The plague that swept across Europe, Asia and Africa in the middle of the fourteenth century was a truly dreadful epidemic. Described by historian Ian Mortimer as ‘one of the most horrific events in human history’, it reached England in 1348. Spreading across the country via an improving transport trade routes, the plague emptied villages and devastated the country.
Although the exact origins of the plague are unclear, it is thought to have evolved somewhere in the central Asian steppes. Carried by fleas which lived on rats, it was passed on to humans through the bite of the flea, reaching the besieged Black Sea city of Caffa in 1347. Defeated in battle and devastated by the disease, Caffa’s Genoese defenders fled back to Europe…taking the plague with them.
The exact nature of the plague (there were three strains) has been much discussed: but the most crucial feature is its high mortality rate. Bubonic plague killed around 60% of those unfortunate enough to be affected; pneumonic plague killed 95-100%; and septicaemic plague was invariably fatal (Kelly). At the time it was medically untreatable: and it spread, slowly but inexorably, from the Mediterranean across Europe.
England in the mid-fourteenth century was a successful state. It was economically prosperous, trading extensively with the continent, and it was militarily successful, still basking in the defeat of the French at Crecy in 1346. In Edward III it had strong leadership and in his many children it offered the prospect of continuity.
The strong trading links meant that as the plague moved across continental Europe, the English could not be unaware of it, though perhaps they failed to comprehend its full implication. But trade meant more than that – and it was through a trading port on the south coast, one with strong links with the French port of Calais, that the plague most probably arrived in England.