The Black Death and Great Plague

The Black Death

In 1348, the Black Death arrived in England. It had spread to Wales by 1349. Carmarthen, an important port, had the first cases but the disease soon spread across the whole country. Caldicot, Pembroke and Haverfordwest were all badly hit, while the lead miners of Holywell were virtually wiped out.

Across Britain, it killed between a third and a half of the population. It was not only the numbers who died that terrified people, but the fact that it was so painful and affected rich and poor alike.

Medical professionals at the time were at a loss to explain the causes of the plague. Various reasons were put forward.

Flowchart showing five medieval explanations for the plague.

Today, we know that there are two main forms of plague.

  • Bubonic plague produced painful swellings (buboes). This form was mainly spread by rats.
  • Pneumonic plague attacked the victim’s lungs and was spread by personal contact.

However, there is still some debate about the exact cause of the plague. Some scientists believe that it was bubonic and spread by rat fleas, while others think it was pneumonic because of the way it spread rapidly from human to human. In either case, it was terrifying and death was usually within three days.

The plague returned another seven more times before 1405. In fact, over the coming centuries plague epidemics visited Britain on numerous occasions.

The Great Plague

The next major outbreak was the Great Plague of 1665. This was the worst outbreak for over 300 years and claimed 65,000 victims in London alone, one-sixth of its population.

Writers like Samuel Pepys and Daniel Defoe kept diaries, which tell us that ideas of what caused the plague had not changed since the Black Death.

People still believed in a variety of causes, eg the position of the planets, comets, miasmas or sinful behaviour. This time, however, the authorities did try to stop the plague spreading.

Plague houses were marked with a red cross, sentries placed outside and the inhabitants told to observe a 40-day quarantine. Searchers of the dead were employed to determine the cause of death, and the dead were collected at night.

Doctors had no real idea of what caused the plague. In fact it was the onset of winter that brought an end to the plague.

The early modern age did see the beginnings of a more scientific approach, with some improvement in medical knowledge but this was mainly in anatomy and surgery. Doctors had still not discovered the role that germs play in causing disease. Therefore, the causes of disease were still something of a mystery.