Disease in the 14th Century

Death from disease was a constant fear of people living in the Middle Ages. Probably the disease that worried them most was leprosy. Although it did not always kill its victims, the consequences of leprosy were horrifying. Extremities and facial features slowly rotted away and the face eventually becoming terribly disfigured.

In the early part of the 14th century there were outbreaks of typhoid fever, dysentery and diphtheria. It has been estimated that in 1316 about 10% of the population died from these three diseases.

Two other diseases, smallpox and measles caused a great deal of suffering. The number of people dying from measles and smallpox gradually declined during the Middle Ages. People developed an immunity to these infections and by the 14th century, it was mainly children who died from measles and smallpox.

However, it was a new disease, against which people had no immunity, that led to what has been described as the "worst disaster in the history of the world." This disease, which was later to become known as the Black Death broke out in southern China in the early 1330s.

The Black Death then moved on to India. Travellers returning from this country told how whole communities had been completely destroyed by the disease. These stories aroused terrible fears in Europe. Many people believed that the disease heralded the end of the world.

By 1346, the Black Death had reached the Crimea on the northern coast of the Black Sea. In October, 1347, a dispute broke out between Muslims and Genoese settlers. The Muslims raised an army and besieged the Genoese colony. While waiting for the Genoese to surrender, the Black Death broke out amongst the Muslim army. In anger and frustration, the Muslim commander ordered his surviving troops to load the plague victims on to catapults and to fire them into the Genoese settlement. When they realised what was happening, the Genoese took to their ships and sailed back to Italy. When the ships arrived in Genoa, those on board were either dead or dying. The harbour masters, in an attempt to protect the citizens of Genoa, refused permission for those sailors still alive, to leave their ships. However, within a few days, local people began dying. The Black Death quickly spread all over Europe. By the spring of 1348, soldiers returning from the war with France, brought back terrible stories of people dying in great agony. People in England flocked to the churches to pray for protection from this new disease.

The first case in England was reported in the Dorset port of Melcombe Regis in September, 1348. From Dorset it spread west to Devon, Cornwall and Somerset. The port of Bristol, England's second largest town, was very badly hit. It has been estimated that about 40% of Bristol's population died from the disease. The disease then started moving east. It reached Sussex and Kent in the Spring of 1349.

One method that historians use to work out the death-rate is to examine the names of the vicars of a particular parish. Most churches kept detailed records of their vicars and historians have calculated that over 50% of church vicars were replaced between 1348 and 1350.

When the Black Death arrived in a village there was a strong temptation for people to flee. Refugees created hostility from people living in other villages who feared that the new arrivals would bring the disease with them.

The early symptoms of the Black Death included a high temperature, tiredness, shivering and pains all over the body. The next stage was the appearance of small red boils on the neck, in the armpit or groin. These lumps, called buboes, grew larger and darker in colour. Eyewitness accounts talk of buboes growing to the size of apples. The final stage of the illness was the appearance of small, red spots on the stomach and other parts of the body. This was caused by internal bleeding and death followed very quickly. Historians have estimated that in a three year period (1348-50) between 30% and 50% of the English population died of the Black Death. All told, an estimated 35 million people, two thirds of the world's population, died from the disease.

Doctors could do little to help those suffering from the disease. The most common form of treatment was to lance the buboes. This approach was adopted after doctors noticed that those patients whose buboes burst, expelling a foul-smelling, blackish liquid, tended to survive the disease. The traditional form of bleeding was also employed. As bleeding severely weakened the patient, this only served to speed up the process of death. Washing the body with vinegar was also another popular form of treatment.

Primary Sources

(1) A woman preparing medicine (c. 1470)

(2) William of Dene was a monk at Rochester Monastery.

In 1348 and 1349 a plague of a kind which has never been met with before ravaged our land of England. The Bishop of Rochester, who maintained only a small household, lost four priests, five esquires, ten attendants, seven young clerics and six pages, so that nobody was left to serve him.

At Mailing Abbey the Bishop appointed two abbesses but both died almost immediately, leaving only four nuns and four novices. One of these the Bishop put in the charge of the abbey for it proved impossible to find anyone suitable to act as abbess.

To our great grief the plague carried off so vast a multitude of people of both sexes that nobody could be found who would bear the corpses to the grave. Men and women carried their own children on their shoulders to the church and threw them into a common pit. From these pits such an appalling stench was given off that scarcely anyone dared even to walk beside the cemeteries.

There was so marked a shortage of labourers and workmen of every kind in that period that more than a third of the land in the whole realm was left idle. All the labourers, skilled or unskilled, were so carried away by the spirit of revolt that neither King, nor law, nor justice, could restrain them.

During the whole of that winter and the following spring, the Bishop of Rochester, aged and infirm, remained at Trottiscliffe (his country home near Sevenoaks). In every manor of his diocese, buildings were falling into decay and there was hardly one manor which returned as much as £100.

In the monastery of Rochester supplies ran short and the brethren had great difficulty in getting enough to eat; to such a point that the monks were obliged either to grind their own bread or to go without. The prior, however, ate everything of the best.

The entire population, or the greater part of it, has become even more depraved... more ready to indulge in evil and sinfulness.

1. Describe the problems caused by the outbreak of the Black Death in Rochester in 1348.