by Phillip C. Wright
Imagine living in medieval Europe in 1348. If you were the average European, you were a peasant who either tended the orchards, fed the animals or worked in the fields. The nobles had inherited their land through birthright, or some, through service to the king as a soldier in his army or night in his court.
Life in the 14th century wasn’t glamorous--neither was it easy. Most people never ventured out of their own town or village. Most were uneducated, which in truth, kept the servant class in their place, for education then, as today always meant more opportunity, and the nobles and the royals knew this. In fact, the only education the average person received was on Sunday by the local priest. The nobles and the royalty hired monks to teach their children, everyone else continued illiterate generation after generation to follow in the footsteps of their father which usually meant learning the family trade and performing it from one generation to another.
In England, the king maintained a stronghold over his subjects. To keep order and to collect taxes, every town was organized with a local government that reported back to the king. The local sheriff kept order, kept the peace and supervised the collecting of taxes. Unfortunately, it wasn’t uncommon for unethical government officials to take advantage of the locals. In fact, a famous sheriff of the time, John Oxford of Nottingham, was known for his extortion and robbery from his community; due to his notoriety he later became a famous character in the Robin Hood tales.
Not every town was controlled by corrupt leaders, and for most life was simple and very predictable in medieval Europe, but something happened in the summer of 1348--something that not only changed lives, but livelihood, politics and even religion.
Imagine it’s June 1348 and that you just finished purchasing a bag of grain from a local merchant in the seaside town of Bristol, England. With over 10,000 full time residents, Bristol was the second largest city in England and the main English port for trade throughout Europe. As you loaded the bag onto your cart, you noticed a ship anchoring in the harbor.
Of course, this was nothing you hadn’t seen before, there were always ships coming and going in the Bristol harbor. But among the cargo of this ship was a unique stow-away, one of many unnoticed passengers that had already caused havoc in the lives of thousands as it traveled all the way from eastern Mongolia, Asia, to Egypt, western and eastern Europe, the Middle East and today it was debarking into the beautiful and welcoming town of Bristol. Neither you nor any of the other residents and visitors of Bristol had any idea that today would be the beginning of the pestilence of great mortality in England.
Most modern day researchers agree that it was the flea that carried the Black Plague from Asia, to Africa and to Europe. As the strain of the pestilence grew it also morphed into different types of bacteria. The most common form entered the blood stream, and the other lodged in the lungs, so just breathing on another person transmitted almost certain death.
Those infected had little hope of survival. For most, the plague ended their lives within days and some within hours. The pain was so intense that the infected welcomed death as an end to their suffering. Once infected, lethargy overcame the body, accompanied by high fever, delirium, boils under the arms and in the groin, black circles on the skin, and dried blood as the flesh decayed from the inside out. The uninfected lived in fear of becoming the next victim of this unyielding, blood sucking killer.
Within days you get word that the merchant you’ve done business with for years has died of a horrible sickness, days later his wife and even children also die. You hope that it is an isolated event, but then discover that one of your neighbors has contracted what appears to be the same sickness.
You are awakened at three o’clock in the morning by loud screams. At first you think that someone down the street has been robbed. You look out the window of your second story apartment that is meshed between many identical homes on the street, and all of the doors appear to be locked. You then notice an unusual sight of pigs wondering down the street. You assume that they got out of their pen from the farmer's house about a mile away in the country. So you go back to bed, only to be awakened again by more screams. This time your wife and children also wake. The screams continue for the next two hours. Finally, just before sunrise you dress, tell your family to stay inside, and you muster the courage to leave your home.
The pigs are gone, but the sounds of human sobs continue. You walk just three doors down, and you hear a man sobbing from the open window; he is your friend Arthur. You look into the window and see that he is sitting on a bed holding the corpse of his dead wife, a woman that you spoke to on the street just two days earlier. Before you can speak, he looks up and notices you. His eyes are bloodshot, and filled with salty tears of despair, that are running down his cheeks and throat. He shakes his head as he speaks to you,
“My friend, evil has come and we are all going to die. Run! Leave now, while you still can!”
He turns his head back toward his dead wife, and you notice a large black pustule on the side of his neck. You slowly move away from the window trying to make sense of what you just saw and heard. Suddenly you hear screams coming from two blocks away, and then more, even closer. It occurs to you that with the rising of the sun more people are discovering the dead all around them.
You turn around and begin running back to your home. You run up the stairs, fling open the door and shout to your wife and children to dress. You tell them that you must all leave now, before it’s too late. They begin to ask questions, your six year old daughter begins crying causing a chain reaction to your ten year old daughter, and 12 year old son. Your wife tries to comfort the children as she too fights to maintain her composure. After five minutes, everyone is dressed, small bags of clothes are packed, two loaves of bread and dried fruit and meat are shoved into a basket.
You take your wife by the hand, the children join hands making a human train that rushes down the stairs and out the back of the building. You hurry everyone to the cart. You open the stable door and take your horse from among the other horses still tied to the hitch. You think about your job working for the local blacksmith, and wonder what your boss will think when you don’t show up for work today.
You attach your horse to the cart, jump on its back, kick it in the shanks and pray that somehow God will spare your family as your little cart heads for the countryside. Unfortunately, you soon discover that nowhere and no one is safe from whatever evil has come to Bristol.
Physicians began to administer treatment, to no avail. Communities are shocked and terrified as the doctors succumb to and die of the sickness. The people turn to the Church for an answer. Church officials are baffled as to the cause, or how to defeat the plague. Soon priests, in fear of their own lives, begin to hide from their parishioners; so many have died that local churches and towns cannot keep up with the burials. Eventually towns begin to dig mass graves; workers are paid to dump the plague victims into the graves. The Pope declares absolution to anyone who dies from the plague; even mid-wives are given authority from the Pope to administer last rights to newborn children and their dying mothers.
Everyone wanted answers to the cause and treatment of the plague. Theories came from every direction. Some believed it was a plague from God caused by wickedness. Others thought it was an unusual alignment of the planets, still others thought it was a poisonous cloud traveling through the air, and others thought it was a virus-like menace carried by cats, the known companions of witches. A decree was sent throughout all of Europe to kill every cat. Obviously, as the cat population decreased, the rat population increased, and so did the plague.
As the plague continued to grow another idea of its origins surfaced. The followers of the Flagellants determined that the Jews had been poisoning the wells and the public water system. Throughout Germany Jews, men, women and children, were rounded up and burned in mass fire pits. The Pope came to the rescue a second time, condemning anyone involved in such an act as being "seduced by that liar, the Devil." and threatened punishment for anyone involved in such an act of wickedness.
Although 1348 ushered in the beginning of the Black Plague which lasted about three years, the plague returned on several occasion over the next twenty seven years, at one point returning for two years and only killing boys. The last known occurrence of the Black Plague ended in 1665.
By the end of 1350 more than 25 million people, one third of Europe’s population, not to mention the great number in Africa and Asia, had died. This tremendous death toll caused an economic strain on England and Europe. In England, the serfs who had survived the plague began to charge higher wages for their work, some became land owners, and even nobles began to work in their own fields.
But one of the most interesting effects of the Black Plague happened to the Church. During the middle ages the only common bond between the bickering European countries was the Church in Rome. The Pope had amassed great power and influence over the kings and rulers of Europe, none of whom wanted to be seen as a heretic of the Church. In fact, the Church was highly involved in politics almost as much as it was in religion.
During this time the Pope Clement VI sent mixed messages to the masses by asking astrologers to help explain the origins of the plague, condemning the murdering of innocent Jews, the wandering Flagellants, and then issuing Indulgences that were essentially a free pass to heaven for anyone willing to pay a certain price to the Church. A faithful Catholic Englishman by the name of John Wycliff lost his faith in the Church and began to teach that all people should have access to the Bible and that it should be printed in English. He later printed the first English version of the Catholic Vulgate, the Holy Bible.
The Black Plague was certainly the most horrific killer of all time, and the effects of this plague not only caused a major decrease in the population of Europe, but it brought about political change and religious change in Christianity which effects are still being felt today.
My novel, Not Without Mercy: The Black Death, is book one in the Not Without Mercy series. Although the story takes place during the Black Plague, it is not a story about the Black Plague. It is a story of how one family survived in the midst of terrible odds. It is a story of faith, family, love, courage, hope and redemption. The Pestilence of Great Mortality caused moral malaise in the land. It created two types of people, the faithful and the faithless. The faithless became fearful as they saw death all around them, with no way out. The faithful, became fearless, as they looked toward God for survival, and as they discovered in the midst of the most frightful killer of all time, that God had left them Not Without Mercy.
Phillip C. Wright is a resident of Bountiful, Utah. He has been married to Shaun (McKinney) Wright since 1982. They are the parents of seven children, and they have six grandchildren.
He has written and directed numerous plays including a full length musical re-creation with Brett Raymond called "First Light" with an original cast over 200 people. Phill is in the process of publishing several new books. The Not Without Mercy series begun with the first volume, The Black Death. The series will contain at least two more volumes, book two, The Passage Home, to be released the end of 2013 and book three, Redemption, will be released in 2014, along with two other books, Time and Time Again and The Arm of the Flesh.