Arrrgghh! It’s The Black Death

Popular myth sometimes has it that politicians are grey puppets controlled by the party machine and without depth or original thoughts of their own. It ain’t necessarily so. New Ipswich MP Ben Gummer, for instance, is an expert on The Black Death . . . Steven Russell listens with interest

“I think many of the things which are interesting about The Black Death is what doesn’t happen,” says Ipswich MP Ben Gummer, who’s written a book about that scary period when the folk of England could never be sure if they were walking timebombs incubating the disease and passing it to others. “You would expect that if you lost half the population, half the civil service, half the priesthood, then everything would collapse. It certainly would now. But it doesn’t. Because government is quite small then, and quite nimble, other than a few months when things just stop, nothing does collapse. The royal bureaucracy and Westminster, the most advanced in Europe, has a kind of break between January/February to May” – 1349 – “and then when the plague leaves it just starts up again, almost as if nothing had happened. Utterly remarkable. It deals with a massive backlog, and all the inheritance issues arising from so many people dying.

“What I came away with was a very great respect for the people of the time. They were strong, civilised, resilient people who took this in their stride, and who, because there were none of the support mechanisms we have today, had no alternative but to get up the next morning and carry on life – whether it was taking care of the children or bringing in the harvest, or any of the other things they couldn’t ignore.

“It’s a story of survival, really.

“I think that is something we could learn today. I’m not arguing against progress, but the more complex and systemic our society becomes, the more vulnerable it is to shocks. I don’t think you could expect to lose half the population now and for the country not to collapse.”

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There were examples of desperate behaviour, of course – such as fraught villagers stealing clothes from the corpses of dead neighbours – but selfless actions, too.

The Bishop of Norwich, for instance, had been in negotiation with the French between Calais and Boulogne, but returned to his diocese knowing plague was rife and that he was putting his life at risk. He travelled around, appointing new priests to replace those who had died. “He goes to London, possibly via Bury St Edmunds, and takes his time, visiting parishes and consecrating graveyards to deal with the growing numbers of bodies; and generally trying to sort things out.”

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The plague, Ben explains in his book The Scourging Angel: The Black Death in the British Isles, began to infect European populations in 1346, in the Genoese trading colony in the Crimean peninsula.

“It was the first instance of biological warfare, because the colony there was being besieged by the Mongol khan (leader). It was basically a credit dispute. His soldiers started dying of something he’d never seen before, and he put them in the catapults and flung the bodies over the walls into the Genoese colony.

“The Genoese went to Constantinople and infected there, and subsequently to Italy and round the Mediterranean seaboard to southern France and up to Bordeaux, then an English colony.”

In the summer of 1348 the infection arrived at Melcombe Regis, today part of Weymouth, on a ship carrying wine. Onboard were several Gas�on sailors with fevers and painful swellings. Other crew members fell ill and within a month local people were also dying.

This plague spread quickly – by three to five miles a day, says Ben. It was in London by the autumn and covered the country by the next summer, before petering out towards the end of 1349.

“It went from London to Norwich very rapidly, for New Year 1349, initially without infecting the area between, because it followed the trade routes. Norwich was the third- or fourth-biggest city in England then. But by June it had spread through East Anglia.”

It was human contact, it seemed, that propelled this virulent infection. (A family living just outside Walsham le Willows, near Bury St Edmunds, survived probably because they kept themselves to themselves.)

The Black Death was a cruel but efficient killer, with a lengthy incubation period of about a month before the first symptoms appeared. People could thus be mingling and living normally for some time, unaware they’d got the disease but all the time passing a death sentence to others.

The public health lessons were learned quite quickly, though not as rapidly as in parts of Italy. “In 1348, the Milanese understood that immediately – so they started bricking people into their houses. If somebody got it, they’d brick the entire family in. Cruel, but very effective. Consequently, their mortality rate was 15%, where in Florence it was 50-70%.”

For those of us who were schoolchildren in the 1960s and ’70s, modern thinking means re-learning our history. It turns out the guilty parties in this catastrophe that raced across Britain between 1348 and 1350 were not rats and fleas spreading bubonic plague. The black rat was not well-established here by the middle of the 1300s and neither could bubonic plague “move” as fast as this infection, which also had a longer incubation. And The Black Death cut a swathe across Iceland, which didn’t have the black rat.

“I don’t seek to say exactly what it was. We’re pretty sure how it was spread, by human contact, but it was certainly not rats and fleas,” says Ben. “It’s probably something that’s been lost now, but my punt is that it’s close to a haemorrhagic fever: a virus like Ebola, with a long incubation period of 28 or 30 days and a very, very short symptomatic period.”

In terms of effect, he says The Black Death tended to speed up societal changes already under way. Feudalism, for instance, had been in decline, and was put under further pressure. A halving of the population saw land become cheaper and labour more expensive.

“Roughly, people could charge twice as much for labour because competition was that much higher. So there is some good evidence of diet improving – because land is cheaper, effectively – and there are complaints by many stuffy old landowners of peasants dressing too well and eating fish and meat!

“But did everyone get rich? No. Some people and their families lost their support mechanisms. Some widows couldn’t find new husbands. As a consequence you got many people thrown into destitution.

“What plague tended to do was shuffle things about a bit. The wealthier tended to get wealthier, which sadly often seems to be the case. There are folk who are less well off but do better because they inherit and thus have something to build on; the enterprising ones make use of the fact they can charge more for their labour, and do well; but there are many people who don’t have those opportunities, don’t have the drive, and do fall into poverty as a result of what’s happened.”

With inflation rising – the number of coins in circulation remained the same, while the number of people fell by about 50% – the period after The Black Death brought new regulations aimed at controlling pay and prices, “the first time we have national legislation to control wages in this country. But it becomes totally unenforceable – the market wins – and within 10 years the whole thing is scrapped”.

There is strong evidence that the consequences of plague improved the lot of a number of women. “Some inherited property, and there was more property to go round. Some take on men’s jobs, like goldsmithing, metalwork and textile-finishing – urban trades, generally, and in places like Ipswich. But it’s probably short-lived, and within a couple of generations falls back to what it was.”

Ben, 32, graduated from Peterhouse, Cambridge, with a starred double-first in history. He was commissioned to write the book “by someone who knew someone who taught me at Cambridge. I was running an engineering company at the time, a little one, and it was a good foil to industrial refrigeration, which is what I was doing!”

Research took about three-and-a-half years. (“I wrote more than a million words in notes.”) Then he disposed of the business and devoted 18 months or so to writing. “That was roughly at the time I was going for (Conservative Parliamentary candidate) selection.”

The first draft amounted to something like 215,000 words – trimmed to 165,000 for the end product “and is better for it”. The author waded through piles of books and academic and scientific literature to pull together the best material on what was initially known as The Great Death – the more emotive Black Death label being attached hundreds of years later. His goal was to publish a tome that wasn’t over-complicated and would thus appeal to a general audience.

“I deliberately wrote something I hoped people would pick up from the airport bookstand and read on holiday – should they want to read about death and destruction on the beach!”

The title is inspired by a papal prayer released at time of plague. “It’s a paraphrase. I read it very early on when I was doing my research and thought ‘That’s exactly right.’ It was a horrendous experience, but some people did very well out of it.”

So what was Britain like before The Black Death arrived on the south coast?

“The degree of forestation was similar to what it is now – not the rather romantic, gothic, wooded image we might have in our minds. Rather than having big fields, land was divided into strips, each farmed by a peasant landholder who effectively rented in return for working on the lord of the manor’s land for a number of days a year. So the countryside would have looked rather messy to our eyes.

“There were half-timbered houses in the villages, though more basic than the ones we know today, which generally date from the mid 15th Century onwards. There were some peasants very poor, though others were quite well off, owning a fair bit of land and wearing quite nice clothes. And there were people in between.

“So the working rural peasantry weren’t all the same. They weren’t all mini-Baldricks, for want of a better term! There was a variation in wealth.”

The main institutions were the manor house – the lord often absent, with property elsewhere – and the church. “If you substitute today’s village hall and parish council for the manor house, the institutions are pretty similar as well. We would have recognised it.”

Barely three months after the General Election that sent him to Parliament, Ben’s summer has had its frantic moments and a burgeoning intray. But he wouldn’t mind writing another book, if he can squeeze it in.

“I might try a novel. It doesn’t require so much research!” he smiles, admitting he’s gestating an idea for a subject but won’t divulge his secret in case it all falls flat.

“On Mondays and Tuesdays you have late voting in the House of Commons and there comes a point sometimes, around 8.30 or 9pm, when you just have to stop doing letters. I’d like something I could write there, even if it’s just for an hour.”

n The Scourging Angel: The Black Death in the British Isles, is out in paperback, published by Vintage Books at �9.99

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