The Black Death: Facts about Britain's Deadliest Pandemic

Jan van Grevenbroeck's depiction of a Venetian doctor during the time of the plague.

#1 The deadliest outbreak

Almost seven-hundred years after it arrived in England, it remains by far and away the deadliest pandemic to have ravaged the country. The Bubonic Plague famously wiped out somewhere around 40-60 percent of the total population - an absolutely insane amount if you stop to consider just how many people that would be. It was possible to wander into villages and towns and to see them almost completely empty, as the entire population of them had died to the pandemic. It also made several returns, the second major return of the Black Death causing the deaths of approximately 20 percent of the population. The last known outbreak of the plague was the Great Plague of London, which occurred in the 17th century.

#2 It ended serfdom in England

Serfdom was the practice of indentured servitude (essentially, slavery) that many of the peasants in England faced as a daily reality of their lives under the oppressive Feudal system. Peasants were usually unable to leave the land they were born on without permission from their local lord, and they would rarely make enough money to do so anyway. The massive fatalities caused by the Black Death made the system unsustainable long-term, as a great majority of the peasant population had died off in the plague.

#3 Symptoms

The symptoms of the plague were known to be extremely painful. Those who contracted it were 70 percent likely to die within five days, and those who didn’t often die took a while to recover. Symptoms included heavy sweats, vomiting, bruising, large spots and swellings and black markings over the body, fever etc.

#4 The origins

The Black Death was a bacteria-borne disease, specifically by the bacteria known as Yersinia pestis. The details of this bacteria are not important, however it is known that it was carried commonly by rats and the fleas that often lived off them. At the time, public hygiene was at a low and rats were common in just about every corner of the country, allowing the disease to spread quickly.

#5 It created an economic boom

Interestingly, the much reduced population as a result of the Black Death raised the standards of living for labourers significantly. Due to ever-rising prices across the country after the devastation brought on by the outbreak, landowners and nobles were much incentivised to offer more than they would have previously to their workers, including free accommodation, food, drink etc. However, this would not last - the Black Death returned not long after, and real change would not come about until the removal of the Feudal system.

#6 It decreased the power of the Church

The power of the Church overall declined due to the Black Death. This was due to two major factors. For one, 40% of the country’s priests were wiped out in the plague. As a result, the new positions had to be filled with lazily-trained applicants whose unprofessionalism and overall inexperience lessened the reputation of the Church across the country. Furthermore, many people were disillusioned with the inability of the Church to explain or help the effects of the Black Death.

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