WEIRD SUFFOLK: How stones in Suffolk tried to defeat one of the biggest serial killers of all time
- Credit: Archant
How stones in Suffolk were thought to be an insurance policy against catching the plague in medieval times (Spoiler: they didn’t work).
They are stony reminders of dark times, silent witnesses to an unimaginable horror which stalked Suffolk and could wipe out entire villages.
Everyone feared the Black Death in medieval times - it was a disease of Biblical proportions which was blamed for killing a third or more of Europeans during the mid-14th century, a dreadful bacterial infection characterised by swollen, painful lymph bodes called buboes and a terrible list of symptoms from which few survived.
In June 1348, a ship came into Melcombe Regis harbour in Devon carrying a hold filled with fine goods from the province of Gascony in south-west France: but amid the treasure was tragedy: death, and on an unimaginable scale.
The bacterium Yersinia pestis had hitched a ride on the boat, and, passed to humans by the rat flea, the first person to die on British soil was one of the sailors on board who was followed by dozens, then hundreds, then thousands and then hundreds of thousands of others.
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Bubonic Plague, the Black Death was the greatest ever calamity to reach our shores and, as it raged across town and country in the year that followed, every community was affected in some way - for those that witnessed it, and those who died in feverish agony, it must have seemed as if the end of the world had truly arrived.
Like all towns, Bury St Edmunds was decimated by the Black Death which killed up to half the town's population, racing through the tightly-packed streets crammed with people and appalling standards of living that would later be addressed by a 1607 bylaw that forbade people letting their pigs roam freely in the streets.
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As the afflicted struggled with headaches, shaking chills, vomiting, dark blisters, bruising and coughing up blood, their loved ones fought to find a traditional herbal remedy that might cure them, putting themselves in danger of catching the disease themselves.
'Cures' ranged from lancing the buboes to taking arsenic, burning herbs in the house to sitting in open sewers, washing with vinegar and rose water to placing a live hen next to the swelling to draw out the pestilence, drinking urine to applying human excrement to the body.
And of course, throughout it all, those that were well enough to eat still needed food - but traders were unwilling to risk travelling into plague-struck areas in order to deliver their wares, so a system was developed which allowed trade to continue: where there is a will, there is a way, where there is a customer, there is a merchant.
On a brick plinth at the northern end of Oak Street in Bury St Edmunds where Lodge Road and the Beck meet, outside West Suffolk College, there is a plaque with the following inscription: "It is believed that this stone was the base of a settlement cross which stood on this site for many centuries and which was probably destroyed during the civil war. Legend has it that in the time of pestilence the hollow in the stone was filled with vinegar so that travellers could disinfect their money."
Four Thieves Vinegar was a recipe widely-believed to protect against the plague and was said to have been invented by thieves robbing the dead and sick during a European plague outbreak who used it to avoid falling ill - a recipe hung in the Museum of Paris in 1937 is said to have been an original copy of the recipe posted on the walls of Marseilles during an episode of the plague.
"Take three pints of strong white wine vinegar, add a handful of each of wormwood, meadowsweet, wild marjoram and sage, fifty cloves, two ounces of campanula roots, two ounces of angelic, rosemary and horehound and three large measures of champhor. Place the mixture in a container for fifteen days, strain and express then bottle. Use by rubbing it on the hands, ears and temples from time to time when approaching a plague victim."
And in The Great Plague: A People's History by Evelyn Lord, a similar recipe is published from a book written by the Barnadistons, a family of apothecaries in Bury St Edmunds.
"They boiled rue and sugar in muscardine wine and added nutmeg, pepper, treacle and angelica water. Half a spoonful was to be taken in the morning and half in the evening, and then trust in God," she writes.
Others claim the plague stone legend dates from a later plague in 1677 when the socket-hole was filled with vinegar so that people going home from the town market could wash their coins in it, to stop the spread of infection.
Suffolk boasts other plague stones at Rickinghall where a square hollowed out stone is said to have been where money was washed and a lost stone at Stuston which used to be on the road between Norwich and Ipswich, close to Brome. It was said to turn when the clock struck 12 and to have been removed from the site to Brome Hall in the 1800s.
This site is called the Devil's Handbasin locally and was where a cross stood which was said to "frighten horses on the Turnpike" - other reports claim that it was also the site of a tollgate where a keeper made travellers drop their money in a bowl of vinegar to repel the plague.