It is likely that the Covid-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic of 2020 will be remembered as one of the greatest plagues of the 21st century. As we live through this, we can reflect that it is not the first time the world has faced the widespread outbreak of a new and daunting disease.
Plagues were common in the medieval period. Perhaps the most devastating was the Black Death, which reached Yorkshire in 1349. First reported in Dorset in 1348, this plague rapidly took hold of Britain. It is estimated that at least a third of the population lost their lives. Long before the scientific advances we enjoy today, people in medieval North Yorkshire had little or no understanding of what was causing the devastation. Plagues were referred to as God’s punishment. From the medieval period through to the 17th century plagues struck cities across Britain and Europe. The famous 1665 epidemic was the last great plague, though diseases such as cholera would continue to blight the country well into the Victorian era.
Records of plague
Documents describing the effects of plague in medieval North Yorkshire are scarce. Records would not always have been made in such chaotic times and those that were may not have survived. The earliest parish records held at the North Yorkshire County Record Office date from the 16th century. Deaths from plague are recorded in early burial records from parishes such as Topcliffe, Thirsk, Hinderwell and Leake.
Arrangements for the collection of funds for the aid of the infected and for cleansing areas following plague, are recorded in Quarter Sessions records. Surviving Quarter Sessions records also describe punishments administered to those charged with spreading the infection.
The Minute and Order Book from 1626 reveals that Robert Bossall of Huby had bought infected goods from London to trade locally. Before being ordered to pay a fine he was to be put in the stocks at New Malton with a scrowle of paper on his head written “for bringing own, receiving into his house and uttering goods infected with the plague”.
Acts of kindness
Just as front line workers today display kindness and courage, records reveal examples of individuals in the past, who worked selflessly to try and aid the afflicted. The clergy were particularly vulnerable, as their services were so frequently required among the dead and dying. Records suggest that numbers of clergymen were decimated in Yorkshire following plagues. As numbers declined many of the God-fearing dying, faced meeting their end without their final confession.
Surviving Court records at the National Archives describe how heroic figures such as Henry Bradrigg, an Alderman of Richmond, North Yorkshire, stayed in the town in 1645 when “the rest of his brethren did for their safetyes leave their habitations and remove into other places”. He used empty houses as ‘pest houses’ for the isolation of those infected and took provisions to them. Parish registers reveal that he lost his wife, grandson and maid to the disease.
Treatment and medicine
Once communities recognised how quickly plague could spread orders were made that the infected be confined to their homes. Bubonic plague was caused by flea bites, from the fleas which lived on rats. A few of the infected survived, though most died within a week. The even deadlier Pneumonic plague was spread by coughing. Victims usually only lived for two days once infected. With no understanding of the cause of these devastating diseases, people had little hope. It was widely believed that plague was spread by ‘miasmas’, foul smells in the air. In an attempt to combat this, people carried nosegays of herbs and chewed strong smelling food stuffs such as garlic. Scented woods were strewn around the home or burnt. Attempts were made to alleviate symptoms with lavender, sage and wormwood. Bloodletting was thought to be beneficial. The plague doctor may patrol, checking the living and dead, his distinctive beaked mask, full of aromatic herbs, leather or waxed fabric gown and stick, his only personal protective equipment.
Where people feared entering stricken villages, supplies would be left at certain points some distance outside the village, often on stones. Some of these ‘plague stones’, such as the stones near Alne and Low Bentham, survive today.
The legacy of these plagues remains to the present day. Some communities changed forever. Villages such as East Witton had been important market towns until struck by plague. The market was moved and never reinstated. The status of Wensley was lost in similar circumstances. Instead Leyburn became the centre for trade in the area. Some villages were abandoned altogether. There are several reasons why medieval settlements were deserted; raids and poor agriculture contributed and it is likely that plague also played a part in the disappearance of the most unfortunate villages.
There were some positive consequences to outbreaks of plague. Following plagues in the 14th century the working classes found that their reduced numbers meant they were in greater demand. They could ask for better pay and conditions.
In the absence of personal accounts of the experiences of ordinary individuals from North Yorkshire, we cannot truly understand the personal impact of medieval plagues.
What will the legacy of the 2020 pandemic be?