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Thursday 29 August 2002, 9.02 am - 9.30 am.
Melvyn Bragg follows his long historical exploration of the Routes of English with Voices of the Powerless, in which he explores the lives of the ordinary working men and women of Britain at six critical moments across the last 1,000 years.

Listen to programme 6 again
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Boils and Buboes - Introduction

Origins of the Plague

What we know as the plague is actually one of two infectious diseases - bubonic and pneumonic plague. However, the plague epidemics of 16th and 17th century Britain were almost entirely bubonic rather than pneumonic.

Bubonic plague is an infectious fever caused by the bacillus Yersinia pestis, transmitted by the rat flea. It is primarily a disease of rodents, and epidemics in human beings originate in contact with the fleas of infected rodents.

Plague is primarily a disease of rodents, epidemics in human beings originate in contact with the fleas of infected rodents. Man enters only accidentally into the usual cycle when fleas from the dead animals fail to find another rodent host and thus begin to infest man.

Infection might be spread from one colony of infected rats to another - beginning in towns and then being spread across the countryside by field rodents.

aphotograph showing the blackening of the fingers, which gives the disease its common nickname. a buboe appearing under the arm pit.
Left - The blackening of the skin which gives the disease its nickname.
right - the buboe appearing under the armpit.

Bubonic plague came by its name because of the symptoms of the disease. Bubonic plague causes very painful, swollen lymph nodes, called buboes. These swollen lymph nodes are often first found in the groin area, which is boubon in Latin. This disease became associated with the term plague because of its widespread fatality throughout history. Bubonic plague was also known as the Black Death in Medieval times. This is because the dried blood under the skin turns black.

The illness in man varies within the widest limits, exhibiting all gradations of severity from mere indisposition to violent death. As a rule the onset is sudden and well marked.

Case fatality varies from one epidemic to the next but normally around 70% - 100% of those infected die.

Spread of the Plague

The plague outbreaks of Tudor and Stuart England formed the second half of a series of epidemics which began in the middle of the fourteenth century with the Black Death of 1348-9 and ended in the 1660s.

Dogs were culled as they were seen as representing a risk.
A dog cull

In the 14th century, when this disease was known as the Black Death. The number of deaths was enormous, reaching in various parts of Europe two-thirds or three-fourths of the population in the first pestilence. It has been calculated that one-fourth of the population of Europe, or 25,000,000 persons.

The most general outbreaks, all coinciding with years of plague in Germany and the Low Countries, seem to have begun in 1498,1535, 1543, 1563,1589, 1603, 1625 and 1636. Later outbreaks of plague never approached the severity of the first, the Black Death, in which around a third of the population are likely to have died.

Dissecting a victim of the plague.
Dissecting a victim of the plague

These outbreaks resulted primarily from infection from abroad, waves of disease that originated in ports trading with Scandinavia and Continental Europe and which then slowly died away. As a result, ports such as Norwich were particularly vulnerable and the south east of the country suffered more than the north west.

In Tudor and Stuart Britain plague spread very rapidly along trade routes from major ports to cities, market towns and eventually to a few villages, usually on main roads and navigable rivers. The speed of human transport systems enabled plague to spread rapidly - either by carrying infected fleas on the backs of men or in cloth or other goods - or by carrying infected rats, accidentally transported in carts, wagons or boats.

an image of bodies being carried to a mass grave.
Bodies were often buried en masse.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, outbreaks were less deadly and affected less of the country, being mainly concentrated in towns.

However, the local impact of plague was still severe - particularly for the urban poor who bore the brunt of the outbreaks. Plague often killed 10% of a community in less than a year - in the worst epidemics, such as Norwich in 1579 and Newcastle in 1636, as many as 30 or 40%.

The reactions of the authorities

Unlike many other European countries, England was slow to adopt any public health measures in the fight against plague.

Although there are accounts of individual towns and parishes shutting their gates to incomers the first attempts at official regulation date from the sixteenth century - although Scotland enforced public health measures considerably earlier.

