Research Reveals More Complete Picture of the Devastation Wrought by the Black Death

By examining pottery remains in over 50 rural settlements, archaeologists now better understand the extent that the population was wiped out by the plague

Danse Macabre
Michael Wolgemut

The Black Death, an outbreak of bubonic plague that devastated Europe and Asia between 1346 and 1353, is considered one of the greatest cataclysms of all time. The disease, caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis and transmitted by fleas, wiped out half the population according to contemporary accounts. The famous Italian poet Francesco​ Petrarch told a friend that he did not think people in the future would even believe their suffering. ‘O happy posterity,” he wrote after watching half the city of Florence die, “who will not experience such abysmal woe and will look upon our testimony as a fable.’

As it turns out, Petrarch was partially right. No one disputes that the Black Death happened or that it was a society-reordering disaster. But, as Sarah Kaplan reports in The Washington Post, researchers haven’t had much to go on to confirm the claims that a quarter to half of Europe’s population perished because of the plague. Compared to modern plagues, like the Spanish flu in the early 20th century, which killed about 3 percent of the world’s population, the number killed by the Black Death seemed high.

That’s one reason archaeologist Carenza Lewis of the University of Lincoln decided to dig a little deeper. She excavated 2,000 one-meter-square pits in 55 rural settlements occupied before and after the plague across eastern Britain, looking for the concentration of pottery shards, broken bits of everyday pottery.

“Under every village, every community, there is a huge reservoir of archaeological evidence just sitting there,” she tells Kaplan. “Evidence of these life-shattering events that people like us would have lived through — or not.”

Her findings, which will appear in Antiquity Journal, show that in many places the pot shards are plentiful in pre-plague layers, while in the time after the disease they seriously diminish. According to Maev Kennedy at The Guardian, the overall decline was about 44.7 percent. The devastation was not equal, though, with places in England like Norfolk showing a 65 percent decline and Gaywood and Paston showing up to 85 percent drops. Kennedy points out that the numbers are likely conservative since villages that were totally wiped out or abandoned because of the Black Death were not sampled.

Lewis tells Kennedy it was devastation on “an eye-watering scale” and that a population boom in later centuries masked the true toll. She points to villages like Great Shelford in Cambridgeshire. Before the plague the village stretched two-thirds of a mile along a main street. After the plague, the survivors all fit into a row of houses next to the church. Emily Reynolds at Wired UK writes that the pottery evidence shows that many of the towns examined remained 35 to 55 percent below pre-Black Death population levels well into the 16th century.

Luckily for us, the strain of Yersinia pestis that caused the Black Death was a novel mutation of the bacteria, and has since disappeared. But Lewis thinks the world should still be cautious. In a line from her upcoming paper that Kennedy shares, Lewis writes, “This disease is still endemic in parts of today’s world, and could once again become a major killer, should resistance to the antibiotics now used to treat it spread amongst tomorrow’s bacteriological descendants of the fourteenth-century Yersinia pestis. We have been warned.”

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