How East Anglia is revealing the inside story of the Black Death
PUBLISHED: 08:33 21 November 2016
TREVOR HEATON talks to academic and broadcaster Prof Carenza Lewis about the East Anglian community project which is transforming our understanding of one of history's greatest calamities - and giving us a terrible warning for our own future.
The ship that came into Melcombe Regis harbour in Dorset in June 1348 was carrying a hold filled with fine goods from the province of Gascony. But it had something else on board too: death, and on an unimaginable scale.
It was in the form of the bacterium Yersinia pestis, passed to humans by the rat flea. The first person to die on British soil was one of the sailors on board. He was followed by dozens, then hundreds, then thousands, then hundreds of thousands.
Bubonic plague – the Black Death – was the greatest natural calamity ever to reach these shores. As it raged across town and country in the year or so that followed, every community was affected in some way. For those who lived through it, and for those who died in feverish agony, it must have seemed as if the end of the world had truly arrived.
Its impact was brutal, widespread, and shook society to its core. But trying to work out its impact village by village, even street by street, has been impossible – until now.
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Although the figure of a one-third or 40 per cent mortality rate is often accepted by historians, it may have killed many more in rural communities – perhaps a half, or even up to three out of every four of the population in some places.
Trying to quantify the effects of the plague, though, has been a matter of controversy ever since.
East Anglia must have suffered as much as anywhere else, but until recently all we had to go on was the patchy written record. And not that long ago, historians and archaeologists started to suspect that chroniclers might possibly have been over-egging the pudding when it came to the catastrophe.
After all, where were all the plague pits? And why, they asked, did so many of the deserted medieval villages that dot our countryside actually live on hundreds of years after the plague had swept through? Was the impact of the Black Death REALLY as bad as all that?
Now a community archaeology project led by academic and broadcaster Carenza Lewis is transforming our understanding of the catastrophe. With the help of 10,000 volunteers across East Anglia and adjoining counties, 60 communities have been explored over ten years with the aid of more than 2,000 one-metre-square ‘test pits’.
In lawns, in school playing fields, in parks, in fields, and in gardens, members of the public – with the help of experts from the universities of Lincoln and Cambridge – have been peeling back the layers of centuries to reach back to the 14th century.
It’s a brilliantly simple idea - and the story these community time-travellers have been revealing is nothing short of startling. “Ninety per cent of villages show a post-Black Death decline,” Prof Lewis said. “It’s incredibly sobering.”
Test pits used to be regarded as a bit of an archaeological hors d’oeuvres, a mere soup-of-the-day before the main course of excavation. But excavation is expensive, time-consuming, disruptive and – in the case of our built-up towns and villages – often extremely technically difficult to do.
It took the much-missed Mick Aston - he of the wild hair and stripey jumpers on Channel 4’s Time Team - to realise that they could be a superb research tool in their own right. He demonstrated this is a series of ground-breaking discoveries in the Somerset village of Shapwick in Somerset in the late 1980s. How fitting then, that the banner should be carried forward by his old ‘TT’ colleague Carenza Lewis.
She realised that if we really wanted to know what went on during this 14th-century nightmare then we need to be looking under our feet, and not at the kind of lost villages that are often pointed to – incorrectly – as being down to the plague. Prof Lewis realised that, rather than looking at failed sites like this, it was much more interesting to look at villages that had weathered the storm and come through. What was their story?
The test-pit project was devised around 2005 as part of a Higher Education Field Academy, aimed at 14- to 15-year-olds, looking to build their skills and confidence, giving them experience of running and project and writing reports. “It’s been a wonderful thing [to see],” she said. “The more that they have dug, the more valuable the research outcomes.”
And when you add in the enthusiastic support of local communities across East Anglia, then you had a small army of time-travelling history detectives in action.
Things have to be done properly, of course. This isn’t a question of digging a vague hole in the ground and seeing what turns up. Everything has to be recorded carefully, with a professional overview. After all, who knows what might turn up – that’s the joy of archaeology.
So what were they looking for? Pottery, lots of pottery…
It turns up on almost every archaeological site. Once fired, ceramics are almost indestructible. They might break into little pieces but the pieces themselves last a long, long time. These are the common currency of archaeology, little pointers that show a healthy, thriving community.
“Pottery’s a very tangible, very visual and striking indicator,” said Prof Lewis.
