A history of Halesworth, Suffolk, UK, through the ages.


Volume 2


Black Death 1348 - 49

From the known facts, the economic prospects in Halesworth seemed good, but if so, they were dramatically different to the scenario of political, natural and social disasters which were due to take place in the 14th century. Things were changing in the country scene and, as we have seen, peasants were now holding land in exchanqe for rent instead of the services they formerly were forced to give. In time, the intensive farming by peasants with small holdings caused the land to become exhausted.

The climate in the early 14th century was deteriorating, causing widespread crop failure and cattle pest. The population had increased rapidly during the 13th century, but the amount of food now being produced did not keep pace with this, as the summers became wetter and colder thus creating poor harvests.  Soon, many were on starvation levels of diet which brought about famine conditions. The 'Great Famine' of 1315 - 25 hit Europe hard as a whole, and 10 - 15% of the population are estimated to have died from starvation.

With such an under-nourished population, resistance to disease was very low when in 1349 the Black Death reach East Anglia.

It came from China, carried by the fleas which lived on the black rats which were carried in the holds of vessels trading with the Far East. People bitten by the fleas developed lumps in the armpits, followed by red and then black spots. Death usually followed within five days.

In the country the peasants lived mainly in huts with beds made from a pile of straw, and the whole family living and sleeping in the one room, and with the farm animals separated only by a rough partition. These were ideal nesting places for the rats. In the towns open drains ran between the wooden houses, and all kinds of rubbish was poured into the drains which then flowed into the local river. The doctors did not understand what caused the plague, so were at a loss to know what to do to reduce its effects, or even protect future victims from it. They wore voluminous outfits to protect themselves, which had a sort of beak through which they breathed, which was filled with herbs to deter the plague germs.

The houses of those who were afflicted with the plague were recognised by a red cross which was painted on the door post, and the dead were collected on carts and buried together in large mass graves. When the foundations of the Church of St.James were being dug at Dunwich in the 1820's such a mass grave was found which could well have dated from that disaster. For certainly Dunwich was visited by the Black Death as a petition of 1352 talks of the town being 'wasted and diminished by the late mortal pestilence'.

East Anglia was devastated by the plague. In Norfolk and Suffolk around 57,000 people died, while in the growing town of Yarmouth, the population was reduced from 10,000 to less than 3,000 persons. About a third of the population of Norwich died and the commercial life of the city almost came to a halt. Although I have no figures for Halesworth, there is no reason to assume it missed the death toll. In England as a whole, the total population of 3.7 million in 1348 had dropped by 1377 to 2.2 million, and it took almost two hundred years for the level of population to recover.

We tend to pin-point the plague years at 1348-49, yet other outbursts took place in Norwich, for instance, in 1361 and again in 1369. While as late as 1465, Margaret Paston, who lived near Cromer could write 'pestilence is fervent in the North of England' and in 1471, Sir John Paston speaks of 'The most universal death that ever I knew in England' and that at Westminster there 'was a huge mortality and death of people, not only in the City, but also in many other parts of the realm'.

So many died from the Black Death, that there were few peasants to farm the land. The harvests rotted in the fields as there was no one to gather them in. Prices dropped and a horse could be bought for as little as 6s.8d (32p), a cow for a shilling (5p), a pig for 5d (2p) and a lamb for 2d (1p). The peasants who survived the plague wanted to be paid wages, so the lords of the manors who had earlier insisted on unpaid services, began to pay high wages, as much as 10d (4p) a day, in order to get the work done.

Parliament soon intervened, and brought in new laws which kept the wages low, and the peasants 'cursed the king and all his council who make such laws which hurt the working man'.


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