Black Death by Stephen Porter
The Black Death has been a topic that has fascinated people for centuries. While plague has always been around since ancient times – we have accounts of the Athenian Plague in the fifth century BC, and the Justinian Plague in the sixth century AD – this particular instance of plague in the mid-fourteenth century has gone down in the annals of history as one of the most devastating. Its impact on, not just England but, the whole of Europe changed society economically and socially forever. Stephen Porter’s Black Death is an exhaustive look at the plague that ravaged Europe in 1348, but with a focus on the city of London, and how officials and common people dealt with reoccurring outbreaks of bubonic plague over the next 400 years.
The book is chronological. It follows the course of the disease from the far east, to Europe, when Genoese sailors trying to escape the plague, unwittingly brought it with them to the shores of Italy in 1346.
By September 1348, the first cases of plague were reported in England, and London braced for the worst. The Black Death, once it did hit, decimated the city. Physicians, apothecaries, and city officials were ill equipped to deal with a disease they had never seen the likes of before. The total death toll from the first incidence of bubonic plague came to approximately 50 million.
The Black Death caused tremendous economic upheaval. There was now a labour shortage, and workers demanded higher wages. Laws were passed to try and stop this trend, but officials were unable to enforce them, or stem the tide of economic and social change left in the plague’s wake.
In addition to higher costs for goods, and higher wages, changes after the Black Death also saw a boon for women labourers – free women who could take over their husband’s business, and could have their daughters apprenticed in their craft. Due to labour shortages, women were permitted to become members of trade guilds and livery companies.
This wasn’t the last London had seen of the plague, it returned in waves in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, with equally devastating effects. By the sixteenth century, attitudes towards the plague had changed since the 1340s – reactions were less hysterical as plague became part of the fabric of city life.
This shift in attitude was also due to the fact that the pneumonic and septicaemic versions of the plague had not resurfaced, so people dying of within 24-48 hours of contracting it decreased.
Physicians were now able to observe the disease, and a spate of medical tracts were written after the first few outbreaks. However, these tracts did little to improve survival, and many were just rehashing information that could be found in twenty other similar treatises. No one knew definitively how to defeat this pestilence – survival seemed to be the luck of the draw.
In the sixteenth century, methods were put in place to deal with plague outbreaks – such as a cessation of trade, and the quarantine of those afflicted – or those who could potentially be afflicted. Spain, Italy, France, and England all developed various ‘plague policies’ to help residents deal with the onset of plague, and to give people better options than ‘flee or die’.
Enough people survived now that efforts were made to tend to the sick instead of escaping to the countryside (although that still happened). Pest houses to isolate plague victims were opened sporadically, and a means of collecting taxes from the rich to help maintain those shut up in quarantine were initiated, albeit with varying degrees of success, since collecting money from wealthy residents who had fled the city proved difficult at best.
170 years after the first outbreak of the Black Death, we see the creation of the Bills of Mortality (which counted the number of dead from the plague). They were developed in the early sixteenth century (around 1519) at the behest of Cardinal Wolsey (1473–1530) who had asked for the numbers of the dead from the most recent outbreak.
It’s at this point that the book delves into the myriad ways officials tried to prevent and contain further outbreaks. Attempts at enforcing cleanliness and strict quarantines on those affected had various outcomes. 40 day quarantines, where the sick were locked up alongside healthy family members, with minimal access to food and supplies, saw a severe backlash. This inhumane policy barely changed over hundreds of years. The average Londoner did not have the means to escape the city, leaving those most in need trapped inside their homes, waiting to die as their wealthier counterparts fled.
Porter also touches briefly on another dreaded disease during this period: the Sweating Sickness. This horrific disease hit London on September 21, 1485 and killed people much more quickly than the Black Death. You could be dead within hours of contracting it. Unlike the bubonic plague, it did not reoccur after 1551, and it seemed to be mainly restricted to England, Northern Europe, and Germany, although it did briefly hit Switzerland and Austria.
Porter wraps up the book with a look at advances in policy and medicine in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and how these developments saw an ebb in plague severity.
The book is well researched and extremely comprehensive. While it is heavy on statistics, it is not dry or boring. Porter approaches the subject with great care and thoroughness. You’re given a real sense of just how terrible the losses were with each return of pestilence, and just how terrifying it must’ve been for people at the time who knew there was a strong likelihood that they would eventually succumb to it.
One of the most interesting pieces of this book aside from the astonishing numbers of plague deaths, is the human aspect that Porter delves into with every chapter. He looks at how Londoners treated each other during these dreadful, frightening times. He looks at the good – people who defied quarantine to help shut-in neighbours, but also the bad – the worst of humanity – wealthy people who tossed their servants out like garbage, into the garden, or into the streets, to die agonising and lonely deaths. The book also looks at how the plague, which was once a leveller across the social strata, became a disease that was mainly associated with the poor, and yet, hit them the hardest. Porter provides startling insights into policy and human behaviour, highlighting the grim reality of life during a plague outbreak. The book is a must-read for anyone interested in studying the Black Death from a social and political perspective.
About the Author
Stephen Porter is an acknowledged expert on London’s history. His other books include The Great Plague (‘An excellent introduction’ Sunday Telegraph), London: A History in Paintings & Illustrations (‘Glorious... brings London vividly to life’ Simon Jenkins) & Pepys’s London (‘A compelling, lively account’ BBC History Magazine). He is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and of the Royal Historical Society. After twenty-five years living in the capital he now lives in Stratford-Upon-Avon.