Articles from the Thoroton Society Newsletter

Laxton and the Black Death

By John Beckett

(This article originally appeared in the May 2020 edition of the Laxton Parish Magazine. It is reproduced here because it was felt that members of the Thoroton Society would find it interesting - if a little gruesome!)

I suppose that because I am a professional historian, people often ask me to compare events in history. Pandemics do not come along very often, thank goodness, but I have had several people ask me how Laxton might have fared in the Black Death of 1348-9. Most of us probably know little about the Black Death but have been prompted to ask questions by the present pandemic. In what follows you might even see some interesting parallels!

The Black Death, or great pestilence, or great plague, as contemporaries identified it, came from the east, probably along the Silk Road from China to reach Europe in 1347 and to arrive at Melcombe Regis near Weymouth in 1348.

Victims would notice tumours in the groin or armpits, and these would spread while black spots (hence the ‘Black’ Death) appeared on the body. This was followed by acute fever and vomiting of blood. How did any individual feel when they first spotted the tell-tale swellings and pustules which threatened a short, agonising illness and probable (or so they would have assumed) death, usually within two to seven days after infection took hold?

Most people must have assumed the worst when they first exhibited the tell-tale signs, although surprisingly the plague was not necessarily fatal: around half of those who caught the plague recovered.

How did you stop it spreading? Readers will not be surprised that the key was isolation. At Kibworth, Leicestershire, Michael Wood showed how bars were placed on the roads which passed through the village, but the movement of people simply could not be stopped, particularly during the daytime, and mortality was as great as in surrounding communities. Fourteen tenants died in Kibworth Beauchamp during April 1349, and many more in adjoining Kibworth Harcourt. People simply did not want to have their movements curtailed but without isolation, or social distancing, there was no way of stopping the pandemic from spreading.

Perhaps one-third to two-thirds of manorial tenants across the country died. There was no National Health Service of course, and no hospitals, let alone care homes. You just had to make do within your family unit.

Manor courts met regularly to oversee the transfer of land as estate tenants died, and we can assume this happened in Laxton although the court rolls have not survived for the Black Death period. The villagers had somehow to keep going in the hope that one day normal life would be restored. Then, as now, no one was any longer sure of what normal was.

There was barely time to bury the dead, and survivors had no space to mourn because they did not want to be overtaken by famine. Between funerals they had to press on with the day to day business of ploughing, sowing and reaping, quite apart from looking after the animals.

The aftermath was also painful: such huge population losses inevitably affected a whole way of life. It took something like 200 years to recover, and in that process numerous villages were deserted, many others shrunk, and the old manorial structure was brought to its knees. It never recovered.

What do we know about the Black Death in Laxton? The most reliable interpretations use turnover of clergy, since we usually have a list of clergy persons which includes this information. At Laxton Adam de Whileheved was instituted in December 1348, but he was quickly followed by Roger de Middleton in August 1349. If you see a new clergyman in 1348 and another in 1349 or similar it looks like plague. Since clergy were expected to tend their flock they were inevitably in the front line when it came to comforting the sick.

Other historians look at the contraction of fields, which was the case at Laxton. Where it looks as if there has been contraction of the open/common fields, it implies population decline, almost certainly from 1348-9.

It is hard now to imagine, given the passing of time and our quite different views of God, the devil, and medical men, just what it was like to live through the Black Death. The bland record of tenancy changes immures us to the sickness, the funerals and the mental torture through which whole communities passed. How did a community which believed in God’s punishment being delivered through illness and death reconcile the events of 1348-9 with the state of their immortal souls?

Just how many people died? Probably 2.5 - 3 million nationally, but no one was counting carefully. This would represent a figure of c.50 per cent mortality. The decline in the economy indicates that it was severe - just as many are predicting a decline or even collapse of the economy after coronavirus.

There were other parallels with today, including the idea of isolation as a way of stopping the virus spreading. The Black Death generation very quickly established the importance of isolation, which was used for similar epidemics, as at Eyam in Derbyshire when the Black Death arrived in 1665. The people of Eyam stayed and cared for their own, shutting themselves off from the outside world. Eyam became a plague quarantine to stop the spread of the disease. Local people chose to die to save others from the same fate.

The personal tragedies which lay behind the appalling figures for 1348-9 are largely lost to us. For a few months village life must have been disrupted, if only because people kept clear of each other - social isolation or social distancing - in a vain attempt to avoid the contagion, but the scale of the disaster was such that communities were torn apart. Rents went unpaid, and cottages and land were surrendered to the lord.

Burying the dead was a problem. The clergy must have done their best to administer the last sacrament in this Roman Catholic community, but they were vulnerable. Both the vicar of Kibworth Harcourt (and his sister) succumbed to the plague so there was no one to take the funerals. Nor was time available to dig individual graves in the churchyard. At Kibworth, the new vicar simply bought a field, hastily requested the bishop to licence it as a cemetery, and then arranged for victims to be laid in open pits to save time. Someone in the community would be persuaded to dig a plague pit, line it with lime, and throw the bodies in. It was not seemly, but there were no alternatives. I wonder whether the burial teams wore masks?

The stench, the pain, the turmoil of these months can only be guessed at as community after community buried so many of its members, adults and children alike. Did they close the churches or stop taking funerals? No, not like today, although probably churches closed by default since no one wanted to take a plague-ridden body into the church for a funeral.

Many of the methods, such as quarantine, which have been used today for coronavirus have a long history, and of course there was the problem that no one knew what caused the Black Death or how to deal with it, so social distancing was all they had. Here we are, several weeks into lockdown, and social isolation is the name of the game, particularly for the elderly and the sick. But - and this is the good news - we have hospitals and medical scientists, and we already know about the virus. If we can find a vaccine, we can bring this problematic interlude to an end.

The current pandemic is frightening, but not as much as the Black Death.