Pottery shows people living, working, cooking, eating, storing, preparing. Everyone used it, everyone needed it to run their daily lives. No pottery means no people - it’s as simple as that. It would be like someone in the future excavating a 21st-century village and finding no plastic, glass or cans.
So when you dig test pit after test pit and find that whole periods of pottery have vanished, then you know there is something very serious going on. And when this is happening in late 14th-century layers that points to only one serious culprit: the Black Death.
In places like Binham, the village shrank dramatically, with whole streets abandoned.
You can take the test pit information and estimate what the population collapse must have been. In the case of Norfolk villages, the figure is enormous. “It’s very, very noticeable that Norfolk villages show a big drop – something like 60 per cent,” Prof Lewis said.
At Wiveton, where 23 test pits were dug, the village shrunk by two-thirds after the Black Death. Binham (60 test pits) declined by 70pc, Carleton Rode fell by 40pc, Acle by 45pc. At Gaywood and Paston it was even worse, with the villages shrinking to under a sixth of their previous size once the plague had swept through.
But in Suffolk it’s a different story. A disaster, certainly – but much less than in Norfolk. “The drop is much, much less – around 10-15 per cent.” The reasons for this are still a matter of discussion, but Prof Lewis has her own suspicions. “The great thing is that now we know what happened, we can start to work out why.
“What I think we are seeing in Norfolk is agricultural villages that are untenable in a post-Black Death world. They didn’t have any surplus cheap labour, and at a time of a fall in demand. We are seeing evidence of big shifts in population.”
In Norfolk this happened in village after village, meaning that outlying farms or even whole streets were abandoned, the community pulling in its horns to farm the best and most productive land only. Some people might have moved around, chasing the work.
It’s a different picture south of the border. “A lot of Suffolk places seem more resilient because they have trade. Lots of small market towns and villages are tied up in the cloth trade. Places such as Nayland saw a huge surge in pottery. Places like Southwold had a more diverse economy, Walberswick was very similar.”
But Norfolk? That was hit by what Pro Lewis describes as a ‘push and pull thing’, a perfect storm of calamities: “If you’re living in a village times are hard,” she said. “More morbidity and general levels of health fall, affecting fertility rates.”
And let’s not forget the plague. Because one helping of destruction was not enough: after it swept across Britain in 1348-9, it returned again in 1361 – cruelly, the children suffering proportionally more – and also in 1369 and 1375.
“It’s the final blow for a lot of places. People would have been used to epidemics and bad harvests, but this is on a different order of magnitude – it was remorseless.”
No-one understood how the disease was passed on, opting for something called ‘miasma’, that it was somehow conveyed in the air. In a deeply religious age, divine retribution was another explanation. “It was considered a punishment from God.”
These 2,500 portals to the past could be just the start. There are also 1,200 which have been dug elsewhere in the UK, and the potential for thousands more is enormous. “Every test pit adds detail to that village, and every village adds details to the regional picture,” Prof Lewis added. “The evidence is sitting there underneath people’s gardens.”
The pits are giving us the best indication of the scale of the calamity, she explained. (“People don’t realise just how hazy our existing historical evidence is.”) And by concentrating on our living, breathing towns and villages rather than some anonymous lump-or-bump in a field, then it only brings home even more the disaster. And it really did happen where you were born, in the streets where you went to school or go to work, where you live now.
For Prof Lewis the scale of the pandemic has uncomfortable echoes with the present. “If it happened today we could clear it up with antibiotics – but we also know that there are widespread concerns that bacteria are becoming more resistant to antibiotics.
“The Black Death was a strain which evolved in the 150 years before the outbreak and as a direct consequence 44.7 per cent of the people of Europe died.”
If something similar happened in the future, and the strain mutated again, then the calamity would be exponentially worse. And the casual over-subscribing and -consumption of antibiotics would have dire consequences for humanity. This time, even modern science could have no answers.
And the result? “Our descendants could curse us to all eternity...”
The following Norfolk towns and villages were sampled as part of the research: Acle, Binham, Carleton Rode, Garboldisham, Gaywood, Hindringham, Paston, Terrington St Clement and Wiveton.
In Suffolk, test pits were dug at Bures, Bramford, Chediston, Clare, Coddenham, Hessett, Long Melford, Nayland, Southwold and Reydon, Sudbury, and Walberswick. In addition, Wisbech St Mary in the Fens was sampled.