March 2008 Archive
15 March 2008, 01:34
The Black Death in Ireland. [1347-50]
Yersina Pestis, the bacterium that causes plague in all triumvirate human forms; bubonic, pneumonic and septicaemic, had long been endemic in the Far East and China by the time it made its notorious European tour of 1347-50. Sea trade routes, newly established by Italian and Mongol merchants into Florence from Beijing via Constantinople had, by virtue of replacing a meanderingly slow and arduous overland journey, made the medieval world a smaller, more easily traversed one. Showing promise for the Renaissance to come, other Italian ports, such as Genoa in the north and Sicily in the south, were to evolve into European commercial hubs, feeding a highly functional and ever growing global economic infrastructure. Ireland, too, had its role, that of important artery, with three significant ports; New Ross, Drogheda and Dublin, all respectively not just trading in merchandise but also managing the business of the Prelacy as monks and bishops crossed the Irish Sea to visit British monasteries and universities.
Viewed in historiographical contexts, both etiological and demographic studies of the Black Death [a phrase coined by sixteenth century Swedish and Danish chroniclers] are at best paradoxical and at times confusing. Scholars may find themselves overwhelmed by non-empirical primary source material from which the reports of human suffering and societal devastation are so entire and so dystrophic that they could stand in the way of examining both didactic and durable historical significances. Such significances are, by virtue of the extremely fatal nature of the disease, mainly to be found, at least at primary source level, in secundum vicis; in other words, after the event. However, all of contemporary society’s immediate reactions to the pestilence, be they royal, ecclesiastical or lay, speak volumes for much of the medieval reasoning behind the massive societal changes brought about by plague, thus giving us a greater insight into the contemporary world view.
The disease that travelled throughout Europe and into Ireland from 1347-50 had its own unique epidemiology which, although highly destructive and fatal to humans, can in fact be seen to have given an eventual new and beneficial primacy to the status of the peasant tenant, particularly in the contexts of wages and wage infrastructure, tenancy and proprietary rights and entry to the clergy. Changes were instigated, many initially without legal precedence and then eventually at parliamentary level as an emerging and self-evolving new order proved beneficial to all areas of what was now a more bargain-friendly society. Itself an etiological crucible with theories ranging from anthrax to a Malthusian crisis, the pestilence that decimated the populace of Europe between the years of 1347 – 1350 can, because of its massive pathophysiology, be seen within the genesis of the Renaissance.
The scope of this paper is to examine the effects of the Black Death on Irish rural peasant life, albeit in two separate temporal contexts. Firstly I shall examine immediate human response to the disease on several levels; primarily spiritual, societal and medical. This survey of contemporary responses to the plague serves as a means of illustrating the medieval mindset. Secondly I shall scrutinise its effect on mortality, demographics and population, whilst briefly discussing the consequences such massive population depreciation could engender in society. Working within this framework I then analyse local evidence alongside further reaching research into European historiological aspects of the plague; primarily social, economic, demographic and etiological. In the light of these findings it is then possible to argue that, for the Irish peasantry at least, ‘Europe’s greatest ecological disaster’ [Herlihy: p17] proved to be, on the whole and in the long term, of benefit to their standing in medieval society.
Primary sources, as with any study before the invention of print, were almost exclusively the responsibility of the monasteries, however some manorial records are extant, and much documentation is available detailing the plague in Europe. And it is to Ireland that many scholars have turned for an invaluable primary source, the chronicles of Friar John Clyn of Kilkenny. Friar Clyn, writing in his own Annals of Ireland gives one of the best surviving first-hand accounts of the epidemic, eerily ending with him leaving pages of blank parchment “for continuing the work, if haply any man survive or any of the race of Adam escape this pestilence and continue the work which I have commenced.”
Living conditions in medieval Ireland, as across contemporary Europe, were difficult and harsh; indeed, although his analysis of the natural state of mankind came some three hundred years later, Hobbes could have been writing about the plight of the Irish medieval peasant when he described life as being remarkably ‘solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short.’ Life expectancy was indeed short with just under a quarter of the population dying before their early twenties and a further third dying before their thirtieth year . Harvests failed frequently so famine was no stranger to the land leaving immune systems weakened and warfare was endemic; such a constant state of crisis rendered the medieval population susceptible and highly vulnerable to the pestilence.
Humanity has suffered epidemic diseases since written records began with both continental Europe and Ireland having been host to this particular biological interloper in the past. The Annals of Ulster for 545 record a ‘great sickness’, [in Irish ‘plaig’], which finds its historiographical roots in a concurrent epidemic on mainland Europe: Justinian’s Plague; so named for the Emperor whose ambitions to reunite the flailing western Roman empire with his prosperous Byzantine counterpart were thwarted by a similar epidemic. Episodes of plague that may or not have been bubonic again appear in Irish primary sources in 1094, 1116 and 1277. There is however strong evidence of a penultimate precursory epidemic of yersina pestis in 1317 when, almost like a precautionary warning of events a mere thirty years hence “…came a marvellous plague unto Ulster upon the Scots, which did prey and did much exceeding hurt in Ireland”
In the medieval world, the inerrancy of the scriptures was the reality of life itself and huge cataclysmic diseases such as the Black Death were the business of God and God alone. The Irish populace, both church and lay, looked to sources of illness that modern medical science would not even consider a starting point for infectious disease. Neither notions of contagion nor any link with the black rat, the bacillus’ conduit into Europe, were made. Such entirety of human devastation could, to the medieval mind at least, only be the work of a totalitarian Godhead. It says much about medieval society that pestilence was rarely considered the work of the devil allowing man to therefore subsequently turn to a loving benevolent God for succour; quite contrarily, plague was viewed as divine punishment for a dangerously immoral society where “men did eat flesh without need in Lent. Therefore God sent a great plague upon them, which was that one did eat another, so that of ten thousand men there remained but a few.” Indeed, the medieval mindset was so overwhelmed and entrenched in the Divine that any form of science beyond the Galenic or the herbal was deeply mistrusted and seen as other with swift excommunication and eternal damnation quicker than death from the sepsis itself. That God and his host were in close proximity in the clouds was taken as given, and only His Wrath could explain a devastation where “…many valiant men… many fair ladies, [ate] breakfast with their kinfolk and the same night supped with their ancestors in the next world!”
Ironically, the horror of the disease paled in comparison to the horror of man’s response to it. Family members abandoned each other for as soon as one was infected the others would flee the household; firstly to neighbouring dwellings and eventually to other villages and towns, most likely themselves acting as vector hosts. Feudal society began to disseminate with husband turning from wife and brother from sister, harvests were left untilled and rotting whilst cattle wandered the highways and byways. Alongside village administrators many manorial Lords and Ladies died leaving an anarchic countryside in a state of chaos with a populace barely clinging onto life unable to bury its dead or tend its sick. “The condition of the people was pitiable to behold. They sickened by the thousands daily, and died unattended and without help. Many died in the open street, others dying in their houses, made it known by the stench of their rotting bodies. Consecrated churchyards did not suffice for the burial of the vast multitude of bodies, which were heaped by the hundreds in vast trenches, like goods in a ships hold and covered with a little earth.”
For those who turned to barber surgeons and men of medicine little solace was to be found, as none understood the nature of the disease, knowledge of it being so limited. Working within the classical traditions of Galen, the disease was seen as an imbalance of the four bodily humours, with traditional bloodletting offered as primary treatment. Again man sought heavenly answers to such a massive Galenic imbalance within the community and 1348 saw the medical faculty at the University of Paris offer a lengthy argument which attributed the pestilence to a collision on 24 March 1345 of Saturn, Jupiter and Mars in the house of Aquarius. This heavenly impact was thought to have created an evil corruption in the air, known as a miasma, which released toxic fumes causing the buboes or skin-ulcers symptomatic with the bubonic form of the disease which led to an early meeting with ones maker. There is no doubt that Irish medieval “medicine was a mixture of superstition, moralising and religious faith with the addition of some folk medicine and homeopathic remedies.” Such remedies included; improving the surrounding air with fragrant roses, conducive to staving away the toxic stench of plague; eating certain herbs and vegetables; drinking red wine; avoiding heavy work or remaining indoors and always the ever present phlebotomy or blood letting. Many chose flight to higher ground, which actually seems to have been effective and may account for why the vast majority of Gaelic chieftains and their kin avoided infection, for word spread quickly to their holdings of the great pestilence in the villages and farms below and they stayed away. However, those who fled were not made welcome by the chieftains and so condemned to a solitary existence.
“Three things by which each simple man
From plague escape and sickness can,
Start soon, flee far from town or land
On which the plague has laid its hand,
Return but late to such a place.
Where pestilence has stayed its pace”
For others the solution lay in quite the opposite and Friar Clyn records instances of mass pilgrimage around the country, the primary location being the grotto of Saint Moling in Co. Carlow. Clyn wrote; “In this year  … here came…bishops and prelates, churchmen and religious, lords and others to the pilgrimage and wading of the water at Thath Molyngis, in troops and multitudes, so that you could see many thousands…came they the majority from the dread of the plague”
Regardless of any measures medieval society took to avoid infection, be they medical, spiritual or geographical, the Black Death was a foul, vicious and swift killer. Life expectancy for an infected person depended on the variant contracted; bubonic victims could linger up to a week, pneumonic sufferers at most three days while those contracting septicaemic plague were perhaps the luckiest, their agony lasting at most twenty-four hours. Entire populations were decimated in a matter of months once the disease entrenched an area. Actual Irish mortality rates are difficult to calculate due to a lack of pre-epidemic demographic records and European counterparts are so varied that a comparable ratio is not achievable. Some scholars believe the overall European population reduction to be as high as 66% [Herlihy: 17] with others reckoning as low as 2.5%. [Shrewsbury: 49] However, comparisons with English manorial records of 1348 do seem feasible. Mortality on the Glastonbury Abbey estate, one of the best-documented contemporary English manors, is recorded at 54.6%; Halesowen in the West Midlands has been documented at 44% and the manors of Bishop’s Waltham in Hampshire hold a slightly higher record at 65%. Given that these records are in temporal parallel with Clyn’s annals and that population density per square mile was almost identical to those of Irish areas afflicted by plague, there is no reason to suppose that they would be significantly different for at least some parts of Ireland.
Friar Clyn reports major loss of life at Dublin and Drogheda, which “almost destroyed and wasted of inhabitants… so that in Dublin alone between the beginning of August till the Michealmas [29 September 1348] 14,000 men died.” The accuracy of such figures is unreliable by virtue of many medieval chroniclers’ habit of using rounded figures simply as indicative of large numbers. However, for the same period Clyn records the death of 25 Franciscans in Drogheda and of 23 in Dublin. Kelly estimates these figures to be approximately half of both monasteries’ populations but it is important to remember that monks were more susceptible to infection due to pastoral work in the community so figures will be therefore slightly higher than any national mortality rate. “If generalizations must be made, the conservative estimate is that the Black Death… probably reduced the rural population of the [Irish] colony by some 40% through mortality and emigration, while its effects on Gaelic Ireland are impossible to estimate.”
However the incidence of plague in Ireland was not as entire as in England and reports are irregular and so one feels guilty of historical anomaly in using these figures. Perhaps it is suffice to say that the actual demographic and mortality rates involved in the Black Death in Ireland will never be clearly understood.
For those who managed to survive the pestilence, life had changed forever and, for the Irish rural peasant the changes were for the better. A newer brighter day had dawned and the small holding tenant having witnessed the beginnings of the dissipation of the feudal system due to massive death now found himself in a position of power never known before. Instantaneous changes were not readily apparent, however the manorial system was in serious decline with immediate rising costs for both commodities and labour coupled with high death duties causing financial hardship for manorial lords. Rents could not be levied and many flourmills fell into disrepair. But by 1350 changes were clearly visible as illustrated in the accounts of Lady Elizabeth De Burgh who held tenant farms in Meath, Kilkenny and Tipperary. Holdings had begun to fall tenantless; her Duleek estate shows three vacant acres in 1350, rising to 12 acres in 1351 with a further increase to 28 acres in 1352. Such a large jump is indicative of not only the death of the tenant farmers but also possibly the demise of their heirs. Migration also played its part with many peasants simply moving to another manor where the Lord was willing to pay higher wages and/or charge lower rents and significant numbers mobilised to urban centres such as Cork, Dublin, Drogheda or even to England. Farmers and labourers fled the countryside in such vast numbers that legislative action was needed. The Statutes of Kilkenny, 1349, set to address the problems of “common labourers who are for the great part absent and fly out of the said land.” But the statute only served to highlight the new power of the tenant farmer by proving totally ineffective regardless of its threat of one years imprisonment to all those who left their master’s employ. Another law, the Statue of Labourers and Servants, 1349, attempted to fix a minimum wage at pre-plague levels but had little effect due not just to migratory farmers but also absentee Anglo-Irish Landlords who, finding themselves too occupied with similar problems on their English holdings chose to stay out of the country, ignoring their Irish lands and leaving them to fall into disarray.
The demographic decline was felt most within the Church; priest numbers fell by up to 64% and “the primary task facing the survivors was that of filling the depleted ecclesiastical ranks… authorities were forced to bend traditional [entry] requirements.” We find reports of non-graduate and non-Latin speaking novices being accepted. Other moral rules were broken. Canon law had forbidden ordination of men less than twenty-four years of age or of illegitimate candidates. However, in 1351 Archbishop FitzRalph of Armagh was given papal dispensation to accept sixty men with such ‘impediments’; forty of illegitimate birth and twenty who were either underage or already married. Similar concessions were granted in 1363 to the Bishops of Dublin, Emly and Iniscathaigh and the Pope was even petitioned for benefice for one “not withstanding that he is over twelve and under fourteen years of age.” Given that the opportunities presented by the monastic life to an Irish peasant offered a better, more permanent lifestyle than that of farming, this influx of prospective tenants into the arms of the church only served to aid the decline in peasant farmer numbers.
In conclusion, it is possible to present an argument that the Black Death in Ireland could be considered more purgative than destructive. Of those who survived the dreaded pestilence the true beneficiaries were rural peasants; their status in all areas of society improved greatly, wages increased, rents were lowered, some even became landowners themselves with many entering the clergy. Although plague epidemics were to return to Europe several more times over the next five centuries none were quite as violent nor as virulent as the Black Death, but disregarding the horrific fatalities endured by society, mankind can be seen to have learnt many valuable lessons from it.
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A History of the Black Death in Ireland; Author: Maria. Kelly
Year: 2004; ISBN: 97807452431857; http://www.gould.com.au/History-of-the-Black-Death-in-Ireland-p/t etc ...
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Marchione di Coppo Stefani, The Florentine Chronicle
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