Where Romance and History Meet - www.heartsthroughhistory.com/

Friday, March 19, 2010


Note : this post first appeared on my own blog on May 21, 2009.  But I found it an interesting enough subject to post it here as well.

I have found a great littl book by Mike Flanangan, IT'S ABOUT TIME: How Long History Took. Mike's little book lists dozens of historical events with a short description of it and, most important to the title, he tells us how long it took. The shortest time entry is the photographing of the flag raising on Iwo Jima (1/400th of a second). The longest is The Universe (13.7 to 14.5 billion years).

Today I'm going to discuss The Black Death (1347-51), just because it caught me eye. Reasearch shows that the plague most likely originated in China, where incidents of it are recorded as early as 500 A.D. According IT'S ABOUT TIME, the plague arrived in Spain from Crimea in October 1347 on rat infested merchant ships. From there, it continued to spread across Europe along the trade routes, both over land and by sea. It reached Marseilles, France in January 1348 and Great Britain the following September. By the winter of 1349 it was in Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Mike tells us, “This first encounter of the plague ended in Scandinavia in 1351. It returned again in 1365, and many times thereafter,” (109)

Exact numbers on deaths vary from one-tenth to one-third to half the population. And perhaps all three figures are true. Melissa Snell, on About.com medieval's site tells us that while some heavily populated areas were hit hard, “At the same time, a few areas in Europe managed to escape the worst. Milan, as was previously mentioned, saw little infection, possibly due to the drastic measures taken to prevent the spread of the illness. The lightly-populated and little-traveled region of southern France near the Pyrenees, between English-controlled Gascony and French-controlled Toulouse, saw very little plague mortality. And strangely enough the port city of Bruges was spared the extremes that other cities on the trade routes suffered, possibly due to a recent drop-off in trade activity resulting from the early stage of the Hundred Years War.” So, it's quite possible that some areas of Europe saw half their population die of the dreaded disease, while others were barely touched.

HISTORY OF ENGLAND, a College Outline Series book by Barnes and Noble, gives a pretty good description of The Black Death, aka bubonic plague: Black spots appeared on the bodies of the victims: they vomited blood, broke out with boils, developed a high fever, and soon died.” It goes on to say that unsanitary conditions and lack of medical knowledge most certainly contributed to the spread of the disease and the high number of deaths. (53)

The effects of the plague, at least in England were momentous. Wages increased because there were fewer workers to hire and those still around could demand higher wages. For this same reason, serfs were given more freedom, which resulted in lower land values. Industry and trade were disrupted as well. The economy was going to hell in a hand basket. Parliament tried to prevent wages from rising astronomically with the passage of the Statute of Laborers (1351), but it did little good. In order to save themselves, some lords broke up their lands and others “commuted services of their laborers to money payments instead of following the earlier practice of paying in work or produce.” (53) (mmmm, how do you pay a laborer for work by paying in work? Perhaps you have another laborer do something for the first, like replace a roof?)

According to Mike, the Middle Ages ended in 1453. Even if one takes only the low estimate of 10% of the population of Europe dying in four years, it's not hard to imagine that major economical, political and social changes would have taken place, even without the other events happening in Europe at the time.

Leave a comment for a chance to win Texas Chuckwagon Cuisine: Real Cowboy Cooking cookbook and an electronic copy of my story Salavation Bride, the 2009 Preditors and Editors Reader's poll winner for Best Romance Short Story.  I'll draw a winner on Monday March 29th.

Works Cited:

IT'S ABOUT TIME: How Long History Took, Mike Flanagan
HISTORY OF ENGLAND: Survey of Events from 55 BC to Resent Times, J. A. Rickard

Anna Kathryn Lanier

Where Tumbleweeds Hang Their Hats


Margaret Tanner said...

Hi Anna,
That was very interesting. IO can rmember from my schol history, that authorities sent people around yelling "Bring out the dead." Still gives me chills.


Gail Zerrade said...

Thanks for telling us about the It's About Time book. What a fascinating way to look at history. And the plague gives such a great jumping off point for fiction. Nice blog!

Allison Chase said...

