Medieval Betrothal

Most wealthy men married when they were over 30. A son came into his inheritance on marriage, so parents often delayed the ceremony as long as possible. Women married earlier, usually when they were about 20, but were sometimes betrothed (promised in marriage) as young as seven.

For the rich, marriage was the alliance of two families. It usually started with a business meeting to discuss the dowry (in medieval times this was a payment made by the groom to the bride’s father). Representatives of the two families agreed on the terms of the contract with a handshake.

Only then did the couple meet.

There was then a meeting to read the contract, followed by the “ring day” (marriage ceremony) in the church porch. It was like a modern wedding service, except that the bride always promised to “obey”, and also to be “bonere and buxom” (pleasant and easy-going). Finally, the wife rode to her husband’s house on a white horse.

Poor people usually married at the church gate, althogh a promise – or even a rush ring tied around the girl’s finger – was sufficient. Witnesses threw grain and sawdust over the couple to wish them a prosperous marriage and then they celebrated with feasting and a riotous charivari (dance).

Medieval Guilds

Only guild members were allowed to trade in the city. They could not work at night or undercharge. By these methods the guild kept production down and prices up. Members who failed to maintain high standards of workmanship were fined or expelled from their guild.

Women rarely became full guild members. Some guilds (for instance the barbers and the dyers) accepted women, and widows were allowed to practise their husbands’ trades, but most guilds tried to exclude them altogether. Women, nevertheless, worked as butchers, ironmongers, shoemakers, hot-food sellers, bookbinders, embroiderers and goldsmiths. Domestic activities such as silkmaking, spinning and brewing were exclusively female occupations.

Many guilds provided a welfare system. The Guild of Mercers (dealers in cloth) in London charged 6d. (6 pennies) a week and used the money to help poor members. Wealthy guilds started schools, ran retirement homes, paid for the funerals of poor guild members and arranged entertainments on holy days.

In some towns leading merchants formed an association called a merchant guild. The guild had a royal charter and took charge of the government of the town.

General Conditions and Sanitation

One of the major reasons for the spread of plague in fourteenth century Europe was the generally wretched and squalid conditions in which most of the people lived. The vast majority of people were serfs or poor peasants. They lived in small villages of windowless thatched wooden huts.

People knew little of sanitation. They dumped their wastes into rivers from which they also drank, or into nearby fields. Humans and livestock slept under the same roof.

People rarely washed either themselves or their clothes. Fleas, lice, and other vermin were just part of life’s afflictions to be endured with all the others. Rats were so common that they went almost unnoticed except when there was a population explosion among them and the vast numbers of rats threatened to eat up the food supply.

The nobles lived in grander houses or in walled castles, but their sanitary conditions were not much better, and may even have been worse. The problem of waste disposal, for example, was more difficult within the walls of a castle than in a village.

Disease and early death were expected. Most children died before reaching the age of six. Their mothers often died in childbirth. The average age of death among those who survived the perils of childhood was about thirty five. Anyone who managed to reach the age of fifty was considered a marvel of longevity.

    17th and 18th Centuries

    Housing conditions in London during the 17th and 18th Century were incredibly bad, though improved by Medieval standards. A huge “floating population” was largely housed as weekly tenants in furnished rooms.

    Those who could not find lodging slept in ale-houses, garrets, in night cellars (latrines with cesspits), in doorways and in streets. Many simply slept in rented chairs in pubs, where they were permanent guests. Coffee houses and pubs were desirable addresses for those establishing themselves in London.

    Methane (swamp) gas generated by cesspits caught fire, exploded and brought instant death to those trapped in sealed homes. Hydrogen sulfide gases overwhelmed victims as they slept, their lungs paralyzed by the gas.

    It is estimated that several hundred thousand Londoners perished from typhoid, cholera, plague and pestilence before it was understood that the City was dying from its own filth.

    Finally, it was up to the Sewer Commissioners to find a way to rid the city of centuries of human waste stored within its walls.

    Servants, such as cooks and maids, slept in the kitchens or pantries. There were 6,000 hog pens and countless slaughterhouses in the housing areas. Bathing and fresh air were feared. Most people had only one set of clothes. How often these were washed or cleaned is not known.

    The crowded conditions in London were due, in part, to social tradition, but were mostly dictated by the need to be near a place of work. The small stalls of “Costermongers” lined the streets vending every manner of goods from buttons and brick to breads and sausage from cattle slaughtered on the spot.

    “Causes” and “Cures”

    Physicians at Paris University claimed that the stars had infected the sea, causing it to give off a vapour, which fell as rain. The only way to protect yourself from this vapour was to light huge bonfires; then you had to make sure that you were not rained on, and that you did not use rain water for cooking.

