The Black Death hits Wales

Wednesday 27 March 2013, 11:13

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

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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: istockphoto.com/Manuel Velasco Gravestone in a cemetery. Photo: istockphoto.com/Manuel 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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    Comment number 1.

    I suggest "The Dark Traveller" by Cindy Wright.This book is really good and it is about the Black Death!It is well written and it has illustrations that can help enhance the reader's experience. You will be shock to know how many pseudo-cures had been created to fight the Bubonic Plague. Some are sure to make one shudder.
    DO NOT MISS OUT this GOOD READ! Trust me,this book is really worth your money.

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    Comment number 2.

    This is interesting as far as it goes. Trouble is it doesn't go far enough. As local history - or any history really - we need more specific information (in this case specific to Wales). A couple of towns are mentioned but minus any figures and some figures are mentioned without any places being attached. Other questions arise. Are there any places today with anything identifiable with the plague? A grave marker appears with the article for instance. Is that in Wales?
    Perhaps such information is unobtainable but the article doesn't say so.

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    Comment number 3.

    It would seem unlikely that detailed records were kept in relation to the numbers of plague victims in the towns and villages of Wales in the 14th century. Accordingly specific information would be sparse and a general indication of the percentage of the population is as close as we’ll ever get. Even then, estimates of such percentages vary, with figures for the reduction in the population of the whole of Wales ranging from 25% to 50%. What does seem likely is that a higher mortality would have applied in the close-knit coastal communities with their trading links, than in the upland areas of scattered small villages and farms.
    Phil mentions the coastal trading centres of Caldicot, Carmarthen, Pembroke and Haverfordwest all had links with Bristol, across the Severn Sea. Bristol is estimated to have had a mortality rate of 40% and it would seem not unreasonable to extrapolate such figures to the Welsh coastal towns. Haverfordwest is sometimes quoted as being the town where the plague first appeared in Wales. Tenby, which also had close trading links with Bristol, seems not to have suffered to the same extent, but why is an unknown.

    Whilst researching something totally different a couple of years ago (isn’t it often the way!) I did come across some specifics regarding the plague in Wales. Typically though, these relate only to the landlords and the clergy. Hence in Cardiganshire one landlord had his number of tenants reduced from 104 to seven – but how many of these had actually succumbed to the Plague and how many had simply fled, cannot be known. The landlords themselves did not escape the Plague. In Pembrokeshire, of the 35 Landlords and their families, records of deaths show that 20% died during the Spring and Summer of 1349 – and since 3 died on the same day, although the cause of death is not recorded, it seems not unreasonable to assume that plague was the cause. As far as the clergy were concerned, there is an example in the parish of St. Michael's in Pembroke where there were five clerical appointments made between 28 March 1349 and 11 December 1351, indicating that priests ministering to their flock were particularly vulnerable to the disease.

    Good blog Phil – it makes one want to research more – is there anyone out there who knows of the existence of any plague pits in Wales? I’ve never come across any such reference.

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    Comment number 4.

    I think the purpose of the blogs is, partly, to interest people and make them want to find out more, to carry out individual research.
    I take your point, Roger. Exact figures are difficult to obtain, which is why percentages are always quoted. And those, I think, were probably estimates anyway. Part of the problem, as I said in the blog, comes from the fact that the monasteries were badly hit - and the monks had long been the recorders of such things as life, death, visitations etc. A bit of a vicious circle, you might say.

 
 

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