Hi Anna. I have a strange fascination with the plague and that horrific period in history. It was like some insidious preditor that couldn't be stopped or escaped. Years ago (1981, actually), when my husband and I were in London for our honeymoon, the news there was all abuzz about a small outbreak of plague in the western US. We couldn't believe it! Does anyone remember that?

Blythe Gifford said...

Anna: You're right on about the impact of the Plague. I've written four books set in the "post-Plague" 14th century. The impact on their views on God, the impact of population loss on the economy and social structure - all monumental in the long run.

P.L. Parker said...

Good post. Very interesting. Such dark times in history. Swine flu epidemics scare me, can't imagine the impact the plague caused.

Anonymous said...

The movie BLACK DEATH starring Sean Bean searching for the cause of the Black Plague will be released this summer. I'm not sure if it will be in theaters or go straight to DVD but what could be better, a hunky hero in armor and a history lesson all in one.


Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

Good morning, everyone. Thanks for stopping by. It is interesting to think about what the people thought at the time. Where you half the population dying, did they think it was the end of the world? I didn't say it in so many words, but the plague was pretty much the beginning of the end of the Fuedal system.

Hi, Margaret. Yep, hard to understand piling the dead up in the street.

Gail, it's a great little book. I don't recall where I got it, but I'm sure you can find at Barnes & Noble or Amazon. It's not a big book, about 5X4, if that. I like little books like that.

Allison, I don't recall the news reports about the black plague in America in the 80's. I'll need to do some research on that!

Blythe, it's not a time period people think to put romance, but I think it works. You certianly have conflict going on.

P.L, yeah, in the modernized world, we have no idea what a true epidemic is like (though I did get my flu shots this year!).

Susan, that's a movie I'll need to look out for!


Kathryn Albright said...

Very interesting post Anna! Something else that has always fascinated me about the plague is the promise made by the people in the village of Oberammergau to perform the Passion of Christ if their village was spared from the plague. They've kept that promise. This is the year for it--2010. Wish I could see it!

Mary Ricksen said...

What a horrid thing it must have been.
To watch loved ones die like flies would be devastating.
Glad I was born here in these times.

Katie Hines said...

Cool article, Anna. The Black Plague has always been something that fascinated me. If I recall correctly, doesn't the CDC have samples on it in their Level 4 lab, and there is now a cure if caught in time?

Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

Hi, Kathryn, Mary and Katie. Kathryn I remember seeing something on the news about that Passion and how the entire village participates. Very cool.

Mary, I can't imagine what people were thinking, other than the end of the world has come.

Katie, I'm sure the CDC has samples of it. I don't know if there's a cure or not. I wouldn't be surprised if there was. We know more now than they did then!

Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

Here's an article by the CDC about recent plague outbreaks, including the one in the 1980's (which seemed to have happened in Africa and South Amreica more than in America, but the US did have cases). Also, the transmission of the plague and the treatment of it.


Virginia said...

Hi Anna, interesting post! It is say that so many died at that time. Then again they didn't have the medical knowledge then as we do now! I didn't really realize just how bad it was until I read your post! I think cancer is our form of black death today! Although more servive it each year~


Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

Hi, Virginia, glad you stopped by. Yeah, it's amazing at the number of deaths. And while it was passed from rats to fleas to people, it passed from people to people by sneezes and coughing. So someone infected only had to cough in a roomful of people to infect them all.

Sally said...

Some of the places that did not experience much death researchers are going back to study decendents looking for clues in genetics. Interesting material on several levels.

Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

Hi, Sally. I hadn't heard about that. Interesting to know if genetics or immunities played a part in areas not being hard hit by the plague.

Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

Congratulations to Katie, she won Texas Chuckwagon Cuisine: Real Cowboy Cooking cookbook and an electronic copy of my story Salavation Bride, the 2009 Preditors and Editors Reader's poll winner for Best Romance Short Story.

Thanks for stopping by everyone!

librarypat said...

Thank you for an interesting post. The plague was a major factor in Ken Follett's WORLD WITHOUT END. It nicely incorporated all the aspects you mentioned, from the way it spread, to the number of deaths in different areas, to the shortage of laborers and the effect that had on land owners and the economy.
Thank you for mentioning IT'S ABOUT TIME. It sounds like a book I'll have to get.

marybelle said...

The Black Plague is very interesting if somewhat horrific.