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The Bubonic Plague of England; 1348-1350 (Fall 2012)

            The “Black Death”, the “Great Pestilence”, or the “Great Mortality”, no matter what the name, the bubonic plague of Europe in the 14th century had an immense impact on Europe and has influenced the course of history (Wikipedia “Black death,” n.d.).  The plaque is believed to have reached England in summer of 1348 via trade ships from other European countries, and by the fall of 1348 the disease had spread throughout the island nation (David, 2010).  This plaque had such devastating effects and important outcomes for England because of the structure of society during the 14th century, the nature of the pathogenic organism, and the impact on society.  

            At the time of the plaque onset, England was mostly an agricultural economy with the population living mostly in the countryside, with London being one of the only large urban areas.  The population was somewhere between 3 and 7 million individuals, most of whom where serfs, which are peasants that are bound to and work the land owned by lords (Wikipedia “Black death,” n.d.).  The church was of high importance; with the king being seen as appointed by God and his word was divine law (Wikipedia “Divine right,” n.d.).  This made the people of England follow the kings order as the word of God, and gave the king absolute, unquestioned power.
            England was also engaged in The Hundred Year’s War against France, and a continuous conflict with Scotland over boarders. (Wikipedia “Black death,” n.d.).  This created a tumultuous time of war with many people and soldiers relocating around the country.  The war camps were often unsanitary, with close proximity between men.  The combination of serfs living in unsanitary conditions, the dense population of London with little hygienic measures, and the movement of goods and people during a war time mandated by the king provided the perfect conditions for a plague to spread throughout England.   

            The bubonic plague, or “Black Death” is caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis (Wikipedia “Black death,” n.d.).  Yersinia pestis is a gram-negative bacillus bacterium that resides in rats.  The bacterium is transmitted from rats to humans via fleas that feed off of the rat.  The flea acts as a carrier of the bacteria, and when the flea bites a human, this bacteria is then able to enter the human’s system (“Pathogen profile,” 2010).  The human is a perfect host for the Yersinia pestis due to the core body temperature being 37 degrees Celsius, facilitating the microbe’s ability to reproduce and multiply quickly, as opposed to the flea’s low body temperature of 27 degrees Celsius, which simply preserves the bacterium until it can be introduced to a warmer host (“Pathogen profile,” 2010).  

            Once Yersinia pestis is introduced into the human body it begins to invade the body’s own immune response cells.  The bacterium hides inside the human’s macrophage cells and uses them as protection.  Inside, the bacteria blocks the macrophages ability to produce it’s pro-inflammatory cytokines (messengers that alert the rest of the immune system to respond to the invasion) and thus the body’s immune system does not mount a response to the pathogen (“Pathogen profile,” 2010).  The bacterium then uses this hiding phase to multiply and create a protective capsule around itself.  Once this capsule is complete the bacterium is unable to be harmed by body immune response.

            Once the bacteria was ready and encapsulated it bursts from its macrophage hiding cell and travels to the lymph nodes of the body, continuing to multiply.  This creates a swollen lymph node, which is called a bubo (term which bubonic plaque originates) (“Pathogen profile,” 2010).  When cells are infected or attacked by the bacteria they quickly die.  This causes wide spread organ and tissue damage, resulting in death after only two to six days (“Pathogen profile,” 2010).  The ability of the microbe to hide inside the human’s cells means that an infected individual may travel without feeling ill, thus infecting others and spreading the disease unknowingly.  

            The symptoms of bubonic plaque include bubos, or swollen, bloody lymph nodes with exudate, purple splotches covering the entire body, bloody cough, vomiting, fevers with delirium, and foul odor (Edmonds, n.d.).  The plague spread rapidly, either through fleas, by human droplets of saliva, or caregivers coming in direct contact with infected blood and pus.  Households would quickly succumb to plague, and the houses would be boarded up in attempts to avoid contamination.  Bodies quickly accumulated, with no space in graveyards to bury them and no one willing to risk infection and discard the body.  This further increased the spread of infection due to the deceased bodies being in close contact with villages and groups of people (Edmonds, n.d.). 

            The bubonic plague had an extremely high mortality rate, and if one became infected there was almost no chance of recovery.  30-40% of England’s population was decimated by the plague from 1348-1350 (Alchin, 2012).  Some historians, however, believe that the death toll may have been much higher, but it is difficult to say with poor census and record keeping during that era.  London and monasteries where impacted the greatest due to the poor sanitation and close living quarters (Wikipedia “Black death,” n.d.).  At the peek of plague incidence in London more than 200 corpses where being brought out of the city to be buried each day (Ibeji, 2011).   These huge losses in population created social unravel of all government and economic systems.  In an attempt to clean up the sanitation in London during the plague the king mandated that street sweepers work harder to keep the waste product out of streets.  To this the reply of the city council was that all the street cleaners had died of the plague (Ibeji, 2011).

