Plagues devastated Elizabethan England. They were a constant threat to the people and the land. The most devastating to England was the bubonic plague. London was afflicted over a dozen times during the 1500's.
The bubonic plague originated in Central Asia, where it killed 25 million people before it made its way into Constantinople in 1347. From there it spread to Mediterranean ports such as Naples and Venice. Trade ships from these Mediterranean ports spread plague to the inhabitants of southern France and Italy. It had spread to Paris by June of 1348, and London was in the grips of plague several months later. By 1350, all of Europe had been hit by plague. From this time to the mid 1600's, the disease was seen in England.
This particular type of plague was the bubonic plague, which is caused by the bacteria called Yersinia pests. This bacteria lived in rats and other rodents. Human beings were infected through bites from the fleas that lived on these rats. The symptoms associated with plague are bubos, which are painful swellings of the lymph nodes. These typically appear in the armpits, legs, neck, or groin. If left untreated, plague victims die within two to four days. Victims of this disease suffered swelling in the armpit and groin, as well as bleeding in the lungs. Victims also suffered a very high fever, delirium and prostration.
During the sixteenth century, plague teased England's countryside with isolated outbreaks. The major outbreaks were in London, due to its large population. Historian Rappel Holinshed wrote: "many men died in many places, but especially in London." At the beginning of the century, London had a few mild winters, allowing the infected rats and fleas (which usually hibernated) to remain active. Contemporary observers estimate that this epidemic took almost 30,000 lives, almost half of London's population at the time. However, church records show this estimate to be exaggerated, putting the actual number closer to 20,000.
In 1563, London experienced another outbreak of plague, considered one of the worst incidences of plague ever seen in the city. The bubonic plague took almost 80,000 lives, between one quarter and one third of London's population at that time. Statistics show that 1000 people died weekly in mid August , 1600 per week in September, and 1800 per week in October.
Fleeing form the cities and towns was common, especially by wealthy families who had country homes. Queen Elizabeth I was no exception. She took great precaution to protect herself and the court from plague. When plague broke out in London in 1563, Elizabeth moved her court to Windsor Castle. She erected gallows and ordered that anyone coming from London was to be hanged. She also prohibited the import of goods as a measure to prevent the spread of plague to her court.
Later, in 1578, when plague broke out once again, Elizabeth took action. This time she ordered physicians to produce cures and preventative medicine. Also, most public assemblies were outlawed. All taverns, plays, and ale-houses were ordered closed.
Plague devastated England and its people during the Elizabethan period. Despite all of the hardships involved with plague, there were many advances made. Writers wrote of preventative measures, causes and recommended cures, which led to the basic medical practices and sanitation practices of the time.
"Cats." World Book Information Finder. Vers. 2.5. CD-ROM. World Book, Inc. 1994.
This article helped in determining that the Black Death was directly traceable to the extermination of cats in Europe during the mid 1300's.
Cheyney, Edward P. Introduction to the Industrial and Social History of England. Williamstown, Massachusetts Corner House Publishers,1971.
The chapter entitled "The Black Death and the Peasants' Rebellion" was especially helpful in tracing the origins of the Black Death. It was also helpful in providing general information about the plague.
Kohn, George C., ed. Encyclopedia of Plague and Pestilence. New York: Facts on File Inc., : 1995.
This book was especially helpful in identifying the causes of the plague and its characteristics.
*Marks, Geoffrey, and William K. Beatty. Epidemics. New York: Charles Scriner's Sons, 1976.
This book gives, in wonderful detail, information about the plague's travel from central China to Europe. It gives a monk's account of the devastation in his area.
"Plague." World Book Information Finder. Vers. 2.5. CD-ROM Chicago: World Book, Inc. 1994.
This article was especially helpful in identifying the different types of plagues and their characteristics and symptoms.
Williams, Penry. Life in Tudor England. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1964.
The chapter entitled "Black Death" talks about types of plagues and causes, as well as the carriers of the plagues. It was very useful in getting an overview of the plague and the times.
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The Great Plague, later to be known as the Black Death, within a span of four years (1347-1350) destroyed a quarter to a half of the population of Europe. Europe was completely helpless to combat the disease because standards of public health and personal hygiene were nonexistent. The plague was caused by a bacteria called Yersinia Pestis, which lives in rats and other rodents. The fleas that lived on these rodents transmitted the bacteria to humans by biting them. The plague affected humans in a variety of ways, causing the victim to die within five days of being infected.