By the late 1530s several English provincial municipalities began to experiment with isolating the infected in pesthouses, specially built or converted houses and sheds outside the city walls.

an image of the graveside.
Not all victims were mourned.

Sometimes the sick were simply ordered to construct their own shelters on the moors or in the fields.

Such measures were not easy to finance or enforce, however. Across the country, from the middle of the sixteenth century, parishes were taxed to support the infected - a tax that was often difficult to collect and unpopular.

Under Elizabeth, the poor laws of 1572 and 1576 were introduced and, in 1578, a detailed set of plague orders, adopted throughout England. Set out by the Privy Council the legislation listed 17 orders to be enforced by justices of the peace'.

As plague was often seen as divine retribution for the sin attempts to enforce moral reform were common.

Establishing order was seen as the most essential part of any campaign against plague. For magistrates and the wealthy, plague created an opportunity for social control and the enforcement of all manner of restrictions on the poor.

By the seventeenth century plague was increasingly experienced not as a nationwide calamity but as a catastrophe affecting the poorer suburbs of towns and cities and so the poor were increasingly blamed for the disease.

The reactions of the poor

Mortality rates in poor districts, usually in the suburbs of the towns, were particularly high as a result of over-crowding and poor conditions in which rat colonies were particularly prevalent and fleas could quickly transfer plague from rats to humans.

There are only two known cases of parents abandoning infected children and family bonds generally remained strong - husbands and wives rarely abandoned each other. Relations between neighbours were more problematic, particularly when class distinctions were highlighted by the crisis of plague.

Similarily, relations between masters and servants were often strained to breaking.

While the rich frequently blamed the plague on the physical or moral degeneracy of the poor, the poor sometimes interpreted it as divine retribution for the sins of the rich.

There was, however, relatively little class distinction in popular reactions to plague. The poor generally understood the plague in much the same way as the rich and although it was readily blamed on infection spread by foreigners it was rarely blamed on the rich.

There was also relatively little resistance to public health measures. Fear of plague and a sense of responsibility towards both the sick and the healthy curtailed any serious protest.

The poor did not have the resources to challenge authority or to escape the plague. Instead they tried to survive it, trusting to God and to friends, family and neigbours. The urban poor - abandoned by their betters in major cities such as London - showed enormous courage, compassion and resourcefulness.

Far from falling into social chaos, the inhabitants of districts from which all authority figures had fled, and to which farmers and merchants no longer brought food, continued to work, bury the dead and even take economic advantage of the plague by taking over the supply and sale of food and other essentials.

Plague and the Popular Imagination

Until the mid-seventeenth century, theories of epidemic disease were still those of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

Rather than attempt to differentiate and describe individual diseases, infections were seen as inter-related and sharing common causes. Plague, syphilis, typhus, smallpox, the sweating sickness and other infectious diseases were all seens as symptoms of the general decay of the universe.

Mankind was suffering the consequences of degeneracy in 'these declining times of the world' and bubonic plague was simply the purest form of such disease - it was 'The Sickness'.

Those of a sanguine constitution, those weakened by famine or those who indulged in hot baths, excessive exercise, work or sexual indulgence ( all of which opened the pores to infection ) were particularly vulnerable.

Most vulnerable of all, however, were those who indulged in unnatural activities that combined moral corruption with reduced health - disorders of the moral and physical constitution that opened the way to plague - anger, lust, gluttony and 'the abuse of things not natural'.

Flight was also universally recognised as the best means of avoiding infection. If that was impossible then windows were closed against it and fires lit to dispel the infected air. Incense or rosemary was also burnt. Contagion was also avoided by keeping away from infected people and their belongings.

Those who were afflicted were advised to repent and to pray. Most agreed that both public and private displays of repentance were required.

While there may have been more resort to magic and superstition among the poor there was no great difference between rich and poor in their understanding of the causes and treatment of plague.

Church attendance fell in some stricken parishes and rose in others as - like the rich - the poor sought the solace of religion but feared contagion. Others turned to more sinful forms of escape and continued to gather in taverns despite the obvious risks of infection.

