When the Black Death came to Ely

PUBLISHED: 14:22 03 May 2007 | UPDATED: 12:25 04 May 2010

INCREASINLGY, historians are using micro researches of individual themes to revisit attitudes to issues like gender, infant mortality, poor relief and popular protest. These in-depth studies are exposing commonly held generalisations like all people in

INCREASINLGY, historians are using micro researches of individual themes to revisit attitudes to issues like gender, infant mortality, poor relief and popular protest.

These in-depth studies are exposing commonly held generalisations like 'all people in the past died at a young age'.

The history of medicine has, in the past 20 or 30 years, become an ever expanding field of historical research. While today we have medical science to explain the reasons behind disease and develop cures, the actual impact of illness and death on an individual family or community has not changed over the centuries.

So, when reading about the past, we can understand the concerns of our ancestors when facing epidemics of the proportion of the Black Death, plague and cholera. It is rather like our present day worries about avian flu.

In 1349, The Black Death arrived in Weymouth. The germ Yersinia Pestis, carried by fleas on rats was passed onto humans and spread "as fast as a man might walk". The Bishop of Ely, Thomas de Lisle, was in Avignon when it struck Cambridgeshire and not surprisingly was more than a little reluctant to return.

There is little documentary evidence of the effect of the Black Death on Ely, but in Oakington 35 out of 50 male tenants died, in Dry Drayton it was 20 out of 42 and Cottenham 33 out of 58. So we might assume that this was a similar figure in Ely. In addition the number of priests appointed to new positions in the Diocese of Ely from April to December 1349, following the death of the incumbent, was a staggering 87, with 18 in June and 24 in July.

The plague itself took two forms. The bubonic plague produced swellings or buboes in the neck, armpit or groin, while the pneumonic plague affected the lungs and victims choked to death. The last time Europe had witnessed such an epidemic had been in the sixth century, but outbreaks must have continued, because St Etheldreda had died of plague in the seventh century.

Everywhere people were desperate for an explanation. Some blamed invisible particles carried in the wind (miasma), others talk of poisoned wells, while in some parts of Europe Jewish communities had the finger pointed at them.

People were genuinely frightened and it is not surprising. In Europe 25 million people died in just under five years between 1347 and 1352.

The outbreak shattered communities. Families desperate to avoid the plague were set against each other.

With people dying from every level of society, law, order and administration began to break down. Those who were well rejected those who were sick, many simply barred their doors. Records show that many people died alone, their bodies often dumped in the street or buried in mass graves.

Some recommended the burning of aromatic woods and herbs to ward off the plague; others suggested special diets, courses of bleeding, new postures for sleeping and many other remedies. The very rich tried medicines made of gold and pearls.

They soon realised that "the terrible truth is that nothing seems to work. Flight is the best option, and if one cannot fly, then all that remains is resignation and prayer".

Of course, over the centuries the plague would continue to strike, causing devastation to communities, the very threat of it causing mass hysteria.

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