The Black Death was brought into Europe from Asia. In 1347, Tartar armies brought the plague to Europe from Kirghiz Steppes, an infected area in which they were fighting in Asia. Soon after these troops returned home, signs of the plague emerged. The troops had been healthy when they returned to port, so it can be assumed that the ships in which they had been traveling carried infected rodents. Within the next four years, the plague spread rapidly to all parts of Europe and ravagd the population.
The Black Death first reached England on the Dorset coast in August, 1348, through a sailor from Bristol who had been infected. He infected everyone whom he encountered, and the disease spread rapidly from place to place. Within months, all of England had been infected. Many people who were healthy in the morning were, by evening, incapable of doing normal tasks. Most people died by the fourth day of infection, and mass burials of up to one hundred people would occur every day at local churches. By 1349, between a quarter and a third of the population of England had died of this terrible epidemic.
The Black Death was named for the black spots that appeared on an infected victim's skin. The Black Death appeared in two forms, the bubonic plague and the pneumonic plague. The bubonic strain caused high fever and swelling of the lymph glands. The swollen glands often became abscessed. The pneumonic strain attacked the lungs, frequently causing hemorrhaging. It also caused vomiting of blood. Both varieties caused very painful deaths.
City dwellers were hit hardest, as crowding and lack of sanitation assisted the plague's spread. In London, there was severe overcrowding among the poor, and garbage and human waste littered the streets. About 30,000 out of a total population of 70,000 died of the Black Death in London.
The appearance of the Black Death led to the moral crisis of the late middle ages and to the disillusionment of the people with the Church of that time. Estimates are that 40% of England's clergy perished in the years of the plague. This left churches understaffed, caused hasty recruiting of inferior priests, and accelerated the abuses of the clergy's power. Popular terror led to many people being treated very unfairly during the plague. Jews were accused of spreading the plague by poisoning wells. Also, hysterical charges of sorcery and witchcraft were brought against eccentric or unpopular people.
The Black Death accelerated existing economic trends in England. The death of many workers created a labor shortage and a rise in wages. Many landowners commuted labor services to money rents in order to keep their tenants. The lack of labor impoverished many of the nobility. Marginal lands were often converted to grazing lands, which required less labor than farming. Commutation and rising wages benefited the peasants until the ruling classes started using the state's aid for themselves. The Statute of Laborers fixed wages and prices at the 1348 level and forbade migration of laborers. This could be one of the factors that caused the Peasants' Revolt, which came later. The economic disruption, combined with the psychological shock of the Black Death, increased political instability.
In conclusion, the Black Death had many effects on England. It ultimately affected the thinking of the people of England, the religion of England, the economy of England, and the political structure of England. It probably influenced the Peasants' Revolt. The weakening of the structures that existed in the medieval world probably helped men open their eyes to new ideas which accelerated the Renaissance in England.
See also "Great Plagues"
Cheyney, Edward P. An Introduction to the Industrial and Social History of England. Williamstown, MA: Corner House Publishers, 1971.
This book discusses the industrial and social history of England and its people. This book vividly describes the impact the Black Death had on the population of England. The chapter entitled "The Black Death and the Peasants' Rebellion" is the only relevant chapter.
Cohen, Daniel. The Black Death. New York: Franklin Watts, Inc., 1974.
This book comprehensively discusses every aspect of the European plague. It describes how the Great Plague was introduced into Europe and England, its impact, and its aftermath. It also discusses the types of treatments used during the period. The chapter entitled "Medicine and Magic" is especially amusing.
*Cowie, Leonard W. The Black Death and Peasants' Revolt. London: Wayland Publishers, Ltd., 1974.
This book mostly discusses how the Bubonic Plague effected the peasants in England. The plague was more widespread among the poor of England than in the the upper classes. The chapter entitled "England Infected" is the most informative chapter.
Dahmus, Joseph. The Middle Ages: A Popular History. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1968.
This book gives an overview of all of the middle ages. It discusses the spread of the Black Death from the rest of Europe to England. The chapter entitled"The Late Middle Ages" is the only informative chapter.
Smith, Lacy Baldwin. The Horizon Book of The Elizabethan World. New York: American Heritage Publishing Co. Inc., 1967.
This book is a great compilation of English and European History. The book notes that the religious people of England viewed the Great Plague as a punishment from God. The chapters entitled "The Old Order Passes" and "Rage in Heaven" are the most informative chapters.
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