A background to the Black Death in England 1348-50

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).

 

Listen to my podcast on the effects of the 'Black Death'

An archaeology of the Black Death in England 1348-50.

The archaeological investigation of burial practices during the Black Death in England 1348-50 can help shed light on mortality rates and religious practice, but perhaps more significant to this thesis, hierarchical divisions visible in the graves and pits (S. N. DeWitte and Wood 2008, 1436). It has always been notoriously difficult to find archaeological evidence for the Black Death (Antoine 2008, 108); although, in recent years sites such as the Royal Mint in East Smithfield, London, have been partially excavated (Hawkins 1990, 637-42). This remains the only known Black Death cemetery in the City (Hawkins 1990, 637; Margerison and Knüsel 2002, 134) and they are also extremely rare across Europe: But there exists both documentary and archaeological evidence for their use (S. N. DeWitte and Wood 2008, 1436). The excavation of one - conducted by the Museum of London’s Department of Greater London Archaeology between June 1986 and June 1988 (Hawkins 1990, 638) - revealed two pits - 67m and 125m in length - running north to south and averaging 2 metres wide at a depth of 1.25m. Although both of the pits were densely packed with skeletal remains (Hawkins 1990, 638; P. Ottaway 1992, 209), both Duncan Hawkins and Horrox explain that the bodies were still buried with respect. This is indicated by the west-east orientation of the articulated skeletons averaging 5 bodies deep (Hawkins 1990, 638; Horrox 1999, 105). No grave markers, graveyard structures or boundaries were found in the excavated areas (Hawkins 1990, 640). Not all contemporary Black Death burials on this site were mass graves; some had been interred in coffins, shrouds or buried with ashes, while others had large coin groups buried with them. However, Duncan Hawkins suggests there is no significance in distribution associated with these practices, nor can he infer any relationship to status (Hawkins 1990, 640). This would appear to be in direct opposition to the contemporary social structure demarcated by the tripartite house plan (Edward Roberts 2003, 126-7), (see Chapter 2.3.2). The archaeology could not shed any light on the chronologies of those interred in individual graves, compared to those placed in mass pits, as no time differences could be inferred by analysing the grave cuts or fills and there were no stratigraphic indicators to suggest a time sequence (Hawkins 1990, 640). Hawkins cites that there is no distinguishable difference between these examples and late medieval graves in general and that if it were not for documents pertaining to the sole use of this cemetery for plague victims, it would have been difficult to prove (Ibid.). This, he suggests, is the reason why it is hard to find any archaeological evidence of the Black Death in other cemeteries as there are no differentiating factors (Hawkins 1990, 640-1). However, the age distribution of the Royal Mint Black Death cemetery burials can give some indication as to how indiscriminately the Black Death killed. Table 13 illustrates that the majority of plague victims were mainly males between the ages of 26 and 45 (Kausmally 2007, online). Andrew Chamberlain suggests this is similar to what would be expected from a battlefield cemetery - with the majority of deaths occurring amongst the fittest (Chamberlain 2006, 124). This, however, is the opposite of what would be expected in a normal attritional cemetery where the very young, old and infirm have a higher mortality rate (Chamberlain 2006, 124; Margerison and Knüsel 2002, 138). If this demographic is typical of the age of mortality found in Hampshire during the Black Death, it is clear to see how the working population would have been vastly reduced by the Black Death in England 1348-50. Table 28 A graph showing the age at death derived from skeletal evidence at the Black Death cemetery at East Smithfield, London .

In excavation of the Green adjacent to Winchester Cathedral was undertaken by Martin Biddle between 1962 and 1969 (Kjolbye-Biddle 1975, 87). The team uncovered a burial ground for Cathedral Monks known as ‘Paradise’ and was “used” - according to Roger Quirk - “from the building of the Norman Cathedral until 1400” (Quirk 1965, 89). The burial ground showed no evidence for any Black Death mass graves and instead, had various grave goods deposited with the burials including a body “shrouded in cloth of gold” (Ibid., 90-1). Birthe Kjolbye-Biddle cites the archaeological methodology as being more concerned with recording the remains of Anglo-Saxon churches of the Old and New Minsters and less with the cemetery due to financial and time restraints (Kjolbye-Biddle 1975, 87 & 91-2). Therefore, she suggests the excavation of the cemetery, and its subsequent recording, lacked “strict stratigraphic principles” (Ibid., 92) resulting in a lack of dating evidence to prove - or disprove - any increase in burials between 1348 and 1350. This illustrates the difficulty faced by archaeologists when trying to investigate death rates and practices, associated with the Black Death in England 1348-50 (Antoine 2008, 108). What can be seen though is the effort medieval people seemed to have made in maintaining the social structure, even during such trying times. If it is assumed that burial practices would have been the same in Hampshire during the pandemic, as in London, then the significance of respecting the social hierarchy can be analysed against the data collected during this thesis. The data shows that house plans did not change during the Black Death in England 1348-50; therefore, the social hierarchy inferred by the tripartite plan (see the open hall house) was a constant throughout the period of study (1250-1530). It can then be argued that the collective dynamic of human interaction, in life and death, can be seen in both the archaeological and historical record and would have been of profound importance to late medieval society.

Attitudes toward the Black Death in England 1348-50 - its depiction in art and architecture.

To summarise Platt’s examination of the evidence of change from the decorated to the Perpendicular style within churches around the mid 14th century; he suggests that they no longer needed to focus on expanding the body of the church in order to accommodate a growing congregation, but rather to build in order to accommodate great monuments, house chantries and effigies (often incorporating a skeletal representation known as a transi from the Latin transpire - meaning to pass away) (Colin Platt 1996, 137-75). This, according to Aberth, was done in order to provide a means for the living to pray for the souls of the departed (Aberth 2001, 182-3). English tombs before the Black Death often had angels alongside an idealised effigy of the diseased, perhaps depicting how the person would look after resurrection; known as gisants. After the Black Death single (common amongst the merchant class and gentry) or two-tiered (a luxury afforded only by the rich) transi tombs became the norm. Aberth sees these tomb types as a preparation for the apocalypse rather than an appeal for prayer (Aberth 2001, 229-31). These new “memorials” were funded by wealthy patrons to ensure their prosperity in the afterlife. This can be interpreted as people accepting their mortality with a switch from preparing for death to protecting the soul after death (Colin Platt 1996, Ch 9). Lindley adds to this argument by saying that the switch from the decorated to perpendicular style is a reflection of simplicity in design, enforced by the scarcity of skilled tradesmen, post 1350 (Lindley 1996, 129). Lindley also observes this transition of styles as a universal change, replacing the regional differences, in previous styles. It can be argued that the workforce had to have greater mobility, in order to carry out and finish the work, halted by the pestilence (Lindley 1996, 129). Aberth describes many of the great Romanesque cathedrals, in France, as bearing depictions of the apocalypse and images of the Last Judgement, with inscriptions from the book of Revelation (Aberth 2001, 183). In England, the Last Judgement of Christ was often painted above the chancel arch of many parish churches during the 14th century, with images of the dead rising to have their souls weighed, then being admitted into paradise or rejected into Hell (Aberth 2001, 184). These images rarely survive today as they were painted over by the Victorians. A few examples exist in Hampshire, listed below, with those pre Black Death depicting various religious scenes as opposed to those following the plague, focussing on death and the weighing of souls. There also appears to be a change in attitudes throughout society to an increased privacy and simplicity that is played out in the architecture. For instance, the demarcation of living and social space, within the home, is reflected by the building of ceiled rooms and the move away from the open hall house which Dyer suggests “reached its ultimate development in about 1500” (Dyer 1998, 298). This can be seen as a desire, in part, to separate themselves from the dirt of the streets, servants and animals. Benedictow argues that both the rural and urban peasant classes were affected more than the upper classes, due to the type of housing available to them. The majority of houses built, especially in central southern and south-eastern England, were of timber-framed construction with wattle and daub infill panels and thatched roofs (Open hall house ). He suggests that these panels offered very little resistance to the rats. This, coupled with unsanitary conditions - amplified by cohabitation with livestock and sleeping directly on an earthen floor with nothing more than hay as bedding - would have provided the rats with a suitable habitat to breed and spread disease (Benedictow 2004, 348). Ottaway writes of Edward III’s visit to York in 1332, that the King “ordered the streets to be cleaned, on account of ‘the abominable smell abounding in the said city more than in any other city in the realm from dung and manure and other filth and dirt wherewith the streets and lanes are filled and obstructed’” (P. Ottaway 1992, 209). Benedictow also suggests that Edward wrote to the mayor of London in 1349 to complain about the filth within the capital. He followed this, in 1361, with a writ to the major and sheriffs of London in the face of the second outbreak of the plague (Benedictow 2004, 3-4).

Dyer goes on to suggest that the resulting roof spaces, formed by ceiling the hall, provided accommodation for servants and, perhaps more interestingly for this thesis - apprentices away from the main family thus improving sanitation and separating humans from one another (Dyer 1998, 298). Attitudes toward death practices also changed. Prior to the 1350s deathbeds were public occasions where family and friends took their turn to watch over the dying and note any change in symptoms. This culminated in a priest administering the last rites and the journey being marked by the ringing of a hand bell (Horrox 1999, 97). Subsequent to the plague, fear of infection lead to loved ones abandoning the sick and leaving them to die alone. The Bishop of Bath and Wells decreed that, in times of emergency, if no priest was available the last rites and confession could be heard by “a layman, and, if a man is not at hand, then to a woman” (Hassall 1962, 297). Horrox then suggests faith, and not tradition, was the important element in avoiding purgatory (Horrox 1994, 271-2). The implications of this are profound within a society that has its class and gender divisions defined so eloquently in its architecture (Matthew H. Johnson 1990, 254). If evidence is sought for a “building in fear?” hypothesis, then the breaking down of class, gender and spatial divisions during the Black Death must be visible in the architecture, even if it only exists in the “nightmares of the living” (Ibid.). If this unnerving of the social framework is visible within the timber-framed structures of the second half of the 14th century, then this thesis aims to uncover them. The following Section will provide such evidence within the arts of the period. These changes in attitudes can also be observed in the art of the period (Lindley 1996, 126). Philip Lindley suggests that there is a profound change, in both style and taste, in Florentine and Sienese painting, following the Black Death, characterised by a distinct paradoxical definition of space in both architectural and artistic organisation and lay out. He further posits, the equilibrium of the earlier paintings was substituted with an uneasy tension between the planar and spatial aspects of composition (Lindley 1996, 126). Lindley examines the implications on several art forms, including manuscript painting which, immediately before the Black Death, had reached its “highest point of its perfection” (Lindley 1996, 126). Aberth adds that, during the 13th century, a school of manuscript illuminators emerged producing “beautifully illuminated editions of the Apocalypse of St. John” (Aberth 2001, 185-6). He suggests this was in response to an Abbot, named Joachim, who predicted that the apocalyptic age began in 1260. He suggests it was brought to England by Richard the Lionheart (1189-99), during the third crusade (1189–1192) (Aberth 2001, 185-6). This is important as it illustrates the thoughts of people, at the time when famine, war and plague visited them and, consequently their acceptance of death. Another interesting change in style can be seen in monumental brasses that changed from being beautifully adorned, with complex calligraphy, to a more rigid and regularised style (Lindley 1996, 129). To summarise Lindley’s narrative on “The English perspective”, regarding this change in artistic styles, he suggests that prior to the Black Death many schools had developed regional styles in art, masonry, sculpting and stained glass work -etc. These were hastily replaced with a more simplistic, spatial and universal approach easily learnt and reproduced. Clearly, this is a direct result of the loss of skilled artisans and tradesmen during the mid fourteenth century (Lindley 1996, 128-31).

The open hall house

In England, by the end of the fourteenth century, it is thought that the fully developed medieval hall arrangement had been attained. That is to say - the addition of two compartments either side of the open hall house to accommodate the service rooms and living quarters, forming a tripartite design, had become common place.

photographic archive

The archive stands at over 100 buildings dendro dated between AD1244 and 1574 with 4 dated by documents (denoted by*). The majority of the dates are available on the Oxford Dendrochronology Laboratory website and the Vernacular Architecture Group's website.

Recalibrating the literature

Prior to the creation of an English tree-ring chronology in the late 1980s, typology was the main method by which to date a timber structure. Cecil Alec Hewett (1926-1998) pioneered buildings typologies for medieval carpentry joints and timber-framed buildings in south-eastern England. In Hewett’s seminal work - English Historic Carpentry - the inner sleeve reads “he [Hewett] has shown that the methods of assembling timber buildings, particularly the joints used, follow a strict historical sequence, as datable as ceramics”. This paper recalibrates that pioneering work using Dendrochronolgy.