the same city, being 11 parishes, died of all diseases in the whole year 3288, and of them of the plague 2732.” The weekly totals from June 12 to December 31 which are for the City and liberties, and exclusive of the out parishes, add up to very nearly Stow’s total for the whole year, or to 16,802 as against 17,404. Where the discrepancy arises does not appear; it is hardly likely that some 600 plague-deaths would have occurred previous to the second week in June, at which time the weekly mortality had reached only 17. We are able to check one of the weekly totals from an independent source. In an extant letter of the time the following figures for the week from 23rd to 30th July are given, having been taken evidently from the published or posted weekly bill: “Died and were buried in London and suburbs, 399, most young people and youths, of which number of the common plague 320 persons. Number of children born and christened in the same week, 52[591].” “London and suburbs” would mean the 108 parishes of the City and liberties together with the 11 out parishes, so that the difference between Stow’s 289 and the above 320 would give the number of plague-deaths in the out parishes for the particular week.

The state of matters in the City is thus referred to in Bullein’s Dialogue published in 1564:—

Civis.—“Good wife, the daily jangling and ringing of the bells, the coming in of the minister to every house in ministering the communion, the reading of the homily of death, the digging up of graves, the sparring of windows, and the blazing forth of the blue crosses do make my heart tremble and quake.” A beggar, in the same Dialogue, who had arrived from the country, says:

“I met with wagones, cartes and horses full loden with yong barnes, for fear of the blacke Pestilence, with them boxes of medicens and sweete perfumes. O God! how fast did they run by hundredes, and were afraied of eche other for feare of smityng.”

We get one or two glimpses of this great plague from the medical point of view in Dr John Jones’s Dyall of Agues[592]. The worst locality, he says, was “S. Poulkar’s parish [St Sepulchre’s][Pg 307] by reason of many fruiterers, poor people, and stinking lanes, as Turnagain-lane [so called because it led down the slope to Fleet Ditch and ended there], Seacoal-lane, and such other places, there died most in London, and were soonest infected, and longest continued, as twice since I have known London I have marked to be true.” Jones believed in contagion: “I myself was infected by reason that unawares I lodged with one that had it running from him.” His other observation is interesting as proving the possibility of repeated attacks of the buboes in the same person, an observation abundantly confirmed, as we shall see, in the London plagues of 1603 and 1665:

“Here now, gentel readers, I think good to admonish all such as have had the plague, that they flie the trust of ignoraunt persons, who use to saye that he who hath once had the plague shal not nede to feare the havinge of it anye more: the whych by this example whyche foloweth (that chaunced to a certayne Bakers wife without Tempel barre in London, Anno Do. 1563) you shall find to be worthelye to be repeated: this sayde wyfe had the plage at Midsommer and at Bartholomewtide, and at Michaelmas, and the first time it brake, the seconde time it brake, but ran littell, the thirde time it appeared and brake not: but she died, notwythstanding she was twyce afore healed.”

Two London physicians of some note died of the plague in 1563. One was Dr Geynes, who had brought trouble upon himself by impugning the authority of Galen, perhaps without sufficient reason. Having been cited before the College of Physicians, to whose discipline he was subject, he preferred to recant his heresy rather than undergo imprisonment. He died of plague on 23 July, 1563. Another was Dr John Fryer who had suffered twice for religious heresy, having been imprisoned by queen Mary as a Lutheran, and by queen Elizabeth as a papist. He regained his liberty in August, 1563, but only to die of plague on 21 October, his wife and several of his children having been also victims of the epidemic[593].

Stow ascribes the infection of the city of London by plague in the summer of 1563 to the return of the English troops from Havre, which town queen Elizabeth had boldly attempted to hold, and did actually hold for ten months, from September,[Pg 308] 1562, as an English fortress in French territory. Havre was not surrendered until the last days of July, 1563, and no returning troops could have reached London until August, by which time the plague had been raging there for two months. There was no doubt frequent communication between Havre and English ports while the siege lasted; but the sickness in each place can have been no more than coincident. Thus, while there were 17 plague-deaths in London in the week from the 5th to the 12th of June, the 7th of June is the first date on which report was made of sickness in Havre, although there had been cases of illness before. On that date the Earl of Warwick wrote to the Privy Council[594]: “For the want of money the works are hindered and the men discouraged. A strange disease has come amongst them, whereof nine died this morning (and many before) very suddenly.” On the same day (7th June, 1563), one writes from Havre to Cecil: “Many of our men have been hurt in these skirmishes, but more by drinking of their wine, which hath cast down a great number, of hot burning diseases and impostumations, not unlike the plague.” By the 9th June the deaths were from 20 to 30 a day. On the 12th June, 442 were sick out of a total force (including labourers and seamen) of 7143. On June 16, Warwick points out to the Privy Council that the sickness was aggravated by the want of fresh meat and the soldiers’ usual beverages: “therefore their continual drinking of wine, contrary to their custom, has bred these disorders and diseases.” On the 28th June the daily mortality was 77; from that date it increased somewhat, and was so serious as to hasten the surrender of the place to the French besieging force in the end of July. On July 27 there was plague in the castle of Jersey, and on August 6 it was very sore in Jersey, especially in the Castle[595].

It would have seemed the more probable to the people of London that the plague of 1563 had been imported across the Channel by reason of the unusually long immunity of the English capital in respect of that infection. A clear interval of[Pg 309] a dozen years without an epidemic, or a severe epidemic, was enough to make men forget the long tradition of plague domesticated upon English soil; while there was no scientific doctrine of epidemics then worked out, from which they might have known that the seeds of a disease may lie dormant for years, and that their periodic effectiveness depends upon a concurrence of favouring things, most of all upon extremes of dryness or wetness of the seasons as affecting a soil full of corrupting animal matters.

The plague of 1563 in the capital was accompanied or followed by several provincial outbreaks, of which few details are known. It is mentioned at Derby[596] in 1563, at Leicester[597] in 1563 and 1564 (a shut-up house in 1563, the first plague-burial in St Martin’s parish on May 11, 1564), at Stratford-on-Avon, at Lichfield[598] and Canterbury[599] in 1564. But it is little more than mentioned at all those places. In the parish register of Hensley, in the North Riding of Yorkshire, a later incumbent, basing upon “an old writing of 1569,” says that the explanation of the year 1563 being a blank in the register was “because in that year the visitation of plague was most hot and fearful, so that many died and fled, and the town of Hensley, by reason of the sickness, was unfrequented for a long season[600].”


Preventive Practice in Plague-time under the Tudors.

Having now traced the history of plague in London and in the provinces down to the beginning of the reign of Elizabeth, and having found it steady from year to year for many years in London, with an occasional terrific outburst, we are naturally led to ask whether the causes of it, or its favouring things, were understood, and whether any steps were taken to deal with it. This will be in effect a review of the earliest preventive practice.

[Pg 310]That which was most clearly perceived by all was that the plague began to reign in certain years as the summer heats drew on, that the air of London or Westminster became “intemperate,” or unwholesome, or infectious, and that it was desirable to get out of such air. Accordingly the one great rule, admitted by all and acted upon by as many as could, was to escape from the tainted locality, or as Wolsey expressed it to the earl of Shrewsbury in 1516, to get them “into clean air.” There was no other sovereign prescription but that, and it remained the one great prescription until the last of plague in 1665-6.

Difficult points of casuistry arose out of that steady perception of an indisputable rule. Could flight from a plague-stricken place be reconciled with duty to one’s neighbour? How ought a Christian man to demean himself in the plague? The Christian conscience may or may not have been tender on that ground in the medieval period; there is little to show one way or the other, except the occasional hints that we get, as in the Danish bishop’s treatise, of an unwillingness to go near the victims of plague. But about the Reformation time those points of casuistry were debated; and one elaborate handling of them, in the form of a sermon by a German ecclesiastic, Osiander, was translated into English in 1537 by Miles Coverdale[601]. It followed, accordingly, that period of plague in London which has occupied the first part of this chapter. The translator remarks that they had been negligent of charity one to another, and he prints this discourse “to the intent that the ignorant may be taught, the weake strengthened, and everyone counselled after his callynge to serve his neighbor.”

Osiander’s perplexed Christian is in much the same case as Launcelot Gobbo in the play: “‘Budge,’ says the fiend; ‘Budge not,’ says my conscience. ‘Conscience,’ say I, ‘you counsel well;’ ‘Fiend,’ say I, ‘you counsel well.’” The situation was a naturally complex one, and this is how the good preacher comes out of it:

[Pg 311]“It is not my meaning to forbid or inhibit any man to fly, or to use physick, or to avoid dangerous and sick places in these fearful airs—so far as a man doth not therein against the belief, nor God’s commandment, nor against his calling, nor against the love of his neighbour.” And yet, shortly after: “Out of such fond childish fear it cometh that not only some sick folk be suffered to die away without all keeping, help, and comfort; but the women also, great with child, be forsaken in their need, or else cometh there utterly no man unto them. Yet a man may hear also that the children forsake their fathers and mothers, and one household body keepeth himself away from another, and sheweth no love unto him. Which nevertheless he would be glad to see shewed unto himself if he lay in like necessity.” He then exhorts the Christian man to remain at the post of duty, by the examples of the clergy and of “the higher powers of the world, who also abide in jeopardy”—certainly not the English experience. “Let him not axe his own reason, how he shall do, but believe, and follow the word of God, which teacheth him not to fly evil air and infect places (which he may well do: nevertheless he remaineth yet uncertain whether it helpeth or no).” The Christian man’s perplexities can hardly have been resolved when all was said; and the following sentence puts the case for quitting the infected place as strongly as it can be put: “For if it were in meat or drink, it might be eschewed; if it were an evil taste, it might be expelled with a sweet savour; if it were an evil wind, the chamber might with diligence be made close therefore; if it were a cloud or mist, it might be seen and avoided; if it were a rain, a man might cover himself for it. But now it is a secret misfortune that creepeth in privily, so that it can neither be seen nor heard, neither smelled nor tasted, till it have done the harm.”

In practice the rule was ‘Save who can;’ so that whenever the infection promised to become “hot,” as the phrase was, there was an adjournment of Parliament and of the Law Courts, a flight of all who could afford it to the country, and an interruption of business, diplomatic and other, which sometimes lasted for months. It was only occasionally, however, that the infection became really hot; in ordinary years a certain risk was run. Thus, in 1426, the plague had been severe enough to cut off the Scots hostages; but it was not until after their death that the king’s council left the city. Again, in 1467, Parliament did not adjourn (on 1st July) until several members of the House of Commons had died of the plague.

Although flight was the sovereign preventive in a great plague-season, it was impracticable in ordinary years when the infection was at its steadier or more endemic level. The endemic level was tolerated up to a certain point. In a long despatch to[Pg 312] his government, the Venetian ambassador in London wrote of the plague as follows in 1554[602]:

“They have some little plague in England well nigh every year, for which they are not accustomed to make sanitary provisions, as it does not usually make great progress; the cases for the most part occur amongst the lower classes, as if their dissolute mode of life impaired their constitutions.”

Whenever the plague showed signs of overstepping these limits, strenuous efforts were made to keep it in check. It may be questioned whether all that was done in that way made any difference; the great outbursts came at intervals, rose to their height, subsided in a few months, and left the city more or less free of plague until some concurrence of things, or the lapse of time, brought about another epidemic of the first degree. None the less, certain measures were taken to restrain the infection, and these were put in force with mechanical regularity whenever the Privy Council informed the Lord Mayor that the occasion required it. A brief account of them, of their beginnings and their development, will now be given.

The first that we hear of attempts at isolation and notification is in 1518. In April of that year, the Court being in Berkshire or Oxfordshire, Sir Thomas More charged the mayor of Oxford, and the commissary, in the king’s name “that the inhabitants of those houses that be, and shall be infected, shall keep in, put out wispes, and bear white rods, as your Grace devised for Londoners[603].” By his Grace is to be understood the king himself; and these measures devised by him—the keeping in, the putting out of wisps on the houses, and the carrying of white rods,—might have been tried as early as the epidemic of 1513, which was a severe one. When two of the Venetian ambassador’s servants died of the plague in 1513, their bed, sheets and other effects were thrown into the river. On the 21st of May, 1516, the ambassador removed to Putney owing to a case of plague in his house, and he was not allowed to see cardinal Wolsey until the 30th of June, i.e. until forty days had elapsed. This is perhaps the first mention of the quarantine which the Court rigorously[Pg 313] put in practice against those who had business with it. On the 22nd July, 1518, the same ambassador wrote to Venice from Lambeth that two of his servants had lately died of the plague; and, on the 11th August, again from Lambeth, that the king and Wolsey would not see him because of the plague; “but on the expiration of forty days, which had nearly come to an end, he would not fail to do his duty as heretofore.”

On the 25th August, 1535, Chapuys, in a letter to Charles V., gives an amusing account of an attempt made by the French ambassador to see Henry VIII. and Cromwell on diplomatic business. The Court was residing in Gloucestershire owing to plague in and near London (it was at Bristol also), and the ambassador journeyed thither to carry his business through. However he went no nearer than six miles, because a “French merchant” who followed him died upon the road of the plague, as it was feared. The king asked him to put his charge in writing, but the ambassador replied that he had orders to tell it in person, and that he could wait. At length he lay in wait for Secretary Cromwell in the fields where he went to hunt with the dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk, and delivered his charge despite the manifest unwillingness of Cromwell, who came away from the improvised diplomatic interview in no good humour.

The first plague-order of which the full text is extant was issued in the 35th of Henry VIII. (1543). As it contains the germs of all subsequent preventive practice, I transcribe it in full[604].

“35 Hen. VIII. A precept issued to the aldermen:—That they should cause their beadles to set the sign of the cross on every house which should be afflicted with the plague, and there continue for forty days:

“That no person who was able to live by himself, and should be afflicted with the plague, should go abroad or into any company for one month after his sickness, and that all others who could not live without their daily labour should as much as in them lay refrain from going abroad, and should for forty days after [illegible] and continually carry a white rod in their hand, two foot long:

“That every person whose house had been infected should, after a[Pg 314] visitation, carry all the straw and [illegible] in the night privately into the fields and burn; they should also carry clothes of the infected in the fields to be cured:

“That no housekeeper should put any person diseased out of his house into the street or other place unless they provided housing for them in some other house:

“That all persons having any dogs in their houses other than hounds, spaniels or mastiffs, necessary for the custody or safe keeping of their houses, should forthwith convey them out of the city, or cause them to be killed and carried out of the city and buried at the common laystall:

“That such as kept hounds, spaniels, or mastiffs should not suffer them to go abroad, but closely confine them:

“That the churchwardens of every parish should employ somebody to keep out all common beggars out of churches on holy days, and to cause them to remain without doors:

“That all the streets, lanes, etc. within the wards should be cleansed:

“That the aldermen should cause this precept to be read in the churches.”

Here we see a development of the measures which had been devised for London by Henry VIII. or his minister previous to 1518, and probably in the plague of 1513. The wisps put out on the infected houses are replaced by crosses, which, in the order of 1543, are simply called “the sign of the cross.” They are next heard of during the plague of 1547, in a Guildhall record of 15 November[605]:

“Item, for as moche as my Lord Mayer reported that my Lorde Chauncelar declared unto hym that my Lorde Protectour’s Grace’s pleasure ys, and other of the Lordes of the Counseyll, that certain open tokens and sygnes shulde be made and sett furth in all such places of the Cytie as haue of late been vysyted with the plage”—be it therefore ordained that a certain cross of St Anthony devised for that purpose be affixed to the uttermost post of the street door, there to remain forty days after the setting up thereof.

The cross of St Anthony was a headless cross, and the crutch is supposed to have been painted (in blue) on canvas or board and fixed to the post of the street door. The legend under or over the cross was, “Lord have mercy upon us.” Before the plague of 1603, the colour had been changed to red.

The white rods, which had been devised along with the wisps previous to 1518, are mentioned in the order of 1543 as two foot[Pg 315] long; they were to be carried for forty days by those who must needs go abroad from plague-stricken houses. We hear of them again, both in France and in England in 1580 and 1581. On the 20th November, 1580, the Venetian ambassador to France writes from the neighbourhood of Paris: “This city, I hear, is in a very fair sanitary condition, notwithstanding that as I entered a city gate, which is close to where I reside, I met a man and a woman bearing the white plague wands in their hands and asking alms; but some believe that this was merely an artifice on their part to gain money[606].” In the regulations for plague added in 1581 by the mayor of London to the earlier code, the third is: “That no persons dwelling in a house infected be suffered to go abroad unless they carry with them a white wand of a yard long; any so offending to be committed to the Cage.” In the seventeenth-century plagues of London and provincial towns, the white wand was retained as the peculiar badge of the searchers of infected houses and of the bearers of the dead. The white rod or wand carried by inmates of infected houses, had become a red rod in the plague of 1603, just as the blue cross had been changed to red.

The other directions in the order of 1543 are heard of from time to time in the subsequent history of plague—such as the burning of straw, and the cleansing of the streets. The Guildhall record of 15 November, 1547, after directing the blue crosses to be affixed to houses, proceeds:

“And also to cause all the welles and pumpes within their seid wardes to be drawen iii times euerye weke, that is to say, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. And to cast down into the canelles at euerye such drawyng xii bucketts full of water at the least, to clense the stretes wythall.”

Under Elizabeth, the orders as to scavenging become much more stringent, as we shall see. In the plague of 1563, on 29 September, the Common Council appointed “two poor men to burn and bury such straw, clothes, and bedding as they shall find in the fields near the city or within the city, whereon any person in the plague hath lyen or dyed[607].”

