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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.


An exceptional primary source is the account of John Ivie, a Salisbury alderman, of a plague outbreak in the city in 1627. 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.

Sources which illuminate the experience of the poor include burial records, church wardens' accounts and the (often retrospective) memoirs and letters of the wealthy.

One of the best sources is the Book of Orders, compiled by the Privy Council in the late 1570s and essentially a handy guide to sixteenth century crisis management written for and sent to every regional authority in England.

The Museum of London has an extensive archive of recipes and supposed cures. Justin also mentioned various 17th century pamphlets, one of which includes the responses of 75 passers-by, stopped in a London street in 1665 and asked for their opinions on the causes of the plague.

Other sources include the Thomas Nashe Poem In time of Pestilence connected to the 1593 outbreak, local records of deaths, the accounts of provincial doctors and priests and local laws isolating threatened communities and London news-sheets which included weekly bills of mortality, advertisements for cures and other material.

Estimates of mortality depend on two main sources.

After 1538, parish registers began to systematically record baptisms, weddings and burials and so these can be used to identify outbreaks and measure their severity.

Before 1538, probate records are the main source as changes in the number and type of wills can also reveal plague deaths. Both burial registers and wills are, however, problematic. Many plague dead were not buried in churchyards or registered in any way and wills tell us only about the propertied class - not the group primarily affected by plague.

Sermons, medical advice and numerous printed tracts sought to explain and treat the plague. The first printed work on medicine in England was A Little Book on Plague, published in 1486 and in all 153 different books on medicine written in English were published between 1486 and 1604, 23 exclusively concerned with plague, many more including chapters on its causes and treatment. Many religious tracts and sermons also dealt with the disease.

Tracts and sermons discussed key ethical issues which were widely and fiercly debated in sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe such as did an individual's duty to care for his friends and neighbours override concerns for his personal safety and, if he were to flee infection, would this breach of his moral obligations further anger a God who had sent plague as a divine punishment for human sins ?

Both Luther and Calvin agreed that flight was a logical and ethical choice except for those who had a clear duty of care, such as doctors and magistrates.

The only difference in opinion was over the number and type of people who ought to feel an obligation to stay - for Luther the list was long - he thought it wrong of people to abandon their neighbours and for masters to abandon their servants.

One work that addressed these issues was William Bullein's Dialogue against the Fever Pestilence 1564, in which representatives of different social groups and professions discussed their obligations in plague time. The author clearly shows his contempt for professionals who abandoned their duty of care - doctors and priests in particular - and fled infected towns, and his sympathy for the poor. The agonising dilemmas of the main character - a kind of everyman - who resolves to stay but eventually, and fatally, follows his wife and children out of the city is, however, portrayed sympathetically.

The debate in Christian Europe differed sharply from that of the Muslim world where a more fatalistic approach held sway and it was believed that the plague was a mercy and a martyrdom sent by God and that fleeing from plague should not, therefore, be sanctioned.

Web Resources

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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