St Albans and the Black Death

The people of Tournai bury victims of the Black Death. Miniature by Pierart dou Tielt illustrating the Tractatus quartus bu Gilles li Muisit (Tournai, c. 1353).
Public Domain {{PD-US}}.

The year 1349 dawned with a sense of foreboding for the people of St Albans. News would have reached them of the virulent plague that had arrived on the shores of England in the summer of 1348. They may even have heard of the mysterious disease that had killed Edward III’s daughter Joan in September, passing through Bordeaux to meet her betrothed, Peter of Castile. Now the pestilence (as the Black Death was known to contemporaries) was snaking its way through England, following the trading routes.

The pestilence draws closer to St Albans

By November 1348, the pestilence had reached London – too close for comfort. St Albans was just a day’s travel from London – longer on foot, shorter on horseback. And there was a good deal of traffic between St Albans and the capital – visitors who came to transact business, pilgrims enjoying the chance to visit new places, and some seeking sanctuary from the sickness in London.

Like most medieval monarchs, Edward III was keen to make his presence felt by travelling around his kingdom. But from February to April 1349, he withdrew to his Hertfordshire palace of Kings Langley (originally built for Queen Eleanor), apart from short forays to Westminster and elsewhere [1]. It seems plausible that he was seeking refuge from the plague raging through London and southern England.  Perhaps for his protection, or for safe keeping, he brought with him a number of religious relics, including a fragment of the cross, a vial of the blood of St Thomas à Beckett and some bones of St George.

Not everyone had holy relics that might offer protection from the plague. Pilgrims often sought intercession from St Alban, whose shrine was the raison d’être for the Abbey. Given that the pestilence was widely perceived as divine punishment, it is possible that more pilgrims than usual made the journey to the shrine in the hope of securing the saint’s protection. Travellers would have brought alarming stories to St Albans about the scale of mortality in other parts of the country. And some may also have carried the fleas that transmitted the plague through bites that infected the lymphatic system.

The perilous duties of the Benedictine monks

The Benedictine monks of the Abbey had a duty to offer hospitality – indeed, well-heeled guests might stay with the Abbot in his lodgings [2]. The ‘black monks’ [3] as they were called after their black habits, also had a duty to visit the sick, and to care for those admitted to the Abbey’s infirmary. Inevitably, these would have included sufferers from the plague. Finally, the monks lived a collegiate life, their principal function being to perform the Liturgy of the Hours.  All of this made them especially vulnerable to primary and secondary infection.

The Abbot, Michael de Mentmore, confirmed in post by the Pope in November 1336, was one of the first to be infected [4]. The incubation period was a matter of days. He became visibly ill on the Thursday of Holy Week –  a particularly significant period for Benedictine monks, when additional offices were to be performed. Despite his sickness, he is reported to have celebrated High Mass that day, and to have washed the feet of the poor, and of his monks [5]. Like most people, he probably attributed his sickness to miasma, or bad air. Though he cannot have realised it, he was in all likelihood spreading the pestilence throughout the Abbey.

The following day, Michael felt too ill to keep his usual routine, and took to his bed. If it followed its usual course, the disease would have manifested itself through painful ‘buboes’ (swollen lymph nodes) in the thighs, neck, groin or armpits. Other symptoms included vomiting, diarrhoea, nausea, fever and chills. Those tending the Abbot would have tried both prayer and contemporary remedies – rubbing onions and herbs on the affected area, prescribing vinegar and blood letting [6]. None of these were effective; some, like blood letting, were positively harmful.

On 12 April 1349, Easter Day, Abbot Michael died. He was widely seen as a good and humble man, and his sudden death must have been a blow to the brethren [7]. Those caring for him no doubt realised that they had placed themselves in great danger.  And they were right. Many amongst the brethren began to succumb to the pestilence. The remainder must have struggled to perform their liturgical duties, while caring for the growing number of sick amongst both the clergy and the laity. Despite the prayers of the monks, the merciless pestilence swept through the Abbey. By the time it had run its course, forty seven monks had succumbed to the pestilence, including the prior and sub-prior – perhaps the majority of the convent [8].

The impact on the town of St Albans

We know little of what happened to the lay population of St Albans. But many were exposed to the pestilence ravaging the Abbey. Some worked there as servants, or supplied goods and services to the monastery, so would have been exposed to infected monks and pilgrims. Others worked in hostelries and alehouses frequented by pilgrims and visitors from London. And as the Abbey provided the only known hospital in the area, some of those who felt sick might have been taken there. It seems almost certain that a great many died.

It is impossible for us to imagine the numbing grief and shock that the survivors felt at the death of children, parents, spouses, friends and neighbours. But perhaps the contemporary inscription on the wall of the church tower at Ashwell Church in north Hertfordshire gives a flavour of the impact:

Pestile Cia. M.C.T. (er) x penta miseranda ferox violenta (discessit pestis) superset plebs pessima testis in qevent(us) (erat) valid(us):                         There was a plague. 1350 a pitiable fierce violent (plague departed). A wretched populace survives to witness 1351 [9].

The plague must have inflicted a substantial blow on the local economy. St Albans was not a large town, and it was heavily dependent on the supply of goods and services to the monastery, as well as the provision of hospitality to Abbey visitors. In the immediate aftermath of the Black Death, demand would have plummeted, aggravated by the fall in the town’s population. It seems likely that some hostelries and alehouses would have closed. The market would have been far less busy, and it is likely that, for a time, some properties whose inhabitants had died or fled would have remained vacant.

For all that, recovery may have been relatively quick. Prof. Levett’s analysis of the experiences of some estates owned by the Abbey as exhibited in the Court Rolls of St Albans Abbey helped form her view that the Black Death, while damaging, was not catastrophic [10]. Like the people, the weaker social and economic structures succumbed, while those that were more robust did not. Her views, while controversial at the time, attracted a great deal of attention, including a paper presented to the Society by Edward Miller in 1938. 

Developments in St Alban’s rural hinterland may have helped the town to recover. Building on Levett’s work, Frances Page is reported as suggesting that in post plague records, ‘there was evidence of large-scale land accumulation, and a growing tendency on the part of peasants to escape from the manor, to resist seigneurial authority, and to violate communal rights and regulations’ [11].

To the extent that an emerging group of more affluent landowning peasants had more surplus income to spend on goods and services, this would have had the potential to generate custom for the tradespeople of the town.  Some three years after the Black Death had passed (1353), the tradesmen of St Albans are reported to have included fourteen tanners, thirteen cobblers, eleven butchers, ten fishmongers, nine tailors, eight skinners, as well as fullers, dyers, smiths and others.

We do not know how this compared with pre-plague St Albans. But there does appear to be a healthy range of crafts. Moreover, the reported presence of 81 brewers, three taverners and seven hostellers suggests that pilgrimage may have resumed and that local demand was well served [12].

The conduct of the Abbey following the Black Death would have had a substantial impact on the townspeople. The town formed part of the extensive Liberty of St Albans, over which the Abbot had wide powers, including the administration of justice, the collection of revenues, and the enforcement of quasi-feudal obligations. To the extent that these obligations fell into abeyance as a result of the Black Death, it is possible that the Abbey’s efforts to revive them stoked the long-running grievances felt by the townspeople [13].

The wider aftermath

By 1350, the peak of the pestilence had passed. But the ramifications rippled through English society for decades to come:

  • the loss of many of those who worked the land enabled the remaining agricultural labourers to demand higher wages, to the fury of landowners. They lobbied the King for legislation to force workers to accept pre-Black Death wages (see box below). But they had limited success; for every landowner determined to hold the line, there were others prepared to pay competitive wages to attract labour. Many formerly landless labourers may also have been able to obtain land that they could work for themselves;
  • some historians argue that the death of many people educated in French and Latin accelerated the trend towards the use of the vernacular. And indeed it was not long before authors such as Geoffrey Chaucer began to write in English. He benefited personally from the Black Death. His father inherited property from relatives, and used this to secure a place for the young Geoffrey as a page to the Countess of Ulster, propelling him out of the merchant class, and into a varied career as a soldier, diplomat and writer [14];
  • the Black Death shook people’s faith in the Church, which had traditionally interpreted the world to their flocks, but which was at a loss to explain the implications of the punishment inflicted by the plague. The laity cannot have failed to discern the high death rates amongst the clergy, and may have seen this as divine retribution. The loss of the Church’s prestige is reflected in Chaucer’s portrayal of the cynical Pardoner and Summoner, which doubtless reflected a strand of popular opinion.

Extract from the Ordinance of Labourers 1349: ‘Because a great part of the people, and especially of workmen and servants, late died of the pestilence, many seeing the necessity of masters, and great scarcity of servants, will not serve unless they may receive excessive wages, and some rather willing to beg in idleness, than by labour to get their living; we, considering the grievous incommodities, which of the lack especially of ploughmen and such labourers may hereafter come, have upon deliberation and treaty with the prelates and the nobles, and learned men assisting us, of their mutual counsel ordained … [that] every man and woman of our realm of England, of what condition he be, free or bond, able in body, and within the age of threescore years, not living in merchandise, nor exercising any craft, nor having of his own whereof he may live, nor proper land, about whose tillage he may himself occupy, and not serving any other, if he in convenient service, his estate considered, be required to serve, he shall be bounden to serve him which so shall him require; and take only the wages, livery, meed, or salary, which were accustomed to be given in the places where he oweth to serve, the twentieth year of our reign of England, or five or six other common years next before.’[15]

Many thanks to Jon Mein, Peter Burley, Sheila Green, and Peter Wadsworth for their comments on an earlier draft.

Footnotes

[1] Edward III. Appendix II – The itinerary of Edward III 1325-1377. W.G. Ormrod, Yale University Press

[2] Rev. Henry Fowler, a Society member, devised a plan of the medieval monastery showing where he believed the Abbot’s lodging and infirmary to have been. As the article explains, his conclusions should be treated with caution.

[3] The Illustrated Chronicles of Matthew Paris – Observations of Thirteenth Century Life, ed. Richard Vaughan, Allan Sutton Publications, 1993.

[4] Houses of Benedictine monks: St Albans Abbey – After the Conquest (pp 372-416),  A History of the County of Hertford: Volume 4., Victoria County History (VCH) 

[5] The Deeds of the Abbots of St Albans – Gesta Abbatum Monasterii Sancti Albani, trans David Preest, ed James G. Clark (Boydell Press, June 2019)

[6] Cures for the Black Death, BBC Bitesize

[7] VCH

[8] The term ‘convent’ applied to religious communities, including both monks and nuns.

[9] There are a number of different translations of the graffiti. This one is taken from the translation displayed in the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Ashwell, viewed on 22 March 2020.

[10] Studies in the Manorial Organisation of St Albans Abbey, A.E. Levett,  ed. H.M. Cam, M. Coate, and L. S. Sutherland. Oxford 1938.

[11] The historiography of Manor Court Rolls, Zvi Razi and Richard Smith, in Medieval Society and the Manor Court, ed. Zvi Razi and Richard Smith,  Clarendon Press Oxford 1996.

[12] A History of St Albans, James Corbett, Phillimore, 1977.

[13] There were petitions by the townspeople against aspects of the Abbey’s impositions in 1274,  and attacks on the Abbey in 1327 and 1381.

[14] The Canterbury Tales – Geoffrey Chaucer, Spark Notes, Barnes & Noble. (accessed 21 March 2020)

[15] Ordinance of Labourers 1349, Fordham University, (accessed 21 March 2020).

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