The Black Death hits Wales

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The Black Death, the plague or the Great Mortality as it was otherwise known, decimated Europe in the 14th century, killing somewhere in the region of 25 million people in the two years between its first appearance in 1348 and 1350.

Wales was no different, and it is estimated that during the 14th century the Welsh population was reduced by a quarter, most of those deaths occurring in just one year, 1349.

Instances of the plague were first recorded in Europe as early as the sixth century but the disease seems to have then lain dormant for several hundred years and for a long while there were no recorded outbreaks.

Why this should have happened is unclear but the climate of Europe was known to have cooled considerably in the 14th century and this may well have been a controlling factor in the plague's sudden re-appearance in the Gobi Desert in the late 1320s.

There were three main strains to the disease; bubonic, which was caused by victims being bitten by rat fleas; pneumonic, caused by breathing in the infection; and septicemic, which was invariably 100% fatal.

The plague spread like wildfire, heading east and west, in all directions. Nobody was safe, with kings, bishops and rulers all falling victim. In China alone the population of the country dropped from over 120 million to just 90 million over the course of the century.

Gravestone in a cemetery. Photo: Velasco

By 1347 the Black Death was in Italy. The following year it arrived in England and in April 1349 the first recorded instance of the plague was made in Wales. It was brought, scholars now believe, by travellers from southern England arriving in Wales by sea.

The customs collectors at Carmarthen – then an important port – were amongst the first victims but soon the disease spread across the whole country. Caldicot was badly hit, as were the west Wales towns of Pembroke and Haverfordwest. The lead miners of Holywell, a close knit community, were virtually wiped out.

To the people of the Welsh towns and villages the plague was a manifestation of evil. They wondered what they had done to bring down the wrath of God upon their heads like this. Superstitions ran rife and the poet Jean Geuthin – himself a later victim of the plague – wrote "We see death coming into our midst like black smoke."

The symptoms were clear: a swelling in the armpit, violent headaches, sores that erupted into a rash and then death. To begin with, in the summer of 1349, Wales was ravaged by the bubonic version of the plague but as winter drove in the pneumonic version erupted in the rural communities. By the time the disease died away it has been estimated that some villages had their population reduced by as much as 80%.

The Black Death came back to Britain on several occasions during the 14th century. In Wales there were severe outbreaks in 1361-62 (the second pestilence as it was known) and 1369. In both of these latter outbreaks young people were particularly badly hit.

The results of the Black Death were both harsh and significant. To begin with the number of people available to till the land was greatly reduced and, consequently, there was great economic hardship. Fewer people meant greater degrees of taxation for those who were left and many farmers and peasants left the country to start new lives in England, thus completing what can only be described as a vicious circle.

The great monasteries of the country were badly affected, inevitable with the holy men being the only people offering medical aid to the people - with the result that there were, quite simply, fewer monks. Not only did this mean a decline in the influence of the church and, therefore, Welsh cultural life, it also meant that there were fewer chroniclers of these dark and dangerous days.

There were good results, as well, however. For those who chose to stay in Wales, to stick it out as it were, land was now available at reasonable rents. The Encyclopaedia of Wales records that there was "a subsequent rise in the standard of living of bondsmen, as a result of the demand for their services (the calorific of peasants was higher in 1430 than in 1914)."

However, for so many Welsh people the Black Death was a catastrophe. By the end of the 14th century the overall population of the country had been reduced from a total of 300,000 to under 200,000, a reduction of around 100,000 people. Nearly all of that was as a result of the Black Death.

It was a grievous loss, one that the country could ill afford, and it took many years for Wales to recover from the depredations of the Black Death.

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