What is the plague?
“Plague” is a word that has been used to describe many episodes of mostly-fatal epidemic or pandemic illness that struck the population at intervals. However, there are basically three types of plague, caused by a bacterial strain, discovered by Alexandre Yersin of France and Kitasato Shibasaburo of Japan and named Yersinia pestis; they are bubonic, pneumonic and septicemic…and they were nothing new to our early ancestors. Bronze Age skeletons, including one that dates back to 2000 BC, have been found to contain DNA from the bacterium that causes plague. The bacteria were believed to have been carried by fleas, living on rats, but recent computer modelling of mortality data, from historic outbreaks, suggests that it was more likely human fleas and body lice which carried the bacteria.
The bacteria multiply inside the flea, sticking together to form a plug that blocks its stomach and causes it to starve. The flea then bites a host and continues to feed, even though it cannot quell its hunger, and consequently the flea vomits blood tainted with the bacteria back into the bite wound. The bubonic plague bacterium then infects a new victim, and the flea eventually dies from starvation.Wikipedia
Variants of Plague
The bubonic plague was identified by the appearance of “buboes” or black swellings in the armpit and groin, the size of which could vary from that of a small egg to an apple. It was caused by the bacteria infecting the lymphatic system, causing inflammation in the lymph nodes. These appeared in the form of swellings or “buboes”. Once buboes appear, the victim would probably have around two or three days left to live and as few as 30% are thought to have survived the disease.
The pneumonic plague, where the lungs became infected, was even more deadly, with virtually everyone contracting it succumbing in a matter of days. Unlike the bubonic form of the disease, the pneumonic variant was spread through direct contact with the afflicted and from being infected by a patient with a cough. Pneumonic plague is the only form of the plague that can be directly transmitted from person to person.
The septicaemic plague, though less common, resulted from bacteria entering the bloodstream and causing septicaemia, or blood poisoning, and gangrene, which caused rapid death. This form also affected livestock. The mortality rate was 99-100%.
Accounts of early outbreaks
During the reign of the emperor Justinian I (527-565 AD), one of the worst recorded outbreaks of the plague took place, claiming the lives of millions of people, including perhaps up to half the population of Europe.
Our early ancestors had no defence against the plague and there are many reports of outbreaks in the British Isles, over the centuries, which could and did devastate communities. For example, a plague is described to have hit the north of England in 1314.
On the 24th of June, 1314, the King (Edward II) encountered the enemy at Bannockburn, and met with a disastrous defeat. The north now became the prey of the enemy, into which they made yearly incursions, pillaging and burning the towns and villages, and carrying off the cattle.
The miseries of the people were further intensified by a famine and plague which raged about this time, and so malignant were the effects of the latter, and so numerous the deaths, that the interment of the dead was often accomplished with the greatest difficulty.
Bread-corn rose to forty-two shillings a quarter, about ten times its usual value; and to such dire extremity were the poor reduced, that, it is said, men ate the dead bodies of their companions, and parents the flesh of their own children.Bulmer’s Gazeteer 1892
The “Black Death” or “Great Pestilence”
The “Great Pestilence” arrived in Europe in October 1347, when twelve Genoese trading ships docked at the Sicilian port of Messina. Most of the sailors on board the ships were already dead and those who were still alive were seriously ill with fever, vomiting and pain. As the disease progressed, the victims became covered with black boils, which gave the disease the name “The Black Death” and most of them died. The Black Death was to spread across the world, carried by fleas which lived on the bodies of rats.
