The Black Death Is Back. Could It Be a Good Thing?

Best Flights, History / Sunday, October 15th, 2017

Bad news from a friend in France’s Indian Ocean possession of Reunion Islandthe plague is back in neighboring Madagascar. To be fair, the plague has never really gone away in Madagascar, but it’s usually confined to the remote highland regions. This month, a man travelled to the country’s capital, Antananarivo, before developing severe respiratory problems. Diagnosing him with flu (the symptoms are similar), the medical staff initially took no precautions to isolate him. It turned out to be the plague. Not the relatively benign bubonic plague, but its deadlier variant, pneumonic plague, which becomes airborne through the victim’s uncontrollable sneezes. As of October 13th, 387 cases had been diagnosed. 47 have died. More will die today.


How things pan out depends on how well the outbreak can be contained. Public gatherings have been banned following an international basketball tournament, during which the coach of the South African team was infected, and a member of the Seychelles team died after returning home. The World Health Organization has flown in $1.5 million of antibiotics, and two large tents to be erected in Antananarivo’s hospital for all the cases who can no longer be accommodated in the ward. The problem in this impoverished country is that many people fear the costs of medical treatment, preferring to buy cheap drugs and quack remedies that may be completely ineffective. If the government can get the word out, the outbreak might be contained with few consequences. Otherwise, the impact could be substantial. We know this, of course, because our own impoverished western society changed beyond recognition as a result of our own experience with the plague in the fourteenth century.

Plague was hardly new in Europe. There was a severe epidemic in the sixth century. The Black Death, a series of plagues throughout the known world in the fourteenth century originated in the Gobi desert in the 1320’s, arriving in Italy in 1347, reaching the remotest parts by the 1350’s. “We see death coming into our midst like black smoke, a plague which cuts off the young, a rootless phantom which has no mercy or fair countenance,” wrote Jean Geuthin, a Welsh poet in 1349.

Yersinia Pestis can infect three parts of the body: the lymphatic system, causing the lymph nodes to swell — buboes, they’re called; hence, “bubonic” plague. Around a third of victims recovered, but not Jean Geuthin:

Bubonic plague

“Woe is me of the shilling in the arm-pit; it is seething, terrible, wherever it may come, a head that gives pain and causes a loud cry, a burden carried under the arms, a painful angry knob, a white lump. It is of the form of an apple, like the head of an onion, a small boil that spares no-one. Great is its seething, like a burning cinder, a grievous thing of an ashy colour. It is an ugly eruption that comes with unseemly haste. It is a grievous ornament that breaks out in a rash. The early ornaments of black death.”

If the disease entered the victim’s lungs — pneumonic plague, the variety found in Madagascar currently — a tenth of victims might survive. Nobody ever survived septicemic plague, where the bacterium attacked the victim’s blood. In Whitchurch, Wales (now a suburb of the capital, Cardiff), John le Strange died on August 20th, 1349. Before an inquest could be held, his son Fulk had died. Before an inquest could be organized for Fulk, Fulk’s brother died. Fulk’s other brother, John the Younger, survived, but the three mills he inherited were all derelict. The workers had died, and nobody else dared work in them.

The initial reaction of an affected community was generally incomprehension. Where was the physician? Dead. And the priest? Dead. How to draw up a will? The lawyer was dead. Administrators were dead. Judges were dead. The lord of the manor could well be dead, and what then of the land on which the remainder of your family lived?

Some imagined it the judgement of God upon a sinful generation. The “Flagellants” punished themselves on society’s behalf. Others asked why even the clergy was not spared — was God angry with the church also? John Wycliffe was a contemporary.


Others celebrated survival, life a great, long carnival of debauched feasting and drinking, the assumption being that they too would soon be dead.

Some turned in desperation to folk remedies: eating crushed emeralds, or rubbing the wounds with a live chicken.