    In Switzerland people accused Jews of poisoning the water supplies. In one Swiss town every Jew was rounded up and burned to death. This was one of the saddest incidents during the Black Death. While millions of people were dying of the disease, healthy Jewish people lost their lives because of the fear and ignorance of others.

    Some thought that God had sent the plague to punish people’s wickedness. In Germany and eastern Europe, people wandered from village to village, whipping themselves mercilessly to show they were sorry. These flagellants, as they were called, were refused entry to many towns because of their violence and extreme views. This was sensible anyway because the flagellants themselves might have been infected with the plague.

    The Role of the Doctor

    plaguedoctorPeople in the seventeenth century didn’t know what caused the plague and many believed it was a punishment from God. They did realise that coming into contact with those infected increased the risk of contracting the disease themselves. Cures and preventative measures were not at all affective.

    Many doctors, knowing that they could do nothing for plague victims, simply didn’t bother trying to treat the disease. Those that did tried to make sure they were as protected as possible from the disease by wearing a “uniform” (refer to the image).

    The “uniform” was designed for protection and left no part of the doctor’s body uncovered. The long gown was made from thick material and often covered with wax as this was thought to keep the germs out. The beak that was attached to the mask was stuffed with herbs, perfumes or spices to purify the air that the doctor breathed when he was close to victims. He carried a wooden stick so that he could drive people away if they came too close to him.

    The Plague of 1665

    Bubonic Plague was known as the Black Death and had been known in England for centuries. It was a ghastly disease. The victim’s skin turned black in patches and inflamed glands or ‘buboes’ in the groin combined with compulsive vomiting, swollen tongue and splitting headaches made it a horrible, agonizing killer.

    The plague started in the East, possibly China, and quickly spread through Europe. Whole communities were wiped out and corpses littered the streets as there was no one left to bury them.

    It began in London in the poor, overcrowded parish of St. Giles-in-the-Field. It started slowly at first but by May of 1665, 43 had died. In June 6,137 people had died, in July 17,036 and at its peak in August, 31,159 people had died. In all, 15% of the population perished during that terrible summer.

    Incubation took a mere four to six days and when the plague appeared in a household, the house was sealed, thus condemning the whole family to death! These houses were distinguished by a painted red cross on the door and the words, ‘Lord have mercy on us’. At night the corpses were brought out in answer to the cry, ‘Bring out your dead’, put in a cart and taken away to the plague pits. One called the Great Pit was at Aldgate in London and another at Finsbury Fields.

    The King, Charles II and his Court left London and fled to Oxford. Many people who could, sent their families away from London during these months, but the poor had no other option but to stay.

    The plague spread to many parts of England. York was one city badly affected. The plague victims were buried outside the city walls and it is said that they have never been disturbed since then, as a precaution against a resurgence of the dreaded plague. The grassy embankments below the walls that can be seen as York is approached are the sites of these plague pits.

    In some towns and villages in England there are still the old market crosses which have a depression at the foot of the stone cross. This was filled with vinegar during times of plague as it was believed that vinegar would kill any germs on the coins and so contain the disease.

    The plague lasted in London until the late Autumn when the colder weather helped kill off the fleas.

    Over the centuries Bubonic Plague has broken out in Europet and the Far East. In 1900 there were outbreaks of plague in places as far apart as Portugal and Australia.

      buboonneck
      The plague still exists today.
      An outbreak was reported in India as late as 1994.
      With today’s technology very few people
      actually die from the plague.

        Influenza seems to be the modern form of plague. At the end of World War One an influenza outbreak circled the world during 1918 – 1919. Within a year 20 million people had died world-wide.

        Plague: Aftermath

        Population figures for the Middle Ages are not exact, so it is difficult to know how many people died of the Black Death before the epidemic stopped in the 1350s. However, it seems likely that over all Europe at least one person in four died from it. In many places, the figure was much higher. It took generations, in some areas even centuries, for the population to recover. This was not helped by the way that the plague did not just go away, but kept on returning.

        Figures for England in 1348 show a population of about 3.7 million; by 1377, this had dropped to about 2.2 million. Over all Europe between 1347 and 1351 about 25 million people died from the plague.

        Symptoms of Bubonic Plague

        People who caught the plague first started to shiver, and then they became feverish. They began to sweat, cough up blood and vomit. Their heads, backs and limbs ached violently. They felt giddy. Even the dim light of the cottage hurt their eyes. They could not sleep, and diarrhoea set in. They felt dazed, and when they did manage to sleep, they went in a delirium, speaking rapidly and not making any sense.

        Soon their groins and armpits began to break out in deep blue swellings (known as buboes) which itched with a tearing, cutting pain. Once this happened it would only be a matter of days before the victim died. At that time no one knew how to cure the plague. It was from these dark patches on the victims’ bodies that the plague received its frightening nickname – the Black Death.