            The decreased population size was not the only result of this devastating plague.  The social world in England changed dramatically after the plague in the areas of religion and economics.  At the beginning of the outbreak, many people turned to the church system to pray for salvation.  They believed that God brought on the plague, and that by praying and repenting they could protect themselves from the wrath (Edmonds, n.d.).  The continued spread of the disease despite prayer lead to a distrust of God and the church system in England (David, 2010).   It should be noted that England did not experience the same anti-sematic tendencies as other European countries at this time.  Germany procured a group of extremist called the Flagellants that were severely anti-sematic and thought the plague was a Jewish conspiracy to overturn Christian religion.  Jews would be burned and tortured for this reason (Edmonds, n.d.).  This can be connected to a long-standing anti-sematic attitude, manifesting first in the Jewish prosecution of Christ, and later seen in Nazi Germany during World War Two (Arendale, 2012).

            Although England did not partake in Flagellants or anti-sematic attitude, there was a shift in religious views after the plague.  Due to the large number of deaths of clergy members (estimated 40% of priests died), there were not enough clergy or churches, and unqualified, untrained individuals filled the positions (David, 2010).  This, paired with the church’s inability to stop the plague, created distrust of the church system, and individuals began taking accountability for their own spirituality.  This eventually would lead to the great reformation of England’s church system (David, 2010).

            In addition to changes in religion, there were also changes in the economic structure of England.  Before the plague there were plenty of serfs to work the land for wealthy lords and land owners.  After, however, there was a much smaller labor force and increased amount of labor demands due to the need to rebuild and clean up the plague remnants (Wikipedia “Black death,” n.d.).  This created an increase in wages for the peasants, as well as providing freedom for many serfs.  The serfs were now no longer bound to the land, and could negotiate fair prices elsewhere.  There was an abundance of abandoned land that serfs were able to claim and create their own farms and homes (Wikipedia “Black death,” n.d.).  

            Although this increase in wages was beneficial for a few years, the feudal system of England remained in place due to the king mandating restrictions on wages and grain prices (Wikipedia “Black death,” n.d.).  This, in conjunction with the king’s inability to stop the plague despite his divine powers bestowed by God, created resentment and distrust by the English people (Wikipedia “Black death,” n.d.).  This eventually would lead to the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381, in which they would challenge divine right of the king and lobby to abolish all serfdom (Wikipedia “Black death,” n.d.). 

            The “Black Death” of England shows how one history force can greatly influences others inadvertently.  The history force of interaction and exchange is what brought the plague to England.  The exchange of goods with other nations brought the pestilence to the nation of England, and the exchange and interaction of people in the country spread the disease throughout the entire island.  

            This interaction and exchange caused a huge decrease in population, which in turn greatly affected the history forces of economics and religion/philosophy.  The history force of economy drove the wage price up due to the simple economics of decreased amounts, increased demand.  This caused a shift in the way money was made by the people of England and the political interference of the king caused social uprising.  

            The history force of religion and philosophy was influenced by the decrease in population due to a new questioning of religious systems.  The Church of England failed to save its people from the plague’s wrath, and thus put in to question the effectiveness and sacredness of the organized church.  This shifted the philosophical and religious view to a more personal practice of faith, and eventually brought about a huge religious change in the great reformation.  

            In conclusion, the “Black Death” of England in 1348 through 1350 was devastating to those who lived through it, but influenced history forces in the process. Although horrible at the time, the plague may have influenced history forces such as religion and economics to the benefit of English society as a whole.  


  1. Arendale, D. (2012). Holocausts of the 20th and 21st century. Retrieved from lecture notes online from      https://moodle2.umn.edu/course/view.php?id=5896.
  2. Alchin, L. K. (2012).  The middle ages; Black death. Retrieved December 4th, 2012 from http://www.middle-ages.org.uk/black-death.htm
  3. David. (2010). Britain express; The black death. Retrieved December 4th, 2012 from http://www.britainexpress.com/History/medieval/black-death.htm 
  4. Edmonds, M. (n.d.). How the black death worked. Retrieved December 4th, 2012 from http://history.howstuffworks.com/historical-events/black-death.htm
  5. Ibeji, M. (2011). Black Death. Retrieved December 4th, 2012 from http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/middle_ages/black_01.shtml
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