Saturday, 16 July 2011

Lord have mercy upon us

In the seventeenth century those words painted on the door, along with a red cross,  indicated a household that was ‘visited’ with the plague, otherwise referred to as the sickness, the infection or the visitation. 

Summer was plague time in England from 1348 to 1666. Bubonic plague   flourished in hot weather; even if there are no other indications, burials rising in June, July and August and falling again in the autumn are an infallible indicator of a plague outbreak.
The first known plague epidemic in England (although not the first known  in Europe) occurred in the year 664. It killed, among others, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Deusdedit.  The next known outbreak was in 1348-50. This is the epidemic commonly known as the Black Death. Over the whole of Western Europe, the Black Death is thought to have killed between a third and a half of the population. It took the population of England two hundred years to recover, with a consequent impact on English society and economy.

After 1348 there was probably a plague outbreak somewhere in England every summer, and a major, countrywide epidemic every twenty or thirty years or so. 1563 and 1603 were particularly bad years.

The epidemic in London in 1665-66 is the best known, largely because it was so vividly described by Samuel Pepys, who remained in London throughout. Thomas Vincent, a contemporary of Pepys’, wrote:

'People fall as thick as leaves in the autumn … now shops are shut in, people are very rare and few that walk about, in so much that the grass begins to spring up in some places, and a deep silence in almost every place … no prancing horses, no rattling carriages, no calling in customers or offering wares … Now in some places not one house in a hundred but what is infected, and in many houses half the family is swept away; in some the whole from the eldest to the youngest.’

The custom of shutting up sick and well people together in their houses was based on lack of understanding of how the disease was transmitted. Some towns had pest houses where infected people could be taken, but allowing people to stay in their homes was considered more humane than taking them away and placing them in isolation.

Families that were shut up were not completely abandoned. The parish authorities saw that they were supplied with food.

The consequence, however, was that entire families could be wiped out. In the 1603 epidemic in Maidstone, William Hamon died, followed by his children Thomasine, Mercie, Joseph and Ann. The only survivors were another son, Thomas, and William’s apprentice.

For reasons that aren’t completely understood, the 1665-66 epidemic was the last in England, although there were isolated outbreaks for a few years afterwards. On the Continent, outbreaks of bubonic plague continued into the eighteenth century. But the ending of bubonic plague in England was one of the factors which made possible the rapid population growth of the eighteenth century,  helping to provide the conditions in which the Industrial Revolution could take place.

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