[Pg 316]The curious order as to dogs was based upon the belief that they carried the infection in their hair, just as cats are now believed by some to carry infection in their fur. Brasbridge, in his Poor Man’s Jewel (1578), gives a case of a glover at Oxford, into whose house a disastrous plague-infection was supposed to have been brought by means of a dog’s skin bought in London[608]. The plague-regulations contained the clause against dogs to the last; in the great plagues of 1603, 1625, and 1665, thousands of them were killed, many of them having been doubtless left behind in the exodus of the well-to-do classes. In the corporation records of Winchester[609], there is a minute, undated, but probably belonging to the end of the 16th century, that dogs shall be kept indoors “if any house within the city shall happen to be infected with the plague.” A proclamation during the London plague of 1563 is directed against cats as well as dogs, “for the avoidance of the plague:” officers were appointed to kill and bury all such as they found at large[610].

The great London plague of 1563 had revived the old practices and given rise to some new ones. Curates and churchwardens were directed to warn the inmates of houses where plague had occurred not to come to church for a certain space thereafter[611]. The blue crosses were again in great request, being ordered by hundreds at a time in readiness to affix to infected houses[612]. Also it was ordered by the Mayor and Council that the “filthie dunghill lying in the highway near unto Fynnesburye Courte be removed and carried away; and not to suffer any such donge or fylthe from hensforthe there to be leyde[613].” On the 9th of July, 1563, plague having been already at work for several weeks, a commission was issued by the queen in Council, that every[Pg 317] householder in London should, at seven in the evening, lay out wood and make bonfires in the streets and lanes, to the intent that they should thereby consume the corrupt airs, the fires to be made on three days of the week[614]. On 30th September, 1563, it was ordered that all such houses as were infected should have their doors and windows shut up, and the inmates not to stir out nor suffer any to come to them for forty days. At the same time, a collection was ordered to be made in the churches for the relief of the poor afflicted with the plague, and thus shut up. Another order was that new mould should be laid on the graves of such as die of the plague. Still another, the first of a long series, was to prohibit all interludes and plays during the infection[615]. On the 2nd December, when the deaths had fallen to 178 in the week, an order was issued by the Common Council that houses in which the plague had been were not to be let. On the 20th January, 1564, there was an order for a general airing and cleansing of houses, bedding and the like. By that time the deaths had fallen to 13 in the week.

The most rigorous measures in this plague were those which queen Elizabeth took for her own safety at Windsor in September. Stow says that “a gallows was set up in the market-place of Windsor to hang all such as should come there from London. No wares to be brought to, or through, or by Windsor; nor any one on the river by Windsor to carry wood or other stuff to or from London, upon pain of hanging without any judgment; and such people as received any wares out of London into Windsor were turned out of their houses, and their houses shut up[616].”

In 1568 a more complete set of instructions to the aldermen of the several wards was drawn up by the Lord Mayor, and a corresponding order for the city of Westminster by Sir William Cecil, Secretary of State, and by the Chancellor of the Duchy. In 1581 some additional orders were issued by the Lord Mayor. The whole of these are here given from a state paper in a later handwriting, probably of the time of James I. or Charles I[617].

[Pg 318]A collection of such papers as are found in the office of his Majesties papers and records for business of state for the preventing and decreasing of the plague in and about London.


A. (City of London, 1568.)

1. First a ’tre from the Mayor of London to every alderman of each warde to charge their Deputys counstables and officers to make search of all houses infected within each parish.

2. To cause all infected houses to bee shutt up and noe person to come forth in twenty dayes after the infection.

3. That some honest discreete person be appoynted to attend each such infected house to provide them of all necessaries at the cost of the Mr of the house if he be able.

4. For the poorer houses infected that the Alderman or his deputy doe cause to make collection for the supply of all necessaries to be charged upon the wealthyer sorte of the same warde or parish.

5. That such as shall refuse to pay what they are assest shall be committed to warde untill they pay it.

6. That all bedding and cloathes and other thinges apt to take infection which were about infected persons bee burnt or such order taken that infection may not be increased by them.

7. Lastly that a bill with ‘Lord have mercy upon us’ in greate ’tres bee sett over the dore of euery infected house and that the counstables and Beadles have a care to see that the same be not taken downe.

These orders were sett downe by the Mayior of London in the yeere 1568, whereupon queene Elizabeth writeth a letter to Sr William Cycill then secretary and Sr Ambrous Cave, chauncellor of the Duchy to take the like order or any other that they should thinke fitt in the citie of Westminster.


B. (City of Westminster, 1568.)

Orders sett down by Sr William Cycill, Secretary, as High Steward of Westminster and Sr Ambrous Cave, chauncellor of the Dutchy to the Bayleiffes, Hedburroughs, Counstables and other officers of the sayde Citty.

1. That they should follow the good example of the orders devised and observed by the Mayior and Aldermen of London, and further that all that haue any houses shops or loggings that hath had any infection in them by the space of twenty dayes before the making of these orders shall shutt up all their doares and windoares towards the streetes and common passages for forty dayes next and not suffer after the tyme of the sicknes any person to goe forth nor any uninfected to come in upon payne that euery offender shall sitt seven dayes in the stocks and after that be committed to the common Goale there to remayne forty dayes from the first day of his being in the stocks.

[Pg 319]2. That the officers aforesayde with the curate of euery parish and churchwardens doe make such collection of the rest of the parishioners as shall be necessary for the sustenance of such as bee poore infected and shutt up.

3. To discharge all inmates out of all houses that there be noe more persons in one house then be of one family except they be lodgers for a small time.

4. To cause the streetes lanes and passages and all the shewers sinkes (?) and gutters thereof dayly to be made sweete and cleane.


C. (London, 1581.)

There were added by the Mayior of London to the former articles these following in the year 1581.

1. That speciall noatis be taken of such houses infected as sell cloth, silke and other wares and make garments and aparrell for men and women.

2. That euery counstable within his precinct haue at all tymes in readines two honest and discreete women to attend any house infected.

3. That noe person dwelling in a house infected bee suffered to goe abroade unless they carry with them a white wand of a yarde long. Any soe offending to bee committed to the Cage there to remayne untill order shallbe taken by the Mayior or his bretheren.

4. That they suffer not any deade corps dying of the plague to be buryed in tyme of divine service or sermon.

5. To appoynt two honest and discreete matrons within euery parish who shall bee sworne truely to search the body of euery such person as shall happen to dye within the same parish, to the ende that they make true reporte to the clerke of the parish church of all such as shall dye of the plague, that the same clerke may make the like reporte and certificate to the wardens of the parish clerkes thereof according to the order in that behalfe heretofore provided.

If the viewers through favour or corruption shall giue wrong certificate, or shall refuse to serue being thereto appointed, then to punish them by imprisonment in such sorte as may serue for the terror of others.

6. That order be taken for killing of dogs that run from house to house dispersing the plague, and that noe swine be suffered or kept within the citty[618].

Several of these plague-regulations had been in force, as we have seen, from near the beginning of the century. Others, not hitherto mentioned, were also of earlier date. Thus the collections[Pg 320] for the poor are mentioned in the diary of a London citizen in 1538 and 1539, but not specially in connexion with plague. They are heard of often after the plague of 1563, along with other provisions for the poor which mark the reign of Elizabeth. If we may trust Bullein’s Dialogue of 1564, a systematic provision became necessary because private charity was no longer to be depended on. In many country towns and parishes, as we shall see, the contributions or compensations to the inmates of shut-up houses in the Elizabethan plagues were paid out of the municipal funds, either those of the affected place or of some “unvisited” neighbouring town. The Act of Parliament which most directly provided for “the charitable relief of persons infected with the plague” was the 1st James I. (1603-4), cap. 31.

A most essential part of the means for controlling plague was the institution of searchers[619]. In the orders of 1543, the aldermen of the wards are directed to send their beadles to affix the sign of the cross to affected houses. But in due course these duties of inspection, notification, isolation and registration passed in London into the hands of the Company of Parish Clerks. The original business of the Parish Clerks was with church music. In the thirteenth century they received a charter of incorporation as the Clerks of St Nicholas, and became associated with that love of choral singing which has always distinguished the English people. Legacies and endowments fell to them for the performance of specific services, or for their encouragement in general. From time to time the Company would appear in a particular parish church to sing a mass. It was the singular history of a Company which gained its greatest name as the Registrars of Births and Deaths in London down to the Registration Act of 1837, to have been not only the first Choral Society but also the first company of stage players. In 1391, says Stow, a play was given by the parish clerks of London at the Skinners’ Well beside Smithfield, which continued three days together, the king, queen and nobles of the realm being present. Another play, in the year 1409, lasted eight[Pg 321] days, “and was of matter from the creation of the world, whereat was present most of the nobility and gentry of England[620].”

In the time of Sir Thomas More, a parish clerk meant one who sang in the church choir. When More was lord chancellor, the duke of Norfolk came one day to dine with him at his house at Chelsea, and not finding him at home, went in search of him. He found him, where posterity will long delight to picture him,—in the church “singing in the choir with a surplice on his back.” As they walked home arm in arm the duke said to Sir Thomas More: “A parish clerk! a parish clerk! God body, my lord chancellor, you dishonour the king and his office;” whereon the chancellor answered as if he did not take the duke altogether seriously.

The whole strength of the Company of Parish Clerks in those times would attend the funeral of some rich person, as we may read in the sixteenth-century diary of Machyn the undertaker (sometimes the Company chosen to follow the body to the grave was that of the Tallow Chandlers, as in the case of John Stow’s mother). It was no great step from their old duties to their new. There were, as we have seen, bills of mortality compiled weekly for all the parishes in the city and liberties as early as 1532 and 1535. It is not said that the Parish Clerks were the collectors of the information, but they were as likely to have been so as any other persons whom the mayor would employ. Bills were also drawn up for a few weeks during the sweating sickness of 1551, and again for an unbroken series of some two hundred weeks from the beginning of the plague of 1563. The figures are preserved from a single weekly bill, 22-28 October, 1574, which must have been one of a series[621]. The next bills known are a series for five years, 1578-83, a plague-period of which more will have to be said in its proper place in the chronology.

The orders of 1581, already given, make mention of the two discreet matrons within every parish who shall be sworn truly to search the body of every such person as shall happen to die within the same parish, of their reporting to the clerk of the[Pg 322] parish, and of the clerk making report and certificate to the wardens of the Parish Clerks, who would send the weekly certificate for all the parishes to the mayor, and he to the minister of State. That was said to be “according to the order in that behalf heretofore provided.” It is probable, therefore, that the searchers became an institution as early as the plague of 1563, or, at all events, at the beginning of the plague-period of 1578-83.

The clerk of the Company in 1665 describes how the discreet matrons were chosen as searchers or viewers of the dead in each parish, and how they were sworn to discharge their duties faithfully[622]. The swearing in took place before the Dean of the Arches, that is to say, in St Mary le Bow church (“St Mary of the Arch”) in Cheapside. The motive to bribe them for a wrong report on the cause of death was to avoid the shutting up and all other troubles of a household pronounced infected by the plague. In later times their diagnostic duties became, as we shall see, much more complex; but down to 1604, when they first brought to the Parish Clerks’ Hall “an account of the diseases and casualties” (which classification and nomenclature did not begin to be printed until 1629), they had merely to say whether a death had been from plague or from other cause.


Sanitation in Plantagenet and Tudor times.

Along with all those means, having the object of stopping the spread of infection, the Elizabethan policy did not neglect what we should now consider the more radical means of sanitation. It is usual to bring a sweeping charge of neglect of public hygiene against all old times; there was so much plague in those times, and so high an average death-rate, that it is commonly assumed that our ancestors must have been wanting in the rudimentary instincts of cleanliness. But, in the first place, one might expect to find that all old periods were not alike; and more generally it is worth inquiring how far nuisances injurious to the public health were tolerated. This inquiry will[Pg 323] have to be as brief as possible; but it will take us back to the period of plague covered by a former chapter.

Nuisances certainly existed in medieval London, but it is equally certain that they were not tolerated without limit. I have collected in a note the instances reported in a visitation of 17 Edward III. (1343), and in a perambulation of the ground outside the walls in 26 Edward III. (1352). The former related only to the alleys leading down to the river, which were likely enough places for nuisance, then as now[623].

There are several orders of Edward III. relating to the removal of laystalls and to keeping the town ditch clean, which show, of course, that there was neglect, but at the same time the disposition to correct it. It is farther obvious that the connexion between nuisances and the public health was clearly apprehended. The sanitary doctrines of modern times were undreamt of; nor did the circumstances altogether call for them. The sewers of those days were banked-up water courses, or “shores” as the word was pronounced, which ran uncovered down the various declivities of the city, to the town ditch and to the Thames. They would have sufficed to carry off the refuse of a population of some forty or sixty thousand; they were, at all events, freely open to the greatest[Pg 324] of all purifying agents, the oxygen of the air; and they poisoned neither the water of the town ditch (which abounded in excellent fish within John Stow’s memory) nor the waters of Thames. In course of time all the brooks of London were covered in, even the Fleet dyke itself, which used to float barges as far as Holborn bridge; but who shall say that they were more wholesome thereafter, although they were underground? Perhaps the poet of the Earthly Paradise has as true an intuition as any when, in reference to the city in Chaucer’s time, he bids us

“Dream of London, small, and white, and clean;
The clear Thames bordered by its gardens green.”

The nuisance that gave most trouble in the medieval and Tudor periods was the blood and offal of the shambles. Several ordinances of Edward III. are directed against it, in one of which (1371) the connexion between putrefying blood soaked into the ground and infectious disease is clearly stated. It is also the principal subject of the first sanitary Act that appears in the Statutes of the Realm, made by the Parliament of Cambridge in the 17th of Richard II. (1388), of which I give the preamble and provisions:

“Item, For that so much Dung and Filth of the Garbage and Intrails as well of Beasts killed as of other Corruptions be cast and put in Ditches, Rivers and other Waters, and also within many other Places within about and nigh unto divers Cities, Boroughs and Towns of the Realm, and the Suburbs of them, that the Air there is greatly corrupt and infect, and many Maladies and other intolerable Diseases do daily happen,” both to the residents and to visitors:—therefore proclamation is to be made in the City of London, as in other cities, boroughs and towns “that all they which do cast and lay all such Annoyances, Dung, Garbages, Intrails and other Ordure in Ditches, Rivers, Waters and other places shall cause them to be removed, avoided and carried away betwixt this and the feast of St Michael next following,” under a penalty of twenty pounds, mayors and bailiffs to compel obedience. Such offences were not to be repeated, and if any did offend he was liable to be called by writ before the Chancellor “at his suit that will complain[624].”

Despite this statute, the shambles in the parish of St Nicholas within Newgate (adjoining the ground now occupied by Christ’s[Pg 325] Hospital, and formerly by the Grey Friars) became an established institution of the city. They were a subject of petition to Parliament in 1488-9, and they were still there to give occasion in 1603 to severe remarks by Thomas Lodge, poet and physician, who practised in Warwick Lane, in their immediate neighbourhood. The Act of 1388, it will be observed, was to be set in motion “at his suit that will complain;” so that there was little more in it than the immemorial remedy from a nuisance at common law.

The reign of Henry V. appears to have been marked by care for the public health, perhaps not greater than in Edward III.’s time, but exceptional, in the records at least, under the later Plantagenets and until the accession of the Tudor dynasty. Among other evidences (some of which may be gathered from Stow’s Survey) is the ordinance of 1415 (3 Hen. V.) against a nuisance in the Moor, beyond the wall and the ditch on the Finsbury side. The Moor was, in Fitzstephen’s words, “a great fen, which watereth the walls on the north side.” In 1415 there was a “common latrine” in it, and “sicknesses arose from the horrible, corrupt, and infected atmosphere,” issuing therefrom[625]. Its removal was ordered, and in the same year (1415) chaussées were built across the fen, one to Hoxton and another to Islington. The ditch all the way round from the Tower to Blackfriars had been cleansed the year before (1414).

Another statute, 3 Henry VII. (1488-9) cap. 3, may be quoted to show that the slaughter-houses were the chief nuisance, that their effects on health were perceived (as in Edward III.’s time), and that it was necessary to appeal to the king’s personal interest in the matter as a motive for redress.

Petition to the King from the parishioners of St Faiths and St Gregories in London, near St Pauls.

“That it was soo that grete concourse of peple, as well of his Roial persone as of other grete Lordes and astates wyth other hys true subgettes often tymes was had unto the said Cathedrall Chirche, and for the moost part through oute the parisshe aforesaide, the whiche often tymes ben gretly[Pg 326] ennoyed and invenemed by corrupt eires, engendered in the said parisshes by occasion of bloode and other fowler thynges, by occasion of the slaughter of bestes and scaldyng of swyne had and doon in the bocherie of Seynt Nicholas Flesshamls, whos corrupcion by violence of unclene and putrified waters is borne down thrugh the said parishes and compasseth two partes of the Palays where the Kynges most Roiall persone is wonte to abide when he cometh to the Cathedrall Chirche for ony acte there to be doon, to the Jubardouse [jeopardous] abydyng of his most noble persone and to ouer grete ennoysaunce of the parisshens there, and of other the Kyngis subgettes and straungers that passe by the same;

Compleynte whereof at dyverse and many seasons almost by the space of xvi yeres contynuelly, as well by the Chanons and petty Chanons of the said Cathedrall Chirche, londlordes there ... made to Mayor and aldermen of the city; and noo remedie had ne founden.

... Considering that in few noble cities or towns or none within Christendom, where as travellyng men have labored, that the comen slaughter hous of bestys sholde be kept in ony speciall parte within the walle of the same lest it myght engender Siknesse to the destruccion of the peple.”

The King etc. “ordeyned and stablished that no Bocher shall sley within the said house called the Scaldinghouse or within the walls of London.”

