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Witheridge, like the rest of the Country, was struck by the 'Great Pestilence' of 1348-49, though the only record found so far relates to an incident involving servants of the then Rector of Witheridge, William Wyngrave.

John Palfryman, aged 72, born in Witheridge, told how he had heard from the lips of his own father, who was then servant to the Rector of Witheridge, and from other credible old men, that during the Great Pestilence (1348-9) the servants and household of William Wyngrave, its then Rector, in consequence of the scarcity of its surviving population:

"went with a cart to collect the bodies of the dead in Templeton for interment, and that at Bewyford, a corpse fell from the cart in the night on account of being over-filled, which corpse one William atteybere next day went in search of and brought to Witheridge and had for his pains one penny."

Few epidemics in history have had such a devastating impact as the "Great Pestilence" which reached England in the summer of 1348. It was an abnormally wet year, and the grain lay rotting in the fields due to the nearly constant rains. With the harvest so adversely affected it seemed certain that there would be food shortages. But a far worse enemy was set to appear. Sometime between late June and early August, probably in Bristol, though some reports gave its point of arrival as Dorset, a deadly disease reached England after spreading across Europe in the previous three years from its first reported point of origin in Sicily. Already one of the worst natural disasters in history, having killed an estimated 25 million people across Europe, over the next two years it was to kill an estimated 2 million people in England out of a population approaching 5 million.

The "Great Pestilence" or Black Death as it is more commonly known, was one of the worst natural disasters in history. It was long believed that the Plague was carried by Black Rats, but in fact the primary culprits in transmitting this disease was the oriental rat fleas carried on the back of black rats, and which originated in China. However, the filth that littered the streets in the towns and cities gave the rats the perfect environment in which to breed, and enabled the disease to spread very rapidly. People lived very close together and knew nothing about such a contagious disease, nor was there any medical knowledge available in Medieval England which would help people to fight the plague.

The speed with which the disease spread, and the very high fatality rate, was terrifying to inhabitants of the medieval world. The effect was at its worst in cities, where overcrowding and primitive sanitation aided its spread. In November, the plague reached London, and out of a population estimated to be around 70,000 inhabitants, almost 30,000 of the city's population is believed to have succumbed to the disease. The total population of England at this time was in the order of 5-6 million people, and over the next two years, fatalities may have reached as high as 2 million. In winter the disease seemed to disappear, but only because fleas, which were now helping to carry it from person to person, are dormant then. Each spring, the plague returned again, killing new victims. Even when the worst was over, smaller outbreaks continued, not just for years, but for centuries.

Understandably, peasants were terrified at the news that the Black Death might be approaching their village or town. Peasants fled their fields leaving their crops to rot, and livestock was left to roam unattended. The monk Henry of Knighton declared, "Many villages and hamlets have now become quite desolate. No one is left in the houses, for the people are dead that once inhabited them." It was not until late in 1350 that the worst effects of the Black Death subsided, but it never really died out, there were further outbreaks in 1361-62, 1369, 1379-83, 1389-93, and throughout the first half of the 15th century, and it was not until the late 17th Century that England became largely free of serious plague epidemics.

The Plague came in three forms, bubonic, pneumonic, and septicemic, all forms being caused by a bacterium called 'Yersinia pestis', and each form of the plague killed people in a particularly vicious way.

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The Bubonic version was the most commonly seen form of the Black Death. The mortality rate was between 30-75%, and the symptoms were enlarged and inflamed lymph nodes around the arm pits, neck and groin. The term 'bubonic' refers to the characteristic bubo or enlarged lymphatic gland. Victims were subject to headaches, nausea, aching joints, fever of 101-105 degrees, vomiting, and a general feeling of illness. The symptoms usually took from 1-7 days to appear.

The Pneumonic form, which was the second most commonly seen form of the Black Death, occurs when the infection enters the lungs; symptoms included slimy sputum tinted with blood. Sputum is saliva mixed with mucus exerted from the respiratory system. As the disease progressed, the sputum became free flowing and bright red. Infected people spread the disease through the air by coughing, sneezing, or just breathing! The pneumonic and the septicemic plague were probably seen less then the bubonic plague because the victims often died before they could reach other places. The mortality rate for the pneumonic plague was 90-95%, with the symptoms taking 1-7 days to appear.

The rarest form of all was the Septicemic version with a mortality rate close to 100 percent, symptoms were a high fever and skin turning deep shades of purple. The Black Death got its name from the deep purple, almost black discoloration. Victims usually died the same day as the symptoms appeared.

The Black Death had a huge impact on society. Fields went unploughed as the men who usually did this were victims of the disease. Harvests would not have been brought in as the manpower did not exist. Animals would have been lost as the people in a village would not have been around to tend them. Therefore whole villages would have faced starvation. Towns and cities would have faced food shortages as the villages that surrounded them could not provide them with enough food. Those lords, who lost their manpower to the disease, turned to sheep farming as this required less people to work on the land. Grain farming became less popular, and this, again, led to towns and cities being short of such basics as bread. Another consequence of the Black Death was inflation with the price of food rising, and thus adding to the hardship of the poor. In some parts of England, food prices went up by fourfold.

Those who survived the Black Death took the opportunity offered by the disease to improve their lifestyle. The great loss of valuable skills bought about by the death of large numbers of the working class led to a greater appreciation of the value of those who remained, and, with this realisation the structure of society began to change giving formally poor labourers more say, and the peasants and artisans began to demanded higher wages. Feudal law stated that peasants could only leave their village if they had their lord's permission. Now many lords were short of desperately needed labour for the land that they owned and actively encouraged peasants to leave the village where they lived to come to work for them. When peasants did this, the lord refused to return them to their original village. Peasants could demand higher wages as they knew that a lord was desperate to get in his harvest. So the government faced the prospect of peasants leaving their villages to find a better 'deal' from a lord thus upsetting the whole idea of the Feudal System which had been introduced to tie peasants to the land.

On 18th June 1349, in an attempt to prevent peasants roaming around the countryside looking for better pay, the government published The Ordinance of Labourers which sought to limit the freedom of peasants to move around in search of the most lucrative work. This was later promulgated through Parliament as the Statute of Labourers in 1351:

"It was lately ordained by our lord king, with the assent of the prelates, nobles and others of his council against the malice of employees, who were idle and were not willing to take employment after the pestilence unless for outrageous wages, that such employees, both men and women, should be obliged to take employment for the salary and wages accustomed to be paid in the place where they were working in the 20th year of the king's reign [1346], or five or six years earlier; and that if the same employees refused to accept employment in such a manner they should be punished by imprisonment, as is more clearly contained in the said ordinance".

Though some peasants decided to ignore the statute, many knew that disobedience would lead to serious punishment. This created great anger amongst the peasants and eventually led to the Peasants Revolt of 1381. Consequently, it can be argued that the Black Death was to lead to the Peasants Revolt. Overall this attempt to limit the freedom of the peasants inevitably failed; skilled manpower was so short that no landlord could afford to ignore the strictures of the marketplace. In fact, to those with the opportunity and ability to seize it, the Black Death presented a golden opportunity for advancement. With the freedom to move around and sell their labour, and the horrendously deflated prices of goods and land, those with the enterprise to do so were able to lift themselves out of the bonds of villeinage and make something of themselves.

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Last Edited 03/07/2006    Copyright © 2000-2006 Witheridge

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