Others looked for scapegoats. Witches were sought out; Jews — as always — assumed to be poisoning the wells. England and Wales were largely spared the massacres that followed, but only because Edward I had expelled the Jewish population the previous century.

Of course, there were those seeking to capitalize on the situation. The court rolls of Ruthin, north Wales, for 1350 record the trial of the brothers Madoc and Kenwric ap Ririd, who burgled the dying. From one, they stole a jug worth a shilling. For this, they laid their lives on the line.

The plague did not affect every district equally. In Wales, the lord of Abergavenny saw his income collapse two-thirds in a month, before dying himself; two of his villages almost annihilated. Where there were no laborers, there could be no sowing, no harvesting, no fairs or markets, not even courts. In Carmarthen, west Wales, the courts were still suspended three years later. In Holywell, the lead mines closed after all the miners died, nobody willing to replace them. But in Glamorgan, a day’s walk from Abergavenny, little changed; at least, initially.

The disease receded as survivors developed immunity, returning periodically, but with less force every time. Life in Wales did not return to normal. Far fewer were left to work the estates; and fewer lords to live on them, but those who did were often financially embarrassed. Traditionally, they had used serfs or bondsmen, little more than slaves, to farm the estate, giving most of the produce to the manor, and living in semi-starvation. That didn’t work any more, because the peasants were free now to walk away from their squalid huts in search of another lord and a higher living standard. Archaeological digs have shown how peasants’ cooking and eating utensils changed suddenly from clay to metal.

Reconstructed Welsh medieval village, Cosmeston, Bro Morgannwg, Waes

With so many wandering peasants, the lords found a quick solution to their problems in renting parcels of their estates. Instead of working the land directly, the peasants could work for themselves, making the lord regular, predictable payments, but keeping all the profit for themselves. Industry and thrift would pay.

Which is why, if you’d assumed that increasing availability of land and fewer people would result in a drop in land values, you’d be wrong. Land values increased, because on taking on a parcel of land, the new tenants would work to improve it, to make it more productive. Land that was not productive for crops could still be rented for pasture. Sheep farming became common in Wales.

Within a few years, manors’ revenues frequently exceeded pre-plague incomes. Leaseholds appeared, fields being rented for years or even life. At Hay, an eastern village on the Wye river, shareholders were invented when the entire domain was rented by the village’s residents. At Penkelly, the lord of the manor let his the entire estate to a single man, a commoner, for twelve years. At Rumney, the lord of manor solved two problems by renting the estate to a group of tenants on condition that they maintain the estate’s buildings.

Hay-on-Wye Castle, Monmouthshire, Wales

With power came rights. At Pelcam, workers threatened to withdraw unless the lord contracted not to impose further obligations upon them. Elsewhere, tenants agreed to higher rent in return for their lord renouncing his privilege to compel them into military service. “Burgage tenancies” began to appear, where the tenant would be permitted to rent his land for life, and pass it to his descendants in perpetuity: private property, even for commoners!

Every revolution has its losers. Those in Wales who failed to board the band wagon found the rising prosperity of others meant rising prices, but the new class of tenant farmers ran their plots with their families, and rarely needed employees. As for the lords of the manor — what interest had they in serfs anymore? The traditional arrangements of society were breaking down throughout Wales. Less and less was social inequality based on tribal loyalties, and increasingly on economic differences. Those new differences would come to a head at the start of the following century when the Glyndwr rebelliondevastated Wales far worse than the Black Death had ever.

In some ways, Madagascar resembles Europe’s society in the fifteenth century, a maladministered country characterized by a narrow elite seeking to reserve much of the national wealth to itself, and with little interest in the people’s prosperity. Were the plague permitted to rage out of control — if we stood back while the bacillus slaughtered Malagasies, rich and poor, old and young, by the million, history, justly, would never forgive us. We have the antibiotics, the science of sanitation and hygiene, and the distribution systems that the fourteenth century lacked, and failing to use them would be unconscionable; murder on a par with the holocaust. Malagasies will have to find other means to affect social change.