And the same “in eny citte, Burghe and Towne walled within the Realm of Englonde and in the Towne of Cambridge, the Townes of Berwyk and Carlile only except and forprised.”

The popular knowledge of and belief in a high doctrine of contagion are curiously shown by the terms of the Act touching Upholsterers in 1495 (II Hen. VII. cap. 19).

The Act was intended to prevent beds, feather-beds, bolsters and pillows from being sold in market outside London, “beyond control of the Craft of Upholders.” Outside the craft an inferior article was apt to be offered, which was at once a lowering of a good and worthy standard and a danger to health. There were two kinds of corrupt bed-stuffs “contagious for mannys body to lye on,” firstly, scalded feathers and dry pulled feathers together; and secondly, flocks and feathers together. Besides these, quilts, mattresses and cushions stuffed with horse hair, fen down, neat’s hair, deer’s hair and goat’s hair, “which is wrought in lyme fattes,” give out by the heat of man’s body, a savour and taste so abominable and contagious that many of the King’s subjects thereby have been destroyed. These corrupt and unlawful stuffs and wares might indeed be made by any person or persons for their own proper use in their houses, so they be not offered for sale in fairs or markets.

The reign of Henry VIII. is not marked by any ordinances or Acts for the restraint of plague or the like sickness by other[Pg 327] than quarantine measures. The common ditch between Aldgate and the postern of the Tower was cleansed in 1519 at the charges of the city; in 1540 the Moor ditch was cleansed: and, not long before, the ditch from the Tower to Aldgate. In 1549 the ditch was again cleansed at the charges of the City Companies[626]. In April, 1552, John Shakespeare, the poet’s father, a citizen of Stratford-on-Avon in good circumstances and afterwards mayor of the town, was fined twelve pence (eight to ten shillings present value) for not removing the heap of household dirt and refuse that had accumulated in front of his own door[627]. In the records of the borough of Ipswich[628], scavengers are mentioned in the 32nd of Henry VIII. (1540): they were elected in every parish, and the gatherings of refuse ordered to be carried and laid at four places, namely: Warwick Pitts, College Yard, behind the Ditches next John Herne, and the Dikes in the Marsh. When queen Elizabeth visited Ipswich (in 1561, 1565 and 1577), she rated not only the clergy on the laxity of their behaviour, but also the civic authorities upon the filthy condition of the streets. “A marked improvement,” says the borough historian, “certainly took place in Ipswich at this period, as is incontestably shown by the constant exhortations and promulgations of laws for the preservation of cleanliness.”

In the Description and Account of the City of Exeter, written by John Vowell, or Hoker, chamberlain of the city and member of Parliament for it in the reign of Elizabeth[629], we find the following about the offices and duties of scavengers “as of old.”

They are “necessary officers who cannot be wanting in any well-governed city or town, because by them and their service all things noisome to the health of man, and hurtful to the state of the body of the commonwealth, are advertised unto the magistrate, and so they be the means of the redress thereof. And therefore they be called Scavengers, as who saith Shewers or Advertisers, for so the word soundeth.” Among other duties they had the oversight of pavements, that they were swept weekly, of slaughter-houses, dunghills and the like, of dangerous buildings and of encroachments upon[Pg 328] the streets, of chimneys, and of precautions against fires (tubs of water to be in readiness at the doors to quench fires and cleanse the streets); and on Sundays they had to attend the mayor of Exeter to the church of St Peter’s.

These officers of the municipality discharged their duties, says the Elizabethan writer, “as of old;” from which we may conclude that some such regulation had existed from quite early times. The scavengers are mentioned by Stow at the end of his account of each City ward along with other officers. We have already seen, from the court rolls of the manor of Castle Combe under the year 1427, that villagers were fined or admonished for creating nuisances. A sudden revival of zeal in that way at Castle Combe in the year 1590 may have been due to the vigorous sanitary policy of Elizabeth’s government:

“And that the inhabitants of the West Strete doe remove the donge or fylth at John Davis house ende before the feaste of Seynct Andrew th’apostell next, and that they lay no more there within x foote of the wey, sub poena iii s iiii d.

“And that none shall lay any duste or any other fylth in the wey or pitte belowe Cristopher Besas house, sub poena pro quolibet tempore xii d.

“And that none shall soyle in the church yerde nor in any of our stretes, for every defaulte to lose xii d.

“And that the glover shall not washe any skynes, nor cast any other fylth or soyle in the water runnynge by his house, sub poena x s[630].”

There is an interval of a century and a half between the two instances of sanitary vigour adduced from the Castle Combe manor court; but there is no reason to believe that the tradition of common cleanliness ever lapsed altogether, in that or in any other village or town of the country.

Some part of the rather unfair opinion as to the foulness of English life in former times may be traced to a well-known letter by Erasmus to the physician of cardinal Wolsey. There are grounds for believing that Erasmus must have judged from somewhat unfavourable instances.

“We read of a city,” says Erasmus, “which was freed from continual pestilence by changes made in its buildings on the advice of a philosopher. Unless I am mistaken, England may be freed in like manner.” He then proceeds to go over the[Pg 329] defects of English houses, and to suggest improvements. The houses were built with too little regard to the aspect of their doors and windows towards the sun. Again, they have a great part of their walls filled with panes of glass, admitting light in such wise as to keep out the wind, and yet letting in at chinks of the windows the air as if strained or percolated, and so much the more pestilential by being long stagnant. These defects he would remedy by having two or three sides of a house exposed to the sky, and all glazed windows so made that they should open wholly or shut wholly, and so shut that there might be no access of noxious winds through gaping seams; for if it be sometimes wholesome to admit the air, it is sometimes wholesome to keep it out. Inside the houses Erasmus professes to have seen a shocking state of things—the floors covered with rushes piled, the new upon the old, for twenty years without a clearance, befouled with all manner of filth, with spillings of beer and the remains of fish, with expectoration and vomit, with excrement and urine[631]. Here we have clearly to do with the intelligent foreigner. On the other hand, as far back as the reign of Richard I., Englishmen would appear to have contrasted their own personal habits with those of other nations, much as the summer tourist does now. English youths, it has been said, go through Europe with one phrase on their lips: “Foreigners don’t wash.” Richard of Devizes implies somewhat the same. A Frankish youth is being advised where to settle in England, Winchester being chosen by excluding the other towns one by one. Bristol, for example, was wholly given over to soap-boilers: everyone in Bristol was either a soap-boiler or a retired soap-boiler; “and the Franks love soap as much as they love scavengers[632].” We may cry quits, then, with Erasmus over the rush-strewn floors. It is clear, also, that the glazed fronts of English houses, which he took exception to, are the very feature of them that Sir Thomas More prided himself upon; in that as in other external things the London of his day seemed[Pg 330] to him to leave little to be desired as the capital of Utopia, his chief subjects of remark being the shambles and the want of hospitals for the sick[633].

Thus, when we attempt to clear the sense of our rather mixed notions on the unwholesome life of former times, we must feel constrained to withdraw a great part of the accusation as to nuisances tolerated or scavenging neglected. Most of all was the government of Elizabeth marked by vigour in its attempts to restrain plague, not only by quarantine measures, but also by radical sanitation.

Queen Elizabeth and her Council were baffled by the persistence of plague in London in 1581-82-83; the infection pursued its own course despite all efforts to “stamp it out,” so that the letters from the lords of the Council to the mayor begin to assume a somewhat querulous and impatient tone[634]. To a letter of remonstrance, 21st September, 1581, the mayor replied next day that every precaution had been taken. On the 22nd March, 1582, the mayor retorted upon the Court that an artificer in leather, dwelling near Fleet Bridge, had the plague in his house, that his house had been shut up, and he restrained from going out; nevertheless he had access to the Court in the things of his art, both for the queen and her household. On the 1st September, 1582, the plague having greatly increased as appeared by certificate of the number of the dead during the last week, the Privy Council informed the mayor that this was in part “by negligence in not keeping the streets and other places about the city clean, and partly through not shutting up of the houses where the sickness had been found, and setting marks upon the doors; but principally through not observing orders for prevention of the infection heretofore sent to them by the Council.” The mayor sent answer the same day that every care had been taken: the streets had been cleansed every other day; the parish clerks had been appointed to see to the shutting up of infected houses, and putting papers[Pg 331] upon the doors; he had also appointed some of his own officers to go up and down the city to view and inform him whether these things had been done.

So much did the Council believe, or affect to believe, that the mayor could control the plague if he carried out their orders, that they used the adjournment of the law courts as a threat to the city. On the 15th October, the Term was announced to be held at Hertford, and all persons from infected London houses were forbidden to repair thither with merchandise, victual, &c.[635]. Then follow in January, 1583, letters touching an impracticable attempt of the Privy Council to have a list printed of all inns and taverns that had been infected within the last two months. The mayor made a catalogue which was pronounced too long. On 21st April, 1583, the infection had much increased, and the lords of the Council again urged upon the mayor to have infected houses shut up, and provision made for feeding and maintaining the inmates thereof. They desired to express her majesty’s surprise that no house or hospital had been built without the city, in some remote place, to which the infected people might be removed, although other cities of less antiquity, fame, wealth, and reputation had provided themselves with such places, whereby the lives of the inhabitants had been in all times of infection chiefly preserved. The mayor, on 3rd May, wrote that the Court of Aldermen had published orders for the stay of the plague; but that they were comparatively powerless so long as crowds of the worst sort of people resorted to see plays, bear-baiting, fencers, and profane spectacles at the theatre, and Curtain, and other the like places.

The plague pursued its own course, wholly unaffected, so far as one can see, by everything that was tried. One thing that was not touched by the sanitary policy, was probably more relevant than all else to the continuance of plague—the disposal of the dead. The theoretical importance attached to that as an original cause of plague has been avowed in the chapter on the[Pg 332] Black Death. We have here to see how the theory of it as a favouring thing for the continuance of the infection squares with the facts in such a city as London under the Plantagenets and Tudors.


The Disposal of the Dead.

Intramural interment was one of the most cherished practices of Christendom so long as the word “intramural” had a literal meaning. Hence the correctness of the imagery used of the Spiritual City:

“To work and watch, until we lie
At rest within thy wall.”

Probably each of the one hundred and twenty small parish churches of London in the medieval period stood in its small churchyard. In an exceptional time like the Black Death, these proved insufficient for the daily burials: three new cemeteries were enclosed and consecrated outside the walls—two of them in Smithfield and the other at Aldgate. These all soon passed into the hands of friars, and became the grounds of monasteries. The churches or churchyards of monasteries were in great request for burial, but not for common burials, or for burials in a time of epidemic. The ‘Vision of Piers the Ploughman’ is clear enough that the friars took no large view of their duties; they affected the care of the dead, but only if they were well paid:

“For I said I nold | be buried at their house but at my parish church. | For I heard once how conscience it told | that where a man was christened by kynde [nature] he should be buried, | or where he were parishen, right there he should be graven. | And for I said this to friar, a fool they me held | and loved me the less for my lele speech | ... I have much marveil of you and so hath many another | why your convent coveteth to confess and to bury | rather than to baptise bairns that ben catechumens.”

The reason why the friars paid so much attention to burials was that these rites were the most profitable:

“And how that freris [friars] folowed folke that was riche | and folke that was pore at litel price they sette, | and no corps in their kirk-yerde ne in their kyrke was buried | but quick he bequeath them aught or should help quit their debts.”

[Pg 333]The friars in the towns would appear, then, to have been as much in request for the disposal of the dead within their precincts as the monks were in the country, both alike taking a certain part of that duty out of the hands of the regular parish clergy. Hence we may assign a good many burials, perhaps mostly of the richer class, as in Stow’s long lists of conventual burials, to the various precincts of Whitefriars, Blackfriars, Greyfriars (within Newgate) or Friars Minor (Minories), Carthusians, or other settlements of the religious orders in the city and liberties of London. It is not unlikely that the narrow spaces for burial in and around the old churches in the streets and lanes of the city were already getting crowded, and that the friars naturally acquired a large share of the business of burial because their consecrated houses and enclosed grounds were situated where there was most room, namely in the skirt of the Liberties, or in waste spaces within the walls.

The parish churchyards within the walls became insufficient, not merely because of the generations of the dead, but because they were encroached upon. In 1465 the churchyard of St Mary le Bow in Cheapside was so encroached upon by building of houses that John Rotham or Rodham, citizen and tailor, by his will gave to the parson and churchwardens a certain garden in Hosier-lane to be a churchyard; which, says Stow, so continued near a hundred years, but now is built on and is a private man’s house[636]. In like manner there was a colony of Brabant weavers settled in the churchyard of St Mary Somerset, and the great house of the earl of Oxford stood in St Swithin’s churchyard, near London Stone. John Stow’s grandfather directed that his body should be buried “in the little green churchyard of the parish church of St Michael in Cornhill, between the cross and the church wall, as nigh the wall as may be.” For some years previous to 1582, as many as 23 of the city parishes were using St Paul’s churchyard for their dead, having parted with their own burial grounds. But in that year (letter of 3 April, 1582[637]) the number of parishes privileged to use St Paul’s churchyard was reduced to 13, the ten restrained parishes being provided for in the cemetery gifted to the city in 1569 by Sir[Pg 334] Thomas Roe, outside Bishopsgate, “for the ease of such parishes in London as wanted ground convenient within the parishes.” The state of St Paul’s churchyard may be imagined from the words of a remonstrance made two years after, in 1584: “The burials are so many, and by reason of former burials so shallow, that scarcely any grave could be made without corpses being laid open[638].” Twenty years before, in 1564, or the year after the last great plague which we have dealt with, Medicus, one of the speakers in Bullein’s Dialogue of the Fever Pestilence brings in “the multitude of graves in every churchyard, and great heaps of rotten bones, whom we know not of what degree they were, rich or poor, in their lives.”

St Paul’s churchyard would appear to have received the dead of various parishes from an early date. There was a large charnel house for the bones of the dead on the north side, with a chapel over it, dedicated to the Virgin and endowed in 1282. Stow says that the chapel was pulled down in 1549, and that “the bones of the dead, couched up in a charnel under the chapel, were conveyed from thence into Finsbury field, by report of him who paid for the carriage, amounting to more than one thousand cart-loads, and there laid on a moorish ground, in short space after raised, by soilage of the city upon them, to bear three windmills. The chapel and charnel were converted into dwelling-houses, warehouses, and sheds before them, for stationers, in place of the tombs.” Elsewhere he names Reyne Wolfe, stationer, as the person who paid for the carriage of the bones and “who told me of some thousands of carry-loads, and more to be conveyed.” From this we may infer that the graves were systematically emptied as each new corpse came to be buried, according to the principle of a “short tenancy of the soil” which is being re-advocated at the end of the 19th century by the Church of England Burial Reform Association.

The spaces reserved for burial around the newer parish churches in the liberties, such as St Sepulchre’s and St Giles’s, Cripplegate, were gradually pared down and let out for buildings by the parish. Stow, in his Survey of 1598, says that St Sepulchre’s church stands “in a fair churchyard, although not so[Pg 335] large as of old time, for the same is letten out for buildings and a garden plot.” The records of St Giles’s, Cripplegate, show that rents were received by the parish for detached portions of the churchyard in 1648[639].

To take an instance of new city graveyards still remaining: The old fifteenth-century parishes of St Ewin and St Nicholas in the Flesh Shambles became united in the parish of Christ Church within Newgate, which, under that name, buried many, as we may read in Stow’s Survey. At length its burial ground was full, and it acquired a not very large plot next to the churchyard of St Botolph’s outside Aldersgate. Its neighbour parish within the walls, St Leonard’s in Foster Lane, acquired the next conterminous plot for its new burial-ground. All three graveyards are now thrown into one strip of public garden by the removal of the two cross walls which originally kept the ground of each parish separate.

While the graveyards were thus curtailed, and dwelling-houses built close up to them, the mode of burial was none of the safest. To take the instance of the great Cripplegate parish again: some few, like John Milton, would be buried within the church in leaden coffins; others would be laid in the ground of the churchyard in the same way, full burial dues being paid; but many more, for whom the dues were remitted, would be buried in a sheet, with no coffin at all, in the part of the churchyard reserved for the poor[640]. For the parish of St Saviour’s, Southwark, the scale of burial dues was as follows: “In any churchyard next the church, with a coffin, 2s. 8d.; without a coffin, 20d.; for a child with a coffin, 8d.; without a coffin, 4d. The colledge churchyard, with a coffin, 12d.; without a coffin, 8d.” One of their broadsheets, dated 1580, has a picture of a body ready for burial in a cerecloth, a close fitting covering tied at the head and feet, and neatly finished[641].

[Pg 336]It is not to be supposed that no voices were raised against the overcrowding of the old city churchyards. Intramural burial is one of the many practical topics in Latimer’s sermons: in 1552 he denounced the state of St Paul’s churchyard as an occasion of “much sickness and disease,” appealing to its notorious smells; the citizens of Nain, he said, “had a good and laudable custom to bury their corses without the city, which ensample we may follow[642].” Preaching at Paul’s Cross on the 8th of August, 1563, when the plague was already destroying at the rate of five hundred in a week, Turner, commonly called Turner of Boulogne, made two solemn petitions to my lord mayor of London: the one was that the dead of the city should be buried out of the city in the field; the other was that no bell should be tolled for them when they lay at the mercy of God departing out of this present life, “for that the tolling of the bell did the party departing no good, neither afore their death nor after[643].” In the writings on plague, putrefying animal matters, such as carrion or offal, are always mentioned among the causes; but it is only rarely that the ordinary burial of the dead is referred to. In the seventeenth century, the filling of the soil with products of cadaveric decomposition played a greater part in the theory of plague, especially in the writings of Prosper Alpinus, physician to the Venetian consulate at Cairo. Among English books, the treatise on Plague by Dr Gilbert Skene, of Edinburgh (1568), is the only one that is at all clear upon the point. In his fourth chapter, on the places which be most pestilential, he includes the localities “where many dead are buried,” the ground there becoming “fat and vaporative;” and in his first chapter, on causes in general, he instances “dead carrions unburied, in special of mankind, which, by similitude of nature, is most nocent to man, as every brutal is most infectant and pestilential to their own kind.” But even if these truths had been generally apprehended, religious prescription and usage would have been too strong to allow of radical measures being adopted. The grand provocative of plague was no obvious nuisance above ground, but the loading[Pg 337] of the soil, generation after generation, with an immense quantity of cadaveric matters, which were diffused in the pores of the ground under the feet of the living, to rise in emanations, more deadly in one season than in another, according as the level of the ground-water and the heat of the earth determined the degree of oxidation, or the formation of the more dangerous half-way products of decomposition.