“The seventh year after it began, it came to England and first began in the towns and ports joining on the seacoasts, in Dorsetshire, where, as in other counties, it made the country quite void of inhabitants so that there were almost none left alive…But at length it came to Gloucester, yea even to Oxford and to London, and finally it spread over all England and so wasted the people that scarce the tenth person of any sort was left alive.”(Geoffrey the Baker, Chronicon Angliae temporibus Edwardi II et Edwardi III)
Black Death in Yorkshire, 1348
During the time of Edward I (1239-1307), according to “Yorkshire Past and Present” by Thomas Baines, Yorkshire towns had already been trading wool with Scandinavia for several hundred years and the foundations had also been laid for our West Yorkshire woollen towns to trade with the merchants of Northern France and Belgium. By 1348, international trade was very brisk and the movement of goods and people, associated with international trade, would allow the Black Death to become a pandemic. The Black Death probably originated in central Asia, but it spread quickly along trade routes from southern Europe, through France and Belgium and, by June of 1348, it had arrived in England and, shortly afterwards, in Scandinavia. For our West Yorkshire ancestors:
With no effective remedy, the suffering population could only turn to their religion. The rich left for the country in the hope of escaping contagion…but the plagues would not be stopped before they had killed up to half of the inhabitants of Yorkshire.Bulmer’s Gazetteer (1892)
The physicians, whose purpose was to treat this disease, knew little more than those whom they were treating. They did, however, understand one thing…it seemed to spread very quickly and easily from person to person (and so it may have been a pneumonic variant of the disease). The doctors tried all kinds of remedies to try to ward off the spread of the disease…poultices of onion and butter, sprinklings of dried frog, arsenic, floral compounds and, of course, copious bloodletting…the more close to death the patient became, the more drastic became the application of remedies…but nothing worked. Bodies piled up and whole families were decimated.
As the death toll rose, funeral processions were abandoned and victims were buried quickly in mass graves or on funeral pyres. Some sole survivors of stricken families were driven to suicide in desperation over the loss of all their loved ones and often their means of support. Eventually, only quarantine had any effect in slowing the spread of the disease, plus the seasonal reduction in deaths as the cold winter weather took hold.
The Black Death pandemic is estimated to have killed about a third of the world’s population and up to 50% in Yorkshire. The poor continued to be the plague’s easiest victims…but even the wealthy didn’t know what to do to prevent the plague, though at least they would have had the means to take their families away from the affected areas, until the outbreak was over.
Life after the Plague
For the peasants who had survived the outbreaks of the plague, life became slightly improved for a while, once it had passed. There was abandoned land to be taken over and those who worked hard could make a better living for their families. The peasants demanded higher wages from their overlords. However, in 1350, the Statute of Labourers was passed, compelling all unemployed people to take work at the 1346 rate and those who refused were severely punished.
The consequence of the various plagues that had decimated the population was that there were insufficient healthy people to look after the land. As a result, in 1348 and 1349, international trade plummeted. This presented a problem for the Lords of the Manors, whose income had plummeted…the surviving poor were in a strong position to demand better wages and working conditions.
But the ruling classes retaliated by refusing to pay increased wages and introducing harsh penalties to those who refused to labour.
All of this contributed to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, when a later generation of workers became aware that they could command more for their labour and enjoy a better standard of living if only the economy was allowed to develop naturally.Yorkshire, past and present: a history and a description of the three ridings of the great county of York, from the earliest ages to the year 1870; with an account of its manufactures, commerce, and civil and mechanical engineering … including an account of the woollen trade of Yorkshire. By Thomas Baines (1806-1881).
Respite and Return
There was a respite from the plague during the 1350s. This may have co-incided with a downturn in temperatures, as a period of climate change known as the “Little Ice Age” began. Cooler weather did not favour the bacteria that caused the disease.
However, from 1360-1362, a second outbreak occurred. Fortunately this was not as devastating as the first, perhaps due to the immunity of those adults who had survived the 1348 infection. It was nevertheless damaging in another way. This plague was called the “Children’s Plague” as children under ten were the hardest hit.
Another epidemic of plague hit Yorkshire in 1374, with local outbreaks of bubonic and other plagues continuing to hit villages, towns and cities across the land at intervals for centuries.
After the effects of the Black Death, the Children’s and other outbreaks of plague, the population of the villages of West Yorkshire did not rise significantly for a century and Yorkshire’s population took over two hundred years to recover to its pre-1348 level.
West Yorkshire Records of Plague
Parish records often give information about outbreaks of plague. In Birstall, an epidemic during the year 1587-8 contributed to a total of 111 burials, as compared with an average of 36 burials in the previous 5 years and in the succeeding 5 years.
