Little Waldingfield History Society was once again delighted to welcome Pip Wright back to talk to us. As anticipated, the packed Parish Room was enthralled with his account of the trials and tribulations of ordinary Suffolk folk during these difficult times, and with the many nuggets of information he somehow manages to unearth from various historical records.
He began by telling us about the disease itself, Yersinia Pestis, a bacterium that can infect both humans and animals, which came from China, carried by the fleas living on the black rats (Rattus rattus) and carried in the holds of vessels trading with the Far East. Transmission to humans usually occurs from bites by infected fleas; these infect the lymphatic system before the disease makes its way to the lymph nodes, from where the term bubonic plague originates. After 3 or 4 days, bacteria enter the bloodstream and infect major organs such as the spleen or lungs; death normally occurs after a few days. A different strain is pneumonic plague where bacteria become airborne and enter directly into the lungs, a far more virulent form as it can directly spread from person to person by coughing, sneezing and vomiting.
In medieval villages, peasants lived mainly in huts with beds made from piles of straw; whole families lived and slept in one room with farm animals separated by just a rough partition, ideal nesting places for rats. In towns open drains ran between wooden houses and all kinds of rubbish was poured into them which then flowed into local rivers. Plague doctors didn't understand what caused the plague and were at a loss as to what to do to reduce its effects or to protect others. They wore voluminous outfits to protect themselves, with a sort of beak through which they breathed, filled with herbs to deter the plague germs.
Before the advent of microbiology it was generally understood that plague was caused either by the will of god, or by bad air - the so called miasmic theory of disease. To combat spread, people either hurriedly moved elsewhere, often taking the disease with them, or carried aromatic substances to combat any bad air. Pip suggested these could possibly have been posies of herbs as described in the nursery rhyme, where ‘a ring o roses' refers to a symptom of the plague as a rosy rash; sneezing or coughing would then be the final fatal symptom, with ‘all fall down' being exactly what happened, though not everyone agrees with this theory.
Ring-a-ring o' roses,
A pocket full of posies,
We all fall down.
Pip then described what happened during an outbreak of plague, which in the middle ages, occurred regularly at an average of every 20 or thirty years until the great plague and fire of London, after which outbreaks thankfully became fewer and more manageable. It seems the plague struck randomly, sometimes coming by road from village to village and sometimes by river or by ship, from already infected areas. Accurate death rates are hard to gauge because populations can be hard to determine, whilst not every plague burial was recorded as such; there were often many deaths shown as being from toothache! It is also very difficult now to imagine the impact of plague on small rural communities, few settlements were totally depopulated but in most outbreaks whole families would have been wiped out; few would have been spared some loss since the plague killed indiscriminately, striking rich and poor, priests and lay people, or Christian and Catholic alike.
Houses of the afflicted were marked by a red cross painted on the door post, whilst the dead were collected on carts and buried together in large mass graves; such Plague pits were dug outside towns and villages to dispose of thousands of rotting corpses, though many sites are not shown on modern maps. Plague victims were also separated by placing them in Pest Houses, alternatively known as plague houses or fever sheds. Over centuries these were used for the forcible quarantine of persons afflicted with communicable diseases such as TB, cholera, smallpox or typhus; many towns had one or more pest houses, accompanied by a cemetery or a waste pond nearby for disposal of the dead.
Manorial records provide an opportunity to study geographical distribution, which seems to have been roughly the same all over the country; however, East Anglia, which had frequent contact with the continent, was severely devastated. In Norfolk and Suffolk around 57,000 people died. In the 1348 outbreak, in the growing town of Yarmouth, the population was reduced from 10,000 to less than 3,000 whilst about a third of the population of Norwich died with the commercial life of the city almost coming to a halt. In England as a whole, the total population of 3.7 million in 1348 dropped to 2.2 million by 1377, and it took almost 200 years for the population to recover. So many died from the Black Death there were few peasants to farm and harvests rotted in fields as there was no one to gather them in, so prices dropped. Some medieval villages would have been totally depopulated, or so depleted that former settlements were abandoned.
In Bury St Edmunds, the plague struck in 1589 and again in 1637; on one date late that year, 263 families were affected, all on the town's charge at a cost of some £200 per week. 4,000 people were recorded as still healthy, 103 families were segregated in their houses, 117 persons were convalescing with plague sores, 439 had completely recovered but 600 had already died. In Needham Market, plague swept the town from 1663 to 1665, and to prevent the spread of disease, the town was chained shut at each end. This succeeded in its task but at the cost of two thirds of the population; the town did not recover for nearly 200 years and Chainhouse Road remains a continuing legacy from those terrible times.
Pip told us the Black Death had a huge impact on the clergy and holy men, as monasteries were isolated and intimate spaces, perfect for the disease to spread. Priests were often among the first to succumb, through contact with the dying; new priests then had be quickly found and employed, resulting in badly qualified, under trained and unreasonable men being put into positions to which they were not suited. Local communities further suffered from the early loss of local administrators, lawyers and other professional people, who being the first to see the onset of plague (e.g. more people falling ill, more wills being recorded) and with the means to escape, often did so. As noted above, such actions generally hastened the spread of the disease to non-infected areas, so benefitting nobody.
We heard that the last plague epidemic in England was most probably in Suffolk, between 1906 and 1918, south of Ipswich on the Shotley peninsular between Freston and Holbrook. Of the 23 possible cases of human plague, just 4 were confirmed bacteriologically (Mr Chapman and Mrs Parker at Freston, the sailor at Shotley and Mrs Garrod at Erwarton), though it seems there was little doubt the other 2 cases at Freston and Mrs Bugg at Erwarton also had the disease. The outbreaks at Shotley and Trimley were both characterised as highly infectious with a short incubation period and high mortality; the disease pattern was pneumonic at Shotley and largely glandular at Trimley, but both episodes were entirely compatible with a plague diagnosis, which came as a considerable shock to all present.
Our next event will be on 18th May at 7.30 in The Parish Room, when Marcia Whiting will surely regale us with her talk on ‘The life of Sir Alfred James Munnings', one of England's finest painter of horses, first world war artist and an outspoken critic of Modernism, the talk will also include his associations with Sudbury and the Gainsborough Museum.
We look forward to welcoming guests new and old to the Parish Room for what is sure to be a most fascinating evenings entertainment.
Andy Sheppard 21st April 2015