So little is known of the great plagues of London in 1406-7, 1464, 1479, 1500, and 1513, that we can only conjecture how the dead, to the number perhaps of one hundred in a day at the height of the epidemic, were disposed of—probably in trenches in the fields of Whitechapel, Smithfield and Finsbury, or in such parishes as St Sepulchre’s. The skirts of the city were used also to deposit the soil upon. Thus it happened that the ground outside the walls, which came in time to be the densely populated liberties and out-parishes, and the chief seat of all later plagues, had for generations before received the refuse of the city and a large proportion of the bodies of the dead. An instance mentioned by Stow, in 1598, may be taken as standing for many more: “On the right hand, beyond Shoreditch Church toward Hackney, are some late-built houses upon the common soil; for it was a lay-stall.”

What remains to be said of localities and circumstances of plague in London will come in with the history of successive epidemics, which we may now resume and carry to the end of the Tudor period.


Chronology of Plague, 1564-1592.

The amount of plague in London for the two or three years next following the great epidemic in the autumn of 1563 is accurately known from Stow’s abstracts of the weekly bills of mortality. It was exceedingly little, the deaths being but one or two or three in a week, and often none. The figures come to an end with July, 1566, and it is probable that the bills may not have been made for a time after that. The proposal made by Sir Roger Martyn in a letter of 20th October, 1568, to the earl of Northumberland, that all strangers arriving from over sea should be quarantined at Gravesend, would have been instigated by the known prevalence of plague and other malignant types of sickness[Pg 338] in Scotland and at various parts of the continent of Europe. It was just in those years, before and after the founding of the Royal Exchange in 1566, that the concourse of merchants to London, especially from the war-troubled Low Countries and France, was greatest.

The revival of plague in London, after the great epidemic of 1563, was probably in 1568. In the city records there are orders relating to searchers, shutting up of houses, and collections for infected households, dated 12 October, 1568 (10 Elizabeth), 27 March and 19 October, 1569. But in 1568 the regulations, like the proposal for quarantine of shipping, may have been made more against the importation of cases from outside than on account of cases actually in London. It is in 1569 that we definitely hear of plague in the capital:—

“The plague of pestilence somewhat raging in the city of London, Michaelmas Term was first adjourned unto the 3rd of November, and after unto Hillary Term next following[644].” This outbreak of the autumn and winter of 1569 must have been considerable: for we find the earl of Essex writing from York on the 30th October to Cecil to say that he would have come to London before “had not the plague stayed him[645];” and Thomas Bishop, giving account of his movements to the Council, says that he remained in London until the 10th October, “when the plague increasing, I departed[646].”

The year 1570 was one of the more disastrous plague-years on the Continent, that now recur somewhat frequently down to the end of the century. “There was general disease of pestilence,” says Stow, “throughout all Europe, in such sort that many died of God’s tokens, chiefly amongst the Venetians, of whom there died of that cruel sickness about threescore thousand.” In London, on 2nd August, a death in the Tower was put down to plague; but there is no other evidence of its prevalence in the capital[647]. In the beginning of next winter, 1571, there was plague at Cambridge (letter of 18th November)[648]; and at Oxford in the same year it left such misery, says Anthony Wood, that[Pg 339] divers scholars were forced to beg[649]. In 1573 it reappeared in London, at its usual season, the end of the year: it raged so violently “that the Queen ordered the new Lord Mayor not to keep the usual feast upon his inauguration[650].” The register of St Andrew’s parish, at Hertford, bears witness to the flight of Londoners to that favourite refuge; there were numerous burials of the plague in 1573, and in subsequent years, many of them being of London citizens[651]. It was in London again in 1574: a letter of 15 November, to the sheriff and justices of Surrey, orders that they should not allow the people to resort to plays and shows [in Southwark] “at that time of contagion[652],” while the figures from a weekly bill of mortality, which have been preserved, show that the outbreak had been one of the more considerable degree—for the week 22-28 October, in the city and liberties (108 parishes), buried of all diseases, 166, whereof of the plague, 65[653].

The known provincial centres in 1574 were Stamford, Peterborough and Chester. The Stamford visitation was one of a good many that the town suffered from first to last, and must have been a severe one; in one month, from 8 August to 7 September, 40 had been buried of the plague, “and the town is so rudely governed, they have so mixed themselves, that there is none that is in any hope of being clear. It is in seventeen houses, and the town is in great poverty; but that the good people of the country send in victuals, there would many die of famine. St Martin’s parish is clear[654].” The corporation records also bear witness to the confusion caused, the new bailiffs having been sworn in before the Recorder in a field outside, instead of in the usual place[655]. Peterborough, which was not far off, is known to have had a visitation, from an entry in the parish register, “1574, January. Here began the plague[656].” At Chester, “plague began, but was stayed with the death of some few in the crofts[657].”

[Pg 340]The year 1575 is somewhat singular for an epidemic of plague in Westminster, but none in the city of London: the deaths for one week in the former are known[658]; and, as regards the immunity of London, Cecil had removed previous to 16 September, from Westminster to Sir Thomas Gresham’s house in the City to avoid the infection[659]. It had been at Cambridge in the winter of 1574-5, and was “sore” in Oxford down to November, 1575.

The same year, 1575, was a season of severe plague in Bristol and other places of the west of England. Some 2000 are said (in the Mayor’s Calendar) to have died in Bristol between St James’s tide (July 25) when the infection “began to be very hot,” and Paul’s tide (January 25)[660]. As early as the 11th July, the corporation of Wells had ordered measures against the plague in Bristol; but Wells also appears to have had a visitation, if the 200 persons buried, according to tradition, in the “plague-pit” near the north-eastern end of the Cathedral (besides many more buried in the fields) had been victims of the disease in 1575[661]. At Shrewsbury in that year the fairs were removed on account of plague[662]. From a claim of damages which came before the Court of Requests in 1592, it appears that plague had been in Cheshire in 1576; at Northwich the house of one Phil. Antrobus was infected and most of the family died; on which some linens in the house, worth not more than 13sh. 4d. were put in the river lest they should be used; the son, who was a tailor, claimed compensation, through the earl of Derby, sixteen years after[663].

At Hull, in 1576, there was an outbreak, small compared with some other visitations there, in the Blackfriars Gate, the deaths being about one hundred[664]. It is somewhat remarkable to find the borough of Kirkcudbright making regulations in the month of January, 1577, a most unlikely season, to prevent the[Pg 341] introduction of the plague then raging on the Borders[665]. In September, 1577, there were issued orders to be put in execution throughout the realm in towns and villages infected with the plague. More definitely it is heard of on 21 October at Rye and Dover, and on 3 November, 1577, in London.

We now come to a series of years, 1578 to 1583, for which we have full particulars of the burials in London, from plague and other causes, and of the christenings. These valuable statistics, the earliest known, are preserved among the papers of Lord Burghley, who procured them from the lord mayor of London[666], and are here given in full, having been copied from the MS. in the library of Hatfield House[667].


Abstracts of Burials and Baptisms in London, 1578-1583


  Dead   Of
  Of other
Jan. 2   62   7   55   66
  9   90   12   78   52
  16   63   14   49   59
  23   95   33   62   59
  30   82   25   57   65
Feb. 6   88   24   64   51
  13   102   25   77   59
  20   100   26   74   77
  27   84   12   72   84
Mar. 6   79   10   69   58
13   66   9   57   53
  20   75   5   70   57
  27   63   12   51   60
Apr. 3   96   19   77   64
  10   89   25   64   67
  17   102   31   71   66
  24   91   37   54   62
May 1   109   25   84   44
  8   116   33   83   37
  15   141   43   98   48
  22   109   36   73   66
  29   119   34   85   43
June 5   99   38   61   51
  12   91   35   56   41
  19   76   34   42   54
  26   75   18   57   48
July 3   92   34   58   52
  10   99   35   64   48
  17   98   39   59   52
  24   129   63   66   49
  31   100   41   59   59
Aug. 7   132   73   59   76
  14   152   78   74   72
  21   232   134   98   63
  28   205   113   92   58
Sept. 4   257   162   95   84
  11   297   183   114   64
  18   308   189   119   68
  25   330   189   141   72
Oct. 2   370   230   140   76
  9   388   234   154   62
  16   361   234   127   73
  23   281   175   106   58
  30   258   130   128   68
Nov. 6   278   127   151   60
  13   230   116   114   64
  20   172   77   95   66
  27   155   84   71   68
Dec. 4   160   77   83   60
  11   161   65   96   69
  18   129   44   85   62
  25   94   20   74   68
    7830   3568   4262   3150

 [Pg 342]


  Dead   Of
  Of other
Jan. 1   100   27   73   54
  8   67   13   54   68
  15   75   16   59   74
  22   63   9   54   81
  29   79   19   60   75
Feb. 5   84   23   61   46
  12   81   16   65   63
  19   69   15   54   61
  26   70   10   60   77
Mar. 5   51   6   45   71
  12   61   16   45   72
  19   66   10   56   65
  26   75   13   62   68
Apr. 2   81   19   62   53
  9   82   27   55   79
  16   77   22   55   53
  23   58   10   48   44
  30   71   10   61   57
May 7   64   12   52   51
  14   68   14   54   42
  21   75   12   63   54
  28   78   13   65   47
June 4   66   7   59   56
  11   49   7   42   46
  18   74   14   60   60
  25   65   13   52   45
July 2   57   11   46   50
  9   62   9   53   66
  16   73   19   54   52
  23   72   12   60   63
  30   72   13   59   67
Aug. 6   66   12   54   61
  13   70   18   52   67
  20   68   12   56   61
  27   63   10   53   58
Sept. 3   66   14   52   65
  10   85   25   60   55
  17   66   11   55   80
  24   44   8   36   63
Oct. 1   60   9   51   42
  8   56   8   48   75
  15   68   14   54   70
  22   49   6   43   71
  29   52   10   42   76
Nov. 5   47   8   39   66
  12   37   2   35   69
  19   60   2   58   84
  26   44   6   38   69
Dec. 3   43   3   40   78
  10   55   4   51   80
  17   49   4   45   70
  24   51   3   48   78
  31   42   3   39   72
    3406   629   2777   3370



  Dead   Of
  Of other
Jan. 7   49   1   48   78
  14   58   4   54   58
  21   50   5   45   63
  28   28   2   26   74
Feb. 4   54   5   49   81
  11   49   2   47   91
  18   47   3   44   81
  25   48   3   45   68
Mar. 3   52   0   52   77
  10   48   2   46   74
  17   48   1   47   75
  24   52   3   49   68
  31   48   2   46   59
Apr. 7   48   1   47   77
  14   53   1   52   78
  21   40   1   39   74
  28   43   1   42   75
May 5   58   1   57   72
  12   54   0   54   69
  19   40   2   38   75
  26   44   0   44   72
June 2   36   1   35   59
  9   41   0   41   54
  16   46   2   44   60
  23   55   2   53   59
  30   47   4   43   57
July 7   77   4   73   65
  14   133   4   129   66
  21   146   3   143   61
  28   96   5   91   64
[Pg 343]Aug. 4   78   5   73   71
  11   51   4   47   53
  18   49   1   48   72
  25   63   3   60   62
Sept. 1   48   0   48   71
  8   35   2   33   69
  13   52   1   51   69
  22   52   1   51   95
  29   65   2   63   55
Oct. 6   35   1   34   63
  13   44   2   42   56
  20   45   2   43   56
  27   40   3   37   80
Nov. 3   60   7   53   75
  10   59   5   54   67
  17   57   3   54   75
  24   45   2   43   70
Dec. 1   54   3   51   83
  8   58   1   57   56
  15   53   8   45   59
  22   53   4   49   61
  29   89   3   86   66
    2873   128   2745   3568



  Dead   Of
  Of other
Jan. 5   42   5   37   63
  12   53   4   49   65
  19   50   1   49   65
  26   46   1   45   59
Feb. 2   49   2   47   56
  9   38   0   38   63
  16   48   0   48   87
  23   56   5   51   52
Mar. 2   56   0   56   62
  9   60   2   58   74
  16   52   2   50   80
  23   41   1   40   89
  30   44   3   41   74
Apr. 6   42   2   40   39
  13   47   1   46   53
  20   37   1   36   41
  27   37   2   35   60
May 4   47   0   47   52
  11   40   1   39   50
  18   46   1   45   59
  25   64   13   51   62
June 1   48   4   44   60
  8   57   2   55   56
  15   65   7   58   62
  22   57   6   51   73
  29   56   7   49   52
July 6   72   9   63   62
  13   69   9   60   64
  20   94   19   75   70
  27   95   24   71   89
Aug. 3   87   23   64   58
  10   130   30   100   75
  17   148   47   101   72
  24   143   43   100   55
  31   169   74   95   72
Sept. 7   186   85   101   54
  14   180   76   114   59
  21   203   86   117   55
  28   218   60   158   88
Oct. 5   205   107   98   74
  12   193   74   119   83
  19   128   42   86   77
  26   125   35   90   88
Nov. 2   115   45   70   85
  9   93   26   67   61
Dec. 7   [The figures in part wanting, and in part defaced.]
    3931   987   2954   2949

(45 weeks)

 [Pg 344]


(74 Parishes clear, week ending Jan. 4.)

  Dead   Of
  Of other
Jan. 4   63   11   52   57
  11   75   13   62   76
  18   79   13   66   73
  25   58   13   45   90
Feb. 1   73   5   68   66
  8   71   12   59   77
  15   76   16   60   88
  22   82   10   72   74
Mar. 1   69   11   58   81
  8   85   13   72   81
  15   77   11   66   71
  22   62   11   51   65
  29   73   16   57   85
Apr. 5   90   13   77   74
  12   78   19   59   63
  19   88   22   66   56
  26   82   20   62   69
May 3   95   23   72   55
  10   68   12   56   62
  17   62   11   51   59
  24   61   10   51   61
  31   57   15   42   65
June 7   67   15   52   49
  14   48   11   37   52
  21   72   11   61   63
  28   57   9   48   62
July 5   60   20   40   54
  12   88   25   63   66
  19   80   30   50   61
  26   99   31   68   65
Aug. 2   101   45   56   68
  9   116   42   74   77
  16   142   70   72   64
  23   148   85   63   67
  30   205   111   94   70
Sept. 6   229   139   90   74
  13   277   189   88   79
  20   246   151   95   76
  27   267   145   122   63
Oct. 4   318   213   105   87
  11   238   139   99   63
  18   289   164   125   74
  25   340   216   124   54
Nov. 1   290   131   159   66
  8   248   149   99   77
  15   202   98   104   70
  22   227   119   108   74
  29   263   124   139   63
Dec. 6   144   58   86   59
  13   155   68   87  
  27   142   68   74   91
    6762   2976   3786   3433

(51 weeks)



  Dead   Of
  Of other
Jan. 3   137   50   87   69
  10   140   57   83   53
  17   160   72   88   67
  24   162   59   103   59
  31   144   40   104   73


These tables were compiled from weekly bills furnished to the Court, and doubtless drawn up like the bills of 1532 and 1535 to show the deaths from plague and from other causes in each of the several parishes in the City, Liberties and suburbs. It is clear that the results were known from week to week, for a letter of January 29, 1578, says that the plague is increased from 7 to 37 (? 33) deaths in three weeks. But that was not[Pg 345] the beginning of the epidemic in London; it was rather a lull in a plague-mortality which is known to have been severe in the end of 1577, and had led to the prohibition of stage-plays in November[668].

In that series of five plague-years in London, only two, 1578 and 1582, had a large total of plague-deaths. The year 1580 was almost clear (128 deaths from plague), and may be taken as showing the ordinary proportion of deaths to births in London when plague did not arise to disturb it. The baptisms, it will be observed, are considerably in excess of the burials; and as every child was christened in church under Elizabeth, we may take it that we have the births fully recorded (with the doubtful exception of still-births and “chrisoms”). But while the one favourable year shows an excess of some 24 per cent. of baptisms over burials, the whole period of five years shows a shortcoming in the baptisms of 33 per cent. Thus we may see how seriously a succession of plague-years, at the endemic level of the disease, kept down the population; and, at the same time, how the numbers in the capital would increase rapidly from within, in the absence of plague. There is reason to think that plague was almost or altogether absent from London for the next nine years (1583 to 1592); and it is not surprising to find that the population, as estimated from the births, had increased from some 120,000 to 150,000. The increase of London population under Elizabeth was proceeding so fast, plague or no plague, that measures were taken in 1580 to check it. The increase of London has never depended solely upon its own excess of births over deaths; indeed, until the present century, there were probably few periods when such excess occurred over a series of years. Influx from the country and from abroad always kept London up to its old level of inhabitants, whatever the death-rate; and from the early part of the Tudor period caused it to grow rapidly. I shall review briefly in another chapter the stages in the growth of London, as it may be reckoned from bills of mortality and of baptisms. But as the proclamation of 1580, against new buildings, the first[Pg 346] of a long series down to the Commonwealth, has special reference to the plague in the Liberties, and to the unwholesome condition of those poor skirts of the walled city, this is the proper place for it:

“The Queen’s Majesty perceiving the state of the city of London and the suburbs and confines thereof to encrease daily by access of people to inhabit in the same, in such ample sort as thereby many inconveniences are seen already, but many greater of necessity like to follow ... and [having regard] to the preservation of her people in health, which may seem impossible to continue, though presently by God’s goodness the same is perceived to be in better estate universally than hath been in man’s memory: yet there are such great multitudes of people brought to inhabit in small rooms, whereof a great part are seen very poor; yea, such must live of begging, or of worse means; and they heaped up together, and in a sort smothered with many families of children and servants in one house or small tenement; it must needs follow, if any plague or popular sickness should by God’s permission enter among those multitudes, that the same should not only spread itself and invade the whole city and confines, as great mortality should ensue the same, where her Majesty’s personal presence is many times required; besides the great confluence of people from all places of the realm by reason of the ordinary Terms for justice there holden; but would be also dispersed through all other parts of the realm to the manifest danger of the whole body thereof, out of which neither her Majesty’s own person can be (but by God’s special ordinance) exempted, nor any other, whatsoever they be.