The plague visited Dewsbury and Ossett in 1583 and again in 1593. Entries in the Dewsbury Parish Register for 1593 show that Jane Wilson and her husband were both buried in Ossett “of the plague” on the 18th December 1593. Christopher Denton of Sowood Farm (Ossett) had died of the plague on the 18th July 1593 and was buried at his own house. His sons, Christopher (23) and William (18) died 13 days later. On the 3rd August, Alice his wife and their children, Isabel (21), James (15), Thomas (11), Margaret (4), all died of the plague and were buried at “Denton’s House” (Did the Dentons’ 19 year old daughter Elizabeth survive? She is not on the register of deaths below.) Extracts from the Dewsbury Register 1593-4 show these deaths and others:
Christopher Denton, elder, buryed of the plage the xviij daye, at his owne howse.
John Craven buryed of the plage the xxx daye, in the leighes.
Christopher Dentonn yonger buryed of the plage the xxxi daye.
Willme Dentonn buryed of the plage the same daye at theyr father’s howse.
The monethe of August, 1593.
Isabell Dentonn buryed of the plage at home the third day.
James Denton buryed of the plage at home the same day.
Thomas Dentonn buryed of the plage at home the same day.
Alice Dentonn buried of the plage athome the same day.
Margrett Dentonn buried of the plage at home the same day.
Joanye Brouke buryed the same day at Denton’s of the plage.
Ann Ward buryed at Denton’s howse of the plage the same day.
Alice Hudsonn buryed of the plage in the leighes the viij day.
Alice Sowell buryedof the plage at Denton’s howse the x day.
Agnes Ward buryed of the plage at Denton’s howse the same day.
Uxor Craven, Widow, dyed of the plage and buryed at home in the leighes the xx day.
John Craven, a yonge childe, buried of the plage in the leighes the same day.
Agnes Hudsoun buriedof ye plage at home in the leighes the xx day.
Thomas Sykes buryed at his own house at Sowode Green the xxvij day.
The monethe of September, Ano Dni 1593.
John Boothe, buryed of the plage at Denton’s house the xxi day.
The monethe of November.
Robert Grayre buryed the xxv daye, at night.
The monethe of December 1593:
Jane Wilsonn buryed at Ossett the xviij day of the plage at home.
Uxor Pickeringe buried at Ossett the same (18th) daye of the plage.
Ann Forrestburyed the xix daye of the plage.
Ano: Reginæ Elizabetha tricesimosexto (36th year of Elizabeth’s reign)
Agnes, wyfe of George Nayler, buryed of the plage the xvii daye at night here.
The bubonic plague returned to Dewsbury in 1603 and killed many people in the Wakefield area in 1625.
In 1631, 131 parishoners died in Mirfield and “the entry of deaths from the plague occupy two and a half pages of the parish register”. In 1631 the plague was in Halifax too, and in August it returned to Wakefield.
Plague during the English Civil War
Outbreaks of the plague continued to affect communities all over the country, but during the early years of the English Civil War, 1642-45, regular movement of soldiers and goods from place to place enabled outbreaks to spread more readily.
In the West Riding, the worst outbreak at Birstall took place in 1642-3, where there were 158 burial entries for the 7 months that were recorded, as compared to 73 for 12 months of 1641-42 and 88 for 12 months of 1643-44. It is thought that the clerk himself died and that is why the deaths for the remaining 5 months were not recorded. In 1643, there was also an outbreak of plague in Dewsbury and other towns around Wakefield.
In 1644, about 500 people died in Halifax out of a population of 6000, about 16% of the population. The plague also broke out in Leeds in 1644, where it raged for a year and 20% of its population died. Many of the inhabitants fled from the town, to cabins hastily built on Woodhouse Moor and other open grounds, to escape the ravages of the disease. Some cabins erected outside the town, on Quarry Hill, gave their name to another spot used for this purpose, thereafter called Cabin Closes. Plague troughs were built on the Chapeltown Road. The inhabitants threw their money into the water-filled troughs, to pay for the provisions to be brought from the country, so the infected and the well need not touch each other. The Leeds parish register shows:
March 11, 1644-45, was buried Alice, wife of John Musgrave of Vicar Lane. This woman was the first that was suspected to die of the plague. There were buried 131 persons in August, 1644, before the plague was perceived.
