Archive: Death, Disease and Destruction; in the Fourteenth Century, a Serial Killer Raged Unchecked through Europe. the Black Death Was His Weapon and His Crime Was the Single Largest Mass Murder in History. Chris Upton Finds Evidence of the Worst Catastrophe in European History in Worcester and Coventry

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Byline: Chris Upton

As foot and mouth has waxed and waned across the English countryside, it has been pretty clear that we at present have only an imperfect knowledge of the way epidemics appear, spread and decline.

This is as much true of human infection as animal. Historians still debate exactly how the influenza outbreak of 1919 came to be so devastating, just as much as scientists argue over the origins of Aids. Pity anyone, then, trying to make sense of a plague that raged 650 years ago.

Unfortunately, it's impossible to leave it alone. The Black Death of 1349 was probably the single worst catastrophe in the history of Europe (and probably of Asia as well). It changed the face of England forever, turning villages into ghost towns, altering the pattern of agriculture and land use, emptying monasteries.

Estimates for the number of its victims vary widely, but some have claimed that it removed up to a third of the population of Europe. Whether that figure is correct overall, it was probably true of many places.

The largest single mass murderer in European history was also the smallest. The tiny plague bacillus lives in the stomach of the flea, which in turn lives on the back of the black rat. Under certain conditions the bacilli increase, making the flea's bite deadly.

Having killed the rat, the flea has to move its dining table, and though it may prefer another rat it is not averse to hopping on to the rat's closest neighbour, the human being. And so the plague begins.

There were, in fact three different ways in which the plague could strike. The flea's bite could cause the skin to break out in black swellings called 'buboes ', giving the disease its two names. But an individual had a decent chance of surviving this form of the illness.

Far more deadly (and contagious) were the pneumonic and septicaemic forms, which attacked the lungs and the blood. Here death was practically inevitable, and could follow in a few hours.

For the medieval chroniclers, the Black Death was the single most important event of their lives, and if they were prone to a spot of exaggeration, it was understandable.

One said of Bristol that 'people died as if the whole strength of the city were seized by sudden death'. Another wrote of Oxford that 'scarce a tenth person was left alive, male or female, and the grass grew several inches high in High Street and Broad Street'.

A church official at Canterbury recorded that the plague 'passed most rapidly from place to place, swiftly killing ere midday many who in the morning had been well . . .'

What of the Midlands? It is recorded that the Black Death first struck in Melcombe Regis, Dorset, in July 1348, arriving by boat from France, though no doubt it entered other ports as well. By the following summer it had reached central England on its irresistible progress north.

It seems unlikely that the West Midlands was spared more than any other region, and we know that the plague was especially severe in the east, in Leicestershire and Northamptonshire.

But charting its impact is more difficult. There were no chroniclers active in the area, and this was, of course, long before the churches kept burial registers, or hospitals kept statistics. What is required is detailed work on ecclesiastical records and some rather cunning lateral thinking. …