For remedy whereof, as time may now serve until by some further good order, to be had in Parliament or otherwise, the same may be remedied, Her Majesty by good and deliberate advice of her Council, and being thereto much moved by the considerate opinions of the Mayor, Aldermen and other the grave, wise men in and about the city, doth charge and straitly command all persons of what quality soever they be to desist and forbear from any new buildings of any new house or tenement within three miles of any of the gates of the said city, to serve for habitation or lodging for any person, where no former house hath been known to have been in memory of such as are now living. And also to forbear from letting or setting, or suffering any more families than one only to be placed or to inhabit from henceforth in any house that heretofore hath been inhabited, etc.... Given at Nonesuch, the 7th of July, 1580[669].”

Among the more special suggestions of the mayor, on the causes and prevention of plague, previous to this proclamation were[670]:

[Pg 347]1. The avoiding of inmates in places pretending exemption.

2. The restraining of the building of small tenements and turning great houses into small habitations by foreigners.

3. The increase of buildings in places exempt.

4. The increase of buildings about the Charterhouse, Mile End Fields; also at St Katherine’s along the water side.

5. The pestering of exempt places with strangers and foreign artificers.

6. The number of strangers in and about London of no church.

7. The haunting of plays out of the Liberties.

8. The killing of cattle within or near the city.

The best glimpses that we get of the plague in London in 1578 are in letters to Lord Burghley[671]. On October 22, the Recorder of London, Sir W. Fleetwood, writes to him that he “has been in Bucks since Michaelmas, because he was troubled every day with such as came to him having plague sores about them; and being sent by the Lords to search for lewd persons in sundry places, he found dead corses under the table, which surely did greatly annoy him.” It will be seen by the statistics that the deaths from all causes had risen to more than three hundred in a week before Michaelmas—a small mortality compared with that of 1563, or of any other London epidemic of the first degree. From other letters, relating to plague at St Albans, Ware and other places near London, it may be concluded that the citizens had escaped from London to their usual country resorts in plague-time. On August 30 there were said to be sixty cases of plague at St Albans, and on October 13 Ware is said to have been “of late” infected. Plague-deaths are entered also in the Hertford parish registers in 1577 and 1578[672]. On 14 September the infection was in the “Bull” at Hoddesdon (Herts), but the landlord refused to close his house against travellers on their way to the Court. On Oct. 13, 1578, two deaths are reported from Queens’ College, Cambridge, “the infection being taken by the company of a Londoner in Stourbridge Fair;” these two deaths had “moved many to depart” from the University[673]. In the same month it was at Bury St Edmunds. Earlier in the year, a letter from Truro (11 April) says that the plague was prevalent in Cornwall.

[Pg 348]The epidemic of 1578 at Norwich was relatively a far more serious one than that of the capital, and was traced to the visit of the queen: “the trains of her Majesty’s carriage, being many of them infected, left the plague behind, which afterwards increased so and continued as it raged above one and three-quarter years after.” From August 20, 1578, to February 19, 1579, the deaths were 4817, of which 2335 were of English and 2482 of “alyan strangers,” ten aldermen being among the victims[674]. At Yarmouth, in 1579, two thousand are said to have died of the plague between May-day and Michaelmas[675]. Colchester had plague from December, 1578 to August, 1579[676]. It was at Ipswich and at Plymouth in 1579; the epidemic at the latter must have been severe, if the estimate of 600 deaths, given in the annals of the town, is to be trusted[677]. It was again at Stamford in 1580, as appears from an order of the corporation, September 7, prohibiting people from leaving the town[678]. Other centres of plague in 1580 were at Rye, which was cut off from intercourse with London[679], at Leicester, where an assessment for the visited was appointed by the common hall of the citizens[680], at Gloucester, from Easter to Michaelmas, and at Hereford and Wellington, the musters in October having been hindered by “the great infection of the plague[681].”

On February 4, 1582, six houses were shut up at Dover, and on September 12 there was plague in Windsor and Eton[682]. In the parish register of Cranbrooke (Kent), 18 burials are specially marked (as from plague) in 1581, 41 in 1582, and 22 in 1583[683]. It was much dispersed in the Isle of Sheppey, the year after (1584) from Michaelmas into the winter.

Although the years from the spring of 1583 to the autumn of 1592 appear to have been unmarked by plague in London, they witnessed a good many epidemics along the east coast,[Pg 349] and in a few places elsewhere, of which the particulars are for the most part meagre.

A casual mention is made of plague at Yarmouth in 1584[684]. The town of Boston appears to have had plague continuously for four years from 1585 to 1588. In 1585 houses were shut up[685]; in 1586 a case at Southwell was supposed to have been imported from Boston[686]; in the parish register the burials from plague and other causes in 1587 reach the high figure of 372, and in 1588 they are 200, the average for eight years before being 122, and for twelve years after, only 84. In 1588 one Williams, of Holm, in Huntingdonshire, was sent for to cleanse infected houses in St John’s Row, which had been used as pest-houses[687]. Within ten miles round Boston the plague prevailed; at Leake there were 104 burials from November, 1587, to November, 1588, the annual average being 24; at Frampton there were 130 burials in 1586-87, the average being 30; at Kirton there were 57 burials in 1589, and 102 in 1590[688].

Another centre on the east coast was Wisbech. In 1585 it appeared in the hamlet of Guyhirne. In 1586 it entered Wisbech itself, caused the usual shutting up of houses, and so increased in 1587 that there were 42 burials in September and 62 in October[689], being three or four times more than average. It is mentioned also at Ipswich in 1585, and at Norwich in 1588[690]. At Derby, in 1586, there was plague in St Peter’s parish[691]. At Chesterfield in November, 1586, there were plague-deaths, and again in May 1587[692]. At Leominster, in 1587, there was an excessive mortality (209 burials)[693].

The other great centre on the east coast in those years was in Durham and Northumberland[694]. In 1587 the infection began to show at Hartlepool, and in the parishes of Stranton and Hart; at the latter village 89 were buried of the plague, one of them an unknown young woman who died in the street.[Pg 350] In 1589 the plague entered Newcastle and raged severely; of 340 deaths in the whole year in St John’s parish, 103 occurred in September; the total mortality of the epidemic to the 1st January, 1590, was 1727. Durham also had a visitation in 1589, plague-huts having been erected on Elvet Moor. Those were years of scarcity, the year 1586 having been one of famine-prices.

The great event of the time was the defeat of the Spanish Armada off the French coast from Calais to Gravelines in the last days of July, 1588. A southerly gale sprang up, which drove the magnificent Spanish fleet past the Thames as far as the Orkneys. It was perhaps well for England that the winds parted the two fleets. The English ships, which had come to anchor in Margate Roads to guard the mouth of the Thames, were in two or three weeks utterly crippled by sickness. The disease must have been a very rapid and deadly infection. Lord Admiral Howard writes to the queen: “those that come in fresh are soonest infected; they sicken one day and die the next.” In a previous letter to Burghley he writes: “It is a most pitiful sight to see the men die in the streets of Margate. The Elizabeth Jonas has lost half her crew. Of all the men brought out by Sir Richard Townsend, he has but one left alive.” The ships were so weak that they could not venture to come through the Downs from Margate to Dover[695]. It is doubtful whether any part of this sickness and mortality was due to plague, which was not active anywhere in the south of England in that year. Want of food and want of clothes, and in the last resort the hardness and parsimony of Elizabeth, appear to have been the causes. Lord Howard begs for £1000 worth of new clothing, as the men were in great want, and Lord H. Seymour writes that “the men fell sick with cold.” Dysentery and typhus were doubtless the infections which had been bred, and became communicable to the fresh drafts of men. But in the Spanish ships, beating about on the high seas and unable to land their men or even to help each other, the sickness grew into true plague, so that the broken remnants of the Armada which reached Corunna were like so many floating pest-houses.

In 1590 and 1591, at a clear interval from the Armada year,[Pg 351] there was much plague in Devonshire. The evidence of its having been in Plymouth comes solely from the corporation accounts; at various times in 1590 and 1591 there were paid, “ten shillings to one that all his stuff was burned for avoiding the sickness,” a sum of £5. 19s. for houses shut, and a like sum to persons kept in, and sixteen shillings to four men “to watch the townes end for to stay the people of the infected places[696].” The chief epidemics, however, appear to have been at Totness in 1590 and at Tiverton in 1591. The parish register of Totness enters the “first of the plague, Margary, the daughter of Mr Wyche of Dartmouth, June 22, 1590,” from which it may be inferred that plague was first at Dartmouth, nine miles down the river, and had ascended to Totness. The following monthly mortalities will show how severe the infection became at Totness in the summer and autumn immediately following[697]:

July 42 (36 of plague, 6 not),
August 81 (80 of plague, 1 not),
September 39 (all of plague),
October 37 (all of plague),
November 25 (24 of plague, 1 not),
December 19 (all of plague),
January, 1591, 10 of plague,
February 1 of plague.

This heavy mortality from plague (246 deaths) was hardly over, when the infection began in March, 1591, at Tiverton. It is said to have been introduced by one William Waulker “a waulking man or traveller.” From 1st March, 1591, to 1st March, 1592, the deaths from plague and other causes were 551, or about one in nine of the population[698].


The London Plague of 1592-1593.

The epidemic of plague, which reached its height in the year 1593, began to be felt in London in the autumn of 1592[699], and is[Pg 352] said to have caused 2000 deaths before the end of the year. On the 7th September, soldiers from the north on their way to Southampton to embark for foreign parts had to pass round London “to avoid the infection which is much spread abroad” in the city. On the 16th September, the spoil of a great Spanish carrack at Dartmouth could be brought no farther than Greenwich, on account of the contagion in London; no one to go from London to Dartmouth to buy the goods. It was an ominous sign that the infection lasted through the winter; even in mid winter people were leaving London: “the plague is so sore that none of worth stay about these places[700].” On the 6th April, 1593, one William Cecil who had been kept in the Fleet prison by the queen’s command, writes that “the place where he lies is a congregation of the unwholesome smells of the town, and the season contagious, so many have died of the plague[701].” From a memorial of 1595, it appears that the neighbourhood of Fleet Ditch had been the most infected part of the whole city and liberties in 1593; “in the last great plague more died about there than in three parishes besides[702].” The epidemic does not appear to have reached its height until summer; on 12th June, a letter states that “the plague is very hot in London and other places of the realm, so that a great mortality is expected this summer.” On 3 July the Court “is in out places, and a great part of the household cut off [? dispensed with].” The infection is mentioned in letters down to November, after which date its public interest, at least, appears to have ceased.

Of that London epidemic a weekly record was kept by the Company of Parish Clerks, and published by them, beginning with the weekly bill of 21st December, 1592. The clerk of the Company of Parish Clerks, writing in 1665, had the annual bill[Pg 353] for 1593 before him, with the plague-deaths and other deaths in each of 109 parishes in alphabetical order, and the christenings as well[703]. For the next two years, 1594 and 1595, he appears to have had before him not only the annual bills but also a complete set of the weekly bills of burials and christenings according to parishes. The same documents were used by Graunt in 1662, and had doubtless been used by John Stow at the time when they were published. The originals are all lost, and only a few totals extracted from them remain on record. To begin with Stow’s. The mortality of 17,844 from all causes in 1593 is given as for the City and Liberties only. But there was already a considerable population in the parishes immediately beyond the Bars of the Liberties, which were known as the nine out-parishes, namely those of St Clement Danes, St Giles in the Fields, St James, Clerkenwell, St Katharine at the Tower, St Leonard, Shoreditch, St Martin in the Fields, St Mary, Whitechapel, St Magdalen, Bermondsey, and the Savoy. Besides these there were important parishes still farther out—the Westminster parishes, Lambeth, Newington, Stepney, Hackney and Islington. Of these, Whitechapel, Stepney, Shoreditch, Clerkenwell and some of the western parishes contributed largely to the plague-bills of the epidemics next following, in 1603 and 1625, and it is known from the parish registers of some of them that they contributed to the mortality of 1593. It is probably to these parishes that we should ascribe the difference between the above total of 17,844 (for City and Liberties) and the much larger total of deaths “in and about London,” given on the margin of a broadside of 1603: “And in the last visitation from the 20th of December, 1592 to the 23rd of the same month in the year 1593, died in all 25,886—of the plague in and about London 15,003.” The addition for the parishes beyond the Bars would thus be 8,042 deaths from all causes, and from plague alone[Pg 354] 4,541—numbers which will seem not inadmissible if they be compared with the figures for the corresponding parishes ten years after, in 1603, Stepney alone having had 2,257 deaths in that plague-year[704].

For the two years next following 1593, Graunt’s book of 1662 has preserved the totals of deaths from all causes and from plague in the 97 old parishes within the walls and in 16 parishes of the Liberties and suburbs; he has omitted the christenings, although he had the figures before him. Taking these along with the figures already given for 1593, we get the following table for three consecutive years:


Year Plague
1593 10,662 7,182 17,844 4,021
1594 421 3,508 3,929
1595 29 3,478 3,507


The proportion of mortality in 1593 that fell to the old area within the walls is known, from Stow’s abstract of the figures, to have been about the same as in the space of the Liberties (8598 in the one, 9295 in the other), the deaths from other causes than plague having been rather more in the latter than within the walls. Probably the population in the Liberties was about equal to that in the City proper, the acreage being rather less in the former, but the crowding, doubtless, greater.

The London plague of 1592-93 called forth two known[Pg 355] publications, an anonymous ‘Good Councell against the Plague, showing sundry preservatives ... to avoyde the infection lately begun in some places of this Cittie’ (London, 1592), and the ‘Defensative’ of Simon Kellwaye (April, 1593). The dates of these two books show that the alarm had really begun in the end of 1592 and early months of 1593. Kellwaye’s book is mostly an echo of foreign writings, the only part of it with direct interest for English practice being the 11th chapter, which “teacheth what orders magistrates and rulers of Citties and townes shoulde cause to be observed.” As that chapter sums up the various Elizabethan and other orders, and constitutes a short epitome of sanitary practice, I append it in full:

“Teacheth what orders magistrates and rulers of Citties and townes shoulde cause to be observed.

1. First to command that no stinking doonghills be suffered neere the Cittie.

2. Every evening and morning in the hot weather to cause colde water to be cast in the streetes, especially where the infection is, and every day to cause the streets to be kept cleane and sweete, and clensed from all filthie thinges which lye in the same.

3. And whereas the infection is entred, there to cause fires to be made in the streetes every morning and evening, and if some frankincense, pitch or some other sweet thing be burnt therein it will be much the better.

4. Suffer not any dogs, cattes, or pigs to run about the streets, for they are very dangerous, and apt to carry the infection from place to place.

5. Command that the excrements and filthy things which are voided from the infected places be not cast into the streets, or rivers which are daily in use to make drink or dress meat.

6. That no Chirurgions, or barbers, which use to let blood, do cast the same into the streets or rivers.

7. That no vautes or previes be then emptied, for it is a most dangerous thing.

8. That all Inholders do every day make clean their stables, and cause the doong and filth therein to be carryed away out of the Cittie; for, by suffering it in their houses, as some do use to do, a whole week or fortnight, it doth so putrifie that when it is removed, there is such a stinking savour and unwholesome smell, as is able to infect the whole street where it is.

9. To command that no hemp or flax be kept in water neere the Cittie or towne, for that will cause a very dangerous and infectious savour.

10. To have a speciall care that good and wholesome victuals and corne be solde in the markets, and so to provide that no want thereof be in the Cittie, and for such as have not wherewithall to buy necessary food, that [Pg 356]there to extend their charitable and goodly devotion; for there is nothing that will more encrease the plague than want and scarcity of necessary food.

11. To command that all those which do visit and attend the sick, as also all those which have the sickness on them, and do walk abroad: that they do carry something in their hands, thereby to be known from other people.

Lastly, if the infection be in but few places, there to keep all the people in their houses, all necessaries being brought to them. When the plague is staid, then to cause all the clothes, bedding, and other such things as were used about the sick to be burned, although at the charge of the rest of the inhabitants you buy them all new.”

The letters of the time give us a glimpse of this plague in London. On November 3, 1593, Richard Stapes writes to Dr Cæsar, judge of the Admiralty Court, residing at St Albans (doubtless to escape the infection): “My next door neighbour and tenant on Sunday last buried his servant of the plague, and since, on the other side of me, my son-in-law has buried his servant; but I cannot say his was the sickness because the visitors reported that the tokens did not appear on him as on the other[705].”