July 2, 1645, the Old Church doors were shut up, and prayers and sermon only at the New Church, and so no names of burials to be certified, but a few at St. John’s, until Mr. Saxton came to be vicar, when prayers and sermon began again.
The inventory of deaths, from 12th March 1644 to 25th December 1645, amounted to 1,325 persons. The disease raged most violently in Vicar Lane, and the Close Yards adjoining, from which several were buried in the Vicar’s Croft, and others in North Hall orchard. The plague was also devastating in Marsh Lane, the Calls, Call Lane, Lower Briggate, and Mill Hill.
The greatest number of deaths occurred in the warm summer months and the monthly recorded number of dead had reduced to about 10% by mid-winter. It was stated that, at the time when the plague was most malignant, in the month of June, “the air was thick, very warm, and so infectious that dogs and cats, mice and rats, died…also several birds in their flight over the town dropped down dead”.From Yorkshire Past and Present
After Leeds, the plague moved again to Wakefield in 1645, when 245 people were reported to have died in and around the town. After the war, there was a period of respite until the great plague of 1665-6.
What remains to be said of the epidemics of the Civil Wars, relates exclusively to plague, with an occasional reference to the spotted fever which was widely prevalent in the autumn of 1644. These epidemics of plague…during the political troubles, more numerous than usual from 1644 to 1650, are the last on English soil until we come to the grand explosion of 1665-66.A History of Epidemics in Britain, Volume 1 By Charles Creighton
The Great Plague of 1665-66
The most famous outbreak of the plague, in the 17th century, was the one that struck down inhabitants of London and most other parts of the country in 1665-1666. DNA evidence from the remains of plague victims, recently excavated at a Crossrail site in London, has confirmed it to have been bubonic plague.
The effects of this outbreak were widespread and, in Yorkshire, it was recorded that Mirfield lost nine-score persons (180). It was also brought into York, where stern measures were taken to keep infected people quarantined and there were consequently fewer deaths inside the city walls. Plague “raged at Bradford” in 1665 and the 1665 outbreak also affected Dewsbury and Ossett. It was reported that a family had fled their home in Ossett to another village in the Parish (of Dewsbury) where they were incarcerated in a wooden cabin for three weeks to contain the spread of the disease. An Order was given for the Parish of Dewsbury to support the family until the danger of the plague was past.
There are many photographs of so-called “plague” stones, which were large round stones with a depression in the centre in which vinegar was poured. Hands and coins could be rinsed in the vinegar before contact was made with another person or to pay for goods. One such stone still exists at Ackworth, in West Yorkshire.
In the end, quarantine became the only effective defence against the plague, but, as time went on and as people became healthier and took more trouble with hygiene, outbreaks of the plague became fewer. The improvement in hygiene may be the deciding factor and is consistent with recent research suggesting that human parasites carried the bacteria.
Even today, a relatively small number of people contract the disease each year and an average of 100 people die annually from it. If antibiotics are given within 24 hours of symptoms occurring, 5 out of 6 cases will be cured. In less developed countries, access to healthcare may not be quick enough.
At the time of writing, the most recent outbreaks of plague affected 10,000 people in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2006 and an outbreak of pneumonic plague affected 2348 people in Madagascar in 2017, where about 10% died. In Madagascar, plague affects between 400 and 1500 people annually.
Plague is still found in parts of Russia and China, Kenya, Tanzania, Zaire, Mozambique, and Botswana. In South America, plague is found in parts of Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Brazil. Africa, South America and Asia experience the most cases but, since 1970, there have been up to a few dozen cases of plague every year even in the United States, most of them occurring in the Western states.
© Christine Widdall updated 2019