This paper aims to examine the effects of the Black Death upon English architecture. It is not aimed at being a definitive essay on the Black Death as a whole. Therefore, the text focusses on how architecture can teach us about how people built in response to the greatest natural disaster of the middle ages.
The Black Death spread from Western Asia through the Middle East, North Africa and finally Europe between 1346 and 1353; “causing catastrophic losses of population everywhere” (Benedictow 2004, 3). Benedictow describes the event as the “greatest-ever demographic disaster” which, many centuries later in Europe, became known by historians as the "Black Death" - from the Latin atra mors - such was its impact on society, religion and folklore (Aberth 2001, 2; Benedictow 2004, 3).
Although the Black Death occurred over a relatively short period in England (c.1348-50) its influence on subsequent generations cannot be ignored (Bailey 1998; Dyer 2003; James 1998, 1). The Black Death is generally considered to have entered England through the Dorset seaport of Melcombe Regis (now Weymouth) during May or June of 1348, spreading rapidly throughout England and Ireland primarily by sea trade or navigable waterways and subsequently at a slower rate over land (Benedictow 2004, 126-30; Theilmann and Cate 2007, 372-3). The contemporary accounts of the chronicler Henry Knighton (c. 1337-96) - an Augustinian Canon who survived the plague - however, suggests the Black Death may have entered England through Southampton and reached London via trade routes through Winchester (James 1999b, 9; 2007, 96; Theilmann and Cate 2007, 373). Where ever the plague entered England, it is most likely to have been through a southern seaport with trade links to France (Theilmann and Cate 2007, 373). It is very difficult to come up with a definite mortality rate for Hampshire but James hints that it was over 50% (James 1998, 21-3). Benedictow’s compendium of work suggests the average death-toll for England was nearer 62.5% during the pandemic and up to 66.67% by the end of the 15th century due to recurrent visitations of plague (Benedictow 2004, 383). It is also believed that the Black Death killed indiscriminately, regardless of the sex of the individual. Though, it appears the elderly and frail were more susceptible to the disease than the young and healthy (S. N. DeWitte and Wood 2008, 1436; S. DeWitte 2009, 231; Waldron 2001, 107). It is estimated that the population did not replenish fully until well into the eighteenth century (Bailey 1998, 223; Dyer 2003, 233; James 1998, 1; Kitsikopoulos 2002; Van-Bavel 2002).
Following the Black Death in England 1348-50, the population of Winchester shrank to around 7,750 inhabitants by AD1400 (Derek Keene 1985a, 367) and 7,710 by 1417 (James 2007, 97) from an estimated population of around 11,625 in 1300 (James 2007, 97; Derek Keene 1985a, 368). Therefore, making the average population density inside the city walls, around 29 people per acre and as much as 81 per acre in the city centre. Dyer suggests that this presents a greater density than modern British cities (Dyer 1989, 189). It seems strange to have such a large population in a city only fifty years after the Black Death in England 1348-50 but people did migrate back into towns and cities to work (Dyer 1986, 39; James 1998, 7; Van-Bavel 2002, 24). This would explain the rise in Winchester’s population and the loss of some rural settlements, such as Newtown, and manorial sites, such as Faccombe Netherton. This, according to Keene, also focused wealth back into the city (Derek Keene 1985a, 82-4). Unfortunately, it has not been possible to calculate the population immediately following the first visitation of the plague in 1348-50; only in 1400, by which time the migration of rural folk had re-populated the city, and recurrent plagues had also influenced the demography of Hampshire (Dyer 1986, 39). Patrick Ottaway suggests towns, in general, seem to have been less affected by population loss than rural areas, as many migrated from the countryside to fill the gaps left by those who died; although many towns did decline, as seen in the archaeological record (Patrick Ottaway 1996, 209).