The epidemic of 1592-93 continued in London at a low level into the year 1594, when 421 persons died of the plague in the City and Liberties. Next year the plague-deaths had fallen to 29. Watford and Hertford, two of the most usual resorts of Londoners in a sickly season, were infected by plague from 1592 to 1594, many of the deaths being of refugees from the capital. At Watford there were 124 burials in the first eight months of 1594, a number much above the average, and many of them marked in the register as plague-deaths[706]. At Hertford plague-deaths appear in the registers of All Saints and St Andrew’s parishes in 1592 and 1594. But the greatest mortality at Hertford was in 1596; in St Andrew’s parish there were 13 burials in March, the average being one or two in the month; the mortality declined until July, in which month there were buried, among others, between the 12th and 26th, five children of one of the chief burgesses (mayor in 1603)[707]. These may or[Pg 357] may not have been plague-deaths, the year 1596 having been unhealthy, as we shall see, with other types of sickness.

Meanwhile, in several provincial towns at a greater distance from the capital than the summer resorts in Hertfordshire, there was plague in the end of 1592, at the same time as in London, and in the following years. At Derby, “the great plague and mortality” began in All Saints parish and in St Alkmund’s, at Martinmas, 1592, and ended at Martinmas, 1593, stopping suddenly, “past all expectation of man, what time it was dispersed in every corner of this whole parish, not two houses together being free from it[708].” At Lichfield in 1593 and 1594 upwards of 1100 are said to have died of the plague[709]. At Leicester, on the 21st September, 1593, a contribution was levied for the plague-stricken[710]. At Shrewsbury in 1592-3 there was either plague itself or alarms of it[711]; in the parish of Bishop’s Castle there was the enormous mortality of 135 in July and August, 1593, and 182 burials for the year, the average being 25[712]. In the same years the infection was in Canterbury, as appears from entries of payments “to Goodman Ledes watchying at Anthony Howes dore ... when his house was first infected with the plague,” and, the year after, “to those ii pore folkes which were appointed to carry such to burial as died of the plague; and also to the woman that was appointed to sock them[713].” There are also various references to houses visited and to poor persons relieved. Nottingham and Lincoln are also mentioned as having been notoriously afflicted with plague in 1593[714].

A solitary record of plague comes from Cornwall in 1595. On 3rd May a letter from the justices at Tregony to the Privy Council states that the inhabitants, having been charged by the[Pg 358] justices at the General Sessions to restrain divers infected houses within the borough, were molested in executing these commands, and had made complaint thereof[715].

All that remains to be said of plague in England until the end of the Tudor period (1603) relates exclusively to the provinces; unless the records are defective, London was clear of plague for nine years following 1592-94, just as it was clear for nine years preceding. The year 1597 was one of great scarcity in more than one region of England. At Bristol wheat is quoted at the incredible figure of twenty shillings the bushel; a civic ordinance was made that every person of ability should keep in his house as many poor persons as his income would allow[716]. But it is from the North of England in 1597 that we have more particular accounts of famine and of plague in its train. Writing in January, 1597, the dean of Durham says[717]:

“Want and waste have crept into Northumberland, Westmoreland and Cumberland; many have come 60 miles from Carlisle to Durham to buy bread, and sometimes for 20 miles there will be no inhabitant. In the bishopric of Durham, 500 ploughs have decayed in a few years, and corn has to be fetched from Newcastle, whereby the plague is spread in the northern counties: tenants cannot pay their rents; then whole families are turned out, and poor boroughs are pestered with four or five families under one roof.”

On the 16th of January, 1597, he wrote again: “In Northumberland great villages are depeopled, and there is no way to stop the enemy’s attempt; the people are driven to the poor port towns.” On the 26th of May, the dean again complains that there is great dearth in Durham; some days 500 horses are at Newcastle for foreign corn, although that town and Gateshead are dangerously infected. On the 17th September, Lord Burghley, minister of State, is informed that the plague increases at Newcastle, so that the Commissioners cannot yet come thither (the Assizes were not held at all on account of plague about Newcastle and Durham): foreign traders were[Pg 359] selling corn at a high price, until some members of the town council produced a stock of corn for sale at a shilling a bushel less[718]. There are no figures extant of the plague-mortality at Newcastle in 1597; but at Darlington the deaths up to October 17 were 340; and in Durham, up to October 27, more than 400 in Elvet, 100 in St Nicholas, 200 in St Margaret’s, 60 in St Giles’s, 60 in St Mary’s, North Bailey, and 24 in the gaol. The whole mortality in St Nicholas parish from July 11 to November 27 was 215. Many of the burials were on the moor. The infection broke out again at Darlington and Durham in September, 1598[719].

Coincident with this severe plague on the eastern side, there was an equally disastrous plague in the North Riding of Yorkshire and in Cumberland and Westmoreland. The plague began at Richmond in the autumn of 1597. In August there were 23 deaths, and in September 42 deaths. The epidemic appears to have reached its height in the summer of 1598, the deaths in May having been 93, in June 99, in July 182 and in August 194. These figures indicate a grievous calamity in so small a place as Richmond. The outbreak which began on the 17th August, 1597, was over in December, 1598. The stress of the epidemic is shown by the fact that the churchyard was insufficient for the burials, many of the dead having been buried in the Castle Yard and in Clarke’s Green[720]. Of this severe plague in Cumberland and Westmoreland there are few exact particulars. According to an inscription at Penrith Church, “on the north outside of the vestry, in the wall, in rude characters[721],” the deaths in 1598 were:—


At Penrith   2260,
" Kendal   2500,
" Richmond   2200,
" Carlisle   1196.


We are able to measure the accuracy of these round totals by the monthly burials for Richmond given above; the months of July and August, 1598, with 182 and 194 deaths respectively, were the most deadly season; and it is hardly conceivable that[Pg 360] there had been as many as 1800 deaths at Richmond in the months when the epidemic was rising to a height and declining therefrom according to its usual curve of intensity.

Again, the parish register of Penrith gives only 583 deaths from the infection, the inscription on the church wall making them 2260. Perhaps the discrepancy is to be explained by including the mortality in the various parishes of which Richmond, Penrith, Kendal and Carlisle were respectively the centres and market-towns. Thus at Kirkoswald there were buried, according to the parish register, 42 of the pestilence in 1597, and no fewer than 583 in 1598[722],—a number which, if correct, means a death-rate comparable to that of the Black Death itself. Again, in the small parish of Edenhall, 42 were buried of the pestilence in 1598[723]. Appleby, also, is known to have had a severe visitation[724], and so had probably many other parishes.

The Tudor period of plague closes with a severe epidemic at Stamford, which began in the end of 1602. On December 2 the corporation resolved to build a cabin for the plague-stricken, and in January following they levied a fourth part of a fifteenth for the relief and maintenance of people visited with the plague. This epidemic is said to have carried off nearly 600; the parish registers of St George’s and St Michael’s contain entries of persons “buried at the cabbin of the White Fryers[725].”


Plague in Scotland, 1495-1603.

The history of plague in Scotland subsequent to the medieval period is of interest chiefly as affording early illustrations of the practice of quarantine. We last saw the disease prevailing in or near Edinburgh in 1475, the island of Inchkeith, in the Firth of Forth, being used as a quarantine station. It was doubtless the possession of convenient islands near the capital—Inch Colm and Inch Garvie were both used for the same purpose afterwards—that led the Scots government to follow the example of Venice and other foreign cities at no long interval of time.[Pg 361] When we next hear of plague in Scotland it is again in connexion with infected persons on the island of Inchkeith and in the town of Leith, some time between 13th August, 1495, and 4th July, 1496[726].

But these quarantine practices were not confined to the Firth of Forth. On the 17th May, 1498, the town of Aberdeen was warned by proclamation of the bell of certain measures to be taken so as to preserve the town from the pestilence “and strange sickness abefore,” the principal precaution being a guard of citizens at each of the four gates during the day, and that the gates be “lockit with lokis and keis” at night. The “strange sickness abefore” is doubtless the other invasion (of syphilis) which the aldermen tried to check by an order of April, 1497; but “the pestilence” in the order of May 1498 must have been the plague itself[727]. Nothing more is heard of it at Aberdeen or elsewhere in Scotland in that year. It appears to have been somewhat general in Scotland in 1499 and 1500. The audit of burgh accounts, mostly held in June, 1499, was postponed to January 1500 in some cases, the bailie of North Berwick explaining that he was prevented by the plague from coming to the Exchequer[728]. An extra allowance is made to the comptroller, Sir Patrick Hume, in March 1500, “for his great labour in collecting fermes in different parts of the kingdom in time of the infection of the plague.” At Peebles, hides and woolfells were destroyed during the plague of 1499. There was a renewal of it in 1500, the audit being again delayed until November. The custumar of Aberdeen brings his account of the great customs of that burgh down only to the 3rd July, 1500, “because after that date the accountant, from dread of the plague, did not enter the burgh of Aberdeen[729].”

It is from the same northern city that our information on plague in Scotland comes exclusively for the next forty-five years, not, of course, because its experience was singular, but because its borough records are known[730].

[Pg 362]On the 24th April, 1514, various orders were made at Aberdeen against a disease that seems to have been the plague: “for keeping of the town from strange sickness, and specially this contagious pestilence ringand in all parts about this burgh;” and, again, watching the gates (as in 1498) against persons “coming forth of suspect places where this violent and contagious pestilence reigns.” Lodges were erected on the Links and Gallow-hill, where the infected or suspected were to remain for forty days. In the following year (1515), sixteen persons were banished from the town for a year and a day for disobeying the orders “anent the plague.” On the 27th July, 1530, these orders are renewed “for evading this contagious pestilence reigning in the country.” On September 15, 1539 (the year after a plague in the North of England), the plague is called in the municipal orders by a distinctive name: the orders are for avoiding the “contagius infeckand pest callit the boiche, quilk ryngis in diverse partis of the same [realm] now instantly”—the botch being a name given to plague in England also as late as the Elizabethan and Stuart periods.

The years 1545 and 1546 were also plague-years in Scotland. At a council held at Stirling on the 14th June, 1545, the session of the law courts was transferred to Linlithgow “because of the fear of the pest that is lately reigning in the town of Edinburgh[731].” On 10th September, of the same year, the town council of Aberdeen issued orders for evading the pest. On September 18 the plague was in the English army at Warkeshaugh, and it is reported from Newcastle, on 5 October, to be raging on the borders[732]. On March 21, 1546, a house in Aberdeen was shut up for the pest; and there are evidences of its continuance in August, October and December both in that town and “in certain parts of the realm:” on the 11th October the St Nicholas “braid silver” was given for the sustentation of the sick folk of the pest; on the 17th December an Aberdonian named David Spilzelaucht was ordered to be “brint on the left hand with ane het irne” for not showing the bailies “the seiknes of his barne, quilk was seik in the pest[733].” In November, 1548,[Pg 363] the plague is at St Johnstone (Perth), and the Rhinegrave, with troops there, sick of it and like to die[734].

In 1564 the Scots Privy Council ordered quarantine for arrivals from Denmark, in the manner that was practised on merchandise for nearly three centuries after. As these early practices in the Forth are curiously like those that used to be practised in the Medway in the eighteenth century, I shall quote a part of the order of the Scots Privy Council, dated, Edinburgh, September 23, 1564[735]:

“That is to say, becaus maist danger apperis to be amangis the lynt, that the samyn be loissit, and houssit in Sanct Colm’s Inche, oppynout, handillet and castin forth to the wynd every uther fair day, quhill the feist of Martimes nixt to cum, be sic visitouris and clengearis as sal be appointit and deput thairto be the Provest, Baillies and Counsall of the burgh of Edinburgh upoun the expensis of the marchantis, ownaris of the saidis gudis. And as concerning the uther gudis, pik, tar, irine, tymmer, that the samyn be clengeit be owir flowing of the sey, at one or twa tydis, the barrellis of asse to be singit with huddir set on fyre, and that the schippis be borit and the sey wattir to haif interes into thame, to the owir loft, and all the partis within to be weschin and clengeit; and siclike that the marinaris and utheris that sall loase and handill the gudis above written, be clengeit and kepit apart be thameselffis for ane tyme, at the discretioun of the saidis visitouris, and licenses to be requirit had and obtenit of the saidis Provest, Baillies and Counsall before they presume to resort opinlie or quietlie amangis oure Soverane Ladeis fre liegis.”

The same autumn another foul ship from the Baltic arrived and entered the port of Leith in evasion of quarantine; the master and others are to be apprehended and kept in prison until justice be done upon them for the offence[736].

A severe outbreak of plague in Scotland in the year 1568 gave occasion to the first native treatise upon the disease in the English tongue, the essay by Dr Gilbert Skene, at one time lecturer on medicine at King’s College, Aberdeen, but probably removed before 1568 to Edinburgh, where he became physician to James VI.[737] The author says that the plague has “lately[Pg 364] entered” the country, and he is led to write upon it in the vulgar tongue for the benefit of those who could not afford to pay for skilled advice, or could not get it on any terms: “Medecineirs are mair studious of their awine helthe nor of the common weilthe.” The panic caused by the plague must have been considerable: “Specialie at this time whan ane abhorris ane other in sic maneir as gif nothing of humanitie was restand but all consumit, euery ane abydand diffaent of ane other.”

Although Skene’s treatise bears numerous traces of the influence of foreign writers on plague, the same being freely acknowledged in the section of prescriptions and regimen, yet the book is much better than a mere compilation. Thus, under the causes of plague, he gives the stock recital of blazing stars, south-winds, corrupt standing waters, and the like; but in mentioning, as others do, dead carrion unburied, he adds that the corrupting human body is most dangerous of all “by similitude of nature.”

A season favourable to plague is marked by continual wet in the last part of Spring or beginning of Summer, without wind, and with great heat and turbid musty air.

Anticipating a remark by Thomas Lodge in 1603, and a common experience as regards rats in the recent plagues of various parts of India and China, he points out that the mole (moudewart) and serpent leave the earth, being molested by the vapour contained within the bowels of the same. “If the domesticall fowlis become pestilential, it is ane sign of maist dangerous pest to follow.” Among the spots that are most pestilential are those near standing water, or where many dead are buried, the ground being fat and vaporative. Of the duration of infection: “na pest continuallie induris mair than three yeris,” according to the principle of “rosten ance can not be made raw againe.”

The diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment are given fully and in systematic scholarly order. I give the following long extract on the signs and symptoms of plague, as being the first native account of the disease in this country:

Quhairby corrupt be pest may be knawin.

Thair is mony notis quhilkis schawis ane man infectit be pest. First gif the exteriour partis of the bodie be caulde, and the interiour partis of the bodie vehement hait. As gif the hoill bodie be heavie with oft scharpe punctiounis, stinkand sweiting, tyritnes of bodie, ganting of mowthe, detestable brathe with greit difficultie, at sumtyme vehement fever rather on[Pg 365] nycht nor day. Greit doloure of heid with heavynes, solicitude and sadnes of mynd: greit displesour with sowning, quhairefter followis haistelie deth. As greit appetit and propensnes to sleip albeit on day, raving and walking occupeis the last. Cruell inspectioun of the ene, quhilkis apperis of sindre colouris maist variant, dolour of the stomak, inlak of appetite, vehement doloure of heart, with greit attractioun of Air; intolerable thirst, frequent vomitting of divers colouris or greit appetit by daylie accustum to vomit without effecte: Bitternes of mowth and toung with blaiknit colour thairof and greit drouth: frequent puls small and profund, quhais urine for the maist part is turbide thik and stinkand, or first waterie, colourit thairefter of bilious colour, last confusit and turbide, or at the beginning is zallow inclyning to greine (callit citrine collour) and confusit, thairefter becummis reid without contentis. Albeit sum of thir properteis may be sene in haile mennis water, quhairby mony are deceavit abydand Helth of the patient, quhan sic water is maist manifest sing of deth, because the haill venome and cause conjunit thar with, leavand the naturall partis occupeis the hart and nobillest interioure partis of the body. Last of all and maiste certane, gif with constant fever, by the earis, under the oxstaris, or by the secrete membres maist frequentlie apperis apostumis callit Bubones, without ony other manifest cause, or gif the charbunkil apperis hastelie in ony other part, quhilk gif it dois, in the begining, testifies strenthe of nature helth, and the laitter sic thingis appeir, and apperand, it is the mair deidlie. At sumtym in ane criticall day mony accidentis apperis—principalie vomiteing, spitting of blude, with sweit, flux of womb, bylis, scabe, with dyvers others symptomis maist heavie and detestable.”

The signs of death in pestilential persons are as follow:

“Sowning, cold sweats, vomiting; excrements corrupt, teuch; urine black, or colour of lead. Cramp, convulsion of limbs, imperfection of speech and stinking breath, colic, swelling of the body as in dropsy, visage of divers colours, red spots quickly discovering and covering themselves.”

The great plague which was the occasion of Skene’s writing, probably the most severe that Edinburgh experienced, entered that city on the 8th September, 1568, having been brought, it was said, by “ane called James Dalgliesh, merchant[738].” A letter of 21st September, from the bishop of Orkney, then in Edinburgh, to his brother-in-law Sir Archibald Napier of Merchiston, whose house was near the plague-huts erected on the Muir, refers to the infection as then active:

“By the number of sick folk that gaes out of the town, the muir is liable to be overspread; and it cannot be but, through the nearness of your place and the indigence of them that are put out, they sall continually repair[Pg 366] about your room, and through their conversation infect some of your servants.” He advises him to withdraw to a house on the north side. “And close up your houses, your granges, your barns and all, and suffer nae man come therein while it please God to put ane stay to this great plague[739].”