To treat the infected, bleeding was used to help restore the balance of the humours.

While the wealthy could afford elaborate cures - and the most effective, flight to the countryside - the poor made do with more makeshift remedies, such as the drinking of their own urine.

However attitudes and treatments did not greatly differ between social classes - the one significant difference was the ability of the rich to leave town and the increased prevalence of rat colonies in the poorer districts.

Plague in Salisbury

We are extremely lucky in having an exceptional primary source of a plague outbreak in the city of Salisbury in 1627. This is the account of John Ivie, a Salisbury alderman.

Ivie describes the differing reactions of Salisbury's 6,000 inhabitants in the face of impending disaster.

Ivie was responsible for the welfare of the city's poor in times of crisis and so his account of the plague is very closely focused on the powerless. In terms of describing in minute detail how a community responded to a plague outbreak, it's one of the most informative documents of its kind.

Dr Justin Champion, Reader in the History of Early Modern Ideas at Royal Holloway and Bedford College, University of London.
Professor Paul Slack, Principal of Linacre College Oxford, author of The Impact of Plague in Tudor and Stuart England

Paul Slack, The Impact of Plague in Tudor and Stuart England

Useful Links
The Black Death - a history of the first great plague outbreak, (1348 - 1350), from BBC History
The Story of the Plague - from Channel 4 TV
A Journal Of The Plague Year, written by a citizen who continued all the while in London - by Daniel Defoe

Listen Live
Audio Help
l - Castles and Cruelty - extracts on programme page.
2 - The Peasants' Revolt - extracts on programme page.
-3 - The Reformation - extracts on programme page
4 - The Plantation of Ulster - extracts on programme page
5 - The English Civil War and the Siege of Chester - - extracts on programme page
Listen to Melvyn Bragg talk about Voices of the Powerless
Listen to Simon Elmes, executive producer, give an unigue insight into the programme.
Listen to the signature music
Go to - Homepage.
Go to Prog l - Castles and Cruelty
Go to Prog 1 - Biography of Orderic Vitalis
Go to Prog 2 - The Peasants' Revolt
Go to Prog 3 - The Reformation
Go to Prog 3 - The Reformation - Key Events
Go to Prog 4 - The Plantation of Ireland in the Counties of Armagh and Tyrone.
Go to Prog 5 - The English Civil War and the Siege of Chester
Read The Sources
Go to Prog 1 - Castles and Cruelty
Go to Prog 2 - The Peasants' Revolt
Go to Prog 3 - the Reformation
Go to Prog 4 - the Plantation of Ulster
Go to Prog 5 - The English Civil War and the Siege of Chester

In Our Time
Thursday 9.00-9.45am, rpt 9.30-10.00pm. Melvyn Bragg explores the history of ideas. Listen again online or download the latest programme as an mp3 file.
This Sceptred Isle
BBC History - Plantation of Ireland
Melvyn Bragg
Melvyn Bragg presents In Our Time for BBC Radio 4, a series where he and his guests discuss the "Big Ideas" of cultural or scientific significance.

He also presented The Routes of English, his millennial series celebrating 1,000 years of the English language.

Melvyn Bragg was born in 1939 in Wigton, Cumbria - where many of his books are set. He won a scholarship to Oxford to read history, and in 1961 he gained a coveted traineeship with the BBC.

He has presented a number of television series including: Read All about It, Two Thousand Years, and Who's Afraid of the Ten Commandments? and createdThe South Bank Show.

Melvyn presented Start the Week between 1988 and 1998. In his 1998 series On Giant's Shoulders he interviewed scientists about their eminent predecessors.

As well as presenting for Radio 4, he is Controller of Arts for London Weekend Television. In 1998 he was made a life peer. He's written 17 novels, the latest of which, The Soldier's Return, won the WH Smith Literary Award.

Melvyn Bragg was made a Life Peer in 1998 and he took the title of Baron Bragg of Wigton in the County of Cumbria.

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