The Black Death

The Black Death

Kevin Goodman


Report of Meeting 13th May 2015

Mike Perkins commenced the evening’s proceeding by welcoming a good turnout of members and a large number of visitors in the audience. He then gave a brief update on current local matters, events and happenings before handing over to Chairman Pat Martin. Pat introduced Kevin Goodman to the Society to talk about The Black Death, the most feared and lethal disease of the medieval age, and the impact it had on the West Midlands.

It quickly became apparent that Kevin had a great sense of humour as he took to the stage. He advised that his primary and specialist historical interest is “surgery and medicine through the ages” with his knowledge of the Black Death emanating from that broad subject.

The startling headline figure for the Black Death which is also known as The Plague, The Pestilence , The Bubonic Plague is that 75 to 200 million people in Europe were killed by this terrible disease. The main symptoms of the disease were inflammation of the lymph glands in the groin, armpits and neck; the body being covered with buboes, dark mottled spots on the skin and outbreaks of gangrene developing in the extremities of hands and feet. Once contracted, life expectancy was very short and was generally just 3-5 days of pain and suffering with little if no chance of recovery. Kevin went on to explain that the source of the disease was originated from bites from fleas carried by rodents and subsequently the fleas spreading the Yersinia Pestis bacteria which takes three main forms: pneumonic, septicemic, and bubonic plagues passed on from one person to another using the flea as transport. The disease itself was first prevalent in China as early as 1332 and then migrated across the globe, probably across the trading routes, to hit London in 1348, though the very first recorded outbreak was in Melcombe in Dorset where 2 ships from Bristol docked with a carrier on board. Indeed it would appear to be no coincidence that outbreaks of plague occurred near the sea or rivers where rodent populations and exposure to trade imports from the rest of the world were concentrated.

The disease has a macabre history, for instance at the siege of Kaffa in 1346 the first what could be deemed ‘germ warfare’ took place with infected corpses being catapulted by the Mongolians into the city. Refugees from the siege of Kaffa evacuated their city and fled back to Europe on ships that carried black rats. These rats played host to fleas with the bacterium in their guts. On being bitten, animals and humans alike became infected and began to develop the classic symptoms of bubonic plague

The disease had phenomenal mortality rates with 500 people a day dying in Pisa and Vienna; 800 a day in Paris and many cities lost between 40%-60% of their total population. Kevin explained that the impact of the Black Death was worse in the United Kingdom because of famine due to poor harvests in the preceding years which meant that malnutrition was rife and people were subsequently more vulnerable. The disease paid no respect of rank either with Joan of England, the daughter of King Edward III dying in 1348. A disproportionate number of monks were also victims due to their close working with those who had contracted the disease. In Halesowen, as documented in the Abbey records, 675 people died from the disease (40% of the population at that time) and in the West Midlands hundreds of villages were abandoned as they couldn’t be sustained because the local economy was drained by the huge loss of life and a consequential unavailability of a labour force.

Scholars of the day came up with alternative reasons for the pestilence, ranging from “God’s Wrath” which saw the forming of the flagellant movement who as religious zealots whipped themselves in penance to avoid catching the disease, to the Astrological Configurations of Jupiter and Mars according to the University of Paris in 1345. Some so called vampire graves found in Bulgaria also suggest that those who died of the disease were staked into the ground to prevent them surfacing to spread the disease. Bad air, miasma, was also felt to contribute to sustaining the plague and one source believed that the disease was passed on by a dying person whose ‘air spirit’ would pass from them to anyone looking at them at their time of death - the proverbial nasty look, black look or a look that could kill ! Numerous fragrant herbs and spices were used, being burnt or contained in pomanders to try to manage the spread of the disease but were largely only effective in masking the smell of mass death. Plague doctors wore a mask with a bird-like beak to protect them from being infected by the disease, which they believed was airborne. In fact, they too thought the disease was spread by miasma, a noxious form of ‘bad air.’ To battle this imaginary threat, the long beak was packed with sweet smells, such as dried flowers, herbs and spices. However, though the beak mask has become an iconic symbol of the Black Death, there is no evidence it was actually worn during the 14th Century epidemic.

Kevin then shared the surprising more recent incidences of the plague which had occurred in Australia and the USA. In 2012 sixty people died after an outbreak of the plague started in a Madagascan prison. As recently as July 2014 citizens of Yumen City in China were quarantined and in Colorado in 2015 a pit bull dog was identified as passing on the disease to 2 people. Scientific research on extracts from the teeth of victims of the 14th Century confirm that the plague bacteria itself has not mutated over all of those years.

Kevin then concluded his presentation and responded positively to many questions from the audience. Finally Pat Martin formally thanked Kevin for his presentation which was very factual but delivered in a typically Black Country manner with humour, strong emphasis on the bleakness of the time and with a balanced comparison to modern day threats such as Ebola. The membership then loudly applauded Kevin for the information and entertainment he had provided on the night.

The next indoor meeting of the Amblecote History Society will take place on Wednesday 9th September at 7.30pm in The Lehr Theatre at the Ruskin Centre with John Sparry talking about being a “Time Traveller”.

Lance Cartwright, Amblecote History Society, PR Officer


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