The following account of Edinburgh practices in plague-times is given by Chambers[740]:

“According to custom in Edinburgh the families which proved to be infected were compelled to remove, with all their goods and furniture, out to the Burgh-moor, where they lodged in wretched huts hastily erected for their accommodation. They were allowed to be visited by their friends, in company with an officer, after eleven in the forenoon; anyone going earlier was liable to be punished with death—as were those who concealed the pest in their houses. Their clothes were meanwhile purified by boiling in a large caldron erected in the open air, and their houses were clensed by the proper officers. All these regulations were under the care of two citizens selected for the purpose, and called Bailies of the Muir; for each of whom, as for the cleansers and bearers of the dead, a gown of gray was made, with a white St Andrew’s Cross before and behind. Another arrangement of the day was ‘that there be made twa close biers, with four feet, coloured over with black, and [ane] white cross with ane bell, to be hung upon the side of the said bere, which sall mak warning to the people.’”

The same writer says that the plague lasted in Edinburgh until February, 1569, and that it was reported to have carried off 2500 of the inhabitants. The plague-stricken in the Canongate were sent to huts “on the hill” and money was collected for their support[741].

The plague of 1574 was again chiefly along the shores of the Firth of Forth. It came to Leith on October 14th, it was said by a passenger from England, and several died in that town before its existence was known at large. On October 24th it entered Edinburgh, “brought in by ane dochter of Malvis Curll out of Kirkcaldy[742].” On the 29th October the town council of Glasgow ordered that no one should be allowed to enter from Leith, Kirkcaldy, Dysart, Burntisland and Edinburgh (in respect of Bellis Wynd only), and that no one in Glasgow was to repair[Pg 367] to Edinburgh without a pass[743]. Two days after (October 31st) the Scots Privy Council, at Dalkeith, issued an order to check the spreading of the plague landwards “through the departure of sick folk and foul persons:” no one to conceal the existence of plague, and the infected “to cloise thame selffis in[744].” On November 14th the sittings of the Court of Session were suspended owing to pest within some parts of Edinburgh, in Leith, and some towns and parts of the north coast of Fife[745]. In December the Kirk session of Edinburgh appointed an eight days’ fast for the plague threatening the whole realm.

In January, 1577, plague is reported to be raging on the English border, causing alarm in Kirkcudbright[746]. On the 19th October, 1579, the king and council are credibly informed that “the infectioun and plague of the pistolence” is not only in divers towns and parts of the coast of England frequented by Scots shipping but also in Berwick and sundry other bounds of the East and Middle Marches of England; the markets at Duns and Kelso are therefore forbidden, and traders not to repair to infected places or to break bulk of their wares[747]. Next year, 1580, on September 10th, a ship laden with lint and hemp from “Danske,” with forty persons on board, including seven Edinburgh merchants, arrived in the Forth, and was quarantined for many weeks at Inchcolm; the master and several others died of plague, and the survivors were transferred in November, some to Inchkeith and some to Inchgarvie, the ship being still at Inchcolm in a leaky state. On November 22 a vessel which had come down the Tay with plague-stricken inhabitants of Perth, some of whom were dead, and with their goods and gear, was ordered to the Isle of May[748].

One of the most serious epidemics of plague in Scotland was from 1584 to 1588. It was said to have been brought to Wester Wemyss, in Fife, by a certain “creare;” but it was in some other places at the same time, and was probably a revival of old seeds of the disease. On July 28th the Privy Council issued orders that beggars and tramps should be kept from wandering about[749].[Pg 368] On the 24th September, 27th October, 4th November, and the 11th December, the Privy Council issued order after order to stop all traffic, unless by licence, from Fife, Perth, and other places north of the Forth; sails were to be taken out of the ferry-boats at all ferries except Burntisland and Aberdour, and eventually at these also, Leith and Pettycur being left free[750]. For Perth we have some particulars of this great outbreak. From the 24th September, 1584, to August, 1585, there died 1437 persons, young and old[751]. It was also in Dysart and other parts of Fife through the winter of 1584-85[752].

The infection appeared at Edinburgh about the 1st of May, 1585, in the Flesh Mercat Close by the infection of a woman who had been in St Johnstone (Perth) where the plague was[753]. On the 18th May orders were issued to Edinburgh to remove all filth, filthy beasts and carrion forth of the highways, and the same to be cleansed and kept clean. On the 23rd June the coining-house was removed to Dundee, and the Court of Session transferred to Stirling[754]. The plague next broke out in Dundee, whence the mint was removed to Perth. At St Andrews it appeared in August, 1585, and became a severe epidemic, causing the dispersion of the students, and continuing so long that the miserable state and poverty of the town are in part ascribed, in a petition of March 24, 1593, to the plague[755]. Upwards of four hundred are said to have died of it there[756]. The state of sickness was much aggravated by wet harvest weather. In Edinburgh it continued through the winter until January, 1586, sometimes carrying off twenty-four in a single night: “the haill people, whilk was able to flee, fled out of the town; nevertheless there died of people which were not able to flee, fourteen hundred and some odd” (Birell). James Melville, riding in November from Berwick to Linlithgow, entered Edinburgh by the Water-Gate of the Abbey at eleven o’clock in the forenoon and rode up[Pg 369] “through the Canongate, and in at the Nether Bow through the great street of Edinburgh to the West Port, in all whilk way we saw not three persons, sae that I miskenned Edinburgh, and almost forgot that I had ever seen sic a town[757].” The same year it was unusually severe at Duns[758]. In the winter of 1586-7, “the pest abated and began to be strangely and remarkably withdrawn by the merciful hand of God, so that Edinburgh was frequented again that winter, and at the entry of the spring all the towns, almost desolate before, repeopled, and St Andrews among the rest[759].”

In the harvest of 1587 “the pest brake up in Leith, by opening up of some old kists,” and in Edinburgh about the 4th November. It continued in those two towns till Candlemas, 1588[760]. On April 26, 1588, the infection is reported anew from Edinburgh, threatening the law session[761]. In October, 1588, it was at Paisley, causing alarm in Glasgow[762].

On the 8th August, 1593, a ship from an English port, with persons and goods suspected of the plague, was quarantined at Inchcolm[763]. Four years after, on the 6th August, 1597, “the pest began in Leith[764].” Twelve days after, August 18, the Privy Council declared that divers inhabitants of sundry towns near Edinburgh were infected, and that the disease was suspected to be in the capital itself[765]. Many fled from Edinburgh, but the epidemic was over by the end of harvest[766].

In the winter of 1598, the plague which was in Cumberland extended to Dumfries, and caused great decay of trade, and even scarcity of food[767]. On the 12th October, 1600, a petition[Pg 370] from Dundee declares that the plague of the pest had “entered and broken up within the town of Findorne[768].” Findhorn had been only one of several places infected in that locality; for in December, the Kirk session of Aberdeen ordered a fast “in respect of the fearful infection of the plague spread abroad in divers parts of Moray[769].”

On the 24th November, 1601, the parishes of Eglishawe, Eastwood, and Pollok, in Renfrewshire, and the town of Crail in Fife are declared infected, and ordered to be shut up. On the 28th of the same month it was in the barony of Calderwood, and on the 21st December, in Glasgow. It increased daily in Crail in January, 1602, and suspects were put out on the muir, so that they wandered to sundry parts of Fife. It still continued in Glasgow, and had appeared at Edinburgh before the 4th of February: the town council built shielings and lodgings for the sick of the plague in the lands of Schenis (Sciennes) belonging to Napier, of Merchiston, without his leave, having ploughed up the old plague-muir, and let it for their profit: against the plague-shelters Napier protested on the 11th March. By the 1st of May it had ceased in Edinburgh, and a solemn thanksgiving was held on the 20th (Birell). A ship owned in Crail arrived in the Forth on 30th July, 1602, from “Danske,” with three or four dead of the plague, and was quarantined at Inchkeith. In April, 1603, James VI. left for England, to assume the English[770] crown, with which event we resume in another chapter the eventful history of Plague under the Stuarts.

Meanwhile, in the foregoing records of plague in Scotland, the absolute immunity of Aberdeen in the latter half of the sixteenth century is remarkable. It does not depend on any imperfection of the records; for, under the year 1603, the borough register contains this entry[771]: “It has pleasit the guidness of God of his infinite mercy to withhauld the said plague frae this burgh this fifty-five years bygane”—that is to say, since the[Pg 371] winter of 1546-47, when David Spilzelaucht was burned on the left hand with a hot iron for concealing a case of plague in one of his children. The northern city may have owed its immunity to various causes; but there can be no question of the Draconian rigour of its decrees against the plague. Following the example of queen Elizabeth at Windsor in 1563, the magistrates in May, 1585, when Perth, Edinburgh and many other places in Scotland were suffering severely from plague, erected three gibbets, “ane at the mercat cross, ane other at the brig of Dee, and the third at the haven mouth, that in case ony infectit person arrive or repair by sea or land to this burgh, or in case ony indweller of this burgh receive, house, or harbour, or give meat or drink to the infectit person or persons, the man be hangit and the woman drownit.”


Plague in Ireland in the Tudor period.

The accounts of plague in Ireland in the Tudor period are not many, but some of them are of interest. The province of Munster is said to have had a pestilence raging in it in 1504, evidently not a famine-fever, for the dearth, and mortality therefrom, came in 1505[772]. There is no doubt as to the reality of the next plague in Ireland, in 1520.

The earl of Surrey writes from Dublin to Wolsey, on the 3rd August, 1520: “There is a marvellous death in all this country, which is so sore that all the people be fled out of their houses into the fields and woods, where they in likewise die wonderfully; so that their bodies be dead like swine unburied.” On the 23rd July he had already written that there was sickness in the English pale; and on the 6th September he wrote again that the death continued in the English pale[773]. It is perhaps the same epidemic, or an extension of it, that is referred to as the plague raging in Munster in 1522[774]. On the same authority, “a most violent plague” is said to have been in the city of Cork in 1535, and “a great plague” in the same in 1547. The earlier of those dates corresponds probably to a season of ill-health in[Pg 372] Ireland generally: “1536. This year was a sickly, unhealthy year, in which numerous diseases, viz. a general plague, and smallpox [i.e. a disease with an Irish name supposed to be smallpox], and a flux plague, and the bed-distemper prevailed exceedingly[775].” In a State letter from Ireland September 10, 1535, the prevalence of “plague” is mentioned[776].

In the winter of 1566-7, a remarkable outbreak of plague occurred among the English troops quartered around the old monastery of the Derry, at the head of Loch Foyle, where Londonderry was afterwards built. The men were landed there in October, and by November “the flux was reigning among them wonderfully.” On December 18 and January 13, many of the soldiers are dead, the rest are discontented, and provisions are short. On February 16, the sickness continues, “in this miserable place,” and on March 26, the death at the Derry is said to be by cold and infection: the survivors to be removed to Strangford Haven[777]. Only 300 men were fit for service out of 1100, and several officers of rank were dead. The men’s quarters had been built over the graveyard of the ancient abbey, and the infection of plague was ascribed at the time to the emanations from the soil[778]. The scarcity was general in Ireland that winter, and was attended by great mortality. Sir Philip Sydney, the lord deputy, writes to the queen on April 20, 1567: “Yea the view of the bones and skulls of your dead subjects who, partly by murder, partly by famine, have died in the fields is such that hardly any Christian with dry eye could behold[779].”

In 1575 there was a severe and wide-spread outbreak of plague, the localities specially named being Wexford, Dublin, Naas, Athy, Carlow, and Leighlin. The city of Dublin was as if deserted of people, so that grass grew in the streets and at the[Pg 373] doors of churches; no term was held after Trinity, and prayers were appointed by the archbishop throughout the whole province[780]. The extremity of the plague in Ireland was such that the English troops sent by way of Chester and Holyhead had difficulty in finding a safe place to land[781]. Whether that outbreak had been connected with the military operations (as afterwards in Cromwell’s time), the information does not enable us to judge; but Chester and other places near, in direct communication with Ireland, had been visited with plague the year before (1574).



[Pg 374]



The Common Gaols of England date from the Council of Clarendon, in 1164, by the articles of which the limits of civil and ecclesiastical jurisdiction were fixed, and the quarrel between archbishop Becket and Henry II. reduced to terms. In obedience to Article VII. of the Council, gaols were built, the chief among them having been at Canterbury, Rochester, Huntingdon, Cambridge, Malmesbury, Sarum, Aylesbury, and Bedford[782]. Little is heard of the unwholesomeness of prison life until the medieval period is nearly over—not indeed because the prisons were better managed than they were later. “In the year 1385,” says Stow, “William Walworth gave somewhat to relieve the prisoners in Newgate; so have many others since.” One benefactor brought a supply of water into Newgate; another, the famous Whittington, left money actually to rebuild the gaol, which was done in 1422. For several years before that, Newgate had been notorious. An ordinance of 7 Henry V. (1419) for the re-establishment of the debtor’s prison at Ludgate, so that debtors need not have to go to Newgate gaol, was made in compliance with a petition which said that, in “the hateful gaol of Newgate, by reason of the fetid and corrupt atmosphere, many persons committed to the said gaol are now dead[783].” The greatest mortality must[Pg 375] have been, according to Stow, in 1414, when the gaolers of Newgate and Ludgate died, and sixty-four prisoners in Newgate[784].

More than a century after, in 1522, there occurred the first of a series of gaol-fever tragedies, which were well calculated to produce the effect ascribed by Aristotle to scenic tragedy, provided only the workings of cause and effect had been more apparent. The first of these historical Black Assizes occurred on the occasion of the gaol delivery at the Castle of Cambridge in Lent, 1522. The facts, which appear to be given nowhere but in Hall’s Chronicle (of almost contemporary authority), are less fully related than for some of the later instances of the same strange visitation; but there is no mistaking the air of reality and the generic likeness.


Cambridge Black Assizes.

In the 13th year of Henry VIII. at the Assize held in the Castle of Cambridge in Lent, “the justices and all the gentlemen, bailiffs and other, resorting thither, took such an infection, whether it were of the savour of the prisoners, or of the filth of the house, that many gentlemen, as Sir John Cut, Sir Giles Arlington, Knights, and many other honest yeomen, thereof died, and almost all which were present were sore sick, and narrowly escaped with their lives[785].”

It is to be observed that nothing is said of the prisoners being infected: they were brought from the dungeons to stand their trial in due course, and the gentlemen and yeomen attending the court officially or as jurors, or otherwise, were poisoned by their presence. This early chronicle indicates as the cause, “the savour of the prisoners, or the filth of the house;” and Bacon, in touching upon that class of incidents nearly a century later, indicates “the smell of the gaol,” but says nothing of cases of fever among the prisoners, having no warrant in the evidence for doing so.

Before we come to consider the condition of England in the[Pg 376] Tudor period, with the policy of Henry VIII. for the repression of beggary and crime, and the appearance of “new fevers” or “strange fevers” and “laskes” in the chronicles and other records of the time, it will be desirable to make out as accurately as possible the clinical type of the Assizes fever, and its circumstances. For that purpose we must turn to the next recorded outbreak on the occasion of the Assizes at Oxford in 1577, which happens to have been somewhat fully described as a memorable event in the register of Merton College. The entry in the Merton register appears to have been made within a few weeks of the event[786].


Oxford Black Assizes.

The Assizes met on the 5th and 6th July, 1577, in the Castle and Guild Hall. Those only fell ill, whether in Oxford itself or after leaving, who had been present at the Assizes. The two judges (Robert Bell, Chief Baron of the Exchequer and John Barrham, sergeant-at-law), the sheriff of the county, two knights, eight squires and justices of the peace, several gentlemen and not a few of their servants, the whole of the grand jury with one or two exceptions—these all had not long left Oxford when they were seized with illness and died (statim post fere relictam Oxoniam mortui sunt). In Oxford itself, on the 15th, 16th and 17th July, some ten or twelve days after the Assizes, about three hundred fell ill; and in the next twelve days there died (“ne quid errem”) one hundred scholars, besides townsmen not a few. Five died in Merton College, including one fellow, the names of four being given who died on the 24th, 27th, 28th and 29th July. Every college, hall, or house had its dead. Women were not attacked, nor indeed the poor; nor did the infection spread to those who waited on the sick or came to prescribe for them.[Pg 377] Only those who had been present at the Assizes caught the fever. The symptoms are described as follows:

The patients laboured under pain both of the head and of the stomach; they were troubled with phrensy, deprived of understanding, memory, sight, hearing and their other senses. As their malady increased, they took no food, could not sleep, and would not suffer attendants or watchers to be near them; their strength was remarkable, even in the approach of death; but if they recovered they fell into the extreme of weakness. No complexion or constitution was spared; but those of a choleric habit were most obnoxious to the disease. The affected persons suddenly became delirious and furious, overcoming those who tried to hold them; some ran about in courts and in the streets after the manner of insane persons; others leapt headlong into the water. The spirits of all the people were crushed; the physicians fled, and the wretched sufferers were deserted. Masters, doctors, and heads of houses left almost to a man. The Master of Merton remained, longe omnium vigilantissimus, ministering sedulously to the sick. The pharmacies were soon emptied of their conserves, oils, sweet waters, pixides and every kind of confection.

This sudden epidemic, which began on the 15th—17th July, did not last long; within the space of one month the city was restored to its former health, so that one wonders, says the registrary of Merton, to see already so many scholars and so many townsmen abroad in the streets and walks.

The infection was suspected by many, says the same eyewitness, to have arisen either from the fetid and pestilent air of thieves brought forth from prison, of whom two or three died in chains a few days before (quorum duo vel tres sunt ante paucos dies in vinculis mortui), or from the devilishly contrived and obviously papistical spirits called forth “e Lovaniensi barathro,” and let loose upon the court secretly and most wickedly.

The latter explanation arose out of the heated feelings of the time against papist plotters, and has no farther interest. But the statement that two or three of the prisoners had died in chains a few days before has a great interest, as showing the kind of treatment to which they had been subjected while awaiting the gaol delivery. A strange confirmation of the truth of the statement came to light many years after. When John Howard visited the Oxford gaol in 1779, in the course of his humane labours on behalf of the prisoners, he was told by the gaoler that, some years before, wanting to build a little hovel[Pg 378] and digging up stones for the purpose from the ruins of the court, which was formerly in the Castle, he found under them a complete skeleton with light chains on the legs, the links very small. “These,” says Howard, “were probably the bones of a malefactor who died in court of the distemper at the Black Assize[787].”

Next to the Merton register’s account, we may take that of Thomas Cogan, a graduate in medicine of Oxford, sometime fellow of Oriel, but probably removed to Manchester previous to 1577. Wherever Cogan got his information, he acknowledges no source of the following in his Haven of Health, 1589:

“What kind of disease this should be which was first at Cambridge [in 1522] and after at Oxford, it is very hard to define, neither hath any man (that I know) written of that matter. Yet my judgment is, be it spoken without offence of the learned physicians, that the disease was Febris ardens, a burning fever. For as much as the signes of a burning ague did manifestly appear in this disease, which after Hollerius be these: Extreame heate of the body, vehement thirst, loathing of meate, tossing to and fro, and unquietnesse, dryness of the tongue rough and blacke, griping of the belly, cholerick laske, cruell ake of the head, no sound sleepe, or no sleepe at all, raving and phrensie, the end whereof, to life or death, is bleeding at the nose, great vomitting, sweate or laske. And this kind of sicknesse is one of those rods, and the most common rod, wherewith it pleaseth God to brake his people for sin.... And this disease indeed, as it is God’s messenger, and sometimes God’s poaste, because it commeth poaste haste, and calleth us quickly away, so it is commonly the Pursuivant of the pestilence and goeth before it.... And certainly after that sodaine bane at Oxford, the same yeare, and a yeare or two following, the same kind of ague raged in a manner over all England, and tooke away very many of the strongest sort, and in their lustiest age, and for the most part, men and not women nor children, culling them out here and there, even as you should chuse the best sheepe out of a flocke. And certaine remedy was none to be found.... And they that took a moderate sweate at the beginning of their sickness and did rid their stomachs well by vomit sped much better. Yet thanks be to God hitherto no great plague hath ensued upon it.”

Besides these medical particulars, he gives certain dates and numbers. It began, he says, on the 6th of July, from which date to the 12th of August next ensuing there died of the same[Pg 379] sickness five hundred and ten persons, all men and no women: the chiefest of which were the two judges, Sir Robert Ball, lord chief baron, and maister Sergeant Baram, maister Doile the high sheriff, five of the justices, four councillors at law and an attorney. The rest were jurors and such as repaired thither.

An account not unlike Cogan’s is given by Stow in his Annales (p. 681);

“The 4, 5 and 6 dayes of July were the assizes holden at Oxford, where was arraigned and condemned one Rowland Jenkes for his seditious toung, at which time there arose amidst the people such a dampe, that almost all were smothered, very few escaped that were not taken at that instant: the Jurors died presently. Shortly after died Sir Robert Bell, lord chief baron, Sir Robert de Olie, Sir William Babington, maister Weneman, maister de Olie, high sheriff, maister Davers, maister Harcurt, maister Kirle, maister Phereplace, maister Greenwood, maister Foster, maister Nash, sergeaunt Baram, maister Stevens, and there died in Oxford 300 persons, and sickned there but died in other places 200 and odde, from the 6th of July to the 12th of August, after which died not one of that sicknesse, for one of them infected not another, nor any one woman or child died thereof.”

Stow’s account differs from that of the Merton College register in several important particulars. The latter is explicit that the sickness appeared among the scholars and townsmen of Oxford on the 15th, 16th and 17th of July, or after an interval of ten days or more, and that the deaths amongst those who had come to Oxford on Assize business did not occur in Oxford but on their return home. On the other hand, Stow makes out the Oxford people to have been smothered by the damp which arose in the court itself: “very few escaped that were not taken ill at that instant;” next come the deaths of the jurors, and “shortly after” those of the judges and other high officials, whose names are given by Stow more fully than by anyone. His total of deaths, the same as Cogan’s, is 300 in Oxford and 200 and odd of persons who had left Oxford, and his dates, “from the 6th of July to the 12th of August,” are also the same as Cogan’s.

Wood’s account is for the most part taken from the Merton register and in part from the very different version in Stow’s Annals; but he has the following new matter: “Above 600 sickened in one night, as a physician that now lived in Oxford attesteth, and the day after, the infectious air being carried into[Pg 380] the next villages, sickened there an hundred more[788].” That, of course, is very unlike the Merton College account, which is explicit that no one caught the fever who had not been in the court. The Oxford physician whose authority is given for the six hundred cases in Oxford in one night, and the extension next day to villages around, is Dr George Ethredge, or Ethryg, a physician and learned Greek scholar living in Oxford at the time and keeping a boarding-house, called George Hall, for the sons of Catholic gentlemen. In 1588 he published a small volume of comments upon some books of Paulus Aegineta, which is the authority given by Wood[789]. On discovering the passage, one finds that it was not 600 in one night, but “sexaginta” or 60, and that the occasion on which more than sixty were taken ill at once in a single night at Oxford, and nearly a hundred next day in the adjacent villages, “whither the infected air had by chance been borne,” was not that of the gaol-fever in 1577 but of the sweating sickness in 1551. An extension in the atmosphere to the villages around is just what would have happened in the sweating sickness, a disease in that as in other respects closely analogous to influenza. Ethredge says that, on the particular occasion, “hardly any of the Oxford people died”—a statement which should of itself have prevented Wood’s mistake, even if the reference to the same disease having “at the same time” cut off the two sons of the duke of Suffolk “at Cambridge” (therefore a less healthy place than Oxford where hardly any died) had not quite clearly pointed to the sudor Britannicus, which is actually named in the context (“sic enim vocant”)[790].

Although, in the passage quoted, it is the sweating sickness[Pg 381] at Oxford in 1551 that Ethredge refers to, he does also refer to the gaol fever of 1577 in another passage which has hitherto escaped notice.

In the section of his book next following, entitled “De Curatione morborum populariter grassantium, et de Peste,” he says that he had used a certain prescription of aloes, ammoniacum and myrrh rubbed together in wine, for himself as well as for others in a serious contagion, “quae fuit in martiali sede cum ibi essem,” and also, with happy effect, upon many “in the most cruel pest at Oxford which carried off Judge Bell and ever so many more; one gentleman, I could not persuade to try this medicine, whom therefore I commended to God, and four days after he was dead. Concerning that pestilential fever, many colloquies took place between me and two most learned physicians; and, as to the kind of this contagion, we all agreed (manibus et pedibus in hanc sententiam itum est) in a sentence which I quoted from Valescus, who sayeth thus: Those sicknesses are dangerous in such wise that the physicians may be for the most part deceived; for we see a good hypostasis in the urine, and some other good signs, yet the sick person dies”—a remark which often recurs in the early writings on plague.

It has taken longer than usual to determine the matter of fact as to the fever of the Oxford Black Assizes, because an erroneous version passes current on respectable authority; but enough has perhaps been said to enable us to pass from the matter of fact to the matter of theory[791].

The theory of the gaol fever at Oxford, in 1577, was not attempted by any writer at the time, nor indeed has it been so[Pg 382] in later times; but the significance of the outbreak has been recognized and admitted. An Oxford scholar, Dr Plot, writing just a century after (1677) mentions the statement that a “poisonous steam” broke forth from the earth, having probably in his mind Stow’s imaginative explanation, that a damp arose amongst the people and smothered them, very few escaping that were not taken at that instant. Plot then proceeds:—

“But let it not be ascribed to ill fumes and exhalations ascending from the earth and poysoning the Air, for such would have equally affected the prisoners as judges, but we find not that they dyed otherwise than by the halter, which easily perswades me to be of the mind of my lord Verulam (Nat. Hist. cent. X. num. 914) who attributes it wholly to the smell of the Gaol where the prisoners had been long, close, and nastily kept.”

We know, indeed, from the register of Merton that “two or three of the prisoners died in chains a few days before,” which is a sufficient indication of the state they were kept in, but is no warrant for Anthony Wood’s free rendering of the words: “of whom two or three, being overcome with it [i.e. with the “nasty and pestilential smell of the prisoners”] died a few days before the Assizes began.” Two or three prisoners died in their chains with symptoms undescribed; and although typhus among the inmates of gaols has often occurred, it has also been wanting in many cases where the filth and misery might have bred it in the prisoners themselves[792].

Bacon’s judgment on the case, referred to above, was based upon a strict scrutiny of the evidence, and does not transcend the evidence. He attributes the infection that arose in the court to “the smell of the gaol;” and so as not to assume a smell which does not appear to have attracted any particular notice at the time, he is careful to explain in what sense he means the smell of the gaol:

[Pg 383]“The most pernicious infection,” he says, “next the plague, is the smell of the jail, when prisoners have been long and close and nastily kept; whereof we have had in our time experience twice or thrice; when both the judges that sat upon the jail, and numbers of those that attended the business or were present, sickened upon it and died. Therefore it were good wisdom, that in such cases the jail were aired before they be brought forth....

“Leaving out of question such foul smells as be made by art and by the hand, they consist chiefly of man’s flesh or sweat putrefied; for they are not those stinks which the nostrils straight abhor and expel, that are most pernicious; but such airs as have some similitude with man’s body, and so insinuate themselves and betray the spirits[793].”


Exeter Black Assizes.

The next Black Assizes occurred at Exeter in 1586, nine years after the Oxford tragedy. The Exeter incident has had the fortune to be chronicled by a person as competent as was the writer in the Merton College register in the former case, namely by John Hoker alias Vowell, chamberlain of the city, and its representative in Parliament, a lawyer of good education, who must have been conversant with all the circumstances, and wrote his account within six months. He is known as the chief contributor to the second edition of Holinshed’s Chronicle, in which the history is brought down to 1586, his name appearing on the title-page. It is in that work that he inserted his account of the Exeter Black Assizes, written in October, 1586. The margin bears the words:

“The note of John Hooker alias Vowell;” and the text of the note is as follows[794] (III. pp. 1547-8):—“At the assizes kept at the citie of Excester, the fourteenth daie of March, in the eight and twentieth yeare of hir majesties reigne, before Sir Edmund Anderson, Knight, lord chief justice of the common pleas, and sargeant Floredaie, one of the barons of the excheker, justices of the assises in the Countie of Devon and Exon, there happened a verie sudden and a strange sickenesse, first amongst the prisoners of the Gaole and Castell of Exon, and then dispersed (upon their triall) amongst sundrie other persons; which was not much unlike to the sickenesse that of[Pg 384] late yeares happened at an assise holden at Oxford, before Sir Robert Bell, Knight, lord chiefe baron of the excheker, and justice then of that assise....

The origin and cause thereof diverse men are of diverse judgment. Some did impute it, and were of the mind that it proceeded from the contagion of the gaole, which by reason of the close aire and filthie stinke, the prisoners newlie come out of a fresh aire into the same are in short time for the most part infected therewith; and this is commonlie called the gaole sickenesse, and manie die thereof. Some did impute it to certain Portingals, then prisoners in the said gaole. For not long before, one Barnard Drake, esquire (afterwards dubbed Knight) had beene at the seas, and meeting with certeine Portingals, come from New-found-land and laden with fish, he tooke them as a good prize, and brought them into Dartmouth haven in England, and from thense they were sent, being in number about eight and thirtie persons, unto the gaole of the castell of Exon, and there were cast into the deepe pit and stinking dungeon[795].

These men had beene before a long time at the seas, and had no change of apparell, nor laine in bed, and now lieing upon the ground without succor or reliefe, were soone infected; and all for the most part were sicke, and some of them died, and some one of them was distracted; and this sickenesse verie soone after dispersed itselfe among all the residue of the prisoners in the gaole; of which disease manie of them died, but all brought into great extremities and were hardly escaped. These men, when they were to be brought before the foresaid justices for their triall, manie of them were so weak and sicke that they were not able to goe nor stand; but were caried from the gaole to the place of judgement, some upon handbarrowes, and some betweene men leading them, and so brought to the place of justice.

The sight of these men’s miserable and pitifull cases, being thought (and more like) to be hunger-starved than with sickenesse diseased, moved manie a man’s heart to behold and look upon them; but none pitied them more than the lords justices themselves, and especially the lord chief justice himselfe; who upon this occasion tooke a better order for keeping all prisoners thenseforth in the gaole, and for the more often trials; which was now appointed to be quarterlie kept at every quarter sessions and not to be posted anie more over, as in times past, untill the assises.

These prisoners thus brought from out of the gaole to the judgment[Pg 385] place, after that they had been staied, and paused awhile in the open aire, and somewhat refreshed therewith, they were brought into the house, in the one end of the hall near to the judges seat, and which is the ordinarie and accountable place where they do stand to their triales and arraignments. And howsoever the matter fell out, and by what occasion it happened, an infection followed upon manie and a great number of such as were there in the court, and especially upon such as were nearest to them were soonest infected. And albeit the infection was not then perceived, because every man departed, (as he thought), in as good health as he came thither; yet the same by little and little so crept into such as upon whom the infection was seizoned, that after a few daies, and at their home coming to their owne houses, they felt the violence of this pestilent sicknesse; wherein more died, that were infected, than escaped. And besides the prisoners, manie there were of good account, and of all other degrees, which died thereof; as by name sargeant Floredaie who then was the judge of those trials upon the prisoners, Sir John Chichester, Sir Arthur Basset, Sir Barnard Drake, Knight[796]; Thomas Carew of Haccombe, Robert Carie of Clovelleigh, John Fortescue of Wood, John Waldron of Bradfeeld and Thomas Risdone, esquires and justices of the peace.

... Of the plebeian and common people died verie manie, and especiallie constables, reeves, and tithing men, and such as were jurors, and namelie one jurie of twelve, of which there died eleven.

This sicknesse was dispersed throughout all the whole shire, and at the writing hereof in the time of October, 1586, it is not altogether extinguished. It resteth for the most part about fourteene daies and upwards by a secret infection, before it breake out into his force and violence.”

Here we have the same incubation-period as in the Oxford fever, about fourteen days. But in the Exeter case, we have it clearly stated that an infection arose in the prison from the poor Portuguese sailors or fishermen who had been thrown into “deep pit and stinking dungeon” after their capture on the high seas by Sir Bernard Drake, that the infection attacked the other prisoners, that many of the prisoners died and all were brought to extremities, and that those who stood their trial were then in a most feeble state, although they seemed to the pitying spectators to be more starved than diseased.

So far as concerned the infection in the Assize Court, among the lawyers, county gentry, and officials, jurors and others, it was of the same tragic kind as at Oxford in 1577 and at Cambridge[Pg 386] in 1522, and, as we shall see, on several occasions in the eighteenth century. But the Exeter case has some features special to itself. Within the gaol were both English felons and thirty-eight Portugals, who had become subject to capture on their way home from the banks of Newfoundland with boatloads of stock-fish, and to treatment as felons, because Spain and England were at war. Within the gaol there seems to have been also a gradation of misery, a deep pit and stinking dungeon, “in the lowest deep a lower deep,” to which were consigned the men of foreign breed, the Portugals. It was among them that deaths first occurred, in what special form we know not. From them an infection is clearly stated by Hoker to have spread through the gaol at large, and to have made many of the prisoners so weak that they had to be carried into court. This is quite unlike what we read of in the Cambridge and Oxford cases, in neither of which was illness noted in the prisoners or asserted of them, although at Oxford two or three had died in chains a few days before. In the Exeter case there were three circles of the damned instead of two only: nay there were four. Farthest in were the Portugals, next to them were the native English felons, then came those present on business or pleasure at the Assizes, and lastly there were the country people all over Devonshire for many months after. We must take all those peculiarities of the Exeter gaol-fever together, and explain them one by another. It was a somewhat elaborated poison. It had passed from the foreign prisoners to the English, and in the transmission had, as it were, consolidated its power; hence, when the prisoners did give it to those who breathed their atmosphere in court, the infection did not limit itself to them, as it certainly did at Oxford and, so far as anything is said, at Cambridge also, and as it usually does in typhus-fever; but it became a volatile poison, it developed wings and acquired staying power, so that its effects were felt over the county of Devon for at least six months longer.

 [Pg 387]

Poverty and Vagrancy in Tudor England.

The Black Assizes of Cambridge (1522), of Oxford (1577), and of Exeter (1586) cast, in each case, a momentary and vivid light upon the state of England in the Tudor period as late as the middle of the reign of Elizabeth. It has been pointed out in a former chapter that prices and wages were favourable to the cultivators of the soil in the fifteenth century, that the English yeomanry sprang up in that period, that village communities and trading towns prospered although their morals were none of the best, and that the civil wars of York and Lancaster were so far from injuring the domestic peace of England that they even secured it. It was the observation of Philip de Comines, more than once quoted before, that England had the “peculiar grace” of being untroubled at large by the calamities of her civil wars, because kings and nobles were left to settle their quarrels among themselves. “Nothing is perfect in this world,” says the French statesman, who did not like independence of spirit among the lower orders. But he recognizes the fact as peculiar to England in the fifteenth century; and there can be little doubt about it.

The civil wars were hardly over when the troubles of the common people began. Here, if anywhere, is the turning-point brought into Goldsmith’s poem of “The Deserted Village:”

A time there was, ere England’s griefs began,
When every rood of ground maintained its man.

Deserted villages became a reality in the last quarter of the fifteenth century, and throughout the century following. We hear of this depopulation first in the Isle of Wight, where it affected the national defence and therefore engaged the attention of the State. Two Acts were passed in 1488-9