21st September 2020

One of the books I’ve been reading recently is Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year. Although technically fiction, as a child in London, Defoe had witnessed the devastating effects of the plague in 1665. The following year came the Great Fire of London which in popular thinking served to eradicate any vestiges of plague in the city. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth.

Bubonic Plague had been around since the 1340s, spreading from the Far East, arriving in England in 1348/49. Referred to as the Black Death because of the black ‘buboes’ or swellings that developed on the bodies of victims, across Europe it killed between one-half and two-thirds of the population. As many as 50 million may have died world-wide. Outbreaks of bubonic plague across the world have continued until about a century ago.

In England the Black Death ended medieval serfdom, which had locked the poorest in society in subservience to the local lord, whose land the serfs worked, and whose permission they had to have to marry. Previously they were not allowed to move away from town or village, but after the Black Death, there were not enough serfs to work the land. They could now demand payment from landowners for doing what before they had had to do for free. And they could move around the country to wherever their labour was needed. This kick-started the development of a growing merchant middle class which by the time of Elizabeth I two centuries later had completely transformed English society.

It may even be centuries before it becomes clear how Covid 19 changed society.

David Bell