The most atrocious epidemic of bubonic and pneumonic plague recorded, the Black Death started circa 1347 in Europe. The Tartar army, just arrived at the port of Caffa after campaigns in the Crimea, were shipped in boats swarming with rats carrying infectious fleas. In this way the plague was spread into Southern Europe.
By 1348 it had reached France, Spain and England: one year later Germany, Scandinavia and Russia. Due to lack of proper recording measures, the exact number of deaths caused by the 14th century plague is unknown – but there are estimates of more than twenty-five million. In England monks at the monasteries, already making notes that have survived to help historians, calculated in England alone that one-third of the population was lost to the Black Death, as it was called.
Effects were longlasting and deep; as the part of the population most affected, the agricultural classes in the country (those who survived) were put in a strong position. The demand for labour led to the substitution of wages for labour services, and peasant agitation for improvements led to agrarian revolts.
The Church, no mean power in the 14th century, was also affected, with hardly-trained priests ordained early and in haste to make up for the clerical dead. All over Europe there was mass hysteria and a feeling of helplessness, but this did have one bright result: the horrors were reflected in both art and literature. By 1350 the Black Death had vanished, but there were further outbreaks at various times until the 17th century. The irony is that had penicillin been discovered earlier than it was, the plague could have been controlled within a short time, as the bubonic plague virus is killed stone dead by it.
The Great Plague
In 1664 the Plague returned, this time called Great. It was equally as disastrous as the Black Death, but was confined mostly to London and south-east England. Parts of the country escaped it altogether, especially in the healthy West Country.
There had been no grave outbreak for more than 30 years and it was unexpected. Half a million people inhabited Londonat the time and around a fifth died. Commerce in the City vanished. Business came to a standstill. The royal court moved quickly into the countryside and was wise to do so, though the epidemic had long tentacles. Worst hit was a village in Derbyshire in the north of England. It is said that the plague reached this village called Eyam, in a box of infected clothes. The villagers must have been a spirited lot, because they isolated themselves from other villages by force, and stood their ground alone. Three hundred died at Eyam, out of a total of three hundred and fifty souls.
This time the Royal Society, dedicated to science and medicine, conducted post-mortems to try to established the cause of the plague, but without conspicuous success. At the height of the nightmare epidemic, plague pits had to be dug in London and the countryside to receive the dead in hundreds. Famous etchings of the period exist showing the collection of bodies house-to-house.
After 1665 the plague disappeared again, mainly because London had gone up in flames in The Great Fire of London. It was fire that cleansed the closely-packed slums in the filth of which the plague flourished. The disease has not yet re-appeared in London.
King Charles II and his brother the Duke of York famously helped fight the fires togetherwith the people of London, but the King is recorded as having remarked that the great fire was, after all, an excellent thing to have happened. Re-building of London started immediately, now that hundreds of filthy streets had been razed.
The Great Fire devastated much of London in 1666, starting in a baker’s shop. It raged for four days and nights, fanned by strong east winds.St. Paul’s was destroyed, together with many other buildings including eighty-seven other churches. Almost all old wooden buildings, such as private houses, went up in the flames. Samuel Pepys wrote about the Great Fire in his Journal.
Christopher Wren rebuilt St. Paul’s as it is now, and designed the Monument (still standing near a famous tube station), which commemorates the fire. It must be added that the Great Fire of London encouraged the expanding fire insurance business no end.