The Black Death

History has no catastrophe equal to the Black Death.

The summer of 1348 was wet. The royal family was maturing and multiplying and even though Edward III was only 35 and his wife Philippa was 33, they already had nine children ranging from Edward the Black Prince, who was 18, down to the baby William of Windsor, who was only a few months old. It was the year when their daughter Joan boarded a ship and set sail to marry the man of her dreams, the King of Castile.

When the ship stopped in Bordeaux on the way, the mayor rushed to the docks and told them it was not safe to disembark. A deadly plague had arrived. It had ripped through Cyprus and Italy and had reached Marseille.

For two years Joan had waited for the moment when she would finally meet her new husband. She’d lived over and over the first embrace and she imagined being swept off her feet and taken to his castle nestling quietly by the sea. She was 13, buzzing with excitement, and there was nothing in the world that would stop her from reaching her destination. So the mayor’s words of warning were pushed aside.

The character of the epidemic was appalling. The disease itself, with its frightful symptoms, was swift. At the onset blotches appeared, then the hardening of the glands under the armpit and the groin, followed by the horde of virulent pustules. After that the victim developed a hacking cough that would develop and produce blood then vomiting. Breath, sweat and excrement stank. Delirium and insanity completed the suffering.

It seemed no one was safe from the disease. No one knew how the disease spread and no one knew of the different methods of cross- contamination. In an attempt to protect themselves, doctors filled a ‘beak’ containing herbs and placed it over their noses but of course, eventually everyone knew that method of protection was basically useless. Seeing doctors with this strange contraption on their faces would have sent dread into the hearts of the already terrified people. All that could be done was place a red cross on the doors of infected houses to inform others that the inhabitants had developed symptoms of the Black Death.

Princess Joan never wore her wedding dress made from thick imported silk embroidered with rich strands of gold. She never wore the suit of red velvet with two sets of twenty-four buttons made of silver gilt and enamel nor the five corsets woven with gold patterns of stars, crescents and diamonds. And she never reached her future husband waiting for her in Castile. Joan died horrifically at the same time as her baby brother, William of Windsor, died in agony in England.

The plague entered Europe through Crimea and in the course of twenty years killed at least one-third of its entire population as well as two other daughters of Edward and Philippa. We hear of monasteries where half the residents perished, of dioceses where the surviving clergy could scarcely perform the last offices for their flocks, of Goldsmith’s Company who had four Masters in one year and of lawsuits where all parties died before the cases could be heard in court. A whole generation was obliterated as blank spaces appeared on all sides of society and destroyed life. This disease, along with all the other severities of the Middle Ages, was almost more than the human spirit could endure.

At length, the plague abated and recoveries became more frequent as the more resistant revived. But the calamity had only reduced numbers without